Showing posts with label grammar. Show all posts
Showing posts with label grammar. Show all posts

Sunday 13 December 2020

The Politics of Adjectives

"If corn oil is made from corn, and vegetable oil is made from vegetables, what is baby oil made from? "

"The Great Canadian . . . . whatever"

Have you ever noticed how many Canadian businesses and organizations brand themselves as "The Great Canadian . . ." something or other?  Ever wonder why?  In a brief article in the Catholic magazine Commonweal in 1929, Harvard Professor of Literature, Douglas Bush, asked the question "Is There a Canadian Literature?"  His answer was that in order for a Canadian literature to exist it must produce evidence of greatness, a great novel or poem or play--something great enough to be included in the established canon of great literature.  The sardonic response has been that in order for anything to be "Canadian" it must also be "great"; ergo, "The Great Canadian Bagel," "The Great Canadian Restaurant," "The Great Canadian Theatre Company," etc, etc. 


Canadian Nationalism:  An oxymoron?

During my enthusiastic Canadian nationalist phase in the mid-to-late seventies, I naively imagined that most Canadians would be eager to embrace Canadian literature, performance and art.  To my shock, Canadians, who would claim admiration for Dutch painting, Italian opera, Swedish cinema, German theatre, and English or American literature, reacted with outrage at the thought of having anything described as "Canadian" "shoved down their throats."  (The violence of this expression always took me aback.)   For the intelligentsia and literati inside Canada, "Canadian" invariably implied "parochial," "tribal," and that famously misunderstood expression "a garrison mentality."

 Does Canada even exist?

I must admit, I have long suspected that the name "Canada" came from Portuguese map-makers who labelled the topography of my homeland "ca nada" meaning "here nothing."  (See Pure Laine Québécois)  Frank Davey,  who is routinely described as “a leading authority on Canadian literature,” is quoted as saying that “Canada does not exist except as a political arrangement for the convenience of individuals accidentally happening to live within its arbitrary area.” Hugh MacLennan, author of what, for some time, was consider the quintessential Canadian novel, Two Solitudes, was also categorical that "there is no Canadian literature." Eventually, we came around to admitting that Canada does exist as a nation, a state, an imagined community of people and diverse peoples, a big piece of real estate with borders and a quirky history, and it was okay to call something Canadian because we had a flag and a beaver and a constitution and a police force mounted on horseback, and Margaret Atwood, Leonard Cohen, Celine Dionne and hundreds of thousands of other names worth mentioning.

 Is There an Anglo-Québécois Literature?

Always a glutton for punishment, as an English professor in Quebec, I went from defending the adjective "Canadian" to promulgating the modifier "Anglo-Québécois."  Reactions tended to be a rolling of the eyes rather than the visceral "shoved down our throats" response.  However, resistance to "Anglo-Québécois" was similar to what I had earlier witnessed in reaction to "Canadian." 

Josée Legault, in her book, L’invention d’une minorité : Les Anglo-Québécois, is adamant that   "s'il est indéniable qu'un certain nombre d'anglophones résidaient bel et bien au Québec, on ne pouvait toutefois parler de l'existence d'une 'communauté' anglo-québécoise"  ["even if it is undeniable that a certain number of Anglophones do in fact reside in Quebec, one can still not talk of the existence of an Anglo-Québécois 'community'."]  In an essay entitled  “Neil Bissoondath disait . . . .,” professor of literary studies Gilles Marcotte was equally adamant that “Il n’existe évidemment pas telle chose qu’une littérature anglo-québécoise [ . . .]."  ["There obviously exists no such thing as an Anglo-Québécois literature . . . ."] 

What the experts say

Just as professors, critics and authors who would seem to have a vested interest in the recognition of Canadian literature resisted the idea, English professors, critics and authors in Quebec, typically repudiated the notion of an Anglo-Québécois literature.  Jason Camelot is a professor of English at Montreal's Concordia University and the co-editor of a collection of essays entitled Language Acts: Anglo Quebec Poetry, 1976 to the 21st Century.   In his introduction to a special issue of the journal Canadian Poetry on Anglo Quebec,  Camelot agrees with Marcotte that “there is no such thing as Anglo-Quebec literature in the sense that there is now Can Lit and la littérature québécoise."  More surprising still, Linda Leith, author, editor and impresario, who has done more for and about English literature in Quebec than anyone, has avoided the expression Anglo-Québécois to describe her work and interests.

Thinking inside the box 

 I know we are all supposed to admire people who "think outside the box" but, really, I wish there were more people (like me) who could think inside the box.  I may not agree with Professor Marcotte, but I understand his logic.  For Marcotte, Québécois literature is by definition French.  Québécois literature in English, for Marcotte, would be the equivalent of a married bachelor.

The term "Québécois" only became the politically correct designation of a citizen of the province of Quebec in the late 60s and throughout the 70s.  Earlier, "Québécois" was understood to mean a resident of Quebec City. With "French Canadian" now signalling Francophones outside Quebec, inside my symmetrically-inclined, Canadian box, Anglo Québécois seemed all the more legitimate as a designation for Anglophones living inside Quebec.

The difference between a wine glass and a glass of wine

I must confess that when I began writing this post, a discouragingly long time ago, it was with exactly the opposite intention of what I have written here.  I intended to maintain my obsessive conviction that "grammatical mistake" should be "a mistake in grammar," and "comparative literature" should be "studies of literature in a comparative context." Any composition manual will tell you that placing an adjective in front of a noun is more succinct and elegant than following a noun with an awkward clause or phrase.  Additionally, an adjective in front of a noun has the potential of becoming the next big thing:  "post modernism" versus the more informative "modernism after 1965," "oral literature"  (a contradiction in terms since "literature" means what is written) versus "written representations of orality," and "block chain" versus "a chain of blocks"--this latter phrase at least gives an inkling of how this technology works.  Nothing whets the appetite of an academic more than the possibility of coining the next big thing, the next viral catchphrase.

Clearly, many of the phrases we accept are, to use one of my favourite academic expressions, "sites of debate." The problem I see is when we accept without debate. I still wonder why, when the Americas comprise two continents and 35 countries, the adjective "American" is typically, exclusively applied to the USA.  I spent four years studying the works of George Bernard Shaw, Oscar Wilde, W.B. Yeats, Samuel Beckett, and James Joyce as "English" literature, barely noticing that these authors were all Irish. Politics matters.

I recognize that the appellation  "Canadian literature" means something more than and different from "literature in Canada," or "literature about Canada," or "literature by Canadians."  But I also see that when all these things have been happening for some time, the political decision to use the adjective this way makes sense, even if we might pause and stumble over exactly what the adjective "Canadian" might mean in this case.


Friday 6 December 2019

Who Needs English Grammar? Part II

English Grammar and Social Class

The unspoken subtext of English grammar is its connection with social class.  Traditionally, "proper English" meant whatever was used in the golden triangle formed by London, Cambridge and Oxford. As Tiger Webb explains, "in socially-stratified and newly literate Georgian England, any guide to 'proper language' would have sold like hotcakes"--which is exactly what happened with Robert Lowth's Short Introduction to English Grammar.  With the democratization of the language, a number of dialects, sociolects, idiolects and sublects emerged (there are a lot of lects out there--each with its own slight adjustments to the grammar).  David Crystal suggests that every Anglophone needs to know at least two Englishs:  one that is spoken locally and a second that is understood and accepted globally (or, at least, more widely).  (The local, more colourful version of English is the one more likely to be used in poetry and literature, by the way.)

With grammar, as with everything else in life:  there are choices to be made.  A pop icon or populist president might discover advantages in gainsaying the grammar of standard English in favour of a local dialect or patois.  On the other hand, scrupulous attention to the rules of prescriptive grammar might be the kind of branding with which you as an individual or your company or institution might want to be identified.

Beyond Fashion and branding, who does need English grammar?

Let us not be too quick to turn up our noses at branding and fashion.  In liberal, egalitarian societies, codes for dress as well as for language are invariably a source of protest. However, linguistic knowledge is stereotypically taken as a sign of general knowledge and intelligence (even if unwarranted).  Passing up the opportunity for respect, confidence and admiration which your grammar might impart (or undermine) isn't a wise decision--unless you are already a pop star or a president. Beyond fashion and making a good impression, there are practical reasons for knowing the grammar of the language which you speak.

Learning a foreign language

One of the strongest reasons for a native speaker to know the grammar of English is that it will facilitate the learning of a foreign language.  This is strictly anecdotal (not empirical evidence) but, having taught grammar to both native speakers and second-language learners, I noted that some native speakers were understandably reluctant to accept and even disbelieving that there were "rules" for something they had done naturally all their lives.  Noam Chomsky and Steven Pinker both argue that language is innate, even genetic and instinctive, and that there is a universal grammar of all languages.  However, knowing the distinctive grammatical features of your first language is a huge advantage,  giving you parameters and a framework, as you take on a foreign language and can note its differences.  Conversely, I would add that you really don't know your own language until you have been required to learn another one.

Redundancy and entropy

The principle purpose of most grammar rules is to create redundancy.  Basic communication theory indicates that the greater the redundancy in a message the greater its clarity.  In oral communication, we use tone of voice, facial expressions, and gestures to reinforce the message.  In written communication we depend on grammatical features, subject-verb agreement, correct syntax, agreement between adverbs of time and the tense of the verb, and correct word type (see "What Is English Grammar?) to be doubly sure that our message will be clearly understood.  Consider some simple examples:

"I stopped there yesterday."  Here the past tense of the verb and the word "yesterday" are transmitting the same information; i.e., there is redundancy in the sentence.  The adverb "yesterday" makes it clear that the action was in the past.  The rules of grammar, which require the past tense of the verb plus the word "yesterday,  make it redundantly clear that the action was in the past. "I stop there yesterday," though ungrammatical, gets the message across.

"He is here."  The agreement between the third person subject "he" and the third person of the verb "is" is basically redundant.  "He are here" would transmit the same message but, in the absence of redundancy, with a touch of ambiguity.

When the message matters, the grammar matters

Legal documents are notoriously tedious to read.  They use more nouns than most writing, and avoid varying vocabulary, action verbs, adverbs and intensifiers.  In other words, they avoid all the features that make writing interesting.  They will also tend to be repetitive and redundant, strictly following the rules of grammar.  When clarity is of the utmost importance, grammar becomes important, even if (or because) it creates redundancy.

Grammar can change the message

As I pointed out in Part I, I am not partial to the "you're shit" versus "your shit" distinction as grounds for knowing English grammar.  However, there are subtle, refined distinctions in English messages that are transmitted through grammar.  Consider these pairs of sentences:

1. The less people know about us the better.

2. The fewer people know about us the better.

In #1 "less" applies to an uncountable abstract, the implied knowledge.

In #2 "fewer" applies to the countable "people."

1.  I'm going to see her tomorrow.

2.  I'll see her tomorrow.

In #1 "going to" implies a previous arrangement or understanding.

In #2 "will" does not carry the implication of an arrangement, and can be a spontaneous decision.

1.  I've seen that movie.

2.  I saw that movie.

In #1 "I've seen" (the present perfect tense) implies some effect on the present (i.e., "I don't want to see it again").

In #2 "saw" is past tense and neutral about the present. (see The Truth about English Verb Tenses)

Who needs English grammar?

Most English speakers will use these grammatical variations correctly without being aware or able to explain them.  I began these posts on "Who needs English grammar?" by pointing out that we impose grammar most on people who need it least.  At some point in the learning process, language learners will benefit from instruction in grammar, but that point is late in the process (See The Ball of String Theory).

My own rule of thumb for when to teach grammar in an ESL or EFL context was whenever a student asked a question about grammar.  Teachers of English need to know the grammar.  I'll go one step further and say that anyone who teaches anything in English needs to know English grammar.

"Yes, no, toaster"

I still remember watching a documentary series in Quebec entitled Yes, No, Toaster.  The expression "yes, no, toaster" was a typical comedic response from a young Quebec francophone to the question "Do you speak English?"  The documentary, which investigated the relative ineffectiveness of English language instruction in Quebec, was provoked by Audrey de Montingy, a finalist in Canadian Idol in 2003, who confessed that she couldn't understand a word of what people were saying to her during the show, even though she had had six years of ESL instruction.  The Yes, No, Toaster  series took cameras into various English-language-instruction settings.  The one that sticks with me (sticks in my craw, I should say) was an advanced class in which a student asked her teacher "What's the difference between 'will" and 'going to'?"  The teacher not only refused to answer but used the occasion to mock the student by saying "You're not ready for that level yet?"

The Moral of the story

The moral of the story I've been telling is that we should ensure that the right people are being criticized, and the right people are doing the criticizing.  Teachers mocking inquiring students; unilinguals criticizing polyglots--these are just plain wrong.

Wednesday 20 November 2019

Who Needs English Grammar?

The Irony of English grammar

The irony of English grammar is that we impose it most on the people who need it the least:  second- or foreign-language learners.  (See The "Ball of String" Theory.) Anyone who teaches English will, at some point, feel compelled to tell the fib that you need grammar to communicate and be understood in English.  This claim is pretty easy to disprove. Consider the following sentence:

"Me eats restaurant Italian yesterday."

An astute English teacher will point out that this five-word sentence contains at least six errors of grammar:  1) wrong case of pronoun, 2) wrong verb tense, 3) error of subject-verb agreement, 4) missing preposition for the indirect object, 5) faulty syntax, 6) missing indefinite article/determiner.  All this to say that the sentence should be:

"I ate in an Italian restaurant yesterday."

However, most native speakers of English would have little doubt about the intended meaning of the garbled sentence despite its multiple errors of grammar.  (A message full of errors circulated on the internet some time ago, demonstrating that native English speakers can understand even a long message which contains mistakes in every single word.  I'll attach it to the end of this post.)

It took me about ten years of correcting hundreds (probably thousands) of faulty sentences before the epiphany finally dawned on me.  The fact that I was able to correct the grammar was proof that I always understood the intended meaning of the original ungrammatical sentences.  Or, to reverse the insight, if I didn't know what the person was trying to say, I wouldn't have been able to correct the grammar. So much for "you need grammar to be understood."

What language students learn that native speakers don't know

I'll go out on a limb here and suggest that most native speakers don't know the grammar that we expect language students to learn.  Test yourself.

1. What's the difference between "I'll see her tomorrow" and "I'm going to see her tomorrow"?

2.  What's the difference between "I've seen Star Wars" and "I saw Star Wars"?

3.  What's the difference between "I'm studying history" and "I study history"?

Identify the error

4. "The guy which lives next door"  or "The guy that lives next door"?  Why?

5.  "Less people than expected" or "Fewer people than expected"?  Why?

6.  "He's bigger than me" or "He's bigger than I"?  Why?

7.  "Just between you and me" or "Just between you and I"?  Why?

Testing Grammarly

I downloaded and installed the free version of the Grammarly app for this post.  This isn't a scientific evaluation of Grammarly or even a review (but something to consider for a future post).  However, I find the results instructive.  Grammarly detected that "which" sentence #4, "less" in #5 and "I" in #7 were mistakes.  According to Grammarly, both quoted sentences in #6 are correct.   Both sentences being right is impossible, but I understand the Grammarly decision.  According to proper prescriptive grammar, "he is bigger than I" is correct, but for most native speakers "bigger than me" just sounds better.

To give credit where credit is due, I have made a few changes as I have been typing based on Grammarly suggestions.  On the other hand, here are a couple of sentences that I correctly predicted Grammarly would not know how to deal with.

"He is the Mr. Jones that lives next door, not the Mr. Jones convicted of fraud."

The sentence is necessarily awkward, but not ungrammatical. Grammarly cannot accept a sentence in which "the" and "Mr." appear consecutively.

"I have seen that movie yesterday."

Interestingly, the verb tense in this sentence (above) is wrong, but Grammarly does not detect the mistake.  When a specific time in the past is indicated, you must use the simple past tense (not the present perfect, "have seen").  (See The Truth about English Verb Tenses.)

Most revealing, in the garbled sentence with which I began this post--"Me eats restaurant Italian yesterday."--Grammarly detects only one mistake.  According to Grammarly, "me" should be "I", consequently "eats" must then be "eat."  However, your final sentence would then be "I eat restaurant Italian yesterday"--which Grammarly declares error-free.

The important point to glean here is exactly the one I made at the top: in order to correct the grammar, you must already understand the intended meaning of the sentence.  If the app doesn't understand your sentence, can't read your intended meaning, it will not be able to correct your grammar.

Grammar and dress codes

When the argument that communication is the underlying necessity of English grammar falters, we English teachers typically turn to the analogy that grammar is like dress codes. You know, you have to dress properly for the occasion.  I can still remember telling a class of would-be professional writers studying Applied Grammar that "of course, you wouldn't wear a baseball cap with a tuxedo."  Two weeks later (and I'm not making this up) at the Grammy Awards all the hip-hop artists were wearing jewel-encrusted baseball caps with their tuxedos.

"Rules are meant to be broken."

The feature that grammar and dress codes share is that in both cases "the rules are meant to be broken." While we tell students that you need grammar to "get on in the world," the Rolling Stones have gotten on pretty well with "I Can't Get No Satisfaction."  And then there is the Nobel Laureate in Literature who wrote "It Ain't Me Babe."  Could pop music survive without that anathema to English grammar: "ain't"?  (By the way, Grammarly accepts "ain't.")

As General MacArthur once quipped, "You are remembered for the rules you break"--which is probably why breaking the rules of grammar and dress codes has such appeal.

"Rules . . . are too often for the lazy to hide behind."

The complete MacArthur quote is "Rules are mostly meant to be broken and are too often for the lazy to hide behind."  The second half of the aphorism is particularly apt and rarely quoted.  The rules of grammar, as I endlessly pointed out to students, were the beginning of the thinking process, not the end. Grammar changes over time, it varies from one region to another, and it is tied to linguistic register. Once you know the rules, then you need to consider how they should be applied and even when to break them.

English grammar isn't a license to bully!

Knowing a few of the rules of English grammar isn't a license to bully, for one-up-manship or rudeness. I find it strange that individuals would proudly declare themselves "grammar nazis" online, since the dysphemism implies someone following rules without understanding or appreciating them--their intentions, consequences, validity, basis or morality.  I've seen dozens of different versions of this poster:

I really don't know how I am supposed to feel about this sign.  For one thing, this is a very specific mistake that some grammar nazi has dreamed up that I can't imagine anyone actually making. Plus, it isn't very . . . well . . . grammatical. It makes me think of this other sign:

If grammar really is about "knowing shit," with or without an apostrophe seems a minor problem.  The fact that "their," "there" and "they're" (like "your," "you're" and "yore") are pronounced the same way but have such different meanings and usages tells me more about the underlying incoherence of the English language than about those individuals who are occasionally guilty of their /there/ they're misuse.  (While I'm at it, here's a prediction.  Sometime in the not-too-distant future, "they're" and "you're" will disappear from the English language; "your" and "their" will become not only accepted but consider correct English.  Dictionaries will begin to identify "they're" and "you're" as "archaic.") 

The Origins of English grammar

The origins of English grammar (or grammars) can be traced to the 18th century, in particular to Jonathan Swift's "A Proposal for Correcting, Improving and Ascertaining the English Tongue," in which he decried the fact that contemporary authors (like himself):  "will be read with Pleasure but a very few Years, and in an Age or two shall hardly be understood without an Interpreter." Swift's Gulliver's Travels has survived better than the average 18th-century text; however, despite the fact that we continue to browbeat highschool students into reading Shakespeare's 17th-century dramas, few people these days (despite vainglorious claims to the contrary) can read the writers of 400-years past without an interpreter (or at least an interpretation). 

Although the rules of grammar were supposed to pave the path to immortality for English writers, what was actually produced was Robert Lowth's  A Short Introduction to English Grammar: With Critical Notes (published and republished 50 times from 1762 to 1800) from which we are instructed,  based on the spurious notion that English should follow the rules of Latin, that a sentence cannot end with a preposition and we must not split an infinitive.  (See: What Is English Grammar? for more.)

In keeping with my "Do not read this sign" sign,  in "The 'rules' of grammar are made up, so why bother following them?" Tiger Webb points out:
That Lowth, like many after him, broke most of these so-called "rules" in his own writing — or that some of his examples of substandard English came from the writings of Jonathan Swift — went unremarked upon at the time.

Taylor Swift vs. Jonathan Swift vs. The Princeton Review

I came across this comedic grammar kerfuffle in Penny Adam's "Is there simply ‘good’ and ‘bad’ English? Are you with Taylor or Jonathan Swift on grammar?" in which she provided a link to an article in The Guardian entitled "Taylor Swift’s grammar marked down incorrectly."  The details are funny enough to make for entertaining reading, but the short version is that The Princeton Review, a company which helps students prepare for college admission exams, used a line from Taylor Swift's song, Fifteen, on one of their practice tests as an example of "bad grammar."  Swift herself responded, pointing out that The Review had gotten the line wrong.  In a superlative example of "after shooting yourself in the left foot, how to take perfect aim at your right," The Review responded that the corrected quotation was also "bad grammar" because the plural pronoun "them" could not be used to refer to the singular subject "somebody."  (We are back to The Pronoun Wars, dear Reader--click the link if you need a reminder.)  The Review, being unaware of what is now widely known as the singular they, was pretty much laughed off the internet.   On the other hand, the brouhaha has given us a first answer to "Who needs English grammar?"  Apparently, if you are applying for admission to an American university, you should know some prescriptive grammar.

[To be continued in "Who Needs English Grammar:  Part II"]

Can you read this?

Only great
minds can read this.
This is weird, but interesting!
fi yuo cna raed
tihs, yuo hvae a sgtrane mnid too

Cna yuo raed tihs?
Olny 55 plepoe out of 100 can.

I cdnuolt blveiee taht I cluod aulaclty uesdnatnrd waht I was rdanieg.

The phaonmneal pweor of the hmuan mnid,
aoccdrnig to a rscheearch at Cmabrigde Uinervtisy, it dseno't mtaetr
in waht oerdr the ltteres in a wrod are, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the
frsit and lsat ltteer be in the rghit pclae.

The rset can be a taotl mses and
you can sitll raed it whotuit a pboerlm.

Tihs is bcuseae the huamn mnid deos not
raed ervey lteter by istlef, but the wrod as a wlohe.

Sunday 17 November 2019

The "Ball of String" Theory for Learning English as a Second or Foreign Language

The "Ball of string" theory

I believe in the “ball of string” theory of learning English. Imagine that the English language is an infinitely long piece of string. You begin rolling the string into a ball. The English that you have mastered, can repeat and understand almost perfectly, is your ball of string.

Daily English is redundant and repetitive

Your ball of string begins with the English words and expressions that you might hear every day: “Hello,” “How are you?” “How much is it?” “Where’s the bathroom?” “Coffee and a cheese sandwich please.” “Nice weather today.” “Tomorrow.” “Next Monday.” “That’s nice!” All the simple words and expressions that you hear constantly repeated. Assuming you are somewhere where people around you speak English, you don’t need to learn any grammar or how to conjugate verbs or have a vocabulary of unusual words or expressions. If you are surrounded by people who speak English and you pay attention, you will discover that in daily conversation people use a small variety of words. English, as it is spoken in daily life, is repetitive and redundant. You only need to learn how to understand and repeat the things you hear most often being said around you in order to begin “your ball of string.”

To Learn is to add something new to what you already know

When you are rolling a ball of string, as the ball gets bigger it becomes easier and easier to add more string and you will do it faster and faster. Learning is the process of adding something new to what you already know. The process is fast and efficient because you only learn what you really need to know right now. In every course, book or program for learning English, you will be asked to learn things that you don’t need immediately and you may never need. For example, a course or book might encourage you to learn, the conjugation of the verb “to write” in the present continuous: “I am writing, you are writing, he is writing, we are writing, you are writing, they are writing.” In real life you are probably never going to say any of these things, so why waste time learning them. Learn only what you need right now for your life, interests and occupation, (maybe “I’m writing to him right now” will be useful), the rest you will be able to learn easily when your ball of string is much bigger.

Watch low-budget television

This approach means that you focus on what you already know, practicing, repeating and perfecting what you know, instead of constantly trying to learn something that you don’t know and may never need. If you are living in an area where people around don’t speak English, you will have to try and artificially create the environment where the “ball of string” approach will work. I would recommend watching television soap operas—not big-budget shows. The lower the budget, the more tv-shows depend on actors talking a lot in normal dialogue and common language. You don’t even have to understand the show, just begin to understand the words and phrases that are being used most often to add to your ball of string.

What a teacher is teaching isn't necessarily what a student is learning

Even if you are taking a course to learn English, you can use this “ball of string” approach. I have often told teachers of English that what they are teaching is not necessarily what students are learning. Imagine a teacher is giving a lesson on verb tenses and asks each student in turn to repeat the different tenses. He might say “okay, good,” and “now your turn,” “very good” and “now you.” The teacher might think he is teaching the verb tenses but what the attentive, ball-of-string student will learn is “okay, good,” “now your turn,” very good” and “now you.”

Wednesday 1 May 2019

The Pronoun Wars

Pronouns and antecedents

When I first heard about "the pronoun wars," I assumed the debate was about the old problem of the correct pronoun to use when "everyone" was the antecedent.  This is the related question that I put on the mid-term exam for the course on Applied Grammar I was teaching in 1994.

You have been asked to edit an official government document.  You have to decide what to do about the following sentence: 
"In the future every university student will be required to pay 51% of the cost of their education." 
If you decide to change the sentence (or not to change it), you will have to explain your decision to three people:  Mr. Boyle,  who is a strict grammarian; Ms. Doyle, who is a proud feminist, and Mrs. Murphy, who likes to see problems solved in a practical, common-sense fashion.Explain the problem with the sentence, and give your decision and justifications.  

Traditional grammar versus feminism

The traditional grammarian would insist that the antecedent "every student" was singular, and the pronoun which followed must be the singular "his."  The feminist would not accept that all university students should be identified with the masculine "his." Ultimately I was directing students to the "professional writer's" solution, which was to restructure the sentence to eliminate the problem and impasse. However, unbeknownst to me, in the same year, psycho-linguist Steven Pinker published The Language Instinct in which he argued "that everyone and they ["their" in my example] are not an 'antecedent' and a 'pronoun' referring to the same person in the world, which would force them to agree in number.  They are a 'quantifier' and a 'bound variable'."

Singular they

Consequently, Pinker concludes:  "There is no reason that the vernacular decision to borrow they, their, them for the task is any worse than the prescriptivists' recommendation of he, him, his.  Indeed, they has the advantage of embracing both sexes and feeling right in a wide variety of sentences."  The problem I was teaching my students to correct simply did not exist in terms of linguistics, but it did perhaps persist as a sociological problem at the time.  These days Pinker's solution seems to have gained consensus, and what is known as the "singular they" has certainly become commonplace.

Pronouns in the new millennia

However, my imagining of the "pronoun wars" came nowhere near the complexity and sensitivity of the conflict as it has recently played out online and in the media.  In my 1990s reflections, the proper pronoun to use when referring to "transgender" or  "non-binary" or "non-conforming" individuals never crossed my mind.

It is impossible to research this question without encountering the name Jordan Peterson, the University of Toronto professor of psychology, who has parlayed his fifteen minutes of infamy for refusing to follow the University's transgender pronoun policy into a career as a viral presence on the internet and in the media.  My millennial counselor (my guru on all things post-2000) has strongly advised me against reading Peterson as a waste of my time.  Of course, that injunction has made me all the more curious.

Jordan Peterson:  victim or villain?

The obvious question:  why wouldn't Professor Peterson address his students in their preferred pronouns?   Isn't it just a matter of politeness to address people the way they want to be addressed?  Isn't that what we do with titles, names, nicknames, preferred middle names, etc?  The supreme irony in Peterson's interviews is that, despite the difficult lives (lives Peterson is making more difficult) of people who suffer the dysphoria of feeling or appearing that their genders have been misaligned, he manages to make himself appear the victim.

Peterson frequently refers to two letters he received from the University of Toronto which he manages to make sound quite dire.  Here are the letters in question:

The gist of the letters is "you have been making some people uncomfortable, please stop." However, Peterson is quite right to point out that they invoked "the law." The second letter states, "The law in Ontario, specifically the Ontario Human Rights Code, protects against discrimination based on gender expression and gender identity."  This overkill invocation was an invitation to Peterson to escalate his opposition.

Pronouns for every gender identity?

Peterson typically makes the valid point that the pronoun shifts being proposed by LGBT Resource Centres seem impracticable and awkward.

I am honestly confused by this table from the LGBT Resource Centre. Peterson claims that "in New York there are 31 protected gender identity categories."  I wondered if this was true, and if the number of new genders explained this plethora of pronouns.  There are over 100 pronouns in the English language.  By my count, around 40 of them might be affected by gender (presuming you need new versions of "they" and "you"). The idea of introducing 124 new pronouns into the English language is fantastical--exactly the point the project's detractors take delight in emphasizing.  Is this what advocates want or are asking for?  Do transgender individuals even care about pronouns?

Who's side are you on?

When I watched the TV Ontario episode of The Agenda with Steve Paikin on "Genders, Rights and Freedom of Speech" (which has itself become a source of controversy), I was surprised that the only transgender individual on the forum panel, Theryn Meyer, sided with Jordan Peterson in opposition to the University's pronoun policy (and the Human Rights legislation in both Ontario and Canada intended to prohibit discrimination against transgender individuals).

The Argument against "gender expression"

The intent of the recent changes to the Ontario Human Rights Code seems clear enough--and similar legislation is being proposed at the federal level and in various countries.  "Race, age, sex, and sexual orientation" seem evident categories, but I noted with interest that "The Code does not define creed" even though it is listed as a category to be protected from potential discrimination.  The newly added category of "gender identity and gender expression" is extremely vague and fluid.  It has been suggested (not entirely facetiously) that the legislation would open the door (literally) to the cisgender male using the women's locker room on the grounds that he is "expressing his female gender."

"Gender identity" and "gender expression" remain undefined

"Expression" and "identity" are problematic concepts (see "Be Yourself": Is This Really Good Advice? and "Be Yourself": Part II).  Apparently, the framers of the Code, decided to pass on the problem of definition to "the courts and tribunals," as they have done with "Creed."  Anywhere this subject is discussed, it is noted that "gender" is cultural and "sex" is biological (although some postmodern deconstructionists like to challenge the latter claim--see Deconstruction and "Ways of Talking).  "Gender" could be listed as a proscribed ground of discrimination without any reference to "expression" or "identity."

Is a new law necessary?

Just as sexual discrimination covers both men and women (even though the original impetus was discrimination against women), gender discrimination would cover every possibility from hyper masculinity to extreme femininity and every mix, variation and crossing in between--without necessarily making any reference to sex or identity or expression.  However, while this change might solve legal and discrimination issues, it does not address the question of pronouns.

Do we really need new pronouns?

Do we really need gender neutral pronouns?  Maybe.  In writing I find myself using "s/he" and "his/her" fairly frequently, or sometimes using "her" when the tradition is to use "he"--when talking about God, for example.  However, are transgender persons being served by the pronoun debate?  It seems the public sphere is being dominated by "experts" on the extreme fringes of the issue with little voice being given to the .6 percent of the population who might be personally affected.

Practical matters

I struggle to imagine myself asking someone "What pronouns do you use?"--as is recommended by LGBT Centres and legislators.  Would anyone, including a transgender person, be pleased with or even understand this question? In a personal interaction, it is highly unlikely that I would use a gendered pronoun with someone:  "you" is gender neutral, and we do not address people in the third person in English; i.e., "he/she," when we are speaking to them.

Gender binary is arbitrary (but so is language in general)

As I have commented elsewhere, the gender binary (he/she) is arbitrary and certainly isn't a necessity in the English language (see Falling in Love is Unprofessional).  Third person singular is the only gendered pronoun in English; therefore two pronouns "he/she," which expand morphological to his/her, him/her, herself/himself--a total of eight possibilities.  Not an enormous stumbling block for Anglophones, but French and other Romance languages add gender to every noun and adjective.  Is anyone seriously considering that some of the worlds most widely spoken languages are going to completely restructure themselves to become gender neutral in order to accommodate transgender individuals?

What really matters to the people most affected?

When I ask myself what is the pronoun debate really about, I come away with the conclusion that we are witnessing a variety of agendas--political agendas, academic and professional agendas, self-aggrandizing agendas--but relatively little focus on what might really matter to transgender people.  When Jordan Peterson claimed to fear that he might be accused of "hate speech" if he failed to use the correct pronouns, I thought this counterfactual claim to be farfetched.  Unfortunately his opponent in the debate, Nicolas Matt, a lecturer in Transgender Studies at the University of Toronto, was all too eager to confirm that refusing to use the required pronouns "was hate speech."

Are the pronoun wars helping or hurting LGBT individuals?

As I researched online to confirm Peterson's claim that New York had instituted "31 protected gender categories" what I immediately discovered in print and on Youtube were individuals gleefully mocking the notion of 31 different genders.  Since the point of the legislation is to protect the transgender non-conforming individuals from mockery and intimidation, I couldn't help but recognize that the legislation was providing the opportunity for widespread public mockery and intimidation.  I fault Jordan Peterson for using his authority as a professor and a psychologist, as well as a writer and intellectual, to give license to the willful ignorance of yahoos and trolls.  At the same time, LGBT communities have a lot of work to do to clarify and, I dare say, simplify their positions.  The legislated Orwellian threat of prison sentences for faulty pronouns is the wrong way to go and has encouraged a backlash against exactly the people the legislation was intended to support.

As I researched the claim of "31 protected gender categories," I eventually came across this New York City publication:

The "31 gender categories" are, in fact, an ostensive definition to explain "gender identity" and "gender expression" rather than new categories of gender.  The legislation will doubtlessly be difficult to implement, but perhaps we should all begin by attempting to understand it.

Facebook's 51 Genders

Monday 12 March 2018

The Truth about English Verb Tenses: There Is Only One!

Tense versus aspect

Some languages do not have verb tenses.  The English language has only one tense:  the simple past tense, also known as the preterite tense, which signals that an action was completed at a specific time in the past.  ESL teachers, like me once upon a time, confuse students by saying that English verb tenses refer to the past, the present or the future, but they don't really.  Once you start teaching verbs in detail you realize that we use modal auxiliaries like "will" and "going to" to refer to the future.  What we traditionally call "the present tense" refers to the present, past and future, as in the examples "I live in Canada" or "The population of Sao Paulo is 10 million."  The more difficult and significant distinction among English verbs are aspects like habitual (I study), continuous (I am studying), perfect (I have studied) and perfect continuous (I have been studying), which usually get taught as being different tenses.

Twelve tenses or four aspects?

The truth is that when I was teaching issues like verb tense I, like everyone else, always instructed my students that there were twelve different “tenses” in English.  In hindsight I recognize that by identifying the various forms of verb as referring to the past, the present or the future, I was mislabelling what the various forms indicated and necessarily misleading and confusing my students.  The crucial concept is not “tense” but “aspect” and most grammar books destined to instruct students learning English don’t even mention the concept of “aspect.”

Tenses do not correspond to the time frames which give them their names

Describing verbs as being “past,” present” or “future” is (with the exception of the past) meaningless and misleading.  The fact that English verbs can be “simple” (or habitual/repeated), “continuous” (or progressive, the French “imperfect” is sensible), “perfect” and “perfect continuous” is much more significant and meaningful.  Teaching “aspect” is a much more promising approach for getting the variations across to students than the self contradictory tradition of referring to every form of the verb as a “tense.”  The only way to prove my point is to consider each of the so-called “verb tenses.” 

Grammar and usage:  no point in one without the other

One caveat:  when teaching it was my ambition to teach grammar and usage together.  In other words, if I found myself teaching a sentence that was grammatically correct but I could never imagine anyone ever saying it in a meaningful context I would take a step back and reconsider what I was teaching.


Present tense.  “He eats spaghetti.”  Not very meaningful.  In context: “He loves spaghetti.  He eats spaghetti every chance he gets.”  We call it the “present tense” but obviously it refers to the past and the future.  The one time period “eats” does not refer to is the present.  The aspect can be described as habitual, repeated, factual or stative.

Present continuous

Present continuous.  “He is eating spaghetti.”  No obvious meaningful context.  Maybe Mom calls home to the nanny to ask what little Johnny is having for lunch.  “Is eating” does refer to the present, but it also refers to the past and the future.  In fact, in the real world we most typically use the “present continuous” to indicate the future:  “I’m seeing the doctor tomorrow.” The important issue is it’s aspect:  it signals something continuing or in progress.   The concept that students will eventually have to grasp is the difference between a “repeated” or “habitual” action and a “continuous” action.  It is difficult to come up with an absolute, teachable distinction between these aspects, but the most obvious distinction is that a continuous action can be interrupted.  (Think about it.  We all think we know the difference between a liquid and a solid but physicists have yet to come up with an absolute distinction.  Exactly at what point is a solid ice cube considered liquid water?  Same problem with continuous versus repeated.)

Present Perfect

Present perfect.  “He has eaten spaghetti.”  Can you imagine yourself saying this in the real world?  Here you would really have to stretch your imagination to come up with a meaningful context.  How about:  “He has eaten the spaghetti, but there is some lasagna left.”  This “verb tense” drives Francophones crazy because there is no equivalent tense in French, but the structure (verb “to have” + past participle) is exactly the same as the simple past in French—but it’s not the simple past in English. Again, we call it the “present perfect” but it refers to an action that has taken place in the past.  The concept that needs to be gotten across to students is the answer to "what does 'perfect' mean?"  The perfect aspect implies a time frame within which the action happens (not the action itself) that is “perfect” or “complete” or like a circle or at least has a beginning point and an end point.  The implied time frame extends from some time in the past to the moment of speaking, and the action occurs at some unspecified time within that  “perfect,”  completed time frame. 
I have presented the following scenario to try to get across the meaning of the “present perfect”:  John wants to ask Mary out, but she wants to politely, indirectly decline.  John asks “Would you like to see Star Wars with me tonight?”  Should Mary say: a) “I saw it.”  or b) “I’ve seen it.”? Native speakers will recognize “b” (the present perfect) as the correct answer but will likely be at a loss to explain that the present perfect is used to signal an action in the past (Mary’s seeing the movie) which touches the present (Mary’s declining John’s invitation).  Adverb phrases like “so far,” “already,” and “up until now” are the strongest signals that the present perfect is required.

Present perfect continuous

Present perfect continuous.  “He has been eating spaghetti.”  In this case the context is easy to imagine:  something you would say because Johnny has spaghetti sauce all over his face.  Take note that the action of this supposed “present” tense is in the past. In terms of aspect it’s “perfect” because the implied period of time extends to the present, but it’s continuous because some consequence (sauce on face) of the past action has spilled over and is continuing into the present.

Past tense

Past tense.  “He ate spaghetti.” This is a verb tense.  The one tense in English that it makes sense to describe as a tense.  The action takes place at a specific time in the past or it was repeated in the past.  It’s past tense because  the action takes  place in the past.  The past tense uses all four aspects:  simple, continuous, perfect and perfect continuous.

Past continuous

Past continuous.  “He was eating spaghetti.” The important distinction to be learned is between the simple past aspect and the continuous aspect—exactly the same concept necessary to grasp the difference between the simple present and the present continuous; i.e., the continuous can be interrupted.

Past perfect

Past perfect.  “He had eaten spaghetti.” This usage seems a bit off.  When might you say this?  More likely, the context would demand “some spaghetti” or “the spaghetti” as in “His sister was angry because he had eaten the spaghetti” or “He got sick after he had eaten some spaghetti.”   The context needs to make the “spaghetti” more specific in order for the action of eating it to have been completed in a past time frame. The action took place in the past, but the important distinction is the implied, “perfect,” “completed” time frame within which the action took place.

Past perfect continuous

Past perfect continuous.  “He had been eating spaghetti.”  Here an imagined context jumps out at you.  It’s “perfect” (in the sense of completed, defined,  limited, or full-circle) because the action happened within an implied (or expressed) time frame, but “continuous” because some consequence passed or spilled over the implied limit—“ . . . and had noodles on his shirt” or “ garlic on his breath” or “he had to stop when someone knocked on the door.”


Future.  “He will eat spaghetti.”  Unless prefaced by something Biblical like “God said . . . ,” I find it hard to imagine how this might be a statement about the future.  In general, I don’t see this as being a tense.  “Will” + the root infinitive seems more like all the other modals—“can,” “should,” “may,” “must,” “might,” “would”—than a verb tense.   Our sample only makes sense to me as a conditional sentence:  “If there is nothing else available, he will eat spaghetti.” Anglophones typically express the future by using the expression “going to.”

Future continuous

Future continuous:  “He will be eating spaghetti.”  Same argument as above—not a verb tense.  Still seems a modal to me.  Again, the important distinction is aspect:  continuous versus habitual.

Future perfect

Future perfect:  “He will have eaten spaghetti.”  Ditto the argument.  This is a modal verb + the perfect aspect, not a verb tense. 

Future perfect continuous

Future perfect continuous:  “He will have been eating.” Ditto previous claims about “will” as a modal and aspect.

Thursday 28 December 2017

What Is English Grammar? More Importantly, What Isn't English Grammar?

The Split Infinitive:  “To really error is human.”

One of my senior colleagues was taken aback when I, a tenured professor of English and Comparative Literature, volunteered to teach a course on Applied Grammar.  Teaching grammar was not at the top of the prestige ladder.  “Are you sure you are ready to start teaching about split infinitives?” he asked me.  I thought he was pulling my leg, but I wasn’t sure, so I photocopied a page from Steve Pinker’s The Language Instinct and slid it under his door.  He never responded.

[. . .] ‘don’t split infinitives,’ ‘don’t end a sentence with a preposition’ can be traced back to these eighteenth-century fads. Of course, forcing modern speakers of English to not split an infinitive because it isn’t done in Latin makes about as much sense as forcing modern residents of England to wear laurels and togas. (The Language Instinct 374)

I would like to emphatically reiterate what Pinker is pointing out.  (Did you notice that I just split the infinitive and ended the sentence with a preposition?) The notion that there is something wrong with  putting a word between the “to” and “reiterate” (as I have done) or ending a sentence with a preposition comes from the ludicrous but long-lasting notion that the English language should follow the rules of Latin grammar. (In Latin you cannot split the infinitive because the infinitive is one word, nor can you end a Latin sentence with a preposition.)

According to Bill Bryson, in The Mother Tongue:  English and How It Got that Way, the source of the notion that we shouldn't end an English sentence with a preposition "was one Robert Lowth, an eighteenth-century clergyman and amateur grammarian whose A Short Introduction to English Grammar, published in 1762, enjoyed a long and distressingly influential life both in his native England and abroad." As Bryson points out, Lowth was never adamant about this "rule," but thought it preferable in "solemn and elevated" writing. In later years, literal-minded academics would insist, on the grounds the Latin root of the word "preposition" was "place before," that a preposition must be placed before something.

Definitions of grammar:  theirs, yours and mine

Surfing the internet for definitions of grammar, I was surprised to discover that there are even more definitions than I had anticipated, and most of them are even less helpful than I suspected. I think it would be useful to talk about grammar according to what most people think the word means.  Experts and pseudo-experts talking about grammar almost invariably include areas of language under the category of “grammar” which make grammar a lot more complicated and difficult to grasp.  A helpful starting point (at least for you and me) would be to eliminate much of what gets included with but really isn’t English grammar.

What isn’t English grammar

If you have ever studied English grammar, chances are you used a textbook with a title like “Grammar and Usage” or “Grammar and Composition.”  What you may not have stopped to realize is that “usage” isn’t “grammar”; “composition” isn’t “grammar.”  You may have seen “grammar” defined as “a study of the language.”  “Linguistics” is “the study of language,” though “grammar” might turn out to be the product of that study.  Perhaps the hardest distinction to make is between “semantics” and “grammar”; that is, between meaning and the rules for putting words together.  If a student writes “A dozen is twenty-one” or “The Earth is the largest body in the Universe,” these statements are wrong and may not even be what the student meant to say, but they are not ungrammatical.  There are no errors in grammar in these sentences.

Grammar in the everyday world

When people usually ask about English grammar it is because they want to know “is this right?” or more pointedly “is this a mistake?”  The kind of grammar they are asking about is more precisely known as “prescriptive grammar”; that is, the language as people are supposed to speak and write it. "Prescriptive grammar," how people should use English, is typically contrasted with “descriptive grammar,” how people actually do use English.  Prescriptive grammar has developed a bad reputation and gone out of fashion because, among other things, it has been held responsible for absurdities like the split-infinitive and no-preposition-at-the-end-of-a-sentence rules. However, if we want to talk about grammar in the sense that most people have in mind when they use the word, then we need to focus on prescriptive grammar.

Errors in grammar

With descriptive grammar, since its intention is simply to describe usage, the concept of an error hardly exists.  To point out a mistake is to invoke prescriptive grammar. If we keep to this precise and strict definition of grammar, what grammar is becomes much clearer.  In fact, there are only four different types of errors in grammar:

  1. Errors of word order (syntax)
  2. Errors of word type (adjectives versus adverbs for example)
  3. Errors of agreement (eg, yesterday requires the past tense of the verb)
  4. Errors of word form (morphology, actually a sub-category of “agreement” and  "type”)
There are many other ways that we can make mistakes in English—spelling, punctuation, vocabulary, vague pronoun reference, faulty parallelism, redundancies, dangling modifiers and so on—but they are not, strictly speaking, errors in grammar.  And speaking strictly is exactly what I am trying to do here. If you want to reverse the direction and speak of English grammar in the affirmative: it is the rules for putting words in the right order, using the correct word type in each position, and ensuring that the parts are in agreement or concordance with each other.

Grammar versus discourse

Grammar is a collection of those rules that apply within a complete sentence.  How the sentences and parts of sentences are connected together is called “discourse.” The rules of discourse are generally more difficult to specify, but they are what you are being taught if you are studying writing or composition or rhetoric.

Spoken versus written English

It is an exaggeration to claim that grammar does not apply to spoken English but, in fact, moving outside of complete sentences it becomes increasingly difficult to apply the rules of syntax, word type and agreement.  People do not speak English in complete sentences.  A lot of spoken language is just grunts and nods. 

Steve Pinker observes:
The Watergate tapes are the most famous and extensive transcripts of real-life speech ever published.  When they were released, Americans were shocked. [ . . . .] one thing that surprised everyone was what ordinary conversation looks like when it is written down verbatim.  Conversation out of context is virtually opaque. [. . . .] even when transcribed perfectly, conversation is hard to interpret.  People often speak in fragments, interrupting themselves in midsentence to reformulate the thought or change the subject. (The Language Instinct 224)

People remain generally unaware of the degree to which written and spoken English are different kinds of discourse. The rules of grammar still apply but only in about the same degree as the rules of the NHL (National Hockey League) apply to street hockey or the rules of golf apply to most of the guys I play with.

The Latin origins for the parts of speech in English grammar.

Why Is the Vagina Masculine? And What’s the Alternative?

“Vagina” is masculine  I first came across this factoid thirty years ago in Daphne Marlatt’s novel Ana Historic .   It came up again more r...