Teaching Zombie Rules

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In a comment yesterday, Emily asked:

I tutor the SATs, including the writing section, in addition to helping students with other kinds of writing.

What am I supposed to tell my students about zombie rules? The fact is that some misguided teachers and graders may enforce them. (SAT graders not so much, though–-I think I'm close to getting a handle on what those people are looking out for.)

When I was in school I breezed happily by all this nonsense because I had smart teachers and a strong authorial voice. But not all of my students do. So what to say?

Let me start by quoting Rob Balder's PartiallyClips for 2/17/2009, which celebrates all of us who, like Emily, escaped from school with our souls intact:

(Click on the image for a larger version)

But what's the right answer to Emily's question?

My own suggestion is to present this problem as a matter of "audience design".

Some scientific publications forbid the use of first-person pronouns. Thus the Acoustical Society of America explicitly intructs those submitting papers that they should

Use passives instead of pronouns "I" and "we," e.g., "It was noted" instead of "We noted."

This is obviously not a claim about the English language, or even an entirely general fact about scientific writing, where you can often find sentences like these:

To get further insights in the molecular mechanisms, we reduced endogenous TERT levels by shRNA and measured mitochondrial reactive oxygen species (mtROS).

Rather, the prohibition of first-person pronouns is an idiosyncratic quirk of certain organizations, who have elevated into a "rule" the tendency of scientific and technical writing to be objective, detached and impersonal.

We could argue about whether this tendency is a Good Thing (because objectivity should be valued in scientific discourse) or a Bad Thing (because it encourages people to hide their motivations and their doubts). And  if we agree that impersonal prose should be our goal, we could argue about whether elimating first-person pronouns in favor of passive-voice clauses is a good way to get there. But if we're submitting something to the Acoustical Society of America, this whole discussion is beside the point — we need to play by their rules.

It seems to me that you can teach "zombie rules" in something like this same way.

That is, you can explain what the "rule" is; you can tell the story of its history and its motivation; you can demonstrate that it's not really a fact about the English language in general, or even about formal written English as used by the best writers over the course of history; and you can tell the students where they are likely to run into people who believe in this particular myth, or at least may try to enforce it.

The result should be to teach the students a little something about the structure of the English language, a bit of sociolinguistics, and a little intellectual history to boot.

The Zombie Rule forbidding phrase-final prepositions, lampooned here, is an especially good candidate for this treatment. Students get to learn what a relative clause is, who John Dryden, Ben Jonson, and Winston Churchill were, and perhaps, if you can invent a clean enough version of the standard joke that's still funny, what a vocative is.

The Zombie Rule forbidding initial coordinators is not quite as good a case, since I don't think there's a striking anecdote about how it got started. But you can tell a story about the good motivations that this "rule" perverts; you can teach a little bit of syntax; you can give examples of great writers who use sentence-initial and and or; you can find some examples where sentence-initial and is used inappropriately, or is over-used; and all this should lead to a good discussion about the stylistic and rhetorical issues involved.



  1. Andrew Shields said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 11:13 am

    In other words, Emily, this is a case where it is legitimate to "teach the controversy."

    More seriously, I can only second the idea of "audience design" here. If you know your audience has specific demands, then you should follow them, or you will not get heard.

  2. Mary said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 11:28 am

    This approach is almost exactly the one I took when teaching English, though I didn't have but so much time to spend on it and as a result focused mostly on the sociolinguistics element. I presented academic writing as the language of power: like it or not, people with power (your future college professors and bosses) may judge you negatively for failing to adhere to these "rules," ridiculous though they may be. So it behooves you to learn them now and break them at your discretion.

    Some of the students (high school sophomores) got it; others just wanted me to tell them what to do. I do think that a certain amount of "follow these arbitrary rules until they become second nature" is necessary in learning to write. It's like learning a sport: you have to understand the concept intellectually, sure; but then you just have to do it over and over and over again.

    On the other hand (okay, this is kind of a segue), my mother was telling me on the phone last night how frustrated she was to hear NPR commentators mixing up "lie" and "lay." I pointed out that language leveling–the blurring of unnecessary distinctions between forms–can be used extremely effectively in historical linguistics. So, for example, one of the numerous reasons we believe it's impossible for Ecclesiastes to have been written by Solomon is that it shows a tendency to confuse final -m and -n, which in Biblical Hebrew distinguish between feminine and masculine plural suffix endings. In rabbinic texts, this distinction is lost entirely–telling us that Ecclesiastes was almost certainly one of the last biblical books to be composed, centuries after Solomon would have lived.

    So who knows? Maybe in five hundred years scholars will be dating our blog posts by the extent to which we follow the zombie rules. If it gets them tenure, I'm okay with it.

  3. Benjamin said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 12:16 pm

    Sorry, what's the standard joke about vocatives?

    [(myl) It's not a joke about vocatives, it's a joke about phrase-final prepositions. There's a version of it here. The version that I first heard (in grade school, half a century ago) is told e.g. here:

    A Hoosier visiting Harvard University met a Harvard man on Harvard yard and asked, "Can you tell me where the library's at?" The Harvard man was shocked. "At Harvard we don't end our sentences with prepositions," he said. "Oh," replied the Hoosier. 'Can you tell me where the library's at, asshole?"

    This version, though traditional, has the problem that it conflates the final-preposition business with the non-standard use of at following a form of to be in an indirect question with where. ]

  4. David Marjanović said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

    Then may I offer a version without the at:

    Texan: Where're you from?
    Harvard man: From a place where we don't end our sentences with prepositions.
    Texan: (thoughtful silence)
    Texan: OK. Where're you from, jackass?

  5. Suzanna said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 1:36 pm

    My favorite final-preposition joke is a sentence that ends with 5 prepositions (although they may not all be used as prepositions here). A young boy is sick in bed and asks his mother to read to him. She comes upstairs with a book that apparently displeases him. He throws it across the room and yells "What did you bring that book that I didn't want to be read to out of up for?"

  6. SteveDT said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 1:37 pm

    There are two audiences for the writing mechanics portion of the SAT reasoning test: the people at the College Board who write the multiple choice questions and the people who read the essays.

    Some old LL posts that were published in Far from the Maddening Gerund (great book!) dealt with problems with the SAT's multiple choice questions. The College Board is sort of like the US version of the French Academy, so if they are enforcing zombie rules that would be a matter of great concern. As a parent of high school kids, I've looked at some recent tests, though, and I did not see anything objectionable.

    Regarding the essays, the advice above is good, but the risk that your student's essay will be marked down for a violation of a zombie rule is, I think, pretty small.

    [(myl) Thanks for the kind words about the book! All of its contents can still be found in the LL archives, including two relevant posts "The SAT fails a grammar test" (1/31/2005), and "Test taking as audience design" (2/1/2005).

    I agree with you that Zombie Rules are very unlikely to be a source of trouble in the essay grading. I'm not sure about the multiple choice questions -- I wonder whether ETS has takn the advice to avoid questions about contested grammatical or stylistic issues where "No error" is one of the answers.]

  7. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 2:46 pm

    Re David Marjanović at 1:30 pm:

    Have there, in fact, been usage mavens in English who would argue for "From where are you?" (Or perhaps they'd say "From where you do come?")

  8. Brett said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 3:09 pm

    I wanted to comment on the passives that are often used in scientific papers. Many journal style guides that I'm familiar with actually discourage (or forbid) the use of passives (and other things commonly found in scientific prose, like the use of the royal "we" to refer to the author of a paper, even when there is only a single author). However, the rules in favor of such constructions persist as zombies, and even when they are not theoretically allowed by the journal style, they are generally permitted to slip through. Personally, I find it refreshing to read articles that present material in active voice and without superfluous first person plural pronouns. Yet there is a perception that writing with the passives is more modest (although the Physical Review style guide calls this "false modesty"); however, I personally enjoy reading papers with more personality and which aren't afraid to sound outspoken. (For example, the first paper by Robert Laughlin—who is undoubtedly a character—outlining his Nobel-Prize-winning work on the fractional quantum Hall effect contains a wonderful first-person narrative.)

  9. bianca steele said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 3:55 pm

    Aren’t you being a little hard on the editorial committee of the Acoustical Society of America? I think there are reasonable objections to both practices (passive and first-person). Since there’s no one perfect way, why not consider both acceptable?
    (sorry this went on the wrong thread initially — I clicked "back" too few times)

    [(myl) The ASA's rule is just an editorial policy, which makes no claims about the nature of the English language, or even about relative stylistic quality. And the policy is not completely arbitrary or stupid, though it's not one I would choose for a journal that I edited. So I didn't mean to give them a hard time at all.]

  10. Karl Weber said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 5:11 pm

    The College Board outsources the reading of SAT essays to English teachers who are paid a modest sum to read scores of essays quickly and attach a single "holistic" score to each one. In other words, it's a matter of reading the thing, deciding "This deserves a 3" or "This gets a 4" and then moving on the next one. I strongly doubt any single detail like the ones covered by zombie rules would have any real impact on a student's score.

  11. Peter Seibel said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 5:49 pm

    I have a vague recollection that Suzanna's favorite: "What did you bring that book that I didn't want to be read to out of up for?" was actually made up by the much-maligned (around here) E.B. White. Not that that would excuse his many sins in The Elements of Style, but maybe he wasn't all bad.
    [Actually, we've often praised E.B. White's writing in LL posts, for instance here and here.]

  12. Andrew said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 5:50 pm

    Suzanna: There is an expanded version of your story, in which the book is about Australia. The boy says 'What did you bring that book that I didn't want to be read to out of about Down Under up for?'

    (Yes, I know this is not really an example of final prepositions.)

  13. bianca steele said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 6:00 pm

    Okay. (It's clear when you talk about "rules" and "objectivity," you don't view them in a negative way.)

    I'll remember this next time you use similar rhetoric.

  14. John Cowan said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 6:07 pm

    Skullturf: It's "Whence come you?", of course.

    Karl Weber: That depends on whether the teacher who gets your paper is the kind who is cheesed off every time that particular button gets pushed, in which case you may lose a point over it.

  15. dr pepper said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 7:33 pm

    Whither comest thou?

  16. Stephen Jones said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 8:37 pm

    kullturf: It's "Whence come you?", of course.When they pick up the phone in a Sri Lankan office one of the questions they will ask almost immediately is "Where from?". In British English we would say "Who's calling?" but until we realized that plenty of us globe-trotters found ourself paralyzed with existential angst trying to fathom out where exactly we were from.

  17. Adrian Morgan said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 8:45 pm

    My least-favourite teacher, back in seventh grade, enforced lots of her own invented rules. The fact that no student could possibly mistake these rules for facts about the English language is a small mercy.

    For example, in each essay or story written in her class, every sentence had to begin with a different word. I get the point of that as an exercise to help students think about their sentence beginnings, but applied to every written item for an entire year, it's really absurd. Moreover, every paragraph had to contain at least seven sentences, and every sentence had to contain at least eleven words.

    Writing in her class was far more about compliance with the rules than about originality, expression, clarity, etc. Her teaching method was highly authoritarian, with students being required to adhere strictly to her methods for doing pretty much anything (not just writing).

  18. bianca steele said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 9:09 pm

    I realize that this comment is getting off-topic for a thread about teaching to the SAT's, but the problem is that once out of school, we are often writing for a numerous and heterogeneous audience. Tailoring your writing to the person by whom you'll be evaluated is not necessarily an adequate solution.

    In the case of the SAT's, it simply shifts the burden of answering the question to the experts in Princeton.

  19. Tom Saylor said,

    February 26, 2009 @ 9:32 pm

    To Emily:

    The readers of SAT essays score holistically. They emphasize development and organization of ideas. They reward what they call “syntactical variety” but generally do not mark down for grammatical errors unless those errors are egregious and pervasive.

    The multiple-choice questions on the SAT Writing exam *do* test the examinee’s ability to detect and correct grammatical errors, but they are errors that are widely recognized as such–not the grammatical superstitions that are regularly derided here on Language Log.

    So, to answer your question, you can tell your students that they may safely ignore the “zombie rules” as they prepare to take the SAT.

  20. Sridhar Ramesh said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 4:16 am

    Eh, just heading over to the SAT site right now to try out some sample questions, while things were a far sight better than how they could've been, I did see at least two examples of some silly bugaboos being given credence: first, that any dangling modifier is to be avoided, no matter how unlikely it is to actually cause any effective ambiguity ("Looking up from the base of the mountain, the trail seemed more treacherous than it really was." is to be judged inferior to "Viewed from…" for this reason), and that singular "they" is always proscribed, even when its antecedent is a collective noun ("After hours of futile debate, the committee has decided to postpone further discussion of the resolution until their next meeting" is to be judged erroneous for this reason). But perhaps my intuition about the grammaticality and reasonableness of all these sentences is off-base.

    [(myl) That "committee" question is the one that I discussed a few years ago ("The SAT fails a grammar test", 1/31/2005). My objection is not so much to the claim about they (though they is routinely used to refer to committee in official documents from respected sources, such as the National Academy of Sciences), as to the fact that one of the multiple-choice answers is "No error". This forces to the test-taker to know the ideology of the test-maker rather than the material being tested. In general, allowing "No error" as an alternative answer to questions about contested "rules" of grammar is a really, really bad idea; and I'm disappointed that ETS is apparently still abusing students this way.]

  21. Sridhar Ramesh said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 4:24 am

    I mean, eh, if that's the worst there is, then that's really good. But those two questions bugged me (not because I believe no one could reasonably disagree with my judgements that the provided sentences were already perfectly acceptable, but because I believe one could also reasonably agree with me; I'd rather not see questions testing matters where there is such variation possible).

  22. Stephen Jones said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 5:20 am

    Sridhar, I attended a workshop on writing questions for English Proficiency exams and we would spend half an hour on particular questions and if there was any chance that there could be two answers, then the question would be junked.

    Is a test of whether a sentence is correct or not much use for assessing native speaker competence anyway. Useful for testing those for whom English is a Second Language, but surely just encouraging a "memorize the shbboleth" attitude for native speakers.

  23. Alex Churchill said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 5:36 am

    I lately lost a preposition;
    It hid, I thought, beneath my chair
    And angrily I cried, "Perdition!
    Up from out of under there!"
    Correctness is my vade mecum,
    And straggling phrases I abhor,
    And yet I wondered, "What should he come
    Up from out of under for?"
    (Not original to me – some sources attribute it to Morris Bishop – but the most delightful composition on final prepositions of which I'm aware. ;) Closely followed by the one about Down Under.)

  24. Stephen Jones said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 5:40 am

    I've just had a go at the practice questions. Number 9 is one question I would have junked:

    Joshua's radical ideas were frowned on by most of his coworkers, who found them too ——- for their conservative tastes.
    A heretical
    B meticulous
    C precise
    D incoherent
    E sagacious

    I would have said both A and D are correct. After all 'incoherence' is a much more common term of abuse for points you don't like than 'heresy'.

    Writing these kind of questions though is incredibly difficult. For the TOEFL Test writers often have to do a year or two's apprenticeship before they're even allowed to produce a question on their own.

  25. Jim said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 8:54 am

    I think I must be terribly lucky. First of all, going through the Canadian high school system we didn't have yecchy standardized tests like the SATs, so I think conformity of writing style just wasn't something that needed to be enforced.

    I took seven English courses with five different teachers and I don't remember any of them being enforcers of zombie rules save one, an elderly teacher who wandered the class with a yardstick during our reading time and would thwack your desk mightily if she thought you weren't actually reading.

  26. Tom Saylor said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 9:09 am

    To Sridhar:

    I think a dangling participle of that sort is pretty widely recognized as a genuine grammatical error—something to be avoided in formal writing. It certainly doesn’t belong in the same class as the split infinitive and the terminal preposition. Such usage betrays a sloppiness of thought that goes a long way toward distinguishing a weaker college applicant from a stronger one. Whether it creates irresoluble ambiguity or not really isn’t the issue. It’s rare that a grammatical error seriously impedes understanding of the sentence in which it occurs. Think, for instance, of sentences displaying subject-verb disagreement. They are, for the most part, readily understood, despite their ungrammaticality. The rationale that you must avoid grammatical errors primarily because otherwise you won’t be properly understood is just another pedagogical fairy-tale, told by the same schoolmarms who rap your knuckles for starting a sentence with “Because.”

    I don’t think the “committee” question can reasonably be taken to imply a universal proscription on the use of “they” or "their" with an antecedent that is singular in form. Agreement with the singular verb “has” requires that “the committee” be construed as singular in this sentence. Consistency then requires that a singular pronoun be used to refer to the noun phrase so construed.

  27. Chris said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 9:22 am

    @Stephen Jones: I see why they would prefer A, but I think D isn't wrong enough. Wrong answers on a test like that need to be unambiguously wrong, so that only an error of knowledge (as opposed to a difference in interpretation) would lead you to accept them. The same principle applies to Sridhar Ramesh's examples.

    Presumably the reason A is preferred in Stephen Jones's example is that it ties in to the hints dropped elsewhere in the sentence, but if you actually put it together, the sentence sounds redundant, or perhaps sarcastic (like his radical ideas were actually from 1950).

    On the other hand, particularly to an American, the idea of something being "too incoherent for conservative tastes" is itself incoherent. American conservatives don't mind incoherence a bit, as long as it pushes the right buttons. I doubt if something that subtle was the point they were aiming for, though.

  28. bianca steele said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 9:49 am

    Sridhar and Stephen raise an interesting question about ESL instruction and testing at the university level. Surely in the US it is not designed for people from Commonwealth countries who've been studying classroom English since they were five or six years old. I've always thought of it as designed for people who arrive in the US knowing very little English, and learn most of what they know after their arrival.

    The SAT's, on the other hand, were originally intended to be a general purpose exam, almost like an IQ test. They don't assume a prescribed curriculum, as the AP exams or the English GSE and A levels do. If I remember correctly, they are justified by the fact that they predict undergraduate performance, that is, statistically, and by no other goal. (Teacher training, on the other hand, is partly standardized by the government, at least for the public — state-run — schools, and has been since the nineteenth century.)

    [(myl) Just FYI, the value of SATs in predicting undergraduate performance is lower than you might think. In a recent study by Rebecca Zwick and Jeffrey G. Sklar ("Predicting College Grades and Degree Completion Using High School Grades and SAT Scores", American Educational Research Journal, 42(3): 439-464, 2005), the combination of high school GPA and SAT accounted for between 7% and 20% of the variance in first-year college GPA, for a variety of ethnic and linguistic subgroups of students. The overall R2 was .152, and the standardized regression coefficient associated with high school GPA was more than twice as great as the the coefficient associated with SAT score. Specifically, the SAT coefficient was .154, indicating that a change of one standard deviation in SAT score (roughly 110 points for students near the mean of 500) was associated with a change of less than a sixth of a standard deviation in first-year college GPA. ]

    I don't see any issue in testing the same shibboleths in TOEFL tests that a native speaker would be required to answer on the SAT's.

  29. Arnold Zwicky said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 10:12 am

    Tom Saylor: "I think a dangling participle of that sort is pretty widely recognized as a genuine grammatical error—something to be avoided in formal writing. … Such usage betrays a sloppiness of thought …"

    Language Loggers have been posting on "dangling modifiers" from early on; see Geoff Pullum here and here. From the first posting:

    But the prescriptivists have a problem. Sentences of this kind, which call for you to fill in the understood subject from somewhere else …, are so common that when I and several friends have spent some time picking new ones up from print and radio sources, we get them at a rate of as many as one per day. [AMZ: I am one of those friends, and my collection is approaching a thousand.] That's in edited sources, where grammatical errors have almost entirely been screened out. This just cannot be syntactic error. It's too frequent.

    Dangling modifiers occur in the works of writers from Chaucer through Shakespeare, Austen, Stevenson, Emerson, Mill, etc. (and in the U.S. Declaration of Independence); most of these examples go unnoticed. (See the discussion in MWDEU.) Some examples that seem problematic out of context are fine when they're seen in their context. (Part of the problem with the examples on tests is that no context is supplied.) But of course sometimes they go awry, and the result can be humorous; Geoff P. labels these as failures of manners, not of grammar.

    More discussion in this handout.

  30. Tom Saylor said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 11:15 am

    To Arnold Zwicky:

    Thanks. I recall that

  31. Tom Saylor said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 11:19 am

    To Arnold Zwicky:

    Thanks. I recall that Geoffrey Pullum also posted this


    He concludes that "some dangling participles are more than minor style imperfections, they are crashingly impermissible."

  32. Skullturf Q. Beavispants said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 11:29 am

    Tom Saylor at 9:09 am, second paragraph:

    By that reasoning, we would have to "correct" the sentence

    My family is meeting in Pittsburgh on Saturday; I am cooking dinner for them.

    so that it instead reads

    My family is meeting in Pittsburgh on Saturday; I am cooking dinner for it.

  33. Stephen Jones said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 12:31 pm

    I think with the SATS the point is that with training you can see what the examiners want. Here they've chosen the word 'heretical' as the item to be tested and then made an awkward question and allowed an arguably valid alternative.

    The TOEFL does not test the same shibboleths as the SAT. EFL teaching has its own collection of shibboleths.

    There was a long post by Mark on singular and plural agreement with committee. For many collectives American English prefers the singular verb to the plural, whereas English tends to go with the plural (committee being a case where it doesn't) but it varies word by word And you'll see both usages in American English for most verbs

  34. Tom Saylor said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 1:26 pm

    Skullturf Q. Beavispants wrote:

    By that reasoning, we would have to "correct" the sentence

    My family is meeting in Pittsburgh on Saturday; I am cooking dinner for them.

    so that it instead reads

    My family is meeting in Pittsburgh on Saturday; I am cooking dinner for it.

    To which I respond:

    Not quite. The same reasoning would allow

    "My family are meeting in Pittsburgh on Saturday; I am cooking dinner for them."

    This has the advantage of being both idiomatic and consistent.

    I take your point, though, and it’s an interesting one. Some collective nouns seem to be very resistant to singular interpretation, particularly when it comes to pronoun agreement. However, I don’t think “committee” is one of them.

    [(myl) I used a similar example in a post on this topic several years ago ("Collective nouns with singular verbs and plural pronouns", 2/5/2005), and argued that neither "...is...it" nor "...are...them" expressed what I happened to want to say. I also observed that with family, singular verbs with plural pronouns are commoner on the web than any of the other alternatives. And in my post on the SAT's committee example, I observed that "this kind of constructio ad sensum has a distinguished enough history to have a special name in traditional grammar: synesis".

    With respect, I believe that the insistence that "consistency" needs to be observed here is a rationalization supported neither by historical nor by current patterns of usage. ]

  35. bianca steele said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 2:05 pm

    Sometimes saying "that's bad manners" is like saying "that's unfair." It recognizes that certain situations require certain behavior, but cultural variance also exists.

  36. Sridhar Ramesh said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 2:23 pm

    One minor observation about the comment system: as opposed to regular comments, when Language Loggers reply to commenters in red, there is no timestamp, sometimes making the chronology of the discussion appear skewed afterwards. No big deal, but would it be possible to change that? [I have no idea how the software here works; perhaps it would be more hassle than it's worth]

    [(myl - 15:36 2/272009) Actually, some LLers comment in green or blue or other colors... But more seriously, you're right that a time stamp would often be helpful. Alternatively, we could just add comments in the normal sequence -- but it seems to me that it's helpful to have a better thematic connection. The best thing would be to have a threaded comment system -- probably such a thing exists somewhere off in WordPress Land. We'll look into it.]

  37. Tom Saylor said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 3:12 pm

    To Mark Liberman:

    Thanks for the references (and please note that it was not I but Skullturf who cribbed your example.) In the 2/5/2005 post you make a strong, intuitively appealing, case for the inconsistent treatment of “family” in certain contexts, but I’m not convinced that it generalizes to all ( or even many) collective nouns in all contexts. I think many people who would unflinchingly write “My family is coming, and I’m cooking for them” would shrink from writing “The committee has completed their task.”

    [(myl 18:28 2/27/2009) I have no proprietary feelings about the example -- all are welcome to it. Here's another one, from Henry James (The Bostonians, ch. 2):

    His family was ruined; they had lost their slaves, their property, their friends and relations, their home; had tasted of all the cruelty of defeat.

    It seems to me that both "consistent" options are worse in this case as well.

    I do agree that "the committee has completed its task" is better than "...their task". But other examples with committee strike me differently -- thus I'm happy to allow Thomas Jefferson to write that "On this branch of their subject, the committee of 1757-1758 says that...", or "A committee of the board was duly appointed to [...] They found it necessary to [...]"]

  38. bianca steele said,

    February 27, 2009 @ 5:40 pm

    I'm just a tiny bit troubled by some of the comments, Mary's in particular, and also by the way Emily described the problem. Suppose I were a corporate manager, someone who supervises a handful of people, trying to learn more about language: primarily I'd be interested in how I should write e-mails so I'll sound more persuasive, but I'd also be picking up hints on how to evaluate people who work for me or might work for me. Should I be concerned, for example, about those of my employees who seem to have "breezed through" their early education because of a "strong voice" (something that might never have occurred to me before I read Emily's description)? Should I suggest that they obey "zombie rules" because I've learned from Mary that the people in power in society always prefer them?

  39. Aaron Davies said,

    February 28, 2009 @ 2:50 am

    fwiw, plural verbs with "family" sound strongly of BrE to me, reminiscent of "the team are"

  40. Emily said,

    March 1, 2009 @ 11:36 pm

    Oh my god I'm on Language Log!!! This is amazing!!!

  41. Emily said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 12:49 am

    In retrospect, I actually don't know why I even mentioned the SATs, since I know what's on those and what to say about it.

    For the fascinated:

    Circa 2005, the "improving sentences" section did not care if you

    split infinitives
    ended sentences with prepositions
    began sentences with conjunctions
    used "they" to refer to a single person of unknown gender
    or used the passive voice.

    (It was and is quite often the case that in the course of revising the sentence, the passive voice is replaced by the active voice, but there's always another problem with the sentence.)

    It cared whether you understood verb agreement (numerical)
    um… "noun agreement" ("my little sisters want to be an astronaut")
    verb tense
    parallel construction
    dangling participles
    idiom use (lots of preposition stuff)
    the idea that every sentence should have a verb in it somewhere
    pronoun problems (ambiguous pronouns, incorrect pronouns, inconsistant pronouns)
    incorrect conjunctions
    comma splices
    verbs used as adverbs
    writing terrible sentences full of extraneous words

    The item here that drives me craziest is the parallel construction issue. In practice, most of the examples are unobjectionable: sure, you probably don't want to say "China exports more bees than Peru" or "he had to finish his homework, do the dishes, and the dog needed to be walked."

    But you might be marked wrong if you take no issue with sentences like "she was tall and had skill."

    And in theory, the College Board would prefer you not say "he was gloriously debauched, and had the gleeful amorality of the already damned." A sentence like that would never be on the test, but it undercuts the idea that parallelism is some sort of broad principle.

  42. Emily said,

    March 2, 2009 @ 12:51 am

    And to answer bianca steele's question above: yes, you should be very, very concerned about people who breezed through their early educations.

  43. Tom Saylor said,

    March 3, 2009 @ 7:23 am

    I don’t think you’ll find the “she was tall and had skill” construction tested as an error in the Identifying Sentence Errors portion of the test. You might find it in the Improving Sentences portion of the test, where it would be tested not as a grammatical error but as a stylistically inferior alternative to “she was tall and skilled.” Actually, you’re more likely to find something even less felicitous as the inferior alternative, e.g., “she was tall, athletic, and had skill,” with the option of revising it to “she was tall, athletic, and skilled.”

  44. Metapost: Four quick links « Motivated Grammar said,

    March 21, 2009 @ 2:50 pm

    [...] first is Mark Liberman's Language Log post "Teaching Zombie Rules", which offers a potential answer to the problem I find myself in quite a lot: how should one [...]

  45. Dangling postings « Arnold Zwicky’s Blog said,

    October 8, 2009 @ 2:06 pm

    [...] ML, 2/26/09: Teaching zombie rules: (link) [...]

  46. John Cowan said,

    August 26, 2010 @ 10:05 am

    My father used to say in jest that one should say "The jury is in agreement" but "The jury are in disagreement."

  47. Zombie Words Attack! | Wordnik ~ all the words said,

    February 10, 2012 @ 12:53 pm

    [...] In terms of grammar, you may want to ignore zombie rules, “a long list of peeves on the part of single individuals that somehow made it into grammar books and teaching materials.” The term was coined by linguist Arnold Zwicky, who writes about zombie rules here, here, and here. Mark Liberman at Language Log writes about teaching zombie rules here. [...]

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