10 Jun 2009

Prescriptive Fetishes

Submitted by Karl Hagen
Discussing the people's understanding of the split infinitive, Fowler said, "Those who neither know nor care are the vast majority, and are a happy folk, to be envied by most of the minority classes."

Fowler's dictum holds for many other prescriptive rules of grammar. In many cases, ignorance is bliss. Your writing will probably be better, because you're not twisting yourself into knots trying to avoid some illusory error, and you won't waste your time thinking about other people's grammar when you should be attending to their meaning.

18 May 2009

Comma fanboys

Submitted by Karl Hagen
In a recent discussion on the ATEG mailing list, a question arose as to the origins of the acronym FANBOYS (for, and, nor, but, or, yet, so) that is often used to teach how to punctuate compound sentences. Brett Reynolds, who writes the blog English, Jack pointed to a post he wrote a few years back trying, without success, to pin down the origins of the word's use as an acronym.
1 May 2009

Langue and Lingua Franca

Submitted by Karl Hagen
Writing in the New York Times, David Cohen meditates lyrically upon the differences between British and American English. Cohen uses these differences, especially individual words--loo vs. bathroom, bonnet vs. hood, car park vs. parking lot, etc., as a token of a larger cultural divide. He quotes Victor Katz, noting
There is the illusion that we speak the same language, but we really don't.
26 Apr 2009

Why we need empty categories

Submitted by Karl Hagen
One of my recurring frustrations with the way grammar is taught in the K-12 world is that by clinging so tenaciously to books that have not seen any real innovations in syntactic theory since the nineteenth century, teachers wind up with no explanation for many phenomena that occur all the time. A teacher sent me an email with the following question:
I've tried looking this up in every grammar guide I can find, but I haven't found the answer. Consider these two sentences: I bought a car to drive myself to work. I bought an alarm clock to wake me in the morning.
30 Mar 2009

Do me a favor

Submitted by Karl Hagen
The next time you start bitching about "grammatical errors" that set your teeth on edge, have the decency to make the things you complain about actual issues of grammar. Grammar is a somewhat vague term, but it certainly includes syntax, as well as a good chunk of morphology. And a case can be made for certain parts of semantics. But spelling errors, such as the confusion between "affect" and "effect," certainly aren't grammatical problems. And I would argue that most questions of word usage, that is those that turn on pure semantics (e.g.
19 Mar 2009

My Inner Geek Rejoices

Submitted by Karl Hagen

For my birthday, I received Don Ringe's From Proto-Indo-European to Proto-Germanic and I've been reading it while taking the train in to work.

I find that even though I'm not in academia any more it's refreshing to spend some time perusing hard-core historical linguistic geekery, particularly since I've never really delved into PIE with the depth that I should have. I suspect that many Anglo-Saxonists tend to skimp on their study of the linguistic pre-history of English, especially the earliest stages.

18 Jan 2009

Innovative Irregular Verbs

Submitted by Karl Hagen
Yesterday we took my son Aran, who's now three and a half, to Legoland, where he got to ride his first rollercoaster, since he's now just tall enough for the smaller ones. As we spun around the track, he leaned against me and shrieked with a mixture of trepidation and glee. Afterwards, he proudly told me, "I scrome (/skro:m/) on the roller coaster," a form that made me sit up and take note, as it's an innovative irregular past form of "scream" that I'm pretty sure he came up with himself, although I can't completely rule out the possibility that he heard it at his preschool.
4 Jan 2009

Crank prescriptivism

Submitted by Karl Hagen
Yeah, I know that some of you probably think the title to this post is redundant, but some attempts to prescribe (or proscribe) language are stranger than others. On Language Log, Arnold Zwicky writes about a whimsical proscription from Ambrose Bierce, along with someone who apparently believes that that as a complementizer can never be omitted. According to this person, "I know he is a good man" should really be "I know that he is a good man."


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