MORE ON NGD.

National Grammar Day, that is; this is a month late, but I thought I’d share with you Z. D. Smith’s response to the idiotic celebration of prescriptivism I barked at here:

…people have better things to do with their language than simply convey facts. In the imaginations of the dryest of grammarians, perhaps, language—not speech, though; written language—is simply or reductively the tool that we use to transmit and record factual information. Everybody else, though, and I mean everybody, is answering to a series of more pressing concerns. Even when speaking prose, we are participating in aesthetic creation. Every utterance obeys rules of meter and rhythm as fundamental to language as its grammatical structure….
Sometimes it makes a body really want to rap these critics on the head; don’t you see that people are speaking here? Do you really imagine that people who say ‘between you and I’ don’t have anything better to do with their words than see that they conform to some superficial notion of grammar? Can you allow in your worldview the possibility that the greengrocer or urban youth has his own sense of language, and is actively wielding it, rather than simply trying and failing to follow all the rules?

Indeed.

Comments

  1. Amen! I love grammar dearly, which makes me all the crosser when it’s turned from the extraordinary, marvelous, fractal, group improvisation it is into a set of markings that distinguish the right sort of people.

  2. John Emerson says:

    I’ve been criticized for this, but I think that at this point in the struggle it’s necessary to codify the anti-prescriptivist rules. Otherwise the Czechs will run wild with our glorious English language.

  3. John Emerson says:

    I’ve been criticized for this, but I think that at this point in the struggle it’s necessary to codify the anti-prescriptivist rules. Otherwise the Czechs will run wild with our glorious English language.

  4. SnowLeopard says:

    I would prefer a National Reason Day where people were banned from making unfounded assumptions or drawing faulty inferences. But it’s precisely this sort of view that’s gotten me thrown out of many a chapter of the Anti-Prescriptivist Non-Professional Auxiliary. Know before joining: whatever the inspiring speeches of its national figures, the idiots who run your local chapter may think that Bad Writing and Faulty Reasoning are unique idiolects that deserve encouragement and protection.

  5. John Emerson says:

    Certainly no one could fail to oppose unfounded assumptions, faulty inferences, Bad Writing, or Faulty Reasoning. Your task must be an easy one, like that of the men still watching for Napoleon’s invading fleet.

  6. John Emerson says:

    Certainly no one could fail to oppose unfounded assumptions, faulty inferences, Bad Writing, or Faulty Reasoning. Your task must be an easy one, like that of the men still watching for Napoleon’s invading fleet.

  7. That is a fantastic word, ‘Faulty’. I must remember it.

  8. No one could oppose Faulty Inferences, Bad Writing or Faulty Reasoning? Phhhfffftttt. How long have you been reading blogs, anyway?

  9. SnowLeopard says:

    It’s obvious, they shout. Everyone knows it’s true! You’re wasting time! You’re asking embarrassing questions! Stop insulting our intelligence! If nobody does it that way, there must be a reason! We’ve always done it this way! Reminds me of Wittgenstein’s essay On Certainty, where he remarked somewhere that “certainty” seems to consist of nothing more than a particular tone of voice. And then there was that expert witness, a doctor, who justified his finding of causation by saying, “There’s a Latin expression, post hoc ergo propter hoc, that proves my point. If it happened after it, it happened because of it.” When I pointed out that was a fallacy, not a rule of inference, he shrugged and said my version might also be right.

  10. Well said, Z.D.!
    Somewhat related to this, I note that the so-called “blog” at The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar site does not allow for any comments.
    Now that’s really being prescriptivist!

  11. Richard Hershberger says:

    I don’t recall seeing a prescriptivist blog that allows comments. There was a message board at LSSU connected with their banished words a few years ago, but they took it down. Similarly, Vocabula Review used to have a message board, but it was removed some time ago.
    I’m undoubtedly prejudiced, but in my experience the prescriptivist side tends to get flustered when asked to defend their prescriptions with, you know, facts and logic and stuff.

  12. ‘Stuff’? Classic liberal handwaving.

  13. “Can you allow in your worldview the possibility that the greengrocer or urban youth has his own sense of language, and is actively wielding it, rather than simply trying and failing to follow all the rules?”
    I was stunned by this. I never dreamed they were trying to follow the rules and failing (I thought they weren’t trying at all). I simply can’t stand the way they talk or write. Incorrect grammar (usage, pronunciation, etc.) usually sounds aesthetically bad to me. What’s wrong with that? Anti-prescriptivists are just using some fancy arguments to denounce my aesthetic preferences, which are every bit as valid as theirs. This can never convince me to enjoy the kind of writing and speech they are defending.

  14. jamessal says:

    I never dreamed they were trying to follow the rules and failing (I thought they weren’t trying at all).
    Maybe not, but the bloggers over at NGD certainly did. They took pictures of store signs, posted them on the internet, and called the writers illiterate. That’s not exactly good-mannered, grumbling-to-yourself prescriptivism.
    Also, it should be noted, the grammar you find so displeasing is not, by any scientific standard, incorrect. It simply differs from the way you talk (or think you talk). The question of what actually does constitute incorrect grammar is a complex and interesting one. Sometimes they wrestle with it over at languagelog.com.

  15. michael farris says:

    “I simply can’t stand the way they talk or write. Incorrect grammar (…) usually sounds aesthetically bad to me. What’s wrong with that?”
    Well first you need to define “incorrect grammar”, do you mean sentences that every native speaker in the world can understand, but which self-styled ‘authorities’ have decided are wrong like:
    Hopefully, she’ll be here by noon.
    He don’t know nothing about that.
    If I was you, I’d think twice about that.
    or things not likely to be heard from native speakers but which are still quite understandable, like:
    I don’t know where do they live.
    Or something else?
    And there’s nothing wrong with having an aesthetic judgement. There are all sorts of accents I dislike on aesthetic grounds, the old upper clas English accent where ‘hope’ becomes something like ‘hewp’ sounds absolutely ghastly to me. But I recognize that’s just my subjective opinion (and people who naturally speak that way shouldn’t stop on my account).

  16. michael farris says:

    “Sometimes they wrestle with it over at languagelog.com.”
    I haven’t been able to get language log for several days now, I keep getting the timed out message. Is anyone else having this problem?

  17. jamessal says:

    Yes. I just tried it and timed out again. Probably prescriptivist terrorists.

  18. Same here. And if they’ve come for the Loggers, I may be next.
    *barricades self, calls for backup*

  19. jamessal says:

    I’m with you, Steve! — though I think we’re outnumbered.

  20. michael farris says:

    Hopefully, those prescriptivists know we’re not going to let this effect us and we’re not going to take it laying down! If I was them, I’d have another think coming.

  21. Somewhat related to this, I note that the so-called “blog” at The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar site does not allow for any comments.
    Now that’s really being prescriptivist!

    Like Language Log! :)

  22. “That’s not exactly good-mannered, grumbling-to-yourself prescriptivism.”
    It might not be polite, though I’d make a distinction between a blog post and approaching someone directly and calling him illiterate to his face. What I think you’re suggesting here is that prescriptivism is only acceptable when it’s silent: “grumbling-to-yourself”. There’s a green-grocer’s apostrophe on a store sign (enshrined in metal and light) in my local mall. I think it looks stupid (it also bothers me that they used the straight ascii apostrophe (which has its place) rather than looking up the proper hooked one). There, because I’ve mentioned my feelings aloud, in public, does that make me a bad person?
    “Also, it should be noted, the grammar you find so displeasing is not, by any scientific standard, incorrect.”
    Nor did I claim it was “scientifically” incorrect (since, obviously, there’s nothing scientific about some arbitrary rules). It’s traditionally incorrect and, to my eye and ear, aesthetically incorrect. I’m trying to work out why my sympathies are with the prescriptivists. I think it’s because the anti-prescriptivists are accusing me of the error that I’m not making (that quoted above) and using it as an excuse to attack my taste. I think there’s something dishonest going on here.
    “Well first you need to define “incorrect grammar”, do you mean sentences that every native speaker in the world can understand, but which self-styled ‘authorities’ have decided are wrong like:
    Hopefully, she’ll be here by noon.
    He don’t know nothing about that.
    If I was you, I’d think twice about that…
    And there’s nothing wrong with having an aesthetic judgement..”
    Yes, they all bother me, but to different extents. The first bothers me very little, the second and third bother me very much. In fact, they offend me. The self-styled authority condemning them is my ear, which happens to agree with all the writers and speakers I admire. I may be wrong, but when this crowd condemns self-styled authorities, I don’t think they are really condemning a few sophomoric websites—I think they’re condemning my right to dislike, to be offended by and to look down on certain kinds of speech. I think they’re saying that it _is_ wrong not simply to have aesthetic judgments, but to have my particular aesthetic judgment.
    I like Jacques Barzun’s take on the matter. Roughly, he equates bad language with discourtesy. People using ugly speech and writing are doing it because they don’t care about the listener or reader. It’s not poetry—it’s rudeness, thoughtlessness. I wonder what you make of that?

  23. jamessal says:

    I think they’re condemning my right to dislike, to be offended by and to look down on certain kinds of speech.
    Don’t you think there’s a difference between disliking something and looking down on it? Sneering is mean, and there’s no reason LH readers shouldn’t object to it.
    I think there’s something dishonest going on here.
    What I find dishonest is how precriptivists these days, having realized that they don’t actually have any arguments to support their position, often cry that it’s only their opinion, and they have a right to it, as though they’re the oppressed people. It reminds me of Republicans when they talk their color-blind nonsense with affirmative action, as though the party has a clean record when it comes to racism, and we can just trust them to look out for what’s best for everybody. The history of prescriptivism is, essentially, a history of classism — i.e., snobs using shibboleths to keep down anybody who didn’t look and talk like themselves. See: David Crystal’s “The Fight for English: How Language Pundits Ate, Shot, and Left.”

  24. jamessal says:

    I’m waiting for a pot of beans to boil, so I’m going to keep going and say, Michael Saunders, that if you really think bad writing is rude, then you’ve been rude to everybody on this blog. To take one paragraph:
    The self-styled authority condemning them is my ear, which happens to agree with all the writers and speakers I admire.
    A little redundant, don’t you think? I mean, isn’t that why you admire these writers and speakers, because your ear agrees with them?
    I think they’re condemning my right
    Nobody condemns a right.
    I think they’re saying that it _is_ wrong not simply to have aesthetic judgments, but to have my particular aesthetic judgment.
    Your emphasis is all screwy, and it makes the sentence awkward. Who would ever say it’s wrong simply to have aesthetic judgments?
    So there — by your standards you’ve been rude to me. Now I have two options: I can become offended and bitch about it, or I can do what I first did when I read your post — be generous and assume you have better things to do than make lapidary every utterance and blog post.

  25. Republican is a funny thing to call a Communist.
    “Don’t you think there’s a difference between disliking something and looking down on it?”
    Of course there’s a difference, but not a moral one. I might dislike a painting while recognizing the artist’s technical skill. Morally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking down on shoddy workmanship. Do you? Morally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with admiring excellent workmanship. Do you?
    “Sneering is mean, and there’s no reason LH readers shouldn’t object to it.”
    When I hear something that sounds ugly and stupid to me, is that sneering? If I go a step further and whisper aloud, “that sounds stupid and ugly to me”, then have I sneered? Then am I a meanie?
    “What I find dishonest is how precriptivists these days, having realized that they don’t actually have any arguments to support their position, often cry that it’s only their opinion, and they have a right to it, as though they’re the oppressed people.”
    I think I’m being sneered at, but I’m not your mythical dirty, dishonest prescriptivist. I didn’t give it much thought until I stumbled on these posts and found anti-prescriptivism much more arbitrary, cruel and snide than prescriptivism. I didn’t wake up this morning realizing that I don’t have any arguments to support prescriptivism. I spent my whole life never imagining that there were any “scientific” arguments that did so. There might be engineering arguments that do (that having a standard grammar is practical for communication) or cultural arguments that do (that it’s nice to have a tradition). I never made those arguments, though, so I never realized that they disappeared (if they have). When I said that it was my opinion, I did not “cry”. I do think I have a right to my opinion. I’m sorry that offends you. I wasn’t really thinking of myself as oppressed, but, now that you mention it, I suppose I do, sort of.
    Here’s how: when I was young, bad grammar was considered unacceptable to the extent that you wouldn’t hear much of it in the media. You would rarely hear a speaker use a double negative, and, if he did, he wouldn’t be taken seriously. Somehow, possibly because they wanted to be taken seriously, speakers controlled their double-negative passions and used the single negative. Apparently, there were able to do this through a sheer force of will (proof that it actually is possible to choose the way we speak?). Nowadays, you hear double negatives all the time. It’s become acceptable, and it does hurt me a bit every time I hear one. It’s not quite a punch in the nose, but it’s almost as bad and, unfortunately, when traveling, I have to head north for about a thousand miles before I can hear my own sweet, dulcet single negatives again. Then the oppression lifts and I feel free once more.
    Here’s an ironic point: we both seem to dislike political conservatism, yet conservatives are exactly the people I associate with bad grammar. If you did a statistical study, I bet you’d find a strong correlation between nonstandard constructions and Republicans. I don’t like politics, and I don’t want to talk about it, but I found your post very striking on this point.

  26. jamessal says:

    First, let me say that I haven’t been offended by anything you’ve said. I disagree with you, but I find you thoughtful, and so I’m enjoying this. Now back to business.
    Of course there’s a difference, but not a moral one. I might dislike a painting while recognizing the artist’s technical skill. Morally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with looking down on shoddy workmanship. Do you? Morally, I don’t think there’s anything wrong with admiring excellent workmanship. Do you?
    We’re not talking about art here, but store fronts, and the way the people speak. Of course it’s not wrong to criticize art. But it is mean, which for me is about the same thing as immoral, to sneer at the way people talk.
    I think I’m being sneered at, but I’m not your mythical dirty, dishonest prescriptivist.
    Maybe not, but you are carrying on a tradition. Wait a minute — I’ll get back to that thought. I have to check on my beans.

  27. “Michael Saunders, that if you really think bad writing is rude, then you’ve been rude to everybody on this blog.”
    I apologize. I do my best, but I admit I often fail. Here amongst people whom I assume all know a great deal more about language than I do, I’ve very conscious that my writing probably falls short. I try to communicate pleasantly and apologize for my imperfections. Please do continue to point out any, no matter how tiny—I would be pleased to learn better English.
    “‘The self-styled authority condemning them is my ear, which happens to agree with all the writers and speakers I admire.’
    A little redundant, don’t you think? I mean, isn’t that why you admire these writers and speakers, because your ear agrees with them?”
    I don’t think it’s redundant. You might think it’s circular, but it’s not that, either. You see—my judgment of the writers and speakers and my judgment of their language didn’t occur at precisely the same time (which would have been circular). I admired the people for all sorts of qualities, which caused me to admire their speech also. Naturally, when I later heard other people speaking the same way, I had an immediate affinity for their language, at least. I don’t see anything redundant or circular about that.
    “‘I think they’re condemning my right’
    Nobody condemns a right.”
    I think they did.
    “‘I think they’re saying that it _is_ wrong not simply to have aesthetic judgments, but to have my particular aesthetic judgment.’
    Your emphasis is all screwy, and it makes the sentence awkward. Who would ever say it’s wrong simply to have aesthetic judgments?”
    Sorry about the screwy emphasis. I think people here are saying that it is morally wrong to have certain aesthetic judgments. For example: double negatives (in English) and improperly conjugated verbs sound stupid to me. I think that you think this makes me a bad person. Is that what you think?

  28. Whisper aloud?

  29. jamessal says:

    I don’t think it’s redundant. You might think it’s circular, but it’s not that, either. You see—my judgment of the writers and speakers and my judgment of their language didn’t occur at precisely the same time (which would have been circular). I admired the people for all sorts of qualities, which caused me to admire their speech also. Naturally, when I later heard other people speaking the same way, I had an immediate affinity for their language, at least. I don’t see anything redundant or circular about that.
    Well, if we’re going to niggle, let’s do it (I swear there’s nothing more compulsive than blogging). Let’s take a shortened version of your sentence: “My ear agrees with all the writers I admire.” Now I assumed that if your ear agreed it with these writers it meant that their writing was pleasing to you, in which case the sentence would be both circular and redundant (i.e., 1.characterized by verbosity or unnecessary repetition in expressing ideas; prolix: a redundant style. 2.being in excess; exceeding what is usual or natural: a redundant part). But since that wasn’t what you meant, I’ll have to amend the indictment from redundancy to ambiguity.
    “‘I think they’re condemning my right’
    Nobody condemns a right.”
    I think they did.

    Most people I know condemn actions and behaviors and argue over whether people have certain rights.
    I think that you think this makes me a bad person. Is that what you think?
    No, I don’t think it makes you a bad person. Here, I’m going to borrow our blog host’s favorite analogy: language is like clothing; there’s both dress and language appropriate for all occasions. Making fun of the way someone talks, calling it stupid, is like making fun of somebody’s shirt. For me that doesn’t quite rise to the level of “bad person.” Maybe “dick.”

  30. double negatives (in English) and improperly conjugated verbs sound stupid to me. I think that you think this makes me a bad person.
    It’s not a matter of your being a bad person; it’s a matter of your not realizing that your preferences are just that, your preferences, and not facts about the language. I myself hate hearing the word processes pronounced as if it were a Latin third-declension plural (process-eez), but so what? I don’t go around condemning it as a dreadful vulgarization, a sign of the ignorance of the speaker and the impending downfall of civilization, etc. etc.; I just wince a bit and move on. It’s exactly parallel to not liking a particular song or style of dress. We all have a right to our preferences; we do not have a right to try to impose them on others, and it is not admirable to sneer at others for using forms you happen not to like.
    Furthermore, a great many prescriptivists (and I’m not pointing the finger at you here) use “grammar” as an elitist tool to disparage and (if they happen to be in positions of power) to keep down (“in their place”) people who use forms they don’t approve of. That I condemn as strongly as I do other forms of elitism and social control, and if you’re going to align yourself with such people you can’t expect people’s attitude toward you to be entirely unaffected. (It seems especially odd for a Communist to align himself with elitists of that sort.)
    We all love to read and hear language used well; we can differ about what exactly that means, but I feel sorry for people who concentrate so fiercely on trivia like double negatives, split infinitives, and the rest of the sorry list that they prefer drab, cliched writing that obeys their shibboleths to eloquence that violates them. Again, I’m not pointing at you, just making a general comment on a frequent concomitant of prescriptivism.

  31. “We’re not talking about art here, but store fronts, and the way the people speak. Of course it’s not wrong to criticize art. But it is mean, which for me is about the same thing as immoral, to sneer at the way people talk.”
    That’s why I used the word “Craftsmanship”. I wanted to emphasize that there are aesthetic points to be judged outside of art. Sure, language can be a practical thing, and then we might judge it for its clarity, but we could also ask whether it’s beautiful. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with seeking beauty in practical things. I’m not proposing to be mean and sneer at people. I’m not proposing that you abuse your grocer. I’m just trying to claim that it’s okay to advocate some practices and discourage others, explicitly, for your own aesthetic reasons.
    Take your beans for example—they are a practical thing. Suppose you burned your beans. You’d probably think they tasted ugly. I’d agree. We might start a website (Don’tBurnYourBeans.org), to discorage bean burning for the sake of humanity’s palettes. Being a nasty person, I might even consider chiding people (not personally, but in general) for being inattentive when beans are on the hob, but I probably wouldn’t go that far. The site would be merely our own opinion (that goes without saying) and we would claim no scientific authority. I don’t see anything morally wrong with that. Do you? Besides discouraging certain practices, I might also encourage others. I might, in public and without shame, say that refried beans are better with a little cream cheese in them. I don’t think that expressing positive opinions is morally different from expressing negative ones. Do you?
    I doubt you would object to any of the bean examples, yet they’re no different than advocating certain kinds of language as far as I can see. I mean—do you despise cookbooks because they’re prescriptivist?

    I said “whisper aloud” to make the distinction between “good” prescriptivists who commit thought crimes but keep silent and “bad” prescriptivists who dare to admit their preferences.

  32. jamessal says:

    Okay, I’m gonna run with your weird beans analogy. But I won’t concede that they’re burned. They’re just different from the way you like your beans. Now if you somehow managed to get pictures of my beans and posted them on a website along with words as loaded as “illiterate” (whatever the culinary equivalent), then yes, you would be a jerk.
    Now my (real) beans are done. I’ll check in again in a few hours.

  33. I don’t think a cookbook analogy works. Recipes let you create a dish that tastes good because it has the right amount of ingredients etc. If I don’t follow the recipe, the result could be inedible. But if I use my native language without following a recipe (usual manual?), the result is still grammatical, it’s just not to everyone’s taste.

  34. usual manual should be usage manual.

  35. “”‘I think they’re condemning my right’
    Nobody condemns a right.”
    I think they did.
    Most people I know condemn actions and behaviors and argue over whether people have certain rights.”
    I think they are good people who agree that I have the right but are sorry that I do.
    “‘For example: double negatives (in English) and improperly conjugated verbs sound stupid to me. I think that you think this makes me a bad person.’
    No, I don’t think it makes you a bad person. Here, I’m going to borrow our blog host’s favorite analogy: language is like clothing; there’s both dress and language appropriate for all occasions. Making fun of the way someone talks, calling it stupid, is like making fun of somebody’s shirt. For me that doesn’t quite rise to the level of “bad person.” Maybe “dick.””
    I thought “dicks” were “bad people”. Anyway, I think you’re glossing over something here. There are a few distinctions that need to be made—I want to be clear about what you think. They are:
    1. Certain things sound stupid to me.
    2. Admitting publicly that certain things sound stupid to me.
    3. Saying publicly that people shouldn’t make those ugly sounds.
    4. Hurting my grocer’s feelings.
    I agree that #4 would make me a dick. I think #1–3 would not. What do you think? Would it be different if #2–3 were done in private?

    “It’s not a matter of your being a bad person; it’s a matter of your not realizing that your preferences are just that, your preferences, and not facts about the language.”
    I have always known that. It’s only this blog that tells me I don’t. So, I don’t think this blog reads my mind very well, and I wanted to point that out.
    “It’s exactly parallel to not liking a particular song or style of dress. We all have a right to our preferences; we do not have a right to try to impose them on others, and it is not admirable to sneer at others for using forms you happen not to like.”
    Do we have a right to advocate our preferences to others? I get the feeling that people here don’t think we have that right. (I could ask whether an English teacher has the right to _impose_ rather than advocate, but the question bores me. I could ask whether Mr. Blackwell is admirable or a dick, but the question horrifies me.) There is a lot of talk of sneering here. I probably have less relevant experience than anyone here, but I almost never hear bad grammar discouraged with a sneer. Is it merely sneering that you object to? When I hear sneering, it tends to make me give the speaker less credit—so it’s a self-correcting mechanism, isn’t it? When I read the posts on this issue I saw a lot of hostility aimed at prescriptivists, which, consequently have made me give the posters very little credit. I don’t think this crowd objects to sneering alone; I think they object to certain opinions and certain people as well as to certain behaviors.
    “Furthermore, a great many prescriptivists (and I’m not pointing the finger at you here) use “grammar” as an elitist tool to disparage and (if they happen to be in positions of power) to keep down (“in their place”) people who use forms they don’t approve of.”
    Is that so? I’ve seen this claim repeated, but I can’t think of any examples. It doesn’t make sense to me. I didn’t know of a genetic basis for making particular choices about grammar or language. I thought everyone spoke as they wanted to. So how could anyone be kept down by some trait he could easily change (just as you say—as easily as changing clothes)?
    “That I condemn as strongly as I do other forms of elitism and social control, and if you’re going to align yourself with such people you can’t expect people’s attitude toward you to be entirely unaffected. (It seems especially odd for a Communist to align himself with elitists of that sort.)”
    (Maybe Champagne Socialism then!) I’m afraid I don’t follow you at all. I thought I was aligning myself with good, thoughtful writers and you think this is aligning myself with Hitler or Mussolini or… I don’t know who exactly—you don’t say. What do you mean “elitism”?
    “…I feel sorry for people who concentrate so fiercely on trivia like double negatives, split infinitives, and the rest of the sorry list that they prefer drab, cliched writing that obeys their shibboleths to eloquence that violates them.”
    This is another point that’s often brought up—that there are examples of great literature that break the usual rules. So what? It’s a matter of statistics—when the rules are broken, they still _usually_ sound bad. I can think of many examples from music. In Bach’s counterpoint, for example, there are many passages where he breaks the rules as often as he follows them. He knows what he’s doing and it sounds good. If people don’t know what they’re doing, it would be better for them to stick to rules. When people make points about exceptional artworks breaking rules, they are saying that because the rules don’t work perfectly every time, they are valueless and should be abandoned. Nonsense! Just because there are true theorems which are unreachable from the axioms doesn’t mean that mathematics should be thrown away.

  36. Cooking, math, and music are not like grammar. Grammar is composed of a largely unconscious set of rules. What we call “good grammar” is only a very small subset of that, the part that we can influence.
    Where do the rules of “good grammar” come from? If great writers break these rules, then how are the rules motivated? Asthetics isn’t a good enough motivation for me, since everyone has different views and anyway good writers are supposed to know how to write well. If they choose a certain grammatical variant, it’s likely because they judge it to sound acceptable.

  37. jamessal, You seem to be saying that it’s morally wrong to say anything negative about anybody (even a non-specific, hypothetical person) or about anything anyone might produce. Right? Would it also be morally wrong to say anything negative about a natural object, like, say a rock? I’m trying to find where you draw the line about using negative speech. You seem to be saying that it’s never acceptable to say bad things, however gently, about people, imaginary people, their creations or maybe even rocks. You manage to do this while calling me a dick.

    “I don’t think a cookbook analogy works. Recipes let you create a dish that tastes good because it has the right amount of ingredients etc. If I don’t follow the recipe, the result could be inedible. But if I use my native language without following a recipe (usual manual?), the result is still grammatical, it’s just not to everyone’s taste.”
    (First of all, I’m amused by the anti-prescriptivist description of recipes: “Recipes let you create a dish” rather than the more obvious: “Recipes tell you how to create a dish”. I’m more familiar with recipes of the latter kind.)
    So we only judge food by the pass/fail test: edible or inedible? Right? All food is equally good as long as we can eat it and all messages are equally good as long as we can decipher them. Right? And so the purpose of cookbooks to guard against us trying to eat inedible things, like rocks and sand—that’s why cookbooks were invented. Right?
    I have to disagree with that point of view. I think cookbooks are written in an attempt to make better food. I think that maybe someone could write a book encouraging better language, and that would be okay, even if it contained rules, guidelines and recipes.

  38. “all messages are equally good as long as we can decipher them.”
    No, all messages are likely conforming to certain norms. You might not like the norms, and they might not be used in certain contexts, but there’s nothing intrinsically wrong with them.

  39. jamessal says:

    jamessal, You seem to be saying that it’s morally wrong to say anything negative about anybody (even a non-specific, hypothetical person) or about anything anyone might produce. Right? Would it also be morally wrong to say anything negative about a natural object, like, say a rock? I’m trying to find where you draw the line about using negative speech. You seem to be saying that it’s never acceptable to say bad things, however gently, about people, imaginary people, their creations or maybe even rocks. You manage to do this while calling me a dick.
    Real quick before I go to bed. The original post on LH was written in response to a collection of blogs that did things like take pictures of store fronts and jeer at the writers, and record certain colloquial speech and call it an abomination and such. You wrote in saying that we, the people who read and comment on this blog, were somehow being unreasonable by pointing out that some of the bloggers at National Grammar Day were dicks for writing such posts. I responded, saying that no, we weren’t — it’s mean to make fun of the way people talk, and being mean makes you an dick. Then we threw back and forth a bunch of hypothetical, analogous situations, and I said that in those situations if a person did such and such then, yes, they would be a dick (it’s your choice whether to take that personally). Now I don’t know what rocks have to do with it (I’m now rethinking my thoughtful compliment), but there’s obviously a difference between making personal comments about the way people talk, dress, or cook — activities that many people, who have now unwittingly been made objects of ridicule, don’t consider “craftsmanship” — and paintings, books, and movies, and various other works of art. I have no problem with criticizing art or cars or homes or any other good, loudly and in public, or with venting personal frustrations about any number of things in private; but saying personal things in public about unwitting strangers is not commendable. I don’t think that’s complicated.

  40. I have always known that. It’s only this blog that tells me I don’t.
    Well, first off, “this blog” isn’t telling you anything; there are a bunch of commenters here, one of whom (me) happens to own and operate the blog. But that aside, I wasn’t trying to tell you anything about yourself; “it’s a matter of your not realizing” was a confusing (but perfectly grammatical!) way of trying to say “what is at issue is the possibility of your not realizing.” If you do realize that it’s just your personal preference, that’s great, but then why do you make assumptions about others who don’t use the language the way you prefer? If it’s just your preference rather than an objective “rule” or “law,” then why should anyone else follow it?
    This is another point that’s often brought up—that there are examples of great literature that break the usual rules. So what?
    So it’s a pretty good sign that the “rules” are nonsense. It always baffles me when you show the prescriptivists examples of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Dickens, and Orwell (say) breaking whatever “rule” they’re insisting on and they say “so what?” It doesn’t seem like a scientific attitude. In pseudo-grammar (as opposed to real grammar, the kind linguists practice, which simply describes the way native speakers use their language), it doesn’t seem to matter who follows the rules—the rules are the rules, dammit, because I say they are!
    Out of curiosity: do you enjoy Huckleberry Finn? If so, why, when every other sentence must “sound ugly and stupid” to you?
    I’m afraid I don’t follow you at all. I thought I was aligning myself with good, thoughtful writers and you think this is aligning myself with Hitler or Mussolini or… I don’t know who exactly—you don’t say. What do you mean “elitism”?
    I thought it was clear enough: by “elitist” I mean the kind of people who try to preserve an existing, unfair social order, maintaining in power a small class that extracts the surplus value of the productive class (and that can afford the time and education required to inculcate the complicated, counterintuitive rules of “proper” grammar and usage). Isn’t that the usual definition? And isn’t that class the sworn enemy of Communists everywhere?
    Allow me to point out that one of the first things the Communists did when they took power in Russia and China was to start dismantling the complicated old linguistic systems, reforming the alphabet in Russia (there’s a wonderful historical novel about this, called Orfografiya ['Orthography']) and replacing many old, complicated characters with new, “simplified” ones in China. In both cases, the changes were deplored by exactly your kind of upholder of standards and “good grammar.” That’s who I see you aligning yourself with. I understand you’d rather see yourself aligned with “good, thoughtful writers” (wouldn’t we all?), but we must look at the objective facts of history, comrade!
    I’m glad you’re being a good sport about this debate, which is a lot of fun; I’m sorry jamessal is tossing around the word “dick,” but try not to take it personally. He’s young and hot-blooded. I’m a mossbacked old anarchist suspicious of all opinions, including my own.

  41. jamessal says:

    In the sober light of morning I wish to apologize to Michael Saunders and our blog host. “Dick” obviously doesn’t help anybody. I’m sorry.

  42. “If you do realize that it’s just your personal preference, that’s great, but then why do you make assumptions about others who don’t use the language the way you prefer? If it’s just your preference rather than an objective “rule” or “law,” then why should anyone else follow it?”
    I don’t know—why do you use standard English? Do you like it? Are there reasons why you like it? If other people understood those reasons, maybe they would adopt it too? Would that be so bad?
    “So it’s a pretty good sign that the “rules” are nonsense. It always baffles me when you show the prescriptivists examples of Shakespeare, Jane Austen, Dickens, and Orwell (say) breaking whatever “rule” they’re insisting on and they say “so what?” It doesn’t seem like a scientific attitude. ”
    That’s exactly a scientific attitude—statistically, the rules are followed far more than they are broken, so they are a good theory for explaining what makes good language. Come on, can you think of any great writers who followed most grammatical rules most of the time? Of course! Most great writers followed most of the rules most of the time. (When they broke them, they had good reasons that might be explainable with more accurate rules.) A small number of exceptions doesn’t invalidate a theory, it just means that the theory is slightly inaccurate. In Physics, we teach undergrads Newton for five semesters, then hit them with Einstein. Relativity is correct, but is classical mechanics “wrong”? Well, in a world of black and white truth and falsity, it is, but those five semesters aren’t wasted—it’s only slightly inaccurate and still very, very useful. Just so, the patterns followed by great writers much more often than not are excellent guides for lesser writers like me.
    (I can’t think of anyone who broke most of the rules most of the time—maybe Joyce?)
    “Out of curiosity: do you enjoy Huckleberry Finn? If so, why, when every other sentence must “sound ugly and stupid” to you?”
    I don’t enjoy it, and for that reason. It sticks in my craw.
    “…by “elitist” I mean the kind of people who try to preserve an existing, unfair social order, maintaining in power a small class that extracts the surplus value of the productive class”
    I agree with you that that’s deplorable. When you used the word though, I thought you meant something like: the kind of people who think it’s important to do things, even speech and writing, well, and who applaud good work and decry bad work—people who think culture and beauty are worth troubling over. If that’s elitism, then I think I’m for it. This sort of economic, social elitism that you brought up, of course I’m against it. I don’t think the two are the same group of people at all.
    “…and that can afford the time and education required to inculcate the complicated, counterintuitive rules of “proper” grammar and usage”
    Is it really so difficult to learn standard English? I didn’t think it was at all. It came naturally to me and I goofed off in class. I went to the same public school as my grocer and if we ended up speaking differently, it was a matter of choice. It doesn’t take money to speak or write one way or another. I’m penniless, yet (I think and hope) I speak well. Pygmalion is a charming story, but the premise is unrealistic—I don’t think standard modes of speech are any more difficult (or expensive) than non-standard ones. I’m not convinced that people use double negatives because they can’t afford to buy single ones.
    “Allow me to point out that one of the first things the Communists did when they took power in Russia and China was to start dismantling the complicated old linguistic systems…”
    I’ll say what the Kaiser said when they told him Halley’s Comet might destroy the world: “Impossible. I gave no such order.” I think I would have been against those changes had I been there, but maybe not. Seeing a nation of peasants who needed quick literacy and having linguistic experts tell me that simplification would help—then I might have been persuaded. I don’t know. However, XXI c. America is a very different place, and I don’t think simplification is appropriate here and now. Also, I don’t see a lot of room for simplification in standard English.
    Something occurred to me last night after I had a quick look at some of the “sneering” blogs that were mentioned earlier (I hadn’t seen them before). Yes—they do come across as not very bright and preoccupied with some of the least interesting aspects of language. This whole thing now looks to me like the highbrow defending the lowbrow against the middlebrow. This seems like a bad situation to me. I still think that it’s okay to advocate one kind of language use over another, but I wish that advocacy were done better as well as more often.
    I’m curious what you think of the blogs Engrish and Hanzismatter? Do you think they’re different from the blogs you find offensive?

  43. jamessal says:

    It came naturally to me and I goofed off in class. I went to the same public school as my grocer and if we ended up speaking differently, it was a matter of choice.
    I think these sentences are at odds.
    I’m not convinced that people use double negatives because they can’t afford to buy single ones.
    My girlfriend works at an alternative high school in Trenton (my alma mater), and I think if you visited you just might be convinced. These kids are all perfectly capable of expressing themselves using the type of English that’s mostly spoken in their neighborhoods and homes (English that, in my opinion, can be quite charming); but when you ask them to practice for job interviews, it’s a whole different story. Standard English doesn’t come natural them, and though I think the school could spend even more time trying to teach it to them — because it is a useful tool for them to have in the world — it’s not simply a matter of choice whether they learn it or not, and they shouldn’t be looked down on. (Which isn’t to say you’re looking down on anybody — I genuinely believe you’re trying to figure this stuff out like the rest of us.)

  44. “‘It came naturally to me and I goofed off in class. I went to the same public school as my grocer and if we ended up speaking differently, it was a matter of choice.’
    I think these sentences are at odds.”
    I don’t know why. My point is that people from the same background often choose to speak differently. There’s nothing hard about it. I can’t believe that poverty has a particular sound, that it dictates certain conjugations and that wealth dictates different ones. I have friends from the deep south who, at a young age, chose to speak with a northern accent because they liked it better. No problem—it’s not hard. I left America for a time and lived in Britain. I wasn’t forced to drop my Rs and use their vowels. Everyone around me was speaking differently, yet I was still able to control my vocal cords as I pleased. No problem for a normal, healthy human.
    “‘I’m not convinced that people use double negatives because they can’t afford to buy single ones.’
    “These kids are all perfectly capable of expressing themselves using the type of English that’s mostly spoken in their neighborhoods and homes (English that, in my opinion, can be quite charming); but when you ask them to practice for job interviews, it’s a whole different story.”
    And you’re saying that’s because they’re not capable of speaking differently? If it’s a school for the mentally handicapped, then I understand, it’s difficult and you can’t blame them for having a problem with language. I’m not saying that. But if they’re normal people with normal mental capacity, I don’t see why they can’t speak however they wish to speak. I don’t think they’re not capable, I think they just don’t choose to use standard English. Maybe that’s because they don’t like it, and maybe that’s because they haven’t been taught to appreciate it. If it’s taught in terms of an artificial language for job interviews, then it’s no wonder that it doesn’t inspire anyone. If they heard interesting ideas being expressed eloquently in it, then they might warm up to it.
    Things were very different when I was young. The language you heard in the media was overwhelmingly standard (not perfect, but not bad), and it was easy for a child to develop an ear for it. Nowadays, well-meaning people have preached language tolerance for a long time, and non-standard language is not only presented as acceptable, but it’s crowded out standard language. On radio and television, good English is a rarity and eloquent English is unheard of. It’s the well-meaning preaching that has hurt your students. (And, as you know, what Trenton makes, the world takes.)

  45. michael farris says:

    One big problem: Language teaching in the US (as in most English speaking countries) is not very good.
    Another big problem is that ‘standard English’ (define it, go ahead I dare you) is often taught in such a way that the learner’s psychological health depends on _not_ learning it.
    If standard English were taught as a helpful addition to a person’s language repetoire then that would be one thing. It’s usually approached as some kind of superior way of being to be contrasted with the students background (including their families) which aren’t up to snuff.
    Not even poor people like being told that the way their parents talk is ignorant and deficient and the reason they’ve never made anything of themselves and tuning out the person saying that is a reasonable option.
    Finally, often parts of English that don’t have ‘standard’ status are just more expressive in certain cases. I usually say ‘he doesn’t’ but sometimes I find ‘he don’t’ to be what I really want to say. Similarly, at times I find “Is we ready?” to have a certain …. enthusiasm(?) that “Are we ready?” lacks.

  46. jamessal says:

    “‘It came naturally to me and I goofed off in class. I went to the same public school as my grocer and if we ended up speaking differently, it was a matter of choice.’
    I think these sentences are at odds.”
    I don’t know why.

    In the first you say speaking what we’re agreeing to call Standard English came naturally to you even though you didn’t try hard in school, and in the second you’re saying that if somebody didn’t learn how to speak SE it can only be because they chose not to. What if it didn’t come naturally to them?
    It’s the well-meaning preaching that has hurt your students.
    No, it’s the attitude Michael Farris mentioned that’s hurt and continues to hurt them — that the way they naturally speak is somehow ignorant and deficient, and if they really want jobs they should learn to speak like us.
    If they heard interesting ideas being expressed eloquently in it, then they might warm up to it.
    This, after you turn your nose up at an American Masterpiece because it was written in a dialect different from your own? C’mon. If Mark Twain couldn’t teach you to appreciate a different dialect, what do you expect from teachers making forty grand a year?

  47. Yeah, I’m afraid when you said you didn’t enjoy Twain, you kind of lost me.

  48. “It’s usually approached as some kind of superior way of being to be contrasted with the students background (including their families) which aren’t up to snuff.”
    I haven’t been in a classroom in a long time, so I don’t know about that, but it sounds like a cliché to me. I don’t remember English class being filled with judgments of social and moral worth. I don’t remember Algebra being filled with social judgments either. They just tried to teach the subjects. Of course, there were right and wrong answers, but they weren’t portrayed as being characteristics of a social class. Maybe you have more recent or broader experience than me, but when I hear people talking about “what’s going on in classrooms today”, they are usually people who have no way of knowing what is going on in classrooms today and I suspect they are imagining things. If your experience is more extensive than mine, then fine English teaching in America may have picked up some heavy class-consciousness since I was there. Even so, I think we’re agreeing. English teaching should be better and it should be based on teaching students to appreciate SE, not on hurting anyone. Because I’d like people to speak and write better, don’t assume that I want to hurt their feelings. One does not follow from the other.

    “In the first you say speaking what we’re agreeing to call Standard English came naturally to you even though you didn’t try hard in school, and in the second you’re saying that if somebody didn’t learn how to speak SE it can only be because they chose not to. What if it didn’t come naturally to them?”
    It came naturally to me because it was easy. I don’t have much gift for language, I just didn’t find it hard and I don’t see why one dialect or accent of English is any more difficult than another. If you insist that SE is really too difficult for students in Trenton (and I don’t believe for a moment that it is), then why bother trying to teach them? Why have English class at all?
    “No, it’s the attitude Michael Farris mentioned that’s hurt and continues to hurt them — that the way they naturally speak is somehow ignorant and deficient, and if they really want jobs they should learn to speak like us.”
    Speaking like me will not get me a job (how well I know!). So, if it would hurt them to learn SE, we shouldn’t try to teach them? Maybe so, but you say something very funny here: “the way they naturally speak”. You think language isn’t learned, that it arises naturally and without culture? This is like the Greek myth of king who wanted to find out who the earliest people were, so he raised a child in isolation and listened for its first words. They were in Phrygian (I think), hence that must be the most natural and original language. I think you’re all wrong: I think people acquire language after birth. It might as well be SE, right?
    “This, after you turn your nose up at an American Masterpiece because it was written in a dialect different from your own? C’mon. If Mark Twain couldn’t teach you to appreciate a different dialect, what do you expect from teachers making forty grand a year?”
    Is not enjoying it the same as turning my nose up at it, or are you exaggerating? I didn’t enjoy it (with my nose respectfully lowered) not because it was in a dialect different from my own, but because it was in a dialect that I don’t like. Again, you are trying to forbid me from having aesthetic preferences. Did you like the book? Did you like it because Twain is a great storyteller or just because of the dialect? If you like those dialects, why don’t you post in them?

  49. “Yeah, I’m afraid when you said you didn’t enjoy Twain, you kind of lost me.”
    The dialect put me off in that one. I like him just fine when he speaks in his own voice. Does making a small criticism of one piece of the canon invalidate my ideas?

  50. michael farris says:

    “English teaching should be better and it should be based on teaching students to appreciate SE, not on hurting anyone. Because I’d like people to speak and write better, don’t assume that I want to hurt their feelings. One does not follow from the other.”
    Don’t you see the contradiction? You want them to speak and write “better” according to your criteria which means what they bring to the classroom is not different, but worse.
    I’m in favor of demystifying ‘standard English’ (and “standard English” in Birmingham England will be very different from “standard English” in Birmingham, Alabama but that’s another topic).
    My approach is roughly:
    “This is a way of speaking and writing that’s useful for certain purposes. You may or may not find it pleasing, and you certainly don’t need to use it all the time, but there are cases where being able to use it will make life easier.”
    The problem is that makes it clear that the choice of a particular variety as standard is essentially arbitrary and not determined by existential superiority.

  51. “Don’t you see the contradiction? You want them to speak and write “better” according to your criteria which means what they bring to the classroom is not different, but worse.”
    If you believe that no mode of speaking and writing is better than any other, then why teach or study language at all? I agree that if this one dialect of English, among all others, cannot be learned without causing psychological damage, then it should be banned. I don’t agree that it necessarily hurts to learn it. Suppose we did ban SE and make the dialect of Nigger Jim the new standard. That’s fine, but what about all the students who bring something different to the classroom? They will suffer psychological damage by being told that the language of Mr. Jim is better than theirs, because it is taught in the classroom. You see—you’re not objecting to this particular dialect, or even to having a standard, but to teaching itself. Teaching implies that one thing is better than another and if one thing is better than another then someone’s ego might be bruised. The only solution is not to teach anything for fear of causing sadness.
    How about Algebra? There is no one standard; there are an infinite number of algebras based on different kinds of symbols and set elements. They are all equally valid. Instead of choosing the one that’s taught in schools (called “Elementary Algebra”) why not adopt any you feel like? Come to think of it, Algebra probably causes students more psychological stress than English. Maybe that should be banned too. What else could we do to make school the most relaxing, ego-inflating environment possible? Let’s make it a massage parlor.
    Look, I want students to be happy, and I don’t think that study causes all the sadness that you think it does. Take us here for example. We seem to have studied language and some other things a bit. Was it all that painful? Did you ever study something when you weren’t forced to? I did. It wasn’t painful. It was fun.

  52. If you believe that no mode of speaking and writing is better than any other, then why teach or study language at all?
    1) Studying language is inherently interesting. If you believe that no organ is better than any other, then why teach or study anatomy?
    2) One can (and should, given the realities of the world) explain to students that Standard English will give them a leg up in the world and teach it to them accordingly. But this is best done without the additional layer of “this is not just advantageous, it’s better“—especially when your only warrant for the latter bit is your own preferences.
    Does making a small criticism of one piece of the canon invalidate my ideas?
    No, but the fact that you allow your dislike for nonstandard forms to put you off one of the greatest novels in American literature suggests to me that you have allowed your (personal and unsupported) preferences to compromise your judgment. It’s like someone who rejects Bob Dylan because “he has an ugly voice.” They’re entitled to their views, but I’m not going to take them very seriously.

  53. jamessal says:

    “If so, why, when every other sentence must “sound ugly and stupid” to you?”
    I don’t enjoy it, and for that reason. It sticks in my craw.

    After reading this exchange, I wrote that you turned your nose up at “Huck Finn.” After I wrote that you turned your nose up, you wrote that I was trying to “forbid you from having aesthetic preferences.” I’ll let you decide who exaggerated.
    As for your other posts, I’ll try to respond after dinner, but really I think the argument’s gotten kind of confused. I’d be happy to start fresh, offering my take (or reading yours) on prescriptivism in general.

  54. michael farris says:

    “I don’t agree that it necessarily hurts to learn it (the undefined “standard” English: maf)”
    I’m absolutely in favor of offering “standard” English as a useful variety for some life roles. It would be educational malpractice _not_ to offer it. But I’m against treating it as either a linguistic cure-all or as inherently better than the langauge(s) the children bring with them to school.

  55. But people on LanguageHat told me that it hurts to study language. Does the interest outweigh the pain? I hope you’re not suggesting that children should be made to do this. I read on your blog that you’re studying Russian. Are you doing this to make me feel inferior? I only speak my crummy English and I’m too thick to understand your fine Russian. You’ve made me sad.
    “2) One can (and should, given the realities of the world) explain to students that Standard English will give them a leg up in the world.”
    I don’t think it will. I think language tolerance is so universal that it no longer makes a difference (socially or economically) whether you follow one set or another of language rules or whether you follow any at all. The most influential people in society can’t put a sentence together. So what? I really don’t believe where you sprinkle the apostrophes matters anymore, because who is going to know the difference? Well, you know the difference, but you don’t care. I think modern American society is pretty close to the anything-goes utopia you wish for. So why is there all this hostility for a silver-sided old bluenose like me?
    “No, but the fact that you allow your dislike for nonstandard forms to put you off one of the greatest novels in American literature…”
    Are you sure it’s one of the greatest? Maybe it isn’t. And anyway, I thought it was wrong to judge people based on their aesthetic preferences.

    “As for your other posts, I’ll try to respond after dinner, but really I think the argument’s gotten kind of confused. I’d be happy to start fresh”
    I don’t think it’s gotten that confused. I thought I asked some interesting questions a few posts ago that were ignored in favor of the Mark Twain thing.

  56. (I meant to begin my last post by quoting our host:
    “1) Studying language is inherently interesting.”
    but I screwed up. Sorry.)

    “I’m absolutely in favor of offering “standard” English as a useful variety for some life roles.”
    It sounds like you think of school as job training and not as education. I think there is something better than utilitarian job training. Maybe that’s where we differ. Also, I don’t think it’s any real advantage in the world of business. Your employer has been taught that grammar doesn’t matter (and probably doesn’t know much himself), so it’s not as though SE is going to impress him. This new tradition of teaching language tolerance makes teaching language unnecessary, allowing education costs to be cut. It’s far more cost-effective for society not to care about grammar. I have some old-fashioned romantic notions that make me think that this is not a better world I see being built.

  57. But people on LanguageHat told me that it hurts to study language.
    I think language tolerance is so universal that it no longer makes a difference (socially or economically) whether you follow one set or another of language rules or whether you follow any at all.
    I want to take you and your arguments seriously, but you’re making it difficult.

  58. Do you mean the device of sarcasm in some passages, or do you mean that my own ideas are simply foolish? What don’t you find worthy?
    I feel like I’m making some good points and you’re leaning back and saying, “tsk, tsk.” I don’t know what your “tsk, tsk” means. Maybe it would be fairer for you to say what is wrong with me and my arguments.

  59. jamessal says:

    Well, the first thing LH quoted you saying isn’t true, and the second is on its face so preposterous it’s hardly worth arguing. It’s simply not serious to say that somebody speaking, say, a black dialect and somebody speaking something close to SE have the same chances in a job interview.

  60. Several people here told me that it hurts children to learn SE. For example:
    “”standard English … is often taught in such a way that the learner’s psychological health depends on _not_ learning it.”
    My observation may seem preposterous to you, but it’s my honest observation. I think that so many people are so tolerant that SE is no real social advantage anymore. Greengrocers don’t care where the apostrophes go, LanguageHat regulars don’t think it matters either. The few people who do care are ignored by one and browbeaten by the other. I doesn’t matter to me whether SE has a monetary value or not, I like it just the same.
    Look—I’ve noticed that you use SE. I’ll tell you right now that I’m not going to employ you. You don’t have to write to me in SE. There’s no economic advantage in it for you. Why do you use it here, when you’re at leisure? I think it may be because you simply like it. Do me a favor and ask yourself—you needn’t tell me the answer, but please just use some introspection—ask yourself why you like SE. In that answer, you may find the kernel of a reason for choosing some language rules over others, some basis for rules that it might be reasonable to advocate. Even if you don’t like SE, even if you don’t think there’s a nugget worth saving in all the literature written in it, wouldn’t you at least admit that people have a right to advocate it?
    And our host—I assume that you think some utterances are better than others and that’s why you read Pushkin and Proust rather than the phone book. If you too think there’s some value in SE, then please, similarly introspect about it. Don’t tell anyone why you like it if you don’t want to. I know I’ve asked you to tell us why you like SE (if you do) and you haven’t answered. It might be embarrassing. That’s okay, but please indulge me and think about it.

  61. Oh—and the subject of dialect in “Huck Finn” reminded me of one of my favorite novels, “The Sinking of the Odradek Stadium” by Harry Mathews (of OuLiPo and the Paris Review). It’s an epistolatory novel told between two people, one of whom doesn’t speak English (but is trying to). It’s filled with fascinating observations about getting language right and getting it wrong—the sort of thing that would interest the crowd here. There’s a lot of bad grammar, usage, spelling and everything else in it, and though it’s a struggle to decipher at times, this didn’t bother me at all. On every level, it’s a much, much better book than “Huck Finn”—the ideas behind it are more profound and Mathews runs circles around Twain in depicting dialect. I recommend you take a look.

  62. marie-lucie says:

    Re the “language as clothing” analogy (which has occurred to many people):
    Is it “better” to wear blue jeans or a tuxedo? How about wearing oilskins, or a mechanic’s overalls, or a lab coat? Of course it all depends about the circumstances. Oilskins would be inappropriate at the Academy Awards, but a tuxedo would be even less appropriate on a fishing boat, where it would be a hindrance and perhaps even a danger to its wearer. Most people’s wardrobe has some variety in it and consists of clothing not only for different seasons but for the various social and professional settings encountered by the owner of the clothes. People applying for a job are strongly encouraged to dress as if they were ready to start right away, blending with the rest of the workforce at the jobsite. Similarly a form of language considered suitable for literary or official purposes is not necessarily appropriate for the breakfast table or the beer parlour, let alone for working on a farm, an oil rig or a fishing boat, or for telling jokes.
    Many great writers are praised for their “ear for dialogue”: Mark Twain writing about illiterate characters is reproducing the way such people speak (and his characters often do not all speak the same dialect, as the author took pains to explain), and so does Shakespeare with his characters from across the social spectrum, so do Dickens or Emily Bronte with their English characters from various social origins. Should we expect all those characters to be speaking Standard English (which has varied quite considerably over the centuries), regardless of where they come from? or should imaginative writers confine themselves to characters who “naturally” speak like a book, ignoring the potential richness of other people’s lives and ways of speaking?
    About “SE is not hard to learn”: I suspect that the writer’s family spoke something very close to it, so that it came naturally to him – school provided a little more polish, but he did not have much to unlearn. But the “grocer” who went to the same school might not have spoken the same way in his own family or neighbourhood. Besides, a businessman dealing with customers who speak a certain way is not doing himself a favour by speaking in a different way, especially if his own way of speaking is perceived by others as a show of superiority on his part: customers will transfer their patronage to someone they find more congenial.
    For background reading someone suggested the work of David Crystal, who does an excellent job. There are also numerous works of sociolinguistics (not necessarily technical) which deal precisely with the matter of variation in language, both between different groups in society and between different varieties coexisting within individuals. I bet our correspondent has more variety in his own speech than he himself realizes.

  63. I use SAE largely because it was the language spoken by my own parents in the household in which I grew up. It’s a prestige dialect, and I grew up with a fairly prestige (if somewhat midwestern) version of the pronunciation. It’s a great advantage in many situations.
    My vocabulary and usage generally tend to the informal, but, as in my present post, I will switch into a more formal register when it seems appropriate and advantageous. (The two most common reasons that spring to mind for the higher register are to improve accuracy and clarity of communication and to be taken seriously.)
    There are also situations where it is not particularly advantageous to be speaking a prestige dialect. When I am speaking in an informal situation with someone who doesn’t speak a prestige dialect (and who might interpret my use of one as hostile), I often alter some of the pronunciation features of my speech to minimize its difference in prestige level from the dialect of whomever I am speaking to. Essentially, I retain the grammar (except some of the fussier points) of SAE while using a lower-prestige version of the pronunciation and lower-register phrasing and idioms. I keep the standard grammar, I suppose, because it is _my_ native grammar. (I’ll have to see if more introspection on my part can come up with a more complete explanation for the grammar phenomenon, because it is an interesting question.)
    I want to make two things about my changes in register very clear. One is that they are often close to unconscious, done by instinct. And the second is…um, well this is a sign that it is late, because I definitely had two points two make here, and the second has gone straight out of my head. (If I think of it tomorrow…)
    Anyway, I am a descriptivist. (It’s probably hard to get a degree in linguistics and not be a one. I’m thinking that anthropology is another field that must require a heavily descriptivist mindset.)
    Various dialects and registers of dialects (including SAE) have different places where they are more or less appropriate to use and have the potential to either enhance or impede communication and social success. Personally, I think that English educators would do well to introduce some technical socio-linguistic terms to their students (specifically things relating to “register”).
    I’m too tired to go on coherently, and I’ll be in trouble if I don’t get enough sleep. So my last comment will be that, yes, I do teach my children standard grammar, both by example, which comes quite naturally, and explicitly when they say something egregiously non-standard (I’ve got this thing about “lay”and “lie”, and I like them to be able to work out logically which pronoun case to use, as well as using the standard forms of irregular verbs, among other things.) And, obviously, when I am homeschooling them, I teach them standard usage in English class.

  64. marie-lucie says:

    p.s. Language Log is back on after experiencing technical difficulties for the last few days.

  65. “Is it “better” to wear blue jeans or a tuxedo?”
    I know which looks better to me: Fred Astaire looks better than Gabby Hayes. I think that the clothing analogy is hiding something, though. I admit that when I’m talking to my friends about a movie or writing a paper about an algorithm, my language changes. It’s still SAE, but it changes from t-shirt to lab coat. I too dislike what Isidora calls “egregiously non-standard”—rules at the level of “lay”and “lie”. Things like that don’t sound to me like changes of clothes, but like walking around town without pants on—it’s offensive.
    “I suspect that the writer’s family spoke something very close to it, so that it came naturally to him”
    No—they spoke a very different dialect. Half of the other children in the neighborhood spoke Serbian as a first language, but learned SAE fairly well. I realize it must have been more difficult for them, but they were considered socially equal to everyone else.
    “I bet our correspondent has more variety in his own speech than he himself realizes.”
    I’m not a language enthusiast. I’m an amateur typesetter and I like to look in on this blog occasionally; that’s about it. So, I’m probably not as aware of these variations as you would be. I live in Texas now and I find that I have to make a few changes. I do have to avoid some big words, but mainly I find that I have to limit my sentence length to about five words or I’m not understood. I don’t change my grammar or accent because I would feel dishonest if I did and, besides, I like them.

  66. Another thing: not being an expert on language I never posted here before because I never felt I had anything to add in this company. I only posted because I was so surprised to find something here which offended me—the hostile post about NGD. I thought it was unfair and I wanted to speak up. It may be that I carry with me some prescriptivist prejudices from my own discipline, Music Theory, which has a long, complicated history of prescriptivism vs. descriptivism (as well as other more interesting and obscure modes and motivations) which cut to the heart of my own work. My own take on that is that prescriptivism (and some other approaches) in Music Theory are much, much more useful than descriptivism. Still, I feel those winces at language errors that were spoken of earlier, and if some movement proposes to make them less frequent, I’m sympathetic to it.

  67. jamessal says:

    It seems reasonable of you to consider your own prejudices regarding Music Theory. I would only add that it might be edifying to do a little research about this movement with which you sympathize. You might be surprised to discover that much of prescriptivism is, in fact, “not very bright and preoccupied with some of the least interesting aspects of language.”
    And also — I can’t help myself — what makes you so sure the errors you wince at are really errors? I’m curious: what do you think of “none” taking a plural verb and “less” used to describe count nouns?

  68. “You might be surprised to discover that much of prescriptivism is, in fact, “not very bright and preoccupied with some of the least interesting aspects of language.””
    Oh, I do find the Internet prescriptivism that I’ve had a glimpse of that way—I’ve already said so. I must add that I’ve found the Internet anti-prescriptivism to be not very bright, belligerent, and preoccupied with dismantling useful conventions. I’m new to this. Where do Strunk and White fit in? Where does Barzun’s “Simple and Direct”? I’d much rather read a book by an author who took them to heart than by one who took your position to heart.
    “And also — I can’t help myself — what makes you so sure the errors you wince at are really errors?”
    If you want it spelled out for you more awkwardly, I will: they are non-standard constructions I wince at. Does the expansion of one word to two and a half to translate prescriptive into descriptive jargon make you happier?
    “I’m curious: what do you think of “none” taking a plural verb and “less” used to describe count nouns?”
    The first depends on context, doesn’t it? Could you give me an example of what you mean? The second makes me wince. Are you upset with me because it makes me wince? Are you upset with me because I admit that it makes me wince? Are you upset with me because I think it’s alright for people to advocate against things that make them wince?
    I’m curious: if you have so much against SE, why do you write in it?

  69. Michael, nobody has anything against SE. We all like and use it. We just do not think it is “better” in any absolute sense, and we especially do not think those who do not use it are worse, dumber, or any other pejorative. You will get farther around here if you drop the straw men.

  70. “Michael, nobody has anything against SE. We all like and use it. We just do not think it is “better” in any absolute sense, and we especially do not think those who do not use it are worse, dumber, or any other pejorative. You will get farther around here if you drop the straw men.”
    And I thought I was that straw man. From the posts I’ve seen here, I get the feeling that there is a negative consensus about SE. I may be wrong about this, but it sounds to me like that consensus is:
    1. SE’s only legitimate use is to satisfy job interviewers, and there is no other reason to teach it.
    2. Teaching SE is harmful because it implies that people who haven’t learned it are better than those who have.
    3. It’s even wrong to advocate SE outside of school—it’s harmful to have books and websites about it.
    4. It’s bad to have standards in general: if one group speaks differently, from another, it’s an elitist statement of their superiority.
    5. Since it’s teaching should be discouraged, I suspect that it would be alright with you if our common language became extinct—do you think SE will survive if it’s not taught?
    I never said that “those who do not use it are worse, dumber, or any other pejorative”. Please don’t misquote me like that. I said that some utterances sound to me ugly and stupid. I think you have admitted in the past to finding some utterances beautiful and brilliant. Have you never in your life heard an utterance that you found ugly or stupid? If you have, do you think it’s alright to say you think that people should avoid such utterances?
    What I’m getting at is this: if it’s permissible for people to advocate practices they like, then it’s unreasonable for you to attack the NGD people for doing that.
    More about the ugly dialects in “Huck Finn”:
    You have got me thinking about non-standard English that I do like.
    1. The Third Policeman by Flann O’Brien, has non-standard or nearly-standard English that sounds as poetic and brilliant to me as Twain (when putting on his dialects) sounds stupid and ugly.
    2. De la Soul’s first album, “Three Feet High and Rising” uses a lot of non-standard word games that I find, while not always beautiful, witty and engrossing.
    3. One of my favorite books, “Marius the Epicurean, His Sensations and Ideas” by Walter Pater—I don’t know if I could find an instance in it where he actually breaks a language rule, but he certainly stretches them as far as they could possibly go.
    The kids in Trenton and I probably have something important in common: none of us will ever be a tenth the writer Walter Pater was, so we would be better off sticking to a standard set of rules rather than indulging in exceptions.

  71. (And I apologize for the obvious error, made in haste. There’s no edit button on the posts!)

  72. it sounds to me like that consensus is [a bunch of straw men]
    It sounds to you like no such thing. You are making that up to be provocative.
    Have you never in your life heard an utterance that you found ugly or stupid? If you have, do you think it’s alright to say you think that people should avoid such utterances?
    Of course. But I judge each sentence on its own merits and do not make my life easier by categorizing all utterances that do not obey a set of arbitrary rules as ugly and stupid. And if you are capable of placing Huckleberry Finn in that category, your esthetic standards are so different from mine that we probably have little common ground on which to meet. (This thought is reinforced by your admiration for Pater, whom I find tiresome in extended doses.)

  73. Isidora says:

    Michael Saunders said:
    I too dislike what Isidora calls “egregiously non-standard”—rules at the level of “lay”and “lie”. Things like that don’t sound to me like changes of clothes, but like walking around town without pants on—it’s offensive.
    Oh, for me It’s nothing like that. If we’re using the clothing analogy (which I think is a very good one, there being different sorts of clothing for different purposes — evening gowns don’t really suit the office, after all) then for me it’s more like unmatched, sloppy, or very poorly fitting or revealing clothing. It grates, and I might raise an eyebrow, but, ultimately, it’s not my business unless it’s my family or unless the person themself asks about it. (Of course, the spell/grammar checker just flagged “themself,” but I’m going to ignore it, since it’s what I want here. There are a few very formal environments where I prefer the classical “him” for a group of mixed gender, but this is not one of them.
    Anyway, everyone’s got their pet peeves, grammatical and otherwise. (Or is that “his pet peeves”?) But the form of a mixed or neutral gender personal pronoun in the singular is not one one of mine; I’m quite happy with the contemporary substitution of the plural as a comfortable solution to the problem.
    jamessal wrote:
    And also — I can’t help myself — what makes you so sure the errors you wince at are really errors? I’m curious: what do you think of “none” taking a plural verb and “less” used to describe count nouns?
    *snort* Literally last week my husband caught me using “less” with a count noun — on three separate occasions in a single day — and corrected me. He was right, in my opinion. The fourth time, I caught and corrected myself (very, but I don’t remember whether he was even in the house at the time to hear me :-)
    I’ll say a lot of things that would almost certainly get edited out if I were writing. Less/fewer and who/whom are among these. On the other hand, I really prefer to speak and write “None of them were interested in it.” It feels more natural, even though I realize that “none” is technically singular. I suspect that my husband might feel differently about this one, but I can’t ask him at the moment. (BTW, I would always say “Not one of them was interested.” and never consider a plural verb. Go figure. Actually, if someone has an explanation for this quirk of mine, I really do want to hear it.)
    In our case, I think it is a formal logic issue. My husband has two degrees in Computer Science, and I had two semesters of symbolic logic in college. I think that sort of training does have an effect on how we categorize certain grammatical things. As a practical matter, his programs won’t work if he doesn’t adhere to the precise details of that sort of formal logic.
    I’ve got a question, that I hope someone here can answer. Based on what I learned in school, I thought that code-switching was a speaker switching from one dialect to another depending on the social situation. As an example, I’ll use a godson of mine who originally comes from southeasternmost Kentucky and studied at the University of Kentucky in Lexington where the local dialect is mild but decidedly Kentuckian. He very quickly decided to lose the heavy Appalachian accent for obvious reasons. When he goes home, he often uses his native dialect so as not to be perceived as snooty or some such. I always thought that this was code-switching, but I looked the term up in Wikipedia last night, and the article was discussing code-switching exclusively as the mixing of two languages in the same utterance by speakers in a bilingual (or multi-lingual) community. An example of this would be: “The kulitsa’s in the refrigerator.” (an actual example heard by me some years ago while with a Russo-American family. My apologies if I’ve gotten the gender wrong or something else; my Russian is pretty minimal.) So now I’m confused about what code-switching actually is. Can anyone help?

  74. “I judge each sentence on its own merits and do not make my life easier by categorizing all utterances that do not obey a set of arbitrary rules as ugly and stupid.”
    Then part of our difference is that I like science and you don’t (seem to). One way of describing science is as a form of data-reduction. Science looks at the multitude of phenomena in nature and reduces it to simple (but accurate) models so that it can be understood. It’s not the case that something is lost in all that reduction—it actually leads to a deeper, fuller understanding. Science is my bent and training, so understanding language through rules appeals to me more than simply marveling at its variety.
    Though you haven’t answered, I think you believe that people have a right to think about sets of rules and even to advocate sets of rules. I think you simply dislike some of the people doing that (you used the words “idiotic” and “unimaginative” in your original post). I probably dislike a lot of those people too and I may disagree with some of the rules they advocate, and I certainly find some of them rude at times, but I think it goes too far to project negative feelings about them onto their project.
    My position is no more than this: I don’t like the way Huck Finn talks, or the way greengrocers punctuate. If someone wants to advocate practices I like better, then I support that. You’ve projected a lot of outrageous things onto me, from cruelty to yankee imperialism, but I’m not guilty of those things.

    “for me it’s more like unmatched, sloppy, or very poorly fitting or revealing clothing. It grates, and I might raise an eyebrow, but, ultimately, it’s not my business unless it’s my family or unless the person themself asks about it.”
    For me, when I witness bad grammar (or pronunciation or usage, etc.) I have the same reaction that I do to witnessing bad manners. Of course, there are different degrees of bad language and bad manners, but it’s the same kind of experience at roughly the same intensity. I know I’m not alone in this experience. It goes without saying that bad language should be politely ignored just as bad manners should be, but that doesn’t justify them.
    I agree with you about “None of them were interested in it.”, possibly because I’m troubled by the creeping dominance of singular verbs where they shouldn’t be. Just turn on the news—all verbs are singular present-tense, no matter what the subjects are. Maybe that explains this common quirk of ours.
    Like you, I disagree with some rules of this kind. I never bought into things like split infinitives and final prepositions. To me they sometimes produce awkward constructions and they have the same kind of feel as inkhorn words—artificial and unproductive.
    Look at this! We just had a nice talk about language rules without being rude to each other, calling each other elitist or disparaging each other’s taste in literature. How pleasant and polite! Thank you for being here, Isidora.

  75. michael farris says:

    “The kulitsa’s in the refrigerator.”
    That isn’t code switching to me, it’s an English sentence with a spontaneous Russian borrowing (or it may be an established borrowing for the family in question but the frame of the sentence as given is entirely English.
    I’ll try some written code switching (English and Polish):
    Wcoraj byłem downtown at that place where they sell those kurtki, no wiesz jakie, Jacek ma czerwoną, remember? you said you liked it.
    key:
    I was …. coats, you know the ones, Jacek’s got a red one
    Here the Polish parts are all Polish and the English parts are all English they’re just scrambled together.
    I think you can have code switching between dialects but it’s going from one to the other within the same sentence with abrupt changes in phonology, morphology, syntax. What you’re describing with your godson is choosing the dialect from his repetoire to suit the situation.

  76. michael farris says:

    “Then part of our difference is that I like science and you don’t (seem to). One way of describing science is as a form of data-reduction.”
    But a founding principle of the science of linguistics is that the correct grammar of a language is that actually used by native speakers. Native speakers (in bulk) do not make mistakes with the grammar of their language and any usage with a consistent constituency is correct.
    “She ain’t got none.”
    “I’m gonna go lay down.”
    “Between you and I.”
    “My and a friend saw them yesterday.”
    Are all examples of perfect English grammar.
    You have every right to not like them (I dislike ‘between you and I’ though the others don’t bother me) but that’s a personal quirk, like not liking okra. I also don’t like ending a sentence with etcetera, the editorial ‘we’ and rhetorical questions. None of which are inherently incorrect.
    You also might advise people to not use some or all of the above in certain situations (and I’d absolutely agree) but calling them ‘bad grammar’ is not remotely scientific.
    A person shouldn’t say “She ain’t got none.” in a formal setting for the same reason you don’t put the fork on the right side of the plate in a formal place setting. It’s a social convention.
    And it’s a good thing to know social conventions and to follow them (especially when not following them can have negative consequences).

  77. Then part of our difference is that I like science and you don’t (seem to).
    Again with the straw men. I was very good at physics and chemistry in school and was a math major for a while; I’ll thank you not to make insulting assumptions to justify your difference of opinion. And since we’re talking about science, I got a National Science Foundation grant to study linguistics in graduate school. If you’re willing to accept that there is such a thing as the science of language, you should (as a properly modest person of scientific leanings) be willing, even eager, to listen to people like Isidora and me, who have scientific training in the field we’re discussing, rather than continuing to insist on your own personal preferences as the be-all and end-all.

  78. “But a founding principle of the science of linguistics is that the correct grammar of a language is that actually used by native speakers.”
    If it’s an article of your faith, then I understand that you cannot deny it. I had a semester of Linguistics once, but did not join the flock. To me, as a non-believer and outsider, it sounds like a cop-out to say that “whatever is done is the rule”. I agree that that’s correct when we are merely studying a behavior, at the stage when we are merely collecting observations. The rest of science involves analyzing the data and finding patterns (rules) in it.
    Going a little beyond that, when we come to the point of opening our mouths or setting pen to paper, we have to choose some rules. That’s where science ends and engineering, craftsmanship and art begin. SAE rules may be derived from scientific observation, like any others, but I never claimed it was “scientific” to call certain constructions “bad grammar”. I realize that “bad grammar” is a conventional, traditional, cultural designation and not a scientific one. I never meant to say anything to suggest otherwise. I don’t think I did.

    “I’ll thank you not to make insulting assumptions to justify your difference of opinion.”
    I’m sorry if you felt insulted. I never meant to insult you. I’m sure that you know much, much more about language than I ever will. When it comes to the things we’ve been talking about here, I’ve been sincerely trying to understand your opinions but I can’t figure them out. What you have called “straw men” are my best guesses at what your ideas are. You’re not saying much and I’m trying to piece it together.
    I have a soft spot for scientific approaches but I don’t think there’s anything wrong with other approaches and I don’t think it’s insulting to be called scientific or not scientific. I don’t think there’s anything wrong with tripping at the variety of language or with getting an NSF grant to study it scientifically. More power to you.
    You were saying “I judge each sentence on its own merits and do not make my life easier by categorizing all utterances …” Is the science of Linguistics different from others in that it doesn’t categorize the data it collects? I don’t know. I only had one semester, but that doesn’t sound scientific to me. I wasn’t saying there’s anything wrong with that attitude, I was just trying to find out where we differ.
    Finally, I didn’t “insist on your [my] own personal preferences as the be-all and end-all.” I only represented them as my personal preferences. I don’t even know what “the be-all and end-all” means. You may be thinking of some snide, elitist, ignorant guy on another blog somewhere. I am not that guy.

    Isidora,
    I had another thought about the singular “none”. I’m way out of my depth here, and I don’t know the proper jargon for stating it, but isn’t there a rule that goes something like:
    “Where the number of the subject is unclear, make the verb agree with the number of the object.”
    The number of “none” isn’t clear to me, so it makes sense to make it agree with the object.

  79. jamessal says:

    Literally last week my husband caught me using “less” with a count noun — on three separate occasions in a single day — and corrected me. He was right, in my opinion.
    I’d be curious to know if you still think he’s right after reading this Language Log post: http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/004005.html
    In it Geoff Pullum demystifies the proscription by offering a bit of its history: in 1770 somebody named Robert Baker wrote that he *preferred* less to fewer for count nouns. Future writers of usage advice then arrogantly rephrased his preference as a rule, though their loud advice never really managed to change the way most people talk and write. All that’s happened is that a minority are now a slightly more insecure about their own language.
    (BTW, I would always say “Not one of them was interested.” and never consider a plural verb. Go figure. Actually, if someone has an explanation for this quirk of mine, I really do want to hear it.)
    I think it has something to do with “none” not being a contraction of “not” and “one.” It came into English all its own in the 800′s from Anglo-Saxon, and even in Anglo Saxon it took both a singular and plural verb. (I think I got that right.)

  80. Less/fewer and number/amount bother me, probably because integer/real number is a big distinction in my mind. “Less that three years” sounds fine to me, since, of course, a measure of time (or most other units) isn’t an integer. I thought Geoffrey K. Pullum was being snide about his colleague who made the erroneous correction, insisting that one of those people who worry about less/fewer would never listen to reason.

  81. jamessal says:

    Yes, but that distinction is in no way lost when “less” is used to modify a number. “Less” just happens to be a versatile word.
    And, now that you know the history, will you grant that when “less” is used to modify a count noun (like, “Less than 10 items), no rule is being broken, nothing needs to be corrected, nobody is doing anything wrong. Someone is simply using the word “less” where you think “fewer” would, for whatever reason, be more preferable.

  82. jamessal says:

    I thought Geoffrey K. Pullum was being snide about his colleague who made the erroneous correction, insisting that one of those people who worry about less/fewer would never listen to reason.
    Yeah, he was a little snide, though I can’t blame him, since he also had a point. It must be frustrating that even though he’s a professor of linguistics — even though he wrote THE English Grammar — chances are a professor of biochemistry will have more faith about matters related to English in that noxious little Strunk&White than in him.

  83. “And, now that you know the history, will you grant that when “less” is used to modify a count noun (like, “Less than 10 items), no rule is being broken, nothing needs to be corrected, nobody is doing anything wrong.”
    No—when “less” is used to modify a count noun _a_ rule is being broken—maybe not a rule that you agree with, but a rule nonetheless. It’s a rule that (I think, if “count noun”==”integer”) I’m happy to follow. I think it’s a rule that Pullum must care about too. If he didn’t care about it, why wouldn’t he think “fewer” was equally acceptable and let his colleague say “fewer” if it pleased him?
    About that “noxious little Strunk&White”. I don’t know anything about Pullum or much really about Strunk and White. Why do you think Pullum is better than they are?

  84. jamessal says:

    Please explain how the preference of some guy in 1780 followed by the sometimes belligerent advice of a few self-styled grammar mavens constitutes a rule?

  85. jamessal says:

    If he didn’t care about it, why wouldn’t he think “fewer” was equally acceptable and let his colleague say “fewer” if it pleased him?
    I wish you would be a little more careful, because when you write things like this it makes it hard to carry on a serious discussion with you. Obviously Pullum wasn’t objecting to use of “fewer” to modify a count noun but to the striking of “less,” as though there were something wrong with it. If we have to stop every few minutes to clarify this sort of thing we’ll get nowhere.

  86. “Please explain how the preference of some guy in 1780 followed by the sometimes belligerent advice of a few self-styled grammar mavens constitutes a rule?”
    A rule is “a principle or regulation governing conduct, action, procedure, arrangement, etc.” Right? And that’s what this is. How about if it’s the preference of some guy in 2008 who is not belligerent and doesn’t style himself as a grammar maven?
    “Obviously Pullum wasn’t objecting to use of “fewer” to modify a count noun but to the striking of “less,” as though there were something wrong with it. If we have to stop every few minutes to clarify this sort of thing we’ll get nowhere.”
    Oh! So it’s okay to deny a rule but not to prescribe one. Pullum wasn’t worried about which word was chosen. He was worried that the offender was thinking about his choice of words and making a choice, right or wrong, based on a reason. If people chose their words without thinking about them, it would be okay with you and Pullum.
    You see, I prefer it when people think about what they are doing, adopting rules for some reason, having thought about it. I may disagree with their choices or reasoning, but thinking about their actions somehow seems to have more integrity. I’m sorry to be so slow, but I did need to have that clarified.

  87. jamessal says:

    A rule is “a principle or regulation governing conduct, action, procedure, arrangement, etc.” Right? And that’s what this is.
    Just ’cause you say it don’t make it so. I ask again: How does the preference of some dude in 1780 followed by the advice of a few mavens constitute “a principle or regulation governing conduct, action, procedure, arrangement, etc.”?

  88. “How does the preference of some dude in 1780 followed by the advice of a few mavens constitute “a principle or regulation governing conduct, action, procedure, arrangement, etc.”?”
    It’s a principle that governs my conduct and the conduct of some other people. What makes you think that it doesn’t? I don’t see how the date matters, but it’s existed at other dates than 1780, including 2008.

  89. jamessal says:

    A principle is generally guided by some sort logic or reasoning. This isn’t. A bunch of people’s preferences does not equal a principle.

  90. I look up principle and find, “an accepted or professed rule of action or conduct”, which sounds right to me. Some people profess it and some people accept it. Internally, when I’m speaking of numbers, I choose to mark integers and reals differently. I’ve thought about it, I have a reason for it (the different types of numbers are fundamentally different) and so I adopt it as a rule. You might disagree with my reasons, but you can’t say I don’t have my reasons.

  91. jamessal says:

    Well, what are your reasons? What is it about the word “less” that it’s somehow inherently unfit to modify count nouns?

  92. I’ve given you my reason twice now. Integers and real numbers are fundamentally different. I choose to mark the difference with words like fewer/less and number/amount. So: “less than three years”, but “fewer than three people”.

  93. jamessal says:

    “I choose…” isn’t a reason. It’s a statement of your preference. You haven’t given me any reasons why “less” is somehow unsuitable for modifying count nouns, and why others should follow your example.

  94. “I choose” isn’t my reason. My choice follows from the reason. The reason is the fundamental difference between integers and real numbers.

  95. jamessal says:

    That there is a fundamental difference between integers and real numbers also isn’t a reason why “less” or “fewer” is more or less suitable for modifying either of them. What you don’t seem to be grasping is that the only reason for your choosing one of these words to modify integers and the other to modify real numbers is that in 1780 somebody voiced a modest preference — a preference that, though a few people may share it today, is still just that: a preference — not a rule or principle backed up by some logic or reasoning as to why one of these word choices is actually better — just a preference. And when someone doesn’t share your preference, they are not breaking a rule.

  96. You seem to be looking for a physical reason that a particular sequence of sounds should be identified with a particular concept. Of course, there is none. Language is a set of word games that you can’t get to the bottom of in that way. Everybody knows that. Also, you keep insisting that words or the things they represent (I can’t tell which) need to have inherent qualities that connect them. I think that’s what you’re demanding. I’ll tell you right now: existing things don’t have inherent qualities, so no one can give you any. What you think this has to do with Strunk and White, I’ll never know.
    By “rule” I mean some pattern of behavior that people adopt. People certainly do that. They may not be conscious of the reason (I like it better when they are) and the reason can be “by convention”. The string of letters or phonemes we write ‘less’ can be put to one use or another as we choose. When someone does this in a predictable way, we can call it a rule. When someone doesn’t follow the pattern, we can call it breaking the rule. Come to think of it, because I’ve written this post in English, I’ve just broken every rule in Russian. That’s okay—I couldn’t help it.
    Look, I’ve got a bad cold right now, and I’m out of my mind with a fever. It’s getting a little taxing for me to type all of this stuff I think you know very well anyway. I need to get some rest.
    In the meantime, maybe you could answer my question about Pullum. He may be some great authority to whom we should bow down (but not uncritically—I would never suggest that). Why do you think he’s better than Strunk and White?

  97. jamessal says:

    Don’t you see the contradiction here? You admit that you have no reason for using “less” and “fewer” the way you do other than that other people do it — i.e., that there’s no logical criterion for choosing one word over the other other than popular usage — and then you say that the hundreds of millions of English speakers who use “less” to modify count nouns are breaking some rule or making a mistake. To maintain this absurd position you have to adopt a disingenuous definition of “rule” that’s so removed from the way anyone actually uses the word that it leads you to say absurd things like: “because I’ve written this post in English, I’ve just broken every rule in Russian.” You admit you’re a newcomer to this whole thing, and yet you employ facile logic in order to avoid challenging any of your prejudices. I’m done playing this game. If you want I’d be happy to recommend the books that convinced me — back when I was advocating for people to use “impact” traditionally and the like — that prescriptivism is foolish, but I can’t waste any more time.

  98. “You admit that you have no reason for using “less” and “fewer” the way you do other than that other people do it”
    I didn’t admit that. You asked for my reason three times and three times I gave you my reason and it was not that. You’ve just shown me what anti-prescriptivism is all about. I’m glad you’re done playing your game.

  99. jamessal, I’ll try to look at that languagelog post, but not tonight. It’s been a really taxing day (including the temporary mislaying of a very beloved guinea pig — we were simply frantic and still can’t figure out where she managed to secrete herself. We searched the very small room she was in five times and the entire house twice. She’s always been a clever thing. She finally got lonely, though.)
    I checked with my husband about his preferences in the less/fewer matter. His feelings are based mainly on type theory, which I will not even consider expounding on here due to the late hour and the fact that my own grasp of type theory is rather weak.
    As far as the verb agreement for none, he and I discovered mainly through our own analysis of a range of examples that the verb seems to agree in number not with “none” but with the object of prep belonging to it.
    Which brings me to an important point I ought to make for Mr. Saunders (whom I sincerely hope is in bed resting since, in my own experience, a bad cold accompanied by a moderate to high fever could well be this year’s brand of influenza) is that linguistics is very much an evidence-based science. It is about collecting evidence and finding patterns in it and using those patterns to deduce layers of rules, among other things. My husband does tease me a lot (teased me tonight, as a matter of fact) about how, as a descriptivist, I don’t believe in right or wrong and anything goes, and many other things much like the points you made in some of your posts giving your impression of what descriptivists believe, but my husband is actually teasing me. He’s been around me long enough to understand what descriptivism really is. He also has a gift for going on truly bizarre little rants about how the descriptivist language police will come and arrest you for violating phonotactic constraints. Those always leave me giggling.
    Language Hat, I’m honored that you still consider me a scientist after that extremely embarrassing revelation that I have completely misunderstood what code-switching is for the last fifteen years or so.
    michael farris, thank you very much for the correct definition of code-switching. I’ve been trying to figure out how I could have gotten so mistaken an understanding of what it is. Is code-switching an appropriate term to use for the infinitely variable choices in language that are used in a post-creole continuum where there are two “separate” languages in use simultaneously but they blend into each other in a seamless continuum from basilect to acrolect? If it is, then that might be how I managed to completely misunderstood what code-switching was. At least one of my courses (among other things) spent not insignificant time acquainting us with the basics of creoles, their workings and relation to pidgins, and some of the sociolinguistics that tend to go along with creole usage.
    Anyway, I really need to say “goodnight” and get to bed. It really is another big day tomorrow. Gack. At least we can expect not to misplace a guinea pig tomorrow, and that’s a relief.

  100. jamessal says:

    I checked with my husband about his preferences in the less/fewer matter. His feelings are based mainly on type theory, which I will not even consider expounding on here due to the late hour and the fact that my own grasp of type theory is rather weak.
    I’d love to hear more about this, if you get time.

  101. jamessal says:

    Michael: Again, I shouldn’t have blown up last night. You’ve surely got better things to do than spend time reconciling with some dude you’ve never met on a computer out in New Jersey, but I’m gonna explain myself anyway, since to me the debate itself — the loss of tempers — is actually interesting. I’m two thousand words away from finishing a novella and I feel like my head’s about to split open (hence: hours debating linguistics online instead of working) — also some family stuff. I’m on a short fuse, and last night I thought you were arguing cheaply and evasively. Looking over the exchange this morning, though, I’m realizing/remembering that complex assumptions often underly what can seem to us like the most straightforward statements and propositions, so that we would actually question the motives of somebody for not understanding us, assuming that the misunderstanding must be intentional. Not the most profound statement, I know, but for me, seeing it in action is always fascinating. Again, I’m sorry I blew up. I only hope you’ve gotten as much out of this exchange as I have.

  102. Isidora's Husband says:

    I’m Isidora’s husband, so I’ll speak to the type theory issue. In computer languages, types are often associated with values, variables, and functions. For example, the function “+” has the type Number x Number -> Number (i.e. it takes two numbers and produces a number). So when we see in a program the expression x+2, we can infer that x is a number. We can also annotate the type by appending a colon and the type to the variable/value. For example, x:number + 2:number. During compilation/interpretation of a program, if it turns out that x is not a number, then the computer can signal a a type mismatch error.
    Similarly, even though a sentence like, “What’s one plus an elephant?” is syntactically correct, semantically it’s nonsense because “plus” requires numbers, and an elephant isn’t a number.
    In the case of “less” and “fewer”, the rules of standard English require that “less” use noncount nouns and “fewer” use count nouns. So, as in the computer language, if we see: x is less than y, we can infer that x and y are noncount nouns. If x or y is a count noun, then an error has occurred. This is, in part, how high-quality grammar checkers work: they assign types to certain categories of words and check them for consistency.

  103. jamessal says:

    That sounds like a sophisticated way of identifying count nouns, but it’s actually your premise — that “the rules of standard English require that “less” use noncount nouns and “fewer” use count nouns” — that we’ve been debating for the past twenty comments or so.

  104. michael farris says:

    “the rules of standard English require that “less” use noncount nouns and “fewer” use count nouns.”
    I’d say the real rule that most speakers use is something like:
    1. fewer can only be used with count nouns
    2. non-count nouns can only occur with less
    In other words the rules are assymetrical (one creating a ‘gap’ (for lack of a better word) where less can also apply to count nouns.
    And finally, Isidora’s husband: never learn a Slavic language what they do to numbers (and number agreement) would surely break your heart.

  105. jamessal, what my husband presented is, well enough, a method for identifying count nouns. He’s a computer scientist, and he thinks like one. He wasn’t aware that his premise was what was being debated for the last twenty posts. (And I was not aware at the time of what his premise was.) Since you were curious to hear more about his application of type theory to the logic of the situation, I asked him to write his explanation himself, because it would be far more coherent than if I tried to transmit thought processes of his which are based on a portion of computer science which I have an entirely insufficient understanding of. He agreed and looked at the length of the comment thread and asked me if he needed to read it. I told him he didn’t.
    I know that my husband writes nicely and is well acquainted with standard English grammar and the preferences expressed in the standard stylebooks. So the question I asked him last night was whether his feelings about the usage of fewer versus less were based entirely upon his knowledge of the official rules or whether he they were based on some sort of internal logic of his own. He replied that it was based on type theory and explained. Upon further examination, I’m thinking that his feeling was most likely based on his knowledge of standard English grammatical rules and that he applied type theory to this knowledge. I apologize for the misunderstanding. I was not aware of it until this evening.
    Michael, I think that you presented a correct analysis of what the rules actually are for the majority of speakers. My husband, however, had the benefit of far better high school English teachers than I did for all that his entire high school was the size of my graduating class, and he paid attention during Freshman English, so his views may be a bit different ;-) He’s gone to bed for the evening (and I will, too, just as soon as I can finish this post), but I think that I’ll show him your analysis of what native speakers actually *do* for the most part when they’re not explicitly taught to do otherwise. Since cognitively/philosophically/whatever, he’s perfectly able to operate under different paradigms in different situations, I think there’s a strong chance that he’ll agree that it’s a correct set of descriptive rules. I’ll try him out on it when I get the chance.
    You warned him, “never learn a Slavic language what they do to numbers (and number agreement) would surely break your heart.”
    I can assure you that it’s far too late for that. His (Modern) Church Slavonic is a least passable, and he has a great love for it. His Russian is not so passable, but he can get by in certain situations. (At times, getting by at Church has involved answering in Slavonic when someone asked him a question that he could understand but not answer in Russian. I don’t know whether the other person was at all surprised by his use of Slavonic, but they seemed to get the information they needed from his answer, so, all told, those sorts of exchanges were successful, if a bit bizarre.)
    He’s not sure what the issue you’re referring to with numbers and number agreement in Slavic languages is. Numbers decline. They have gender. In Slavonic, nouns still have three numbers: singular, dual, and plural. None of this troubles him in the least. He was wondering whether there was some more advanced point of grammar that he hasn’t run into yet? If there is something, he’d be more than interested to know about it.
    He’s spent a good deal of time working with the numbers in Church Slavonic. He has to be able to see a numeral in a Slavonic text (written in Slavonic characters, of course) and read it aloud with the correct inflectional ending. (Not to mention know what the numerical value of the expression is.) When he was learning, he wrote a java app to drill himself, and anyone else who happened to be interested, in recognizing the numerical value of Church Slavonic numerals.

  106. jamessal says:

    Isidora, if you’re husband had read a hundred comments in order to avoid any possible misunderstandings while satisfying my curiosity about type theory, I would have thought he was weird. He does write nicely; I just think he’s wrong. (I hope you didn’t take my response to be cold or short or anything — it certainly wasn’t meant to be.)
    My reason for pointing you to the history of the supposed proscription was to show that even though a few magazines and publishing house insist on “fewer” (the way restaurants enforce a dress code) and a few teachers mistakenly tell their students that “less” with count nouns is somehow “wrong,” the proscription has no more rational basis than that some people over the past two and a half centuries have voiced a preference as to which of the two words is more elegant in writing. This preference has never really influenced the way most people talk: some people say “less,” others “fewer,” and everybody is always understood. And to say that the preference is now a rule of Standard English is to give it far more weight than it really has, considering (and I here I’d ask support of, and defer to, Michael Farris, who seems to know more about the current state of these things than I do) that nobody has a very clear idea of what Standard English even is. In light of this history, it seems silly to me to correct somebody for saying (not even writing!) “less” to modify a count noun, as though it were somehow more elegant to be corrected or to self-consciously correct yourself than to say “less” and move on.

  107. michael farris says:

    Most people’s attitude toward Standard English is pretty close to the famous dictum about pornography:
    They can’t define it, but they know when they hear or read it.
    And that’s not even touching the fact that structures that belong to the standard in one country might be considered sub-standard in another. To me “the government were” or “a nonsense” sound absolutely like errors (descriptivist errors the kinds of things that native speakers do not say) but they’re both okay in British versions of Standard English.
    Though strangely enough, colloquial British “it were” doesn’t bother me even though I’m pretty sure if American speakers were to regularize the past tense they’d go for ‘was’.

  108. michael farris says:

    “He’s not sure what the issue you’re referring to with numbers and number agreement in Slavic languages is”
    From Polish (maybe a little extreme in modern Slavic terms but probably not as mixed up as Church Slavonic which I’m ignorant of)
    One is a regular adjective and takes singulr agreement with nouns and verbs.
    Two, three and four are defective adjectives (weird irregular forms) and take plural agreement with nouns and verbs.
    Five through 21 are bizarro world adjectives which require the noun to be put in the genetive plural in the nominative (not necessarily in other cases even Polish speakers get confused a lot here) and they take _singular_ (neuter if applicable) agreement.
    Oh, and there’s some extra partly optional partly required gender distinctions in some numbers (basically an extra plural gender though they still have singular verb agreement)
    22, 23 and 24 act like two, three and four
    Also, for no apparent reason plural virile nouns can (though they don’t have to except sometimes they do have to I think) switch to the genetive plural case instead of the nominative those numbers which would normally require plural nominative forms.
    Those are the highlights (there are some other niggling issues but I can’t keep them straight).
    Rules for most quantifiers are like the 5-21 numbers but some are more like 2-4 numbers.

  109. Doesn’t even Edited English make an exception for comparisons with measured quantities expressed using a plural count noun? For instance, “____ than 0.5 grams of saturated fat” or the similar examples that Gould had.

  110. marie-lucie says:

    Rules that have exceptions which align with other, non-exceptional cases tend to cause the exceptions to regularize. In the case of measured quantities (as was pointed out by Michael Saunders) the use of the officially non-countable less rather than the countable fewer (which would imply not a mass but a number of individual items: eg less salt but fewer grains of salt) is explainable in semantic rather than strictly grammatical terms. This contradiction between semantics and strict grammatical agreement is resolved by using less with all quantities, whether referring to a mass or to a collection of individuals. Note that less salt could apply to any quantity of salt, but fewer grains of salt implies that the grains are so few that they could be counted.
    A contributing factor must be that the opposite of both less and fewer is more for all types of quantities, whether countable or not (more salt, more grains of salt, more people). The expression more or less, which can be used on its own as well as followed by a noun, is far more prevalent than more or fewer, which is restricted to a plurality or countables and cannot be used on its own. Finally, only less, never fewer, is used in other contexts such as before adjectives and adverbs (more/less salty, more/less often, etc), and before singular nouns (fewer choices, but less choice).
    All these factors, considerably restricting the occurrence of fewer as opposed to that of less, mean that fewer would be glaringly inappropriate in most contexts except one, but less is likely to be the right choice in the majority of cases. This makes it likely that speakers will extend the use of less across the board, in parallel to the use of more.

  111. marie-lucie says:

    The examples that MMcM points to in his link show (without explaining it) another interesting reason for the oddness of fewer in some cases (such examples are specifically described as odd, not recommended, in the original, where fewer is italicized):
    ex. My son is more than 5 feet tall, but fewer than 6 feet tall.
    In this case (and the others) the word fewer is applied slavishly to the following quantity, but in reality the word more and its opposite do not refer to the measured quantity but to the following adjective: the sentence answers the question How tall is your son?, not By how many feet is your son tall?. Another answer could be: I am not sure exactly, but he is already taller than me.
    Quantities of money or other specific substances are slightly different:
    ex. I paid fewer than $100.
    The question is: How much did you pay?, not How many dollars did you pay?. An answer could be: I paid less than I expected, not I paid fewer dollars than I expected.
    The question in each case requires an answer in terms of an undivided quantity, even if that quantity could be expressed by a countable and counted noun. Hence less is the only possibility in all these cases. But the proximity of less to the measured quantity is yet another factor which encourages its use in all cases.

  112. Okay, Polish numbers are really scary. Wow. Church Slavonic has some irregularities, especially in the smaller numbers, but it’s far more organized than that.
    Where Church Slavonic numbers get interesting is in how they are notated. Arabic numerals are not used, even in contemporary service books. (I think it’s a good trade-off. There are strong aesthetic considerations, as the books are supposed to look attractive as well as be functional.) Letters of the alphabet are used to represent numbers. The system has no place value, and is entirely additive like the older Greek system on which it was based. There’s a joke about someone who is used to reading the (Slavonic) prayers in Cyrillic transliteration but not used to reading them in the actual Slavonic alphabet coming to the instructions to repeat “Lord, have mercy” 40 times and chanting aloud, “Gospodi, pomilui, mmmmmm.” The letter myslete, which represents /m/ also represents the number 40. It is just a joke, albeit one I’ve heard a number of times over the past ten years; no one able to pronounce the text aloud from a Slavonic book would not know the abbreviations for the numbers.
    And speaking of jokes, my husband tells me that there is a saying in Russian, reminding one to be humble, “Remember that ‘ya’ is the last letter of the alphabet.” (In addition to being the name of the letter, “ya” also means “I.” My husband observes that “az”, which means “I” in Slavonic is the _first_ letter of the Church Slavonic alphabet and wonders what lesson we are to draw from that fact. ;-) (My apologies for the lack of a genuine, Cyrillic “ya,” but I went looking for a way to put it in and ended up having to retype the entire post after it was erased. I’ll learn how some other night.) (And apologies for the almost certainly incorrect transliterations of Slavonic above; it’s not one of my strong points, as I am far more used to hearing and saying things in Slavonic than actually seeing them, and I don’t have time tonight to go track down a good transliteration.)

  113. jamessal, I didn’t really take your response to be offensive, and I probably managed to sound rather overly-formal (or overly something) in replying since it was late and I was tired and I am not so great at expressing myself. I learned quite some time ago (and my dear husband, who’s been on the internet since long before the internet was cool — since before the WWW, actually — had a lot to do with me learning this) that you can’t hear tone of voice or see body language over the internet and that this leads to a lot of misunderstandings, hurt feelings, etc. Therefore, I try to give people the benefit of the doubt and assume the best about them. They probably didn’t actually mean to sound offensive, but without the non-verbal language cues, things feel different than we’re used to. I think the situation is also exacerbated by the fact that many people dash off internet comments very quickly without sufficient consideration for the fact that they are carrying on a discussion/argument in a medium requiring more precision of phrasing to prevent misunderstandings arising from near-total lack of non-verbal cues. Emoticons help, but only so much.
    I let you know what the result is when I finally get the chance to run that set of descriptivist rules for less/fewer by him. I think he’ll see things our way, as well as his way, and it’ll be an interesting discussion, in any case. With any luck I can manage this in the next week. (I’m not kidding you, we’re booked. If you haven’t guessed from the above anecdotes about Church Slavonic, we’re Russian Orthodox, and Pascha (Easter) is two weeks away. We get incredibly busy at this time of year.)

  114. David Marjanović says:

    In Russian, 2, 3, and 4 take the genitive singular…
    BTW, Standard German has a difference between “little” and “few” (wenig and wenige — disappears in dialects where final e is dropped), but not between “less” and “fewer” (weniger).

    In the meantime, maybe you could answer my question about Pullum. He may be some great authority to whom we should bow down (but not uncritically—I would never suggest that). Why do you think he’s better than Strunk and White?

    Easy. Pullum is an actual scientist who has done actual linguistics (and, incidentally, seems not to be contradicted by his colleagues, though I haven’t followed the literature on this). Strunk simply uttered a few of his personal preferences to which White added his own (or the other way around, I forgot), even though nobody — they themselves, in their own work, included — followed them; yet they blithely declared them gospel truth.

    “I choose” isn’t my reason. My choice follows from the reason. The reason is the fundamental difference between integers and real numbers.

    Only if we, like you, make the implicit assumption that “less” is somehow intrinsically coupled to real numbers and “fewer” to integers. As other people have explained above, other people use different rules. Discovering all those rules and the historical development of those rules is an important part of what the science of linguistics does.
    One finding of that science, BTW, is that there’s a certain age window when language learning is easiest. That’s when we learn our “native language” (or, for some of us, two or more). After that it gets more difficult; your implication that it’s all just a matter of choice is not defensible.
    While I am at it, let me mention that the Russian spelling reform was started but not implemented by the democratic revolution and was only implemented by the communists, and that, like the Chinese character simplification, it was just a spelling reform, not a change to the standard language.

Speak Your Mind

*