Earlier this year, I wrote about an episode of NPR’s Code Switch and I was highly critical. The problems with that show weren’t the fault of the hosts, but rather a theater professor who was out of his league talking about American accents (much like I would be out of my league talking about theater in a radio interview). But Code Switch is back with another episode on linguistics and… Wow, is it good! I mean really, really good. They talked to linguists and language scholars about the origin of Broadcaster English and how there is no single variety of Standard American English. They also got into the stigmatization of accents in society and the media and what that means for people (with the help of Prof. Okim Kang, who has been studying this topic).
And like a good news article, they put a human perspective on it by talking to someone who has been dealing with the problems that come from the insistence that newscasters speak Standard American English.
I’m not going to spoil any more of it for you. I recommend that you go listen to this episode yourself. You can find the transcript or download the episode here. Listen online here.
And if that’s not enough for you, then you’re in luck. These are some big topics in linguistics. There’s much more out there for you to learn about them.
Here’s a good example of why we split infinitives in English:
You may have heard that it’s bad grammar to split an infinitive. This is a made up rule that was taken directly from Latin. Thankfully, it seems to have been buried for good as people are starting to realize it’s a ridiculous rule. The infinitive is already split in English – there’s always a space between to and the verb. And you can see here that following the rule would produce some really weird sentences:
I wonder what it feels like to be not tired.
I wonder what it feels like not to be tired.
Both of those sound unnatural and unindiomatic.
Apparently a lot of people do. You know this. You’ve probably heard something along the lines of what is said in the following tweet:
Mike Pope had a nice response:
But this got me thinking: It’s a bit of slippery slope to say that we have to follow the pluralization rules for Latin with (some) Latin words. Why stop with Latin? English has taken words from other languages as well. And why stop at pluralization? Latin has endings for when a word was used as a subject or object (if my rudimentary Latin is correct). So why not bring those along too? I wrote a joking response to point this out:
As fate would have it, James Harbeck published an article on this very topic on the very same day that these tweets appeared. And Mike Pope published a similar blog post a while ago. I’m not going to restate what they say – you should go read their posts. Instead, I’d like to second what Dr Sarah Shulist responded with and add to it:
The reason that we are told to follow the Latin’s pluralization methods for words from Latin is because Latin has long been held in high prestige by educators and others who wield power in society and language learning. That’s it. If Finnish was held in as high regard as Latin, then we would have people saying it’s incorrect to use saunas because the plural form in Finnish is saunat. But Finnish is not held in the same regard as Latin. Same goes for almost every other language.
But when you think about it, requiring people to use Latin plurals is actually pretty… lazy. We’re talking about noun morphology and in English there are really only a few things we can do to words that are nouns. I know I’m oversimplifying things here, but stay with me. We can:
- make nouns plural (hero >> heroes)
- add a genitive marker (hero >> hero’s)
- add prefixes and suffixes (superhero, heroism, etc.)
Is anyone arguing for applying the Latin genitive to words from Latin? Of course not. Because the prescription that you must use Latin plurals with words from Latin isn’t about grammar at all. It’s about language policing and linguistic discrimination. It’s about putting other people down for following English grammar instead of Latin grammar WHEN THEY’RE SPEAKING ENGLISH. And like most forms of discrimination, it’s lazy thinking. It is only one aspect of noun morphology applied to only some words from pretty much only one language.
To be clear: I’m not saying that it’s discriminatory to use a word from another language and not follow the morphology of that language. It’s kind of the opposite of that. To say that people must follow the pluralization morphology of Latin when they use a word from Latin is classist. When people are speaking English, there is nothing wrong with them using plain old English morphology to pluralize nouns. And, yes, that holds for words from Latin too. It’s possible that people don’t realize that they’re practicing linguistic discrimination when they play the pedant card with words from Latin, but that’s not an excuse. Maybe next time point out that the hill they are dying on isn’t so much a mighty mountain as it is a puny pismire hill.
Anyway, by far the most pragmatic reply was from Marie Georghiou:
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. Continue reading “Delete your grammar advice, YUNiversity”
Here is an article that I meant to write about earlier, but it got pushed down my inbox and forgotten (you all email yourselves articles that you want to read later, right?). It’s a great article on linguistics. It’s short and sweet – about one seemingly simple linguistic topic – and the journalist talked to a linguist. Hooray!
The article is on the use of There’s before plurals, as in There’s three cars outside. According to (Standard) English grammar, that’s technically wrong. But as Prof. Andreaa Calude points out, everyone uses there’s before plurals*. And the phrase may be increasing. Prof. Calude also had this wonderful thing to say:
“We measure speech by the same yardstick as writing, even though speech is done differently and has a different function,” she said. “The grammar of speech is different to the grammar of writing.”
“We’re not clued up with what happens in speech. We think it must be bad because it’s not like writing, but that’s not the case.”
I love seeing that kind of stuff in a news article.
So it’s not all bad linguistics press out there. You’d think it was if you read enough of this blog, but I wanted to mention that there are good articles out there too. Go give their writers a click for their good work: https://www.stuff.co.nz/national/education/102419351/theres-a-reason-were-bending-the-rules-on-speech-grammar
*Side note: the article says that what comes after there’s is the subject of the sentence. I know some grammars have described it like this, but I would argue that there is the real subject of the sentence and what comes after it is a displaced or notional subject
, which then gets analyzed as the subject complement (also sometimes called the predicate nominative, I think). It’s a minor point. I’m sure most people reading the article were taught that there isn’t the subject in sentences that start with there is/was/are/were.
Junk English is the Arby’s of style guides.
Junk English is a garbage book
I read a lot of bad articles and books about language. By “bad,” I mean “writing by people who make nonsense claims about language”. Ken Smith’s book Junk English is one of the worst ones I’ve read. I can’t decide if it’s too preachy or too uninformed. But who cares? It’s just bad. Let’s see why. Continue reading “Book Review: Junk English by Ken Smith”
Credit where credit’s due, Dictionary.com has been putting out better blog posts on language these days. A few months ago, I went hard on them for whining about millennials in a listicle. And a few months before that I raged on them for their uninformed listicle about words you shouldn’t use. But recently they’ve written interesting posts about the Northern Cities Vowel Shift and the changing nature of taboo words. They even had a listicle of quotes about the importance of net neutrality. I don’t care what kind of ad space they may be selling with these posts. That’s the name of the game online. I’d rather they get those clicks with posts on legit linguistic topics than with nonsense language shaming posts.
Dictionary.com also tweeted this and it is 🔥
So hats off to Dictionary.com for stepping up their game. I knew they had it in ‘em.