Category Archives: Grammar

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What Language Learning Cannot Be

jevonsI noticed that W. Stanley Jevons’s remarkably successful little book Elementary Lessons in Logic (reprinted annually for decades after its appearance in 1870) uses language learning to illustrate two ways of acquiring or transmitting knowledge (see Lesson XXIV, “On Method, Analysis and Synthesis”). One is the method of instruction:

A student, for example, in learning Latin, Greek, French, German, or any well-known language, receives a complete Grammar and Syntax setting forth the whole of the pr…

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Do We Really Hate That?

220px-Richard_Grant_White_-_Brady-Handy

Richard Grant White didn’t like the verb “donate.”

It was the question-and-answer session after a talk I gave about “language pet peeves” (presenting a linguist’s view) a few months ago at a city club. One woman in the audience immediately raised her hand and asked, “Why do people insist on using impact as a verb?” She then added, “I hate that.” There were assenting murmurs around the room: “Ridiculous,” “I hear that all the time,” and, echoing the questioner, “Oh, I hate that.”

Hate? A noun lik…

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But, Seriously

Anyone who reads college papers — and who pays attention to the punctuation therein — will recognize a fairly recent trend of students following a sentence-opening conjunction with a comma. As in: “But, that’s incorrect!”

I will immediately and quickly address the “gross canard” (Garner’s Modern American English) that starting a sentence with But, And, or any other conjunction is problematic. Every stylebook I’ve ever seen agrees it is perfectly kosher; the only mystery is how so many middle-sch…

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Laying Low

laying low 2Last week a friend texted to see if I wanted to go out for dinner. I was recovering from some minor surgery and had been told to stay mostly indoors and take it easy. So I texted back a regretful no and added, “I’m just laying low this weekend.”

I stared at the sentence on my phone (having not yet hit send) and thought, “Wait, is it ‘laying low’?”

Another voice in my head responded, “No, it must be ‘lying low.’ It’s clearly intransitive.”

“But,” I protested (in my head), “‘laying low’ …

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Revolutionary Methodological Preliminaries

MIT Photo

It is rather surprising that more has not been done this year (thus far, anyway) to commemorate a significant semicentenary: the 50th anniversary of what could reasonably be called the most influential linguistics book of the 20th century. It was published by MIT Press in 1965 as “Special Technical Report 11” of the Research Laboratory of Electronics at MIT, and has recently been re-released with a new preface, but it doesn’t seem to have inspired any major conferences or other celebra…

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Pluralism Marches On

Catching up on New Yorkers, I happened on a poem by John Koethe, which begins:

It’s a great poem, but, needless to say, what mainly interested me was Koethe’s use of covers band instead of cover band — to mean a musical combo whose repertoire consists of songs popularized by other performers. It was a new example, to me, of a phenomenon I’ve discussed in this space before — the growing pluralization of attributive nouns, such as Yankees fan replacing Yankee fan. As with such phrases as jobs (in…

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The Right to Ovate, and Other Problems

At Cannes recently, the actor Matthew McConaughey spoke out on the negative response to Gus Van Sant’s new film, The Sea of Trees.

“Anyone has as much right to boo as they have to ovate,” the actor observed.  Before any knickers get twisted over the switch in pronoun number, I should make clear that what stopped me cold was the infinitive form to ovate. Really?  Was I the only reader who looked at this and thought first of ovaries, which as a point of anatomical fact not anyone has?

A little dig…

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An Honor and a Horror

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Brooklyn Beckham, the 16-year-old son of the soccer star David Beckham and Victoria (Posh Spice) Beckham, met Professor Stephen Hawking during a day in Cambridge recently. Brooklyn put a photo of the encounter on Instagram, adding a brief remark: “What a honour to meet Stephan Hawking. Such an inspiring afternoon.”

Such is the delight taken by the British press in silly linguistic caviling that Brooklyn’s grammar became the scandal of the day. BBC radio’s World at One had an embarrassing interv…

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Competence, Performance, and Climate

1280-The-Weather-Channel-Forecast-by-New-CEO-David-Kenny-aNoam Chomsky’s distinction between competence and performance has been controversial in linguistics and psycholinguistics for 50 years. The proponents of generative grammar presuppose it and rely on it, and have tried explaining the distinction many times, often unsuccessfully. I recently came across a neat way to encapsulate it that comes not from a linguist but from a mathematical meteorologist.

Psycholinguists (concerned with how language is really handled in human minds) and sociolinguists (…

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To Be or Not to Be: Needs and Wants

“The world’s elderly need fed, bathed, their dentures or teeth cleaned, catheters changed, etc.,” a student of mine wrote in a recent paper. And so they do. But does that grammar need changed?

Not if you’re from Pittsfield in the southern part of Illinois, as this student is. Or Pittsburgh, Pa., for that matter.

You’ll find it also, for example, on Page 120 of a new novel, The Heart Does Not Grow Back. The author, Fred Venturini, comes from southern Illinois and sets the first part of his book …