THE COLLAPSE OF ENGLISH.

Craig Brown in the Telegraph has a very funny reductio ad ab-sir-dum of the Disgusted in Tunbridge Wells genre of letters to the editor, linguistic subsection: The collapse of the English language. It starts thus:

SIR – The word I have just written is surely the most commonly mispronounced. In these sloppy times, why do so many people insist on saying “sur”?
R. Birtwhistle, Bicester

…and descends into a maelstrom of increasingly crazed prescriptivism. (Thanks, Paul!)

Comments

  1. mollymooly says:

    There was a letter in The Irish Times a few years complaining that newsreaders were pronouncing Bertie Ahern’s first name as “Burtie”. And before anyone mentions the NURSE merger, there was no complaint of pronouncing his second name as “Ahurn”.

  2. A.J.P. Crown says:

    At a slight tangent, did anybody else notice that the third comment to the piece starts:
    ‘At a slight tangent to incorrect pronunciation, has anybody else noticed …’
    The Telegraph must be a better newspaper than I had thought.

  3. A quick glance at the top ten comments and I make it seven people taking the column seriously. Oh dear.

  4. A quick glance at the top ten comments and I make it seven people taking the column seriously. Oh dear.
    Yeah, I should have warned about the comments.

  5. Dear Sir, did you notice that the Telegraph misspelled Kirkcudbright as “Kirkudbright”, which would obviously be pronounced quite differently?

  6. Good day, my name is Kirk Kirkudbright, pronounced “quite differently.”

  7. John Emerson says:

    Strong prescriptive feelings about spelling, grammar, and punctuation are an index of (probably lower) middle class conventionality. It might be the threatened middle class faced with rough plebian parvenu speech, or the elderly middle class threatened with young people’s slang, or the nativist middle class faced with immigrants. And eighth grade English teachers trying to civilize a few of their low-class students are on the front line.
    And in fact, someone hoping to rise in class is well-advised to learn the proper forms, regardless of how inane and arbitrary they are from a historical or linguistic point of view. But people who actually feel strongly about these points are still ridiculous; it’s as though their bourgeois unconscious is forcing them say things they don’t know the reason for.

  8. John Emerson says:

    Strong prescriptive feelings about spelling, grammar, and punctuation are an index of (probably lower) middle class conventionality. It might be the threatened middle class faced with rough plebian parvenu speech, or the elderly middle class threatened with young people’s slang, or the nativist middle class faced with immigrants. And eighth grade English teachers trying to civilize a few of their low-class students are on the front line.
    And in fact, someone hoping to rise in class is well-advised to learn the proper forms, regardless of how inane and arbitrary they are from a historical or linguistic point of view. But people who actually feel strongly about these points are still ridiculous; it’s as though their bourgeois unconscious is forcing them say things they don’t know the reason for.

  9. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I’m all for labeling this type of Britisher lower-middle class, they are very irritating and would hate it, but I’m surprised at your use of bourgeois. What are you and I who type things to each other across the N. Atlantic — indeed what is Language Himself — if not members of the bourgeoisie: I’m quite happy to be lumped with the gardeners, artists and psychoanalysts. It doesn’t follow that you are a conformist with conventional taste in living-room furniture just because you’re not ‘working class’, whatever that means nowadays, or not, say, a fundamentalist. As for the aristocracy, they are as bourgeois as you and I.

  10. “You and me”, surely, AJPC?

  11. marie-lucie says:

    Obviously “bourgeoisie” does not mean the same thing, or at least do not have the same connotation, in French and English, if AJP is right. French gardeners and artists are hardly classified as bourgeois, and as for psychoanalysts – those people tend to be too weird to be real bourgeois.
    dearieme, perhaps AJP was making a point?

  12. fimus scarabaeus says:

    Names to prove that they be not scum or cream that rises in both case to the top , to be scimmed off.
    “bourgeoisie”. surely that means one comes from the City in the foothill’s of Le Grande Mastif.
    working class use to mean, you had callouses on thy hand from mowing the lawn, but in the end all those of the same feather gather together and sip tea with a pinking finger testing the air.
    The Telegraph has some good features , the crossword puzzle [ and now the suduko] and the hatches, matches and dispatches segment and Publick notices to the unrequited luv’s.
    Language is to separate the genetic variations into nice simple groupings.

  13. John Emerson says:

    I was using “bourgeois” more in terms of respectability than source of income. They say that the word “bourgeois” has a range of meanings, much like the Eskimo word for “snow”.
    Perhaps if I’d specified “petty bourgeois” it would have gone down better. However bourgeois we all may be, we’re not petty.
    I once overheard an argument about which nation’s petty bourgeoisie was the pettiest. No one arguing was short of anecdotes.

  14. John Emerson says:

    I was using “bourgeois” more in terms of respectability than source of income. They say that the word “bourgeois” has a range of meanings, much like the Eskimo word for “snow”.
    Perhaps if I’d specified “petty bourgeois” it would have gone down better. However bourgeois we all may be, we’re not petty.
    I once overheard an argument about which nation’s petty bourgeoisie was the pettiest. No one arguing was short of anecdotes.

  15. A.J.P. Crown says:

    I’m ok with petit bourgeois and lower-middle class.
    I’m sure that in France, as in Norway or England, your average gardener and artist each have at least four years of education after high school. I don’t see they’re any different from an accountant or local government official in terms of their class. I put analysts because I think of Freud as an example of how odd and interesting life in the middle class can be. Not everyone in the middle class is interested in art and history and literature and science, but of those who are interested most are of the middle class. You really have to go out of your way to escape it, I mentioned a couple of months ago Wilfred De’Ath: he is a possible example.
    Yes, ‘you and me’, of course. I would say I was making a point if I could think of the one I might have been making. It was a mistake — but the kind of mistake in grammar that even John would say was a kindness to point out, and that’s two in one post, Dearie.

  16. marie-lucie says:

    AJP, when I said that the connotations (= ideas connected with a word) appeared to be different in French and English, you just confirmed my point. Even if bourgeois and middle-class are similar in terms of socio-economic status, nobody in France would admit to being a bourgeois (unless perhaps the older members of the haute bourgeoisie meaning the non-noble, rich upper class). Except when you are talking about the Ancient Regime (before the Revolution), the word bourgeois as applied to persons is certainly not a neutral term.

  17. “the word bourgeois as applied to persons is certainly not a neutral term.”
    Chucking my deux centimes into the bouillabaise, marie-lucie, it is quite definitely NOT a neutral term in standard NZ English either. It is mostly used by some of the bourgeoisie to contemn others of the bourgeoisie. I have never heard it used in a neutral or complimentary sense, even when those using it know that it describes them too.

  18. bourgeois:
    Egad, I’ve landed in a pool of Marxists.
    an index of (probably lower) middle class conventionality:
    Maybe they are bitter, too, and cling to guns and religion.
    Oh goody, a class war–a virtual, cyber- class war. I can hardly wait to see how Mr. Hat moderates this.

  19. AJP Crown:
    I would say I was making a point if I could think of the one I might have been making.
    “Me” is objective, “I” is nominative, “I” would be correct in the sentence only if “I” is identical to the subect.
    I think the grammatical terms are “direct object” and “predicate nominative” if there are any grammar geeks out there who can dissect this.
    So for the sentence in question:

    As for the aristocracy, they are as bourgeois as you and I.

    “I” is correct if you mean to say you are one with the aristocracy, that is, the subject and the object are identical (you and I are really the aristocracy). Marie-lucie has discovered a brilliant but twisty way out for you; by all means take it.

  20. John Emerson says:

    Hat is neutral about guns and religion, but he’s death on presciptivism. If the petty bourgeoisie are prescriptivist, to the guillotine with them! (That’s a bowdlerized version of what he actually said).

  21. John Emerson says:

    Hat is neutral about guns and religion, but he’s death on presciptivism. If the petty bourgeoisie are prescriptivist, to the guillotine with them! (That’s a bowdlerized version of what he actually said).

  22. John Emerson says:

    I remember the word “booshwa” from my childhood, which I thought meant “bullshit”. Kenneth Rexroth has reported the same usage from decades earlier. A friend met a street Marxist around 1960-65 who pronounced the word “boogiewazzy”.

  23. John Emerson says:

    I remember the word “booshwa” from my childhood, which I thought meant “bullshit”. Kenneth Rexroth has reported the same usage from decades earlier. A friend met a street Marxist around 1960-65 who pronounced the word “boogiewazzy”.

  24. bourgeois:
    Perhaps everyone posting here is European–I haven’t quite got all the nationalities straight–but here in the American midwest, even using the word labels you as a communist. Any whisper of socialism here and it’s freak-out time.
    Plus the word is inexact and no one knows what anyone is trying to say with it. The person using it probably doesn’t know what they are trying to say either. If they are talking like that in the first place, don’t they have to follow the dogma?

  25. “Perhaps everyone posting here is European–I haven’t quite got all the nationalities straight–but here in the American midwest, even using the word labels you as a communist. Any whisper of socialism here and it’s freak-out time.”
    I’m further from Europe than you are Nijma, but there was a time here in Aotearoa when people’s reactions to the word would have been much as you describe above. Even in the early to mid 80s, when I was still in my teens, the word had nasty pinko connotations. Happily I had friends who countered such silliness by collecting the complete works of Kim Il Sung and reading them for fun. I didn’t get through them all, but the four or five I did read were great Sunday afternoon timepasses. Juche is a word that is just crying out for rehabilitation and dissemination.

  26. “Strong prescriptive feelings about spelling, grammar, and punctuation are an index of (probably lower) middle class conventionality.”
    So, prescriptivism, as well as being used prejoratively on this blog, is now a class-insult too !
    I don’t much fancy being described as lower middle class because of my prescriptivism. There was a sci-fi story that turned on rigid class distinctions, such as lower-lower-middle, lower-upper-middle, etc – is that the way we are going 🙂
    “It might be the threatened middle class faced with rough plebian parvenu speech, or the elderly middle class threatened with young people’s slang, or the nativist middle class faced with immigrants.”
    None of the above, because this prescip, at least, accepts those differences. It is in formal writing that I don’t wish to see an “anything goes” approach. Taken to the extreme, it leads to university students writing near gibberish because of basic errors in grammar and spelling. You can’t eliminate that unless you teach English which is perceived as “correct” at the point of being taught. If it’s old-fashioned to have standards, why the rush to PC supposed standards ?
    “And eighth grade English teachers trying to civilize a few of their low-class students are on the front line.”
    And doing an excellent job, I submit. The more civilization that better. And maybe we wouldn’t have had the horrifying spectable in Brtain a few days ago of a crowd encouraging a young man to jump to his death from a roof, then rushing to photograph the body …
    But I digress.
    Finally, I don’t understand the vehemence of, inter alia, Hat, John, and jamessal (probably lurking around this discussion !), towards prescrips. Live and let live, chaps.

  27. A.J.P. Crown says:

    Does anyone know how and when bourgeois came into English usage?
    Marie-Lucie, no I think bourgeois nearly always does have a negative connotation in English. I think the same could be said of bürgerlich, in German, but that with ‘middle class’ in English, it’s not so clear cut. My point is that it shouldn’t — not in English, anyway. How should an architect describe his (my) position in life if not as part of the bourgeoisie? As Paul confirms, ‘lower-middle’ is the form to use for insults (as I had thought petit bourgeois would be the convention for a French insult): better to be thought a prescriptivist than lower-middle class!
    Paul, since this item originated with you, you must realise that it is Daily Telegraph-reading prescriptivists who are invariably lower-middle class, not all prescriptivists.
    Nijma, I am delighted to accept Marie-Lucie’s way out. I think that’s what I was indeed saying. I do make mistakes like that constantly though and I’m grateful for help, especially with misplaced commas, as long as Language doesn’t object.

  28. Being a Scot, I am a Burgher. But if I said that in the US I’d fear that someone would slap me in a bun and eat me.

  29. John Emerson says:

    Nijma, “bourgeois” is a perfectly usable word, albeit one with multiple meanings. I do know what I meant by it. What you said sounds a bit ignorant.
    Oddly, I live in the Midwest too, in a state which was governed by socialists during most of the Thirties and which provided the leadership for more than one American Communist Party. I actually don’t care what people think or feel on the topic in your part of the Midwest, in any case.
    Paul, I acknowledged that people moving into the middle class, immigrants, etc. are often (depending on their field of work) well advised to learn proper formal prescriptive English. I was talking about prescriptivist clowns such as the ones parodied in the newspaper article, whose outrage at tiny violations of prescriptivism burns with the heat of ten thousand suns. Hat makes his living as an editor and does a kind of prescriptivism all day long, but he objects to people who get silly about it.

  30. John Emerson says:

    Nijma, “bourgeois” is a perfectly usable word, albeit one with multiple meanings. I do know what I meant by it. What you said sounds a bit ignorant.
    Oddly, I live in the Midwest too, in a state which was governed by socialists during most of the Thirties and which provided the leadership for more than one American Communist Party. I actually don’t care what people think or feel on the topic in your part of the Midwest, in any case.
    Paul, I acknowledged that people moving into the middle class, immigrants, etc. are often (depending on their field of work) well advised to learn proper formal prescriptive English. I was talking about prescriptivist clowns such as the ones parodied in the newspaper article, whose outrage at tiny violations of prescriptivism burns with the heat of ten thousand suns. Hat makes his living as an editor and does a kind of prescriptivism all day long, but he objects to people who get silly about it.

  31. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    I do think we’re all against the boogiewazzy, though. Unless we’re dancing it.

  32. “”Me” is objective, “I” is nominative, “I” would be correct in the sentence only if “I” is identical to the subect.
    I think the grammatical terms are “direct object” and “predicate nominative” if there are any grammar geeks out there who can dissect this.
    So for the sentence in question:
    As for the aristocracy, they are as bourgeois as you and I.
    “I” is correct if you mean to say you are one with the aristocracy, that is, the subject and the object are identical (you and I are really the aristocracy). Marie-lucie has discovered a brilliant but twisty way out for you; by all means take it.”
    I’m not sure what predicate nominatives have to do with it (nor even if it’s a term still used by grammarians — actually I’m not really up-to-date on any of the latest linguistic terminology for parts of speech and whatnot; so, since I’d rather eat charcuterie and just-baked ginger bread this Sunday morning than pore over an English grammar, all the technical language may be a little fuzzy). The issue is whether to treat “as” as a conjunction, as Arthur did originally, or preposition, as everyone seems to think he should. Conjunction: “they are as bourgeois as you and I [are]” with “you and I” as the subject of its own clause. Preposition: “as you and me [period]”, with “you and me” simply as an object of comparison. Neither is righter or better than the other. (I’m looking at you, Paul. And yes, lurking indeed.)

  33. That is, I think…

  34. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    If prescriptivists pore over grammars rather than eat newly-baked ginger bread, then I’d rather not be one, thank you. Let me eat cake (though actually it was brioche, wasn’t it?).

  35. Oh, the gingerbread is really good. Very gingery, not too sweet. I’ll link the recipe when she blogs it.
    (Not really following about the brioche, I have to admit. Are we talking Marie-Antoinette?)

  36. I can hardly wait to see how Mr. Hat moderates this.
    *fires pistol at ceiling, waits for hush to descend, orders drinks for the house*
    Not really following about the brioche, I have to admit. Are we talking Marie-Antoinette?
    Yes, except that she never said it. But it’s been stuck to her by that pesky Popular Attribution, and she can’t seem to get the damn thing off. (Incidentally, the Wikipedia article on this is one of the worst I’ve ever seen; I hope someone takes the trouble to rewrite it so that it actually makes sense and informs the seeker after truth.)
    As for “bourgeois,” I have no problem accepting that designation, since I listen to NPR, which in the US is, I believe, the technical definition of the term.

  37. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Thanks for the link. I’d no idea it was Marie Antoinette who said ‘Play it again Sam’; still, she was Austrian wasn’t she.

  38. John Emerson says:

    Yuppies are the bourgeois of today.

  39. John Emerson says:

    Yuppies are the bourgeois of today.

  40. Thanks for the link. I’d no idea it was Marie Antoinette who said ‘Play it again Sam’; still, she was Austrian wasn’t she.
    Yes, thanks. It all makes sense now. I think I knew that she didn’t really say it (just not that it was brioche that she didn’t really say). And — just in case I’m not the only person to have just recently discovered this — nobody said “Play it again, Sam”. It was “Play it, Sam.”

  41. Yuppies are the bourgeois of today.
    I’m happier with this definition than Hat’s. Though, since I listen to NPR myself, it would be unseemly to protest too much.

  42. John Emerson says:

    And Hat does not really listen to NPR. He’s trolling us. He’s a much finer person than that.

  43. John Emerson says:

    And Hat does not really listen to NPR. He’s trolling us. He’s a much finer person than that.

  44. I blame my wife. It was she who told me M-A said eat more brioches. It actually makes sense if you consider that she (M-A) came from Austria, as did the croissant. I think the Ottomans brought the first croissants to Vienna; they could easily have slipped a couple of brioches in the basket. We should all be grateful to her instead of ridiculing her motives. My wife makes brioches sometimes, they’re lovely.
    Yeah, I suppose it was Woody Allen who invented the ‘again’ bit. God knows why he didn’t get it right.
    So a yuppie is someone who listens to NPR? We can get NPR in Norway nowadays, thanks to the innernet.

  45. John Emerson says:

    Mrs. Kron’s wife’s motives are ludicrous. Ha! Ha! Ha!
    I had not known that Mrs. Kron was also a refugee. Did you meet in the camps? It’s generous of the Norse to accept the world’s castoffs, but a small nation like that really should show more caution.

  46. John Emerson says:

    Mrs. Kron’s wife’s motives are ludicrous. Ha! Ha! Ha!
    I had not known that Mrs. Kron was also a refugee. Did you meet in the camps? It’s generous of the Norse to accept the world’s castoffs, but a small nation like that really should show more caution.

  47. I blame my wife.
    Me too. I never listened to NPR until I met her, I swear. Just jazz stations.

  48. John Emerson says:

    Wait, Kron isn’t married to Marie Antoinette? I misunderstood.

  49. John Emerson says:

    Wait, Kron isn’t married to Marie Antoinette? I misunderstood.

  50. He longed for her, but Marie Antoinette lost her head for another man.

  51. NPR is the only jazz station here.
    While I am waiting for my drink, let me tell you what I know about “Bourgeois”. As far as I can tell, it’s a buzz word that was coined by some German guy living in England who gave a French name to it so people would accept it without question. Anyhow it means “burghers”, which is a German word that sounds like something you pull out of your nose but means “property owners”. Yes, I read his stupid tedious book. The significance of the Bourgeoises, or boogiewazzies is that they are the rich bad guys while the Lumpy Proletariats are the good guys. Money=bad. No money=good. Like Robin Hood. Now, before Mr. Hat fires his weapon again and Mr Emerson calls me a nincompoop again let me change the subject.

  52. Jamessal:
    Conjunction: “they are as bourgeois as you and I [are]” with “you and I” as the subject of its own clause.
    That works for me.
    Question. Say you knock on a door and someone says, “Who is it?”, what do you answer– “It’s me” or “It is I”? And does the answer change if you are a prescriptivist?
    Here is the original sentence again:

    As for the aristocracy, they are as bourgeois as you and I.

    If your answer to the knock-on-the-door question was “It’s me”, then Jamessal’s answer makes more sense because in casual speech people would tend to use the nominative “me” incorrectly. Of course with the Jamessal Solution, Mr. Kron’s comment doesn’t have an ingenious double meaning.

  53. marie-lucie says:

    The comment attributed (falsely) to Marie-Antoinette (née Maria Antonia) is this (when there were riots in the streets because of a shortage of bread, the main food of the common people): “Ils n’ont pas de pain? Qu’ils mangent de la brioche!”la brioche being a kind of sweet, eggy bread made in a characteristic shape, not at all a cake.
    To my knowledge, the croissant was not brought by the Ottomans but was invented by Viennese bakers after the victory over the Ottomans, whose emblem was the crescent. But it is likely that they had already learned to make the type of dough from the Ottomans and just cut and rolled that dough into the croissant shape to celebrate the victory.
    “Danish” type pastries are referred to in French as viennoiseries – you can see this word on shops that make and sell these pastries. Very few people in France make bread or pastries at home – preferably they are bought from small shops that sell what they made that day.

  54. pesky Popular Attributions:
    I read on another blog today that Catherine the Great didn’t really do that horse in the bedroom thing, but that it was just a misogynist attempt to discredit her with a smear campaign.

  55. On the subject of Knutian prescriptivism, can anybody point me to articles either here or at Language Log that deal with the whole “can I/may I” canard? I tried search for “can” AND “may” but was buried under an avalanche of results.

  56. “can I” is now used for permission. It’s in all the textbooks now, along with could, should, would, will, may, might. For current usage, try searching for “modals”.
    For instance, here, especially in the footnote:
    http://www-writing.berkeley.edu/TESL-EJ/ej09/r11.html

  57. Thanks, Nujma. I knew that “can” is now in standard use for permission, which is why I used “canard”. I was pretty sure I’d read some good pieces here or at the Log on the subject. That berkeley page with the statistics was very useful, thank you.

  58. Stuart,
    Good. My background is ESL, but at least that should give you some better terms to narrow your search. You should be able to do an advanced google search on a particular site.
    When we were kids back in the 50s and 60s and said “Can I have an apple?” the answer was always “I don’t know, can you?” to reinforce the perceived correct answer. And there was a children’s game called “Captain, may I”. Some kids played it later as “mother may I?”

  59. “When we were kids back in the 50s and 60s and said “Can I have an apple?” the answer was always “I don’t know, can you?”
    When I was kid in the 70s, my grandmother would always answer such questions with, “you can, but you may not.”

  60. michael farris says:

    Nijma, For a very long time I’ve been thinking (and saying and writing when possible) that ESL could write a very good grammar curriculum for English speaking children in elementary school.
    The traditional model of English grammar based on poorly understood Latin and voodoo incantations is broken and irreparable(sp?) but it’s been impossible to replace it with anything that would work better. The result has often been just to drop grammar from English classes entirely (which has a lot of negative consequences of its own).
    On the other hand, the grammar taught in most ESL traditions has to make sense (so that learners can understand real usage and sound as natural as possible). My students (pretty advanced by the time I get to them) are always flabbergasted at the sort of stuff that passes for ‘traditional grammar’ in English.
    Perhaps a way to start this might be to offer/require a section in ESL methodology for teacher training?

  61. My request for support on the “can!=may” argument was actually triggered by a thread at an ESOL forum. I do some low-level one-on-one ESOL work with Punjabi friends, and monitor the forum for tips from the professionals, but the number of rigid prescriptivists who post there surprises me. Although most of the professional ESOL teachers who post the forum are not in the “write to Telegraph” class, there are quite a few who are. Some even harp on about sentence-ending prepositions and split infinitives.

  62. I read on another blog today that Catherine the Great didn’t really do that horse in the bedroom thing, but that it was just a misogynist attempt to discredit her with a smear campaign.
    Quite correct. Catherine was a brilliant woman and (for her day) progressive ruler, until the French Revolution scared the bejeezus out of her and brought her to appreciate the merits of the knout. One of the great tragedies of Russian history is that she was followed by her crazy son Paul, who hated her and did his best to reverse everything she’d done, and also made it impossible for any woman to succeed to the Russian throne. Russia was never so well ruled as in the eighteenth century, when it was ruled mainly by women.
    ESL could write a very good grammar curriculum for English speaking children in elementary school.
    That’s a great idea, and I hope someone follows up on it. The way English is taught is a disgrace.

  63. Some even harp on about sentence-ending prepositions and split infinitives.
    The fact that there are people in this world who do this probably means it needs to be acknowledged on some level. I found out about it from an anthro professor who had a stock of jokes from the English department, but I’ve added them to my faux pas list of things not do do on an academic paper.
    ESL could write a very good grammar curriculum for English speaking children in elementary school.
    I can’t say that ESL helped me with my own usage of grammar but it sure made it more interesting (like finding out about modals) (as did studying foreign languages). We didn’t have a heavy grammar component but were encouraged to “get bitten by the grammar bug”. You see Azar a lot, then in Jordan I discovered the Murphy series–it’s excellent (I used it for tutoring)–not used in the U.S. much, but the Polish teachers know about it–and there used to be an excellent huge white book floating around with a type of sentence diagramming I had never seen before, very technical, but whenever I had to look something up I could always find the answer there.
    A lot of the things taught in ESL are intuitive even for children if they are native speakers. For instance, the homework I gave for tomorrow is about sentence structure with simple present, present continuous, short answer form and question form. It’s in the form of a little conversation that elicits these forms:
    I practice the piano.
    I’m practicing the piano.
    Yes, I do.
    Do you practice the piano very often?
    She practices the piano
    She’s practicing the piano.
    Yes, she does.
    Does she practice the piano very often?
    I find myself digressing from the lesson a lot, because I think the time for a student to learn something is when they ask a question in class and not when it comes up in the book, if it ever does. Saturday my class was using a and an incorrectly so I found myself writing vowels on the board with an apple, an egg, an ice cube, and so forth. You could have heard a pin drop. Of course it was straight out of Azar but if you just decided to teach vowels one day and passed out one of Azar’s exercises they would be bored and would probably drop the class.
    In retrospect, a lot of the English grammar I learned in junior high and high school was when my own teachers digressed from the textbook in the same way.

  64. in casual speech people would tend to use the nominative “me” incorrectly.
    I’m sorry, but I can’t let this slide. If most people say it, it can’t be “incorrect.”

  65. michael farris says:

    It’s possible to describe the distribution of ‘me’ and ‘I’ with no reference to notions like subject or object. Back as an undergraduate I did just that in a paper for a class in ‘traditional grammar’.
    Back then (and still today) the only description of the distribution of “I” and “me” together with “and” that holds up under scrutiny (and matches real world usage) is to say they’re in free variation.
    Clever ‘rules’ for deciding which one it ‘should’ be are powerless against the collective unconscious linguistic current to treat them as fundamentally interchangeable (any trend to treat them differently basically has “I” as sounding more formal and still has nothing to do with case).
    That’s not necessarily what you want to teach people whose speech will be judged by prescriptivists with the power to do them harm, but linguistically it’s very valid.
    The above references mainstream spoken US English, mileage of others may vary.

  66. John Emerson says:

    For me, the hardest thing to teach in ESL (to Chinese) was the definite and indefinite articles. Chinese tend to ignore them, and none of the textbooks and basic grammars seem to cover them. The research I did ended up branching off into count and non-count nouns, generalizations and irregular plurals:
    A dog came into the room
    The dog came into the room
    The dogs were outside the window
    Some dogs were outside the window
    Dogs are noble creatures
    The dog is a noble creature
    A dog (dogs) can be your best friend(s)
    Probably not: A dog is a noble creature
    And then:
    He had a beer
    He had glass of beer
    He had a bowl of rice
    Probably not: He had a rice
    He had two beers
    Also good: Belgium produces 137 beers.
    Probably not: He had two rices
    Probably OK: Two different rices are grown in this area of Thailand
    For fluency you need to be able to handle these things, or you sound funny. For communication, you don’t. In the texts I saw, it wasn’t taught anywhere.

  67. John Emerson says:

    For me, the hardest thing to teach in ESL (to Chinese) was the definite and indefinite articles. Chinese tend to ignore them, and none of the textbooks and basic grammars seem to cover them. The research I did ended up branching off into count and non-count nouns, generalizations and irregular plurals:
    A dog came into the room
    The dog came into the room
    The dogs were outside the window
    Some dogs were outside the window
    Dogs are noble creatures
    The dog is a noble creature
    A dog (dogs) can be your best friend(s)
    Probably not: A dog is a noble creature
    And then:
    He had a beer
    He had glass of beer
    He had a bowl of rice
    Probably not: He had a rice
    He had two beers
    Also good: Belgium produces 137 beers.
    Probably not: He had two rices
    Probably OK: Two different rices are grown in this area of Thailand
    For fluency you need to be able to handle these things, or you sound funny. For communication, you don’t. In the texts I saw, it wasn’t taught anywhere.

  68. judged by prescriptivists
    Wouldn’t you more properly distinguish between written and spoken English? Or formal and informal?
    I’ve noticed the the people here who are pointed out as not being ‘prescriptivists’ have the most careful writing style that would withstand the most judgmental scrutiny. And even one comma out of place is pointed out by readers. Whereas I have been accused of the most dire prescritivism, but when I look back at some of my comments I can see more than a few errors and typos that no one has pointed out.

  69. michael farris says:

    I have no problem with labeling certain structures ‘formal’ or ‘informal’ and encouraging people to match the structure to the occasion (known as control of registers).
    I perceive that in a fundamentally different way than prescriptivism (which simply labels things ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ with no thought given to context (like the idiots who think Elvis should have ‘corrected’ Big Mama Thornton’s grammar and sung “you are nothing but a hounddog” (fortunately Big Mama knew better and so did Elvis).
    I also think there’s a difference between what native and non-native speakers can get away with (and that’s okay).
    If I say “he don’t know nothin'” I’m using a particular form for it’s expressive force, a non-native will generally sound like they don’t know the more formal form.
    Anyway, my basic point is that the difference between ‘I’ and ‘me’ is at most tertiarily (is that a word?) about case (and primarily about sentence position and stress and secondarily about formality).
    Teaching the distribution based on any idea of case roles will have to be buttressed with talk of exceptions and make it harder for students to understand the distribution they’ll actually hear from native speakers.

  70. John Emerson:
    definite and indefinite articles….none of the textbooks and basic grammars seem to cover them
    For starters try:
    ~McGraw-Hill, Fragiadakis and Rosenfield, Grammar Step by Step 2, Lesson 27: “a, an, the, some, with more non-count nouns”
    ~McGraw-Hill, Fragiadakis and Rosenfield, Grammar Step by Step 3, Lesson 32 “article vs. no article”
    ~Betty Azar’s Fundamentals of English Grammar (the black one for intermediate or advanced) all of Chapter 8, especially “table 8-6 guidelines for article usage”
    For something more student-friendly, try the Success series by Addison-Wesley. (Don’t tell them it’s a “grammar”, say it’s “conversation”.) Basic Beginner Level, “Chapter 2 The Clothing Store”. [Any preverts who are reading this, please notice there is an underwear section on the store pictured, but NONE of the underwear or sleepwear words are modeled in the conversations.]

  71. John Emerson says:

    Thanks, nijma. I don’t teach anymore, and the material I had didn’t cover it. It’s completely intuitive but hard to explain.

  72. John Emerson says:

    Thanks, nijma. I don’t teach anymore, and the material I had didn’t cover it. It’s completely intuitive but hard to explain.

  73. I have no problem with labeling certain structures ‘formal’ or ‘informal’ and encouraging people to match the structure to the occasion (known as control of registers). I perceive that in a fundamentally different way than prescriptivism (which simply labels things ‘right’ or ‘wrong’
    Exactly.

  74. “For me, the hardest thing to teach in ESL (to Chinese) was the definite and indefinite articles. Chinese tend to ignore them”
    My Punjabi friends have similar problems. They also tend to compensate by throwing articles in where they are not needed.

  75. michael farris says:

    Polish students of English have the same problem with articles. But their problem isn’t a lack of instruction, but rather so much (often conflicting) information on how to use them that they regard every sentence as a minefield and become terrified of a misstep.
    Since I’m not involved in basic instruction the most I can do is offer a few hints about usage to the survivors of basic instruction.
    Typically the instruction they’ve had on articles isn’t based around meaning at all and they’re surprised to find that the words do have meaning for native speakers which I characterize primarily as:
    indefinite: known to the speaker but not the addressee
    definite: known to both speaker and addressee
    (yeah there’s more to it than that but that is a big, important part of it)
    The other helpful hint I have is that in writing, it’s easier for natives to parse a sentence with a wrong article or an unnecessary article than one without articles where there should be, when in doubt, include an article.

  76. You might also want to think about your philosophy of error correction. I will correct a student if
    1) I can’t understand them
    2) They make a mistake in the grammar point of the lesson I have just presented.
    3) They say something indecent or that would be potentially embarrassing if they had said it on the street or at work. This is a safe place to make a mistake or ask questions, I say. No one will laugh at you here.
    Then I point to the way I speak their own language. “I know my grammar isn’t perfect”, I tell them. They don’t disagree. “But you understand me.” They nod vigorously and the lightbulb goes on. I am using their language effectively even with mistakes. “The first time you try to say something it will not be perfect. The next time it will be better. This is the same way you learned your first language.”
    From what I understand about language acquisition, on the fly error correction doesn’t really work. Students learn either by having the grammar point presented as a lesson or over time by hearing and mimicking the target speech.

  77. It’s helped my Hispanic students to know that “a” means “one”. They can use it exactly where in Spanish you would say “un” or “una”. Otherwise they want to use “a” for plurals.

  78. marie-lucie says:

    The Intro to linguistics textbook by Fromkin and Rodman (now in its nth edition) is illustrated with a number of popular cartoons. I remember this one from Peanuts: Snoopy arrives at the door of the house where one of the girls (not Lucy) lives, as the same time as she does. As the door opens she calls: “There’s a dog at the door!” Snoopy reacts: “A dog?? THE dog!”.

  79. the idiots who think Elvis should have ‘corrected’ Big Mama Thornton’s grammar and sung “you are nothing but a hounddog”
    Would it be prescriptivist to point out that it was Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller’s grammar?

  80. No.

  81. I like Nijma’s point on prescriptivists:
    Wouldn’t you more properly distinguish between written and spoken English? Or formal and informal?
    That’s what I’ve been trying to get across, but failing because of poor presentation, I suppose.
    Jamessal (may his spears be blunt and his sling snapped), said :
    I have no problem with labeling certain structures ‘formal’ or ‘informal’ and encouraging people to match the structure to the occasion (known as control of registers). I perceive that in a fundamentally different way than prescriptivism (which simply labels things ‘right’ or ‘wrong’.
    This prescriptivist, at least, does not labelthings right or wrong. It is a question of context, and I will continue to defend “correct” English in formal written and spoken contexts.
    (Links shield with other prescriptivist hoplites and advances).

  82. michael farris says:

    “Would it be prescriptivist to point out that it was Jerry Lieber and Mike Stoller’s grammar?”
    No, it’s pedantic. Point granted, but I didn’t feel like looking up the authors and “Big Mama” is so much more fun to write …
    Paul, that was me that Jamessal was quoting. And if you don’t do that, you’re may not really be a prescriptivist.
    The question is, are you willing to defend “he don’t know nothin'” or “where the peach at?” in their proper contexts?
    I defend formal usage in formal contexts and informal usage in informal contexts and knowing the difference between the two. Correct has nothing to do with it as the two examples I gave are just as correct as their more formal counterparts.

  83. I think I’m going to set my spears aside for the day and just keep seconding Michael Farris.

  84. There’s another well-written article by Laurie Bauer on my favourite NZ news site this morning. Who still bothers with whom? seems relevant to a discussion of “correct/incorrect” versus register control.

  85. Thanks for the link, Stuart. She has a nice way of writing about semi-technical linguistic concepts in a very lay style without at all condescending.
    It’s funny (at the risk of injecting politics), I just came across this days-old (and much-needed) Guardian piece on Sarah Palin — http://www.guardian.co.uk/commentisfree/cifamerica/2008/oct/03/sarah.palin.debate.feminism — and it had this sentence in it: “Instead, they imagine themselves as interpreters of a mythical mass of “average Americans” who they both venerate and despise.”
    I’m sure that “who” raised many a prescriptivist’s blood pressure, or at least that’s what they’d tell you — really they just feel smug about having “caught” it. Of course, the sentence reads fine either way. There, I’ve done my bashing for the day. Now Paul can call me vehement. (I’ve actually been enjoying his teasing, and suspect he’s more contrarian* than prescriptivist.)
    Really? Not a word? As if my spelling isn’t bad enough, I’m haunted by underlining that sends me to the dictionary for words I know I’ve got right.

  86. “Contrarian,” that is. I failed to type the second *.

  87. John Emerson says:

    What I said about the threatened boogiwazzie above was specifically relevant to excessive intensity of feeling about formal English (and/or about the standard dialect as opposed to regional dialects). My theory is that this feeling is strongest among people who are only just barely standard/elite themselves, often at considerable effort, and feel contemptuous of those who have failed or refused to make themselves standard / elite. And additionally, those who are standard / elite naturally, but otherwise unsuccessful in life, and feel resentful of more successful people who are not standard/ elite. In other words, intense prescriptivism is found at the border. (“Standard” and “elite” are two different things, though related).
    The huffing and puffing about “nuclear” vs “nucular” is one of the ways that Democrats allow themselves to be labelled as elitists.

  88. John Emerson says:

    What I said about the threatened boogiwazzie above was specifically relevant to excessive intensity of feeling about formal English (and/or about the standard dialect as opposed to regional dialects). My theory is that this feeling is strongest among people who are only just barely standard/elite themselves, often at considerable effort, and feel contemptuous of those who have failed or refused to make themselves standard / elite. And additionally, those who are standard / elite naturally, but otherwise unsuccessful in life, and feel resentful of more successful people who are not standard/ elite. In other words, intense prescriptivism is found at the border. (“Standard” and “elite” are two different things, though related).
    The huffing and puffing about “nuclear” vs “nucular” is one of the ways that Democrats allow themselves to be labelled as elitists.

  89. marie-lucie says:

    I second Stuart’s recommendation of Laurie Bauer, who, it must be said, is a man. You can find his picture (as well as a list of his works) on the web.

  90. Thanks and oops.

  91. I wondered when someone here was going to take on “nucular”.

  92. Heh. I would have assumed Laurie was female, too.

  93. As promised many a comment back, the gingerbread: http://caviarandcodfish.com/2008/10/07/gingerbread-to-get-me-through/
    (And thanks, Hat, about Laurie: feel less stupid now.)

  94. marie-lucie says:

    There is no need to feel bad about misunderstanding “Laurie”, unless you are from New Zealand. I thought for years that Laurie Bauer (a New Zealander, author of books on English morphology and other topics) was a woman, until I read about him and finally saw his picture. I know another male Laurie, also a linguist, also from New Zealand.
    This name for a male must have been more widespread earlier: I seem to remember that in the book Little Women (Louisa May Alcott), the boyfriend is called Laurie.

  95. “There is no need to feel bad about misunderstanding “Laurie”, unless you are from New Zealand. I thought for years that Laurie Bauer (a New Zealander, author of books on English morphology and other topics) was a woman,”
    I am from New Zealand and even after reading one his books I still thought he was a she. It was only when I went looking for more works by Laurie Bauer that I discovered my mistake.

  96. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Looks great, I like the look of the little bits of white ginger. My daughter has cookery homework on Tuesdays (so do the boys) and I’m going to ask her to make the gingerbread next Tues. (if not sooner). I like things that aren’t too sweet.

  97. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Sorry for asking, but how does heh differ from huh? Is it just in the usage, or is the pronunciation different?

  98. I’ve always read “heh” as a marker of mild wry amusement, while “huh” is more about bemusement. That’s my two anas on it it, anyway.

  99. michael farris says:

    “heh” is self-satisfied or amused, “huh” is puzzled.

  100. Crown, A.J.P. says:

    Yes, I understand that, although I find it hard to imagine Language acting self-satisfied. Is there any difference in the pronunciation? That’s my question.

  101. I’ve always read “heh” as a marker of mild wry amusement, while “huh” is more about bemusement.
    Yes, that’s how I use them. The pronunciations are quite different; the former is a quick chuckle, the latter is actually spoken as it’s written, with a falling tone. In my usage, anyway.

  102. marie-lucie says:

    (Lauries in New Zealand)
    Stuart, I was perhaps making a hasty generalization – no offence meant to New Zelanders.

  103. Marie-Lucie: Thanks.
    Crown: Awesome. Let me know how you like it — or, better yet, let Robin know.

  104. A. J. P. Crown says:

    We will let you both know.

  105. “(Lauries in New Zealand)
    Stuart, I was perhaps making a hasty generalization – no offence meant to New Zelanders.”
    None was taken. Intellectual and academic achievement being sadly undervalued in this country, I was offering myself as an an example of what I suspect to be generally true – that most NZers have no idea who Laurie Bauer is, let alone what gender.

  106. I know two men and one woman called Laurie, in New York.
    Laurie Bauer may be married to a linguist called Winifred Bauer; they have both contributed chapters to a book called Language Myths, illustrated by Gary Trudeau.

  107. marie-lucie says:

    A language book illustrated by Gary Trudeau! Where can you get it?
    Another Laurie: I had forgotten that I knew yet another male Laurie, right here in Nova Scotia (Canada). I also know one female Laurie, although it seems more common for the female name to be spelled Lori.

  108. Crown, AJP says:

    @ Jamessal:
    I had trouble getting hold of molasses and allspice — trouble? they may not exist in Norway, actually — and there are no pears on our trees this year so we used an apple, otherwise spectacular success with our gingerbread. Alma, my daughter, made it all herself. You’re right, it’s very good warm, and not too sweet, as Robin says. I liked the spicy hotness. It looked exactly like the picture, which was very satisfying for the cook. Thanks very much for the recommendation. I’ll get my mother to send us the missing ingredients, we will be making it again.

  109. Crown, AJP says:

    M-L: I’m sure they had that book Language Myths at Amazon, but I couldn’t see the Gary Trudeau illustrations when I looked for them.

  110. Crown, AJP says:

    Laurie, by the way, is short for Lawrence, so it’s not surprising it’s a boy’s name. The girl’s name would be what, Laura?

  111. Laurie would be short for Laura; Larry would be short for Lawrence.

  112. Thank you, Arthur. I’m glad it turned out well. It was especially nice for Robin to get your comments on C&C — she’s having a rough time this week: back pain from a not-long-enough-ago car accident.
    I also have that “Language Myths” book, by the way, and the paperback at least doesn’t have any pictures.

  113. Crown, AJP says:

    Laurie, Nijma, is short for both Lawrence and Laurence.

  114. AJP Crown says:

    Yeah, it was a great. I got a message that we could just substitute cloves and nutmeg and cinnamon for allspice, so we’ll do that next time. Poor Robin, back pain is horrible.
    That’s REALLY FUNNY about Gary Trudeau. Now I see he’s only listed as the illustrator on the British amazon site:
    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Language-Myths-Laurie-Bauer/dp/0140260234/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1224056474&sr=1-1
    Perhaps someone just stuck him in there for fun, but it’s going to be quite disappointing if that’s why you bought the book.

  115. I find the Allsopp pretty convincing — and not only because it’s a lifetime project, I know Allsopp was working on it at Cave Hill when I was an undergraduate at the sister campus at Mona in the 70s. Literary references to ‘cariso’ and ‘caliso’ go back quite a way, and Trinidadians to this day say ‘kaiso’ rather than ‘calypso’ which is a term used only in formal English and by foreigners. That argues, by itself, against the OED etymology.

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