Book review: 25 Rules of Grammar by Joseph Piercy

I sort of remember enjoying this book, but now that I write my review, it seems that I didn’t like it so much. I guess it’s good for the most part, but it looks like there are many problematic claims. This review is more-or-less in list format, but so is Piercy’s book so…

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Book Review: The Great Typo-Hunt by Jeff Deck and Benjamin D. Herson

Short review: tl;dr

Jeff Deck, an Ivy-league-educated middle-class white man, goes around the country to correct typos in everything from store signs to t-shirts to whatever else he comes across. He enlists friends (including his Ivy-league-educated co-author Benjamin D. Herson) who do not check him on his privilege, but rather enable him on his path to be as petty as possible. Deck and his friends learn little to nothing about language before, during or after their excursion. What could be a profound journey of discovery turns out to be nothing more than an aimless adventure of assholery. File this one under “Language books not worth reading”. Hunter S. Thompson would be pissed to know that these asshats stole the title of one of his books.

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The vowels haven’t gone anywhere

There’s another brainfart article on language in the New York Times. The author, John Williams, shows right away that he’s thinking out loud from somewhere deep inside his armchair with this one. Basically, Williams is having some vague instance of a Recency Illusion as he ties James Joyce and MGMT to Tumblr, Flickr, and other modern companies which opt out of using vowels in their names. His idea is that – apparently all of a sudden – no one is using vowels anymore. lol.

A couple of things. First, as a Twitter friend pointed out, orthography and speech do not correspond. That means that our writing system and our spelling system only have a passing resemblance to each other. Writing is not speech on paper – it’s so much less than that. You think we need vowels in writing to distinguish between words, but we really don’t. This is Linguistics 101. Williams totally whiffs on it.

Second, Williams claims that people are only now routinely removing vowels from their writing by signing their correspondence with “Yrs” (his example). He makes a reference to “Finnegans Wake” and says “Time was that you had to be an experimental weirdo to ditch vowels.” That’s a nice dig at ya boy Joyce, but ol’ Jimmy J was just stealing this style from other writers. John Adams didn’t use vowels when he signed his letters. Neither did Jane Austen. Time was when no one wrote vowels because ink and paper were precious commodities yo.

Third, I kinda have to give Williams some credit for actually reaching out to a linguist, but unfortunately it doesn’t make the article any better. Williams contacted John McWhorter to see what is going on with people dropping vowels. I don’t know how much he talked to him – I only have the quotes included in the article – but it seems like McWhorter was really phoning this one in.

Now, full disclosure: I like John McWhorter when he talks about linguistics. He’s made some highly questionable political debates and articles recently, but his linguistics stuff has always been sound. In this article, however, McWhorter says “There is a fashion in American language culture right now to be playful in a way that is often childlike. This business of leaving out the vowels and leaving you to wonder how to pronounce something, it channels this kid-ness in a way — like saying ‘because science,’ or the way we’re using -y, when we say something like, ‘well, it got a little yell-y.’”

I don’t know what McWhorter is on about here. No one wonders how to pronounce Tumblr, Flickr, MNDFL or Mdrn (except maybe NYT writers working on a deadline?). And saying “because NOUN” is not channeling “kid-ness” (what is kid-ness anyway, linguistically speaking?). And and, adding a y-sound onto the end of words is really not child-like. That’s just language-like. They’re called diminutives. Go talk to the Aussies about them. Or any other English speakers.

So yeah, stay away from the NYT Style Section’s hot takes on language.

Casting the first ice pick

This tweet by Prof. Daniel Drezner of the Fletcher School came across my feed last night.

Teachers, don’t make fun of your students. It’s not funny. It’s shitty.

Besides that, the distinction between its and it’s is so insignificant that only people who don’t know much about language would cling to it like it’s some ancient secret. Arguing about its/it’s (or picking on your students over it) is like arguing over who the best Robin was, Dick Grayson or Tim Drake*.

As it turns out, Ammon Shea (the author of Reading the OED, which you should totally read) did some digging and found out that Prof. Danny mistakenly used it’s for its in his dissertation. Because of course he did.

I wonder how he’d feel if his supervisor joked on twitter dot com about stabbing him with an icepick.

* If you didn’t get this reference, don’t worry. It doesn’t matter. Just like misusing its/it’s doesn’t matter. If you did get this reference, then you know the answer is Tim Drake**.

** Fight me.

Word Fails Me #9: Neither do me

Ok, we don’t need to get into subject and object prepositions, but it’s bananas that Word is suggesting I write “Neither do me” over “Neither do I”. Come on, Word! Not even the laissez-fairest of linguists (such as me) would say that “Neither do me” is good (enough) English.

MSWord Neither do me

This is an entry in a series of posts I’m calling Word Fails Me, in which I highlight the strange ideas that Microsoft Word has about English grammar. Each post will be a screenshot with a short comment. The intention of this series is to amuse you and make you wonder where Word is getting its ideas. I’m not trying to be condescending to Word’s grammar checker or the people behind it. Word is a fascinating program and the grammar checker can be a lifesaver, even if it leans prescriptivist sometimes. If I come across interesting research into MS Word’s grammar checker, I’ll share it here. You can find all of the entries under the Word Fails Me tag. Enjoy!

Pronoun nonsense on Grammar Bytes

Hi! Greetings from Crazy Grammar Town! We’re still here… We’re still… here. This time we’re going to (again) look at a website called Grammar Bytes (the website is chompchomp.com). This “grammar” site wants to tell you about pronouns. They say that a “possessive noun should not be the antecedent for a pronoun.” What the heck does that mean? We’ll take it piece by juicy piece. Grammar Bytes says:

Possessive nouns function as adjectives. You can drive a fast car, a red car, a dirty car, or Mom’s car. Fast, red, and dirty are all adjectives telling us which car. The possessive noun Mom’s is adjectival too.

Yeah, ok, I guess. Tell me more.

You ruin the clarity of a sentence when the antecedent for a subject or object pronoun like he or him is a possessive noun.

Read this example:

Kevin’s fingers were strumming the guitar when he winked at Donna.

When we read this sentence, we assume that Kevin is the he winking at Donna. But remember that Kevin’s is adjectival, not a noun. If we replaced Kevin’s with agile, quick, or long, we wouldn’t consider any of those adjectives the antecedent for he, so we shouldn’t consider Kevin’s either. And the fingers certainly aren’t doing the winking as they have no eyes!

Hold up! Who the hell would say “Agile fingers were strumming the guitar when he winked at Donna”? Answer: absolutely no one. I mean, did you really misunderstand Grammar Bytes’ example sentence? You knew Kevin was winking at Donna while he strummed the guitar. No problem. You would even understand it if someone said, “Kevin’s fingers were strumming the guitar. Then he winked at Donna.” BECAUSE THAT’S HOW PRONOUNS WORK! You know who is referred to by context. And there is no rule of grammar that says pronouns can’t refer to things across sentence boundaries. Think about how often you use pronouns and how often you misunderstand who the pronoun refers to. The ratio is 1 gajillion to zero.

But wait! Grammar Bytes goes on:

Furthermore, a reader might wonder if the whole Kevin is strumming the guitar or if just his disembodied fingers are making the music. The sentence in its current version is unclear.

Dafuck? Who strums a guitar with their whole body?

There’s more:

To fix the problem, you can replace the pronoun with a specific noun. You can’t have a pronoun reference error if you have no pronoun!

Kevin’s fingers were strumming the guitar when this young man winked at Donna.

See, now here’s where things get more confusing. Because to me “this young man” might not refer to Kevin. Because guess what? “This young man” is not specific! It’s arguably less specific than the pronoun. So if you write this, you will be more clear to Grammar Bytes and less clear to everyone else.

Real OGs know how to spell than and then

It’s spelled thn, homies. Or it at least it should be. Hear me out.

I know a lotta people hate when they see someone use than in a place which calls for then (and vice versa). There are even memes about it:

than then meme
Is this how you dank?

But the thing is, there wasn’t always a difference between than and then. “What the what?!” I hear you saying. The OED lays it out:

OED than

Ok, so people made the distinction a looong time ago. But still, it’s interesting to know that these words come from the same place. Maybe all those people on the internet (the ones that you think are a bunch of dinguses because they misuse than and then) are just keeping it OG.

And really, it’s only spelling that people are complaining about. Sure, they have different meanings (than is a conjunction and then is an adverb), but they sound the same when in spoken language. Complaining about spelling is pretty lame sauce. I mean, of all the things to complain about with language, spelling is waaay down the list. We should be complaining about how supposed grammar professionals don’t follow their own advice.

Speaking of spelling, these two words were almost spelled the same. The OED explains:

When the adverb was reduced to þen, from the 15th cent. spelt then, there was a strong tendency to spell the conjunction in the same way, which during the 16th cent. nearly triumphed; but in the 17th cent. the tide turned, and by 1700 or a little later the conjunction was differentiated from the adverb as than. As the latter was, and is, pronounced /ðən/, it is manifest that it might be written either then or than with equal approximation to the actual sound.

Now, aren’t you glad English doesn’t make a spelling distinction between the voiced and voiceless dental fricatives, ð and θ? (These are the different ways you say the th sound in the words than and thin) We all know the internet doesn’t need more reasons to complain.