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

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, 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:

https://thevarsity.ca/2016/10/24/u-of-t-letter-asks-jordan-peterson-to-respect-pronouns-stop-making-statements/

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.


HE/SHEHIM/HERHIS/HERHIS/HERSHIMSELF/HERSELF
ziezimzirziszieself
siesiehirhirshirself
eyemeireirseirself
vevervisversverself
teytertemtersterself
eemeireirsemself
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, simply their positions.  The legislated, Orwellian menace of prison sentences for faulty pronouns is the wrong way to go and has simply encouraged a backlash against exactly the people the legislation was intended to protect.

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

https://www1.nyc.gov/assets/cchr/downloads/pdf/publications/GenderID_Card2015.pdf

The "31 gender categories" are, in fact, an ostensive definition of the phrases "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



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.

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