Delete your grammar advice, YUNiversity

There’s a website called YUNiversity. They claim to be “Grammar bosses for Gen TL;DR” and their posts are full of lots of memes and emoji. That’s not a bad thing. I use memes (probably old ones, but whatevs) in my grammar classes and linguists are all about them emoji. No, problem with the YUNiversity isn’t their dank memes. It’s their dumb grammar. Let’s take a look.

The YUNiversity has a post called “Subject-verb agreement (Part 1)”. Things go off the rails before the train is out of the station with this one. In attempting to describe what a subject is, they write:

The subject of a sentence is the person, place, or thing that is doing or being something. In other words, the subject is always a noun that is somehow involved in the action.

Nope. This is just straight up wrong. Everyone in this internet is now dumber for having read it. I award the YUNiversity no points and may Gove have mercy on their souls. Probably the worst part is the line that says “the subject is always a noun”. The YUNiversity makes the mistake of confusing word classes (nouns, verbs, etc.) with syntactic elements (subject, object, etc.). English don’t work that way, bro. Subjects are often noun phrases, but not always. The subject of a clause can also be:

  • Dummy it
    • It’s hot.
  • Unstressed/existential there
    • There’s plenty of time
  • Prepositional phrase
    • Up in the front will suit me fine.
  • Adverb phrase
    • Gently does it.
  • Adjective phrase
    • The comic told some funny jokes.
  • All types of clauses
    • That he failed his driving test surprised everybody.
    • What the YUNiversity wrote online shocked me.
  • And more!

The YUNiversity goes on to say:

In the following examples, the subject is in bold italics:

The child’s favorite toy is broken.

Jo’s dog has been barking incessantly for hours.

As you can see, they single out the head nouns here. But the whole noun phrase is the subject in these sentences. For example, in the first sentence, the subject is “The child’s favorite toy” – not simply toy. I wonder what they think the other parts of the noun phrases are. Just kidding, no I don’t. I don’t care. But at least they have gifs of K-pop singers ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Further on down the page we learn that “The most common type of verb is to be.” I didn’t know that the verb BE is a type of verb. Learn something new every day, I guess.

Then they give lists of verbs in their “singular” and “plural” forms. They write:

Here are some verbs expressed in their singular forms:

  • sings
  • eats
  • is

And

Here are the same verbs expressed in their plural forms:

  • sing
  • eat
  • are

What they holy hell is going on here? Does this mean that if I write I sing in the shower then I’m using a plural verb (sing) with a singular entity (I)? I don’t know and I don’t care. This is dumb. [What’s the emoji for “dumb”? Insert it here.]

Witch Doctor Grammar

In another post, called “What’s up with ‘that’? (and ‘which’?),” the YUNiversity goes which hunting. They also write – without realizing the irony – “Knowing technical grammar terms is rarely important. Understanding how they function in the real world, on the other hand, is invaluable.” Invaluable maybe, but apparently unnecessary to run a website about grammar.

The page uses a whole lotta gifs and not a whole lotta words to basically say that you must use that to introduce restrictive clauses and which to introduce non-restrictive clauses. If you don’t know what that means, don’t worry about it because their advice is wrong and I don’t want you to learn it. Jonathan Owen has written a few great posts about which hunting and relative pronouns (here, here and here) and Stan Carey has a lengthy post on the topic. And there’s a definitive argument from Mark Liberman at Language Log here. You should go read those instead. But strangely the YUNiversity contradicts themself in the beginning by showing a restrictive clause and claiming that it can be introduced with either which or that.

I’m starting to think that the YUNiversity is not a real university.

Don’t learn your grammar from meme-tastic websites

In another post, we are taught to not learn about personal pronouns from pop songs. Hoo boy. The first thing we learn is that “subject pronouns perform the action of a sentence” and “object pronouns receive the action of the sentence”. Besides the fact talk of performing and receiving actions is a poor way to talk about grammar*, I think they’re confusing word classes with syntactic categories again. The subject pronouns are named that because they usually fill the role of subject in a clause, while the object pronouns usually fulfill the role of object in the sentence. But they don’t always. And we don’t decide what the subject of a sentence is based on which pronoun is used. That’s some voodoo shit right there.

No, instead people say what feels natural. And the truth is, me feels awfully natural in a lot of places where the YUNiversity would have us use I (side note: Should I have used we instead of us in that last sentence and written the YUNiversity would have we use I? I mean, according to the subject-performing-an-action principle…). That’s because I is very syntactically limited in terms of where it can be used in English. The pronoun me is more natural in many other places, especially in informal English. I wrote about this here. That’s why you and me is frequently used at the beginning of a sentence, despite what the YUNiversity says.

As for the phrase you and I (or any X and I) in the role of object, it’s not necessarily wrong. The Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage (p. 778) says, the construction X and I is “treated as a polite fixed unit, to be used either in subject or object position” and that this construction has been used by Shakespeare, Pepys and others who predate the formal teaching of English grammar (so its use is probably not the result of hypercorrection). Not only that, but things get even trickier when we look at the construction between you and I. After surveying the available evidence, the MWDEU (p. 183) says, “you are probably safe in retaining between you and I in your casual speech, if it exists there naturally, and you would be true to life in placing it in the mouths of fictional characters. But you had better avoid it in essays and other works of a discursive nature.” In other words, if you’re speaking or writing informally, you can use between you and I.

Now, the YUNiversity criticizes Lady Gaga and One Direction for using you and I in their songs (One Direction specifically uses between you and I). They claim that both songs got it wrong and the phrases should be you and me. But what do you think? Should the lyrics of pop songs follow the conventions of formal English? No. That would be ridiculous.

But should your meme-a-rific grammar website do some more research in order to make sure you aren’t spreading bad advice? Yes, def. The YUNiversity confuses informal style with incorrect grammar. Because they don’t know what they’re talking about.

TL;DR

So why do I care about all of this? Well, first, the YUNiversity is slinging bad grammar that people will just have to unlearn if they ever want to know what’s really up with the English language. Second, the YUNiversity wants your money. They sell a grammar guide. It’s only $2.99, but that’s about two dollars and ninety-nine cents too much for incorrect advice. They should be paying us to read their bad grammar brain farts. And finally, the YUNiversity is all about them clicks, baby! I mean, if they really gave a shit about grammar, they’d crack open a linguistics book (or even a dictionary) and double-check themself. But they don’t care. They’re a content farm of crappy grammar advice. They’d rather spend more time picking out a gif or an emoji than on making sure what they’re writing is correct. And that’s fine. They can do that. But those are the people who fail grammar class.

 

 

*Seriously, the sentence they use to illustrate their point is “You and I are best friends.” What the hell kind of an action are you and I performing by being best friends? How about He was hit by a bus. According to the YUNiversity, he performed the action of being hit by the bus, while the bus received the action of hitting him! Blammo!

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Author: Joe McVeigh

I'm a linguist who researches email marketing. I also teach at the University of Jyväskylä in Finland. I write about language and linguistics on my blog, ...And Read All Over, and I write about language and marketing on my other blog, Email and Linguistics.

3 thoughts on “Delete your grammar advice, YUNiversity”

  1. No doubt some bad advice here; wanted to pick up your objection to verb number i.e sings – singular, sing – plural; there has been analyses from Columbia School linguistics which argues against subject-verb agreement as such; instead it argues that in addition to noun number which most people are familiar with – yuniversity/yuniversity there is also verb number – here the number is on what is called entities in focus;
    So somehow yuniversity is onto something on the way a broken clock is correct twice a day 😀

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