Category Archives: Grammar

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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

beckham

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 …

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Legal and Illegal Commas

One of the commenters on “Dumb Copy Editing Survives” last week said something that worried me. My topic was the contrast between sentences of the sort seen in [1a] and [1b] (I prefix [1b] with an asterisk to indicate that it is ungrammatical):

[1] a.  We are none of us native or purebred.
b. *We are, none of us, native or purebred.

 

What the commenter said was: “If I read the erroneous version, I would have still taken away the exact same meaning. I’d just think there were too many co…

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Dumb Copy Editing Survives

Once, when I was younger, I was (you’ll find this hard to imagine) somewhat abrasive, and I openly despised copy editors and all their kith and kin. I had formed the impression that they are all irritating, pusillanimous time-wasters. Primitive, mindless creatures whose instincts drive them, antlike, to make slavishly defined changes.

They would unsplit infinitives that I had split for good reason; they would reflexively change since to because even if I had deliberately avoided the latter becau…

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Apostrophe Where Is Thy Comma?

pyramus-and-thisbeMy hunch is that the case of the missing comma began with email. In an earlier post, I talked about a friend’s dilemma over email salutations, wherein the preferred casual “Hi” at the beginning is followed by a person’s name and then a comma, rendering the grammatically standard vocative comma (“Hi, Jane,”) perhaps superfluous and at least funny-looking. I’ve been counting, and of the hundreds of emails I’ve received from students since that post appeared, none — and I mean zer…

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Truly Incompetent English

Ukip

Purist curmudgeons, opinionated columnists, and angry commenters keep telling us that English is disintegrating and soon we will be unable to understand each other. Even academics allege such things (“Grammar is defunct” among students, said Paula Fredriksen, a professor of religion emerita at Boston University, in a 2013 speech at the American Academy of Arts and Sciences).

I regard such claims as wildly overstated. Sporadic acorns of innovation or idiosyncrasy are mistaken for pieces of a fal…