Sunday 19 June 2016

Something Rotten in the State of Grammar

Descriptive versus prescriptive grammar

I still haven’t recovered from the revelation that “grammatical mistake” isn’t a mistake.

English grammar is basically pattern recognition.  Once we recognize an established pattern in the language we attempt to maintain it.  Prescriptive grammar (which attempts to dictate how people should speak) eventually derives from descriptive grammar (how people actually speak).  Of course, “ain’t no denyin’,” that what some grammarians might take for egregious, fossilized errors, Everyman accepts as just “speakin’ plain.”

Can a mistake be grammatical?

It may be swimming against the current, spitting into the wind, and [insert your own cliche here] to challenge the evolution of the language and attempt to manipulate prescriptive grammar, but that’s what we pedants do.  Inspired by the expression “grammatical mistake,” I have come to surmise that there is something rotten in the state of English grammar.

Adjectives that end in "al"

I first conjectured that the problem could be located in how we use and misuse adjectives that end in “al.”  Typically a noun is used as an adjective and then we add “al” to give the adjective a new meaning, as shown here:

Noun Adjective “al” adjective

economics economic economical
politics politic political
logic                logic logical
rhetoric            rhetoric rhetorical
mathematics mathematics mathematical
grammar         grammar grammatical

Adding "al" changes the meaning of the adjective

The pattern shows that adding “al” changes the meaning of the adjective:  a “logic lesson” versus a “logical lesson,” a “rhetoric question” versus a “rhetorical question,” a “grammar book” versus a “grammatical book,” an “economic study” versus an “economical study.” 

My number of “al” adjectives (above) is quite small.  Like the proverbial blind monk attempting to describe an elephant by feeling its tail, I was perhaps considering an untypical sample.  Scientifically, I should be considering all “al” adjectives.  Ooops! Have you any idea how many words in the English language end in “al”?  The internet mocks me again by providing various lists of words that end in “al.”

This list offers 3544 “al” words:

Meaning of the suffix "al"

This site offers 1272 words that end with the suffix “al,”  and adds that the suffix “al” means “relating to,” as if to mock me once again for thinking “grammatical mistake” was a mistake.

What can we say about words that end in “al”? Most of them seem to be adjectives.  Nouns like “cereal” and “offal” are among the rare “al” nouns, but they also serve as adjectives.  It would be an exaggeration, if not an outright mistake,  to categorize “al” as a suffix in all the instances listed, if we mean by “suffix” something added to an already existing or independent English word.  

Is "al" a suffix?

For example “leth” is not an word, but “lethal” is.  

I would imagine that there is an etymological explanation that can trace “leth” as a Greek or Latin source and “al” as a suffix, but the issue I am trying to grasp is what happens within the English language when you add “al” to an existing adjective.  There are many “al” adjectives which have no form or root in English when you remove the “al.”

Among those that do, the adjectives seem to consistently show change.  What does the change mean?

humour         humoural
metaphysics metaphysical
physics         physical
abdomine abdominal 
chorus choral
allegoric         allegorical
analytic         analytical
commune communal
terminus         terminal
ecologic         ecological
structure         structural

Return to Baker and 1901

My conclusion is that Baker is still right and we should avoid “grammatical mistake” and, for that matter, “grammar mistake” in favour of “an error in grammar” or simply use the adjective “ungrammatical.”  The conspiracy of errors that we call modern English has created yet another obvious flaw because educated native speakers of English have lost track of how to use adjectives.  Instead we have come to blithely accept that “grammatical mistake,” “grammar mistake,”  “ungrammatical mistake,” and "mistake in grammar" all end up referring to exactly the same thing.  “Logical fallacy,” “illogical fallacy,” “logic fallacy” and "fallacious logic" would also all have to have the same meaning (and thinking about it, I have concluded that the phenomenon should still be called "sophistry").  We have muddled the subtleties and precision which, I assume, changes in spelling were originally intended to convey.


  1. I like where you take this argument, sophistry, of which the likes of Lewis Carroll could only agree with... You can have correct logic, proper grammar, and still spew out nonsense.

    1. Thanks for the comment Remi. I know you speak from both philosophical reflection and experience. I have to say I have been fascinated watching your travels through life from boxer (with a huge black eye) to intellectual to playwright to baker and wind surfer and back. Wow!

  2. I don`t think I`m smart enough to subscribe to this blog. Is there a Sour Grapevine for Dummies...

    1. Oops! My bad. This is what happens when I let my linguistic obsessions get the best of me. I must confess that I have a couple more posts on this subject and then I promise not to let my egg-head tendencies get the best of me. On the other hand, wasn't Homer with an "E" on his chest kinda cute?

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