Word Fails Me #4: What Word must say

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 little or no 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!

Welcome back to Word Fails Me! Here’s an example of Word getting a bit confused with modal verbs. I guess it’s neat that Word thinks have is a modal and can be made more precise by using must or should. Have is a plain ol’ lexical verb here. Sometimes must can replace have to, but not in this case.

MS Word - what they have to say

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.

Word Fails Me #3: to be or not to can be seen as

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 little or no 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!

Welcome back to Word Fails Me! This example comes again from an article that I wrote recently. The sentence is “Perhaps the high frequency of exclamation points in this corpus can be seen as another dimension of excitability.”

Word has a problem with this verb construction, but it suggests I change it to “Perhaps the high frequency of exclamation points in this corpus be another dimension of excitability.” This is not acceptable in Standard Written English (but it may be in some varieties!).

The other suggestions are is and am. The latter is purely ungrammatical in any variety, and while using is would make the sentence more concise (Word loves conciseness), it would remove the hedging I was implying with can be seen as (academics love hedging).

Whatevs.

MS Word - to be or not to can be seen as

The grammar of “feeling less than (X)”

This tweet came across my TL and it interested me because of what it says and how it says it.

Since this is primarily a blog about language, I’ll focus on the how-it-says, rather than the what-it-says (and besides, the latter is just self-evident). Continue reading “The grammar of “feeling less than (X)””

Word Fails Me #2: Those which names

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 little or no 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!

Welcome back to Word Fails Me! This example comes from an article I published recently. Ok, I’ll admit that my writing could always use some TLC. But not the kind that MS Word is trying to give me.

The sentence under question goes “… as well as those which name both a product and a customer”. And Word wants me to change it to:

  1. … as well as those which names both a product and customer
  2. … as well as that which name both a product and customer

Both of those are ungrammatical :/

MS Word - those which names

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?

Word Fails Me #1: This document is smoking

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 little or no 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!

Welcome to Word Fails Me! Let’s start with an example from Microsoft’s own web site about their grammar checker. As you can see, Word thinks the following sentences are A-OK:

  1. The document is sorting that we must review.
  2. The document is smoking that we must review.

document_is_smoking_that_we_must_review

To be fair, I think you should definitely review a document if it is smoking.

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