An awful take on the word “like”

Welcome back, language fans. This time we’re traveling over to Grammar.com, where the grammar is… not so good, Al. Specifically, we’re going to look at a PDF that they’re slinging (for free!) called “The Awful ‘Like’ Word”.

This little ditty is 9 pages of nonsense. I would copy the text and comment on it in this post, but that would take forever. Those of you interested in truly awful language commentary can check out the PDF below. I’m gonna warn you, though. This PDF might be, like, the worst thing I’ve read about the word like. If your face likes meeting your palm, then read on!

Here’s the PDF “The Awful ‘Like’ Word” with my comments. I promise it’s not all snide remarks. There’s some good linguistic commentary in there as well. But snide remarks too.

And here it is without my comments if you want to color it in for yourself.

Book review: Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer

Dreyer’s English is not a style guide like the MLA or Chicago Manual. It’s more in the vein of the Elements of Style and Gwynne’s Grammar. Unlike those books, however, Dreyer’s English is fun to read and (for the most part) correct in its language proclamations. One of the reasons this book is good is because Dreyer knows what a style guide is and what it should be. He explains in this quote:

This book, then, is the next conversation. It’s my chance to share with you, for your own use, some of what I do, from the nuts-and-bolts stuff that even skilled writers stumble over to some of the fancy little tricks I’ve come across or devised that can make even skilled writing better.

Or perhaps you’re simply interested in what one more person has to say about the series comma.

Let’s get started.

No. Wait. Before we get started:

The reason this book is not called The Last Style Manual You’ll Ever Need, or something equally ghastly, is because it’s not. No single stylebook can ever tell you everything you want to know about writing – no two stylebooks, I might add, can ever agree on everything you want to know about writing […] (p. xvii)

Sounds good to me. This passage also gives you an idea of Dreyer’s writing style, the conversational nature of it. I’ve broken this review up into the Good, the Bad and the Other. This may seem like there are three equal parts, but really there’s much more good in this book than anything else.

Continue reading “Book review: Dreyer’s English by Benjamin Dreyer”

When the econs do some lingua, drop it like it’s hot

Last week I did a twitter and it got a big response (for me, that is). It was about a recent paper on language that appeared in an economics journal and it lit a fire under other people as well. The paper is called “Do Linguistic Structures Affect Human Capital? The Case of Pronoun Drop” and it’s by Horst Feldmann. I thought that in addition to dunking on that paper on Twitter, I’d spell out some of the fundamental problems with it. Here goes.

Continue reading “When the econs do some lingua, drop it like it’s hot”

Which hunting on Grammarly

It’s that time again! Time to see what’s going on in Crazy Grammar Town! Let’s visit our old friends, Grammarly. They have a post on relative clauses which is not bad, until they get to talking about that and which (yeah, I know this is more about style than grammar, just stay with me):

Confusion about when to use that and which has arisen for good reason: British and American English have different rules for them. In American English, that is used to introduce restrictive clauses, and which introduces nonrestrictive clauses.

The lamp, which was given to me by Aunt Betsy, is on the bedside table.

The lamp that Aunt Betsy gave me is on the bedside table.

In British English, it is often acceptable to substitute which in restrictive clauses.

The lamp which Aunt Betsy gave me is on the bedside table.

Of course, that could also be used acceptably in British English, which makes it safer, by default, to follow the American rule when in doubt. It also makes it easier to decide whether to insert commas, because if you follow the American rules, you can remember that commas should not precede that, but they should precede which.

Sounds easy, right? Sure… But you’re probably wondering if Grammarly, a company based in San Francisco, US of A, follows their own advice. Hahahahahahahahahahahahahahaha. Of course, they don’t, silly.

In their post on nouns, there are four instances of the word which. How many of these appear in restrictive clauses – the kind of clause that Grammarly specifically states should be introduced by that? Let’s count them:

One…

Grammarly which 1

Two…

Grammarly which 2

Three…

Grammarly which 4

Four!

Grammarly which 3

That’s all four! Congratulations, Grammarly! You hit for the cycle! *Applause*

Why is Grammarly so bad at this? Grammarly can’t follow their own advice because either:

  1. They are an editing company that apparently can’t even edit their own writing
  2. Their claim about US English is a hot pile of garbage
  3. They prefer you’d do as they say and not as they do
  4. All of the above

I’ll take Door #4, Monty.

Read more about which hunting and the that/which distinction from Jonathon Owen here and Stan Carey here.

Fluency and linguistics in the news

There was some press recently about a new study which seems to claim that you can’t become fluent in a second language if you start learning it after age 10. In fact, the study* did not talk about fluency at all. As this article in the Conversation UK by Prof. Monika Schmid points out, the media misinterpreted what the study showed. I’m glad Schmid wrote this piece, which not only clears up the media’s confusion with the study, but also explains some other things about fluency in linguistics. I read the study in question and it seemed pretty legit. I have some misgivings about the idea of nativeness in language learning and about how the questionnaire says that India isn’t a “traditional English speaking country”. And also how the quiz said that “Canadians, Irish, and Scottish accept I’m finished my homework instead of with my homework,” when this is also very common in and around Philadelphia**.

games_with_words_done_my_homework

But all in all, it seems to be an interesting linguistics study that got blown out of proportion by the media. File it with the rest.

* The title of the study is “A critical period for second language acquisition: Evidence from 2/3 million English speakers”. Does anyone else find “2/3 million English speakers” ungrammatical?

**It might just be me, but the phrase “Canadians, Irish, and Scottish accept X” also seems ungrammatical. “Canadians accept X” is ok, but “Irish accept X” and “Scottish accept X” are not, at least not in my variety of English. The latter two need articles before them or the word people after them: “The Irish accept X”, “Scottish people accept X”. I don’t know of any variety where “Canadians, Irish, and Scottish accept X” is correct. This is just a bit of irony in a quiz about the grammaticality of different clauses.

Language snobs take note

John McIntyre, an editor at the Baltimore Sun, has an excellent blog post about linguistic discrimination called “English without shame”. The whole post is great, but this paragraph stands out:

The Language Police, the Grammar Nazis, and the SNOOTS are, in fine, snobs, and I find it impossible to believe that language snobbery is nobler than snobbery about wealth, fashion, or family. It’s just one more method to score points against other people and prop up one’s self-regard.

Go read the whole post here.

Mistakes will be made…

There’s an article coming out in the Journal of Comparative Economics called “Talking in the Present, Caring for the Future: Language and Environment” (Mavisakalyan et al. 2018). The authors claim:

  • We identify future tense marking in language as a determinant of environmental action.
  • Individuals speaking such languages are less likely to behave pro-environmentally.
  • Climate change policies are less stringent in places where language marks the future.

This has my Whorfian alarm bells going off like crazy. The language I speak determines how I feel and act towards the environment?! Say what? That is just too bonkers to be true.

Because it’s not true. But let’s check out why.

Note: This article is long, so I’m adding a Read More tag here. If you’d prefer reading this as a PDF, click here. Continue reading “Mistakes will be made…”

More on I or me in coordinated subjects

I said I would get back to this topic with some notes on my sources and here they are. The first comes from Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage (1994). I love this book, but unfortunately this is a case where it comes off looking rather judgmental.

We next come to two separate constructions involving coordination, usually with and. The first is characteristic of less educated English, or, as it is delicately put these days, non-mainstream varieties of English. This is the use of the objective case [me] before the verb when the pronoun is coordinated with a noun or another pronoun:

Me and my baby goes back and sleeps the day – Anonymous speaker, quoted in Walt Wolfram, Appalachian Speech, 1976

Quirk [et al. 1985] says that the objective pronoun can even occur in the position next to the verb. Wolfram notes that the objective pronoun does not occur by itself in subject position, only in combination with another noun or pronoun. (p. 778)

It’s unfortunate that MWDEU uses the term “less educated” and then cites a speaker of Appalachian English because this “non-mainstream” usage of the objective pronoun me can be found in the mouths of everyone everywhere. Seriously, just go listen for it and you will find it. But would they call it “less educated” if the source was a politician or professor? MWDEU even makes a note of how the objective case of the first-person singular pronoun seems to be the unmarked case used “everywhere there are no positive reasons for using the nominative” (p. 778). What they should claim is that the nominative (or subjective) case is required only in the subject position directly before the verb in standard English varieties. Another thing is the last sentence of the block quote above. It shows that no one – not even the speakers of “less educated English” – use me alone in the subject position. With the exception of Cookie Monster, of course.

The next source is Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage, 4th edition, edited by Jeremy Butterfield. This is a good edition of Fowler’s famous usage guide. Check it:

There are many contexts in spoken or informal written English in which me is the normal form, and to use I would sound inappropriately formal. (a) At the head of clauses introduced by conjoined subjects me is very common in informal conversation, but will be considered non-standard by some and is best avoided in other kinds of speech. It should not be used in writing except to convey the authentic flavor of speech. [Examples given] Of course, in standard or formal speech or writing the structure X and I is used. (p. 509)

Short, sweet, direct and correct. Nice.

Finally, there’s A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar by Huddleston and Pullum (2005). This is based off the much larger work, the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. If you really want a momentous grammar of English, the CGEL is the book for you. It’s gonna cost you a pretty penny, but it’s so, so good. Anyway, here’s what they say about the topic at hand:

For many speakers the above rules extend to constructions where the pronoun is coordinated, but there are also many who use special rules for coordinative constructions. Note the status markers on the following examples:

[57]        i. a. Kim and I went over there.          b. !Kim and me went over there

[…]

Construction [ib] is not accepted as Standard English, though it is very common in non-standard speech.” [That’s what the exclamation point before the phrase means.] (p. 107)

Again, short and sweet. The authors don’t dwell on this usage, they simply mark it as non-standard and note that it is very common. That’s all we need. Why can’t advice articles do the same?

I, me and Oxford Dictionaries

I’m sure I’ve tweeted about this already, but the Oxford Dictionaries’ advice on the usage of pronouns just came across my interwebs again (they sent out this quiz in their email newsletter). It’s hard to imagine how a dictionary’s website gets this so wrong, but let’s go through it to see what’s up.

In their advice article “‘I’ or ‘me’?”, Oxford Dictionaries claims that in coordinated constructions where a pronoun and a proper name form the subject of a sentence, the pronoun used must be the subjective form of the pronoun (also called the nominative form). What this means is that in a sentence like “John and I went to the GWAR concert”, it is incorrect to use me instead of I. Let’s leave aside the fact that everyone everywhere naturally uses me in sentences like this. Let’s instead think about the advice that Oxford Dictionaries is giving. We’ll use the sentence that they use: Clare and I are going for a coffee. According to Oxford, it’s not just the subjective pronoun I that must be used in this sentence, only subjective pronouns must be used when the pronoun helps form the subject of a sentence. But how does this work? See if any of the sentences below sound odd to you.

  1. Clare and I are going for a coffee
  2. Clare and me are going for a coffee
  3. Clare and you are going for a coffee
  4. Clare and you are going for a coffee
  5. Clare and she are going for a coffee OR Clare and he are going for a coffee
  6. Clare and her are going for a coffee OR Clare and him are going for a coffee
  7. Clare and they are going for a coffee
  8. Clare and them are going for a coffee

If you’re like me, the first four sound fine (obviously, there’s no difference between the subjective and objective form of the 2nd person pronoun, they’re both you). The fifth one, however, sounds a bit stuffy compared to the sixth one (stuffy is a totally legit linguistics term). And the seventh is bordering on unacceptable. Does Oxford really think that Clare and they are going for a coffee is correct, while Clare and them are going for a coffee is not? Maybe? They didn’t use that sentence as an example. They focused instead on the 1st person pronoun – where there is more variation.

This topic boils down to a few things. First, English tends to favor me as the default pronoun in all cases except for when the pronoun stands alone as the subject. There is such a strong tendency to use me in all cases that this form is sometimes referred to as the oblique form, meaning that in addition to being the object, it fulfills other roles in sentences. And so English quite naturally uses the me form in coordinated structures, or phrases where there’s a pronoun and something else joined together with the word and:

John and me went to the GWAR concert.

Me and the bouncer got into an arm wrestling match.

Me and this other guy partied with GWAR after the show.

Second, using the subjective pronoun I in coordinated constructions isn’t wrong. English allows for both constructions and the choice of which one to use usually breaks along formality of the occasion – John and I seems more formal, while John and me seems more informal. But there is evidence of both structures throughout history in many different styles of writing. The John and I form is dictated by prescriptivist grammarians (and apparently some dictionaries), while the John and me form is proscribed, despite being used by everyone. In constructions with the first person singular pronoun, you can’t go grammatically wrong choosing I or me. But notice, however, that me is more versatile in where it can be placed:

Clare and me are going for a coffee

Me and Clare are going for a coffee

Clare and I are going for a coffee

*I and Clare are going for a coffee

As we have seen, in constructions with the 3rd person pronouns, things are potentially more cut and dry. With the 3rd person singular, it seems we should use the objective forms (him, her) for all but the most formal registers. With the 3rd person plural, however, it seems we should always use the objective form them.

Finally, there is a piece of advice out there that I’ve seen in a lot of places. It goes like this:

In coordinated constructions (noun + pronoun), take out the noun and leave the pronoun. This will show you which case you want.

This advice is dumb. Why would I take something out of a sentence to decide how I should say the rest of the sentence after I put that thing back in the sentence?! This makes no sense at all. This advice is only given with coordinated subjects because it makes it seem like the subjective pronoun is always correct. Here’s Oxford using it at the end of their article:

An easy way of making sure you’ve chosen the right pronoun is to see whether the sentence reads properly if you remove the additional pronoun:

I am going for a coffee. ✗ Me am going for a coffee.

And here’s the Purdue Online Writing Lab:

In compound structures, where there are two pronouns or a noun and a pronoun, drop the other noun for a moment. Then you can see which case you want.

Not: Bob and me travel a good deal.
(Would you say, “me travel”?)

But what happens when I take the pronoun out of the sentence? I’m left with Bob travel a good deal. 😐

Y U NO give better advice, grammer peeple?

Ok, I’m being awful hard on Oxford Dictionaries. The thing is, their advice column could have been cleared up with a line that explained they were talking about Standard English only. Or that outside of standard written and spoken English, people are more likely to come across the form X and me. The X and me construction is so common in informal written and spoken English that using X and I may be out of place. Non-standard and informal English are the default forms of the language, whether they are written or spoken, so users of English will hear/read these forms most often in day to day circumstances. The split in choosing I or me along formal/informal or standard/non-standard lines isn’t a lot of linguistic knowledge for people to understand. They shouldn’t be forced into thinking there is only One True Way to use pronouns in English.

I might post more on this later and include the advice given by other style guides, grammars and dictionaries. If you want to see some of them backing up my claims right now, check out:

  • Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, page 778
  • Fowler’s Modern English Usage 4th edition (edited by Butterfield), page 509
  • A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar by Huddleston and Pullum, page 107