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.
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?
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.
Here’s an interesting post on transitive verbs by the website Grammar Bytes. The author, Prof. Robin L Simmons, says that:
A transitive verb has two characteristics. First, it is an action verb, expressing a doable activity like kick, want, paint, write, eat, clean, etc. Second, it must have a direct object, something or someone who receives the action of the verb.
That first characteristic is news to me, especially since five of those six verbs can also be intransitive (kick, paint, write, eat and clean). But let’s back up a second. A transitive verb is indeed a verb that requires an object. So want is a transitive verb because we can’t just say I want. We have to say I want (something).
But why does a transitive verb also have to be an “action verb”? Lose is a transitive verb in the sentence I lost my keys, but can we say that I’m doing something by losing my keys? Or that losing my keys is some “doable activity”? Another example is have in the sentence He has an inheritance. Not really something he’s done, no action undertaken by him, he just has that inheritance. Or how about I don’t have many clothes? The verb have doesn’t sound very action-packed in that sentence, but it’s still transitive. I’m starting to think that maybe “action verb” is not a very useful grammar term. Some more action-free transitive verbs (underlined):
Lord, it’s the same old tune, fiddle and guitar. Rhinestone suits and new shiny cars, it’s been the same way for years. We need a change.
This type of shit happens all the time. You got to get yours but, fool, I got to get mine.
I float like gravity, never had a cavity, got more rhymes than the Wayans’ got family.
If everybody had an ocean across the USA, then everybody’d be surfing like California.
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:
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:
- They are an editing company that apparently can’t even edit their own writing
- Their claim about US English is a hot pile of garbage
- They prefer you’d do as they say and not as they do
- All of the above
I’ll take Door #4, Monty.
Hey, remember when I wrote about the YUNiversity and their crazy ideas on what a subject is? Remember how they said the subject of sentence is ALWAYS a noun? Well, they’re not the only ones in crazy grammar town. Grammarly also likes to play fast and loose with grammatical subjects. Check it:
First off, not every sentence needs a subject. Most do, but not all. For example, imperative sentences do not have subjects because the subject is often implied:
Just do it.
Don’t worry, be happy.
What’s a little crazy is that Grammarly uses an imperative sentence as an example to show that nouns can act as objects. Do they think that Give is the subject of their example sentence? (Narrator’s voice: It’s not. The sentence doesn’t have a subject.)
Second, like I said in the YUNiversity post, the subject of a sentence in English is not always a noun. It often is, but not always. The following can act as the subject in English:
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 Grammarly wrote online shocked me.
The rest of the info on the Grammarly blog post is pretty good, so that’s nice. I don’t know if Grammarly is copying stuff off of YUNiversity or if it’s the other way around. But somebody is cheating off somebody.
There was an op-ed by Abigail Shrier in the Wall Street Journal (it’s paywalled, but no need to click, I’ve copied the relevant bits below) on August 29, 2018. It’s about what a terrible thing it is to make public employees use the preferred pronouns of the public individuals that they are serving. Basically, it’s about how people should be able to call others “he” or “she” even if the person that they are talking to prefers a different pronoun, such as “they”.
I only want to point out two problems with this person’s argument. First, the writer says:
Typically, in America, when groups disagree, we leave them to employ the vocabularies that reflect their values. My “affirmative action” is your “racial preferences.” One person’s “fetus” is another’s “baby boy.” This is as it should be; an entire worldview is packed into the word “fetus.” Another is contained in the reference to one person as “them” or “they.” For those with a religious conviction that sex is both biological and binary, God’s purposeful creation, denial of this involves sacrilege no less than bowing to idols in the town square. When the state compels such denial among religious people, it clobbers the Constitution’s guarantee of free exercise of religion, lending government power to a contemporary variant on forced conversion.
But that’s not how it works. If you work for the government and you want to use slurs to refer to people, too bad. You can’t do that. I’m sure Richard Spencer (the head racist du jour) or David Duke (your parents’ racist du jour) would argue that it is part of their “worldview” to call black and brown and gay people all the horrible things that they call them. But fuck that nonsense. We don’t let them use the words that they want. We shun them for it. And if they work for the government, we penalize them for it (yeah, I know, things are pretty bad right now, but if you’re arguing that the racists currently in the US government should be allowed to keep on being racist, then you’re wrong).
Second, the writer backs up a linguistic argument* by referencing Locke. Philip Locke, you ask? The linguist who wrote University Grammar: A University Course? Haha. No. John Locke, the [checks notes] philosopher from the [checks notes again] 17th century. I wonder if anything has changed in linguistics since then. Guess not!
Here’s what it boils down to: you don’t get to call anyone anything you want without any repercussions. Sorry! (not sorry) Can’t bring yourself to use a person’s preferred pronoun because of your bigoted worldview? Change your worldview. Or just call them by their name FFS. This isn’t that difficult and you don’t need to write an op-ed about it, Abigail.
Ok, one final point. The writer says:
In most contexts, I would have no problem addressing others in any manner they chose.
That sounds an awful lot like “I’m not a racist, but…”
*Sure, the argument is about culture and worldviews and society – but wrapped up in all of that is language. And the article is specifically about words.
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”
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”
In researching a book on English usage (called Junk English; review coming soon), I came across an article from 2007 by Sam Smith, the journalist, essayist and co-founder of Green Party. Smith’s article is a lesson in how to NOT write about language, as he gets a number of things wrong. One day I’ll write a general post about these kinds of articles, but for now, let’s go through Smith’s post and see where the train goes off the tracks.
The article starts with this:
Sitting in Manhattan across from an editor at one of best regarded publishing houses, I asked, “Does good writing still matter?”
Ugh. Like, gag me with a spoon. This kind of comment is a red flag inside a bell inside a whistle telling me that what is about to come is going to be a bunch of pretentious crap about the good ol’ days when people knew how to use The Language (a time which was probably also when Sam Smith was in his thirties; when he was looking forward to his life, not back on it) Continue reading “Sam Smith’s conservative linguistics”
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.