Would a linguist always grade your writing A+?

« previous post | next post »

I occasionally wonder whether people might be picking up the wrong idea about the descriptive orientation we tend to promote here on Language Log: because we so often point out that edicts defended by conservative usage pundits lack support from either decent writing or common sense, people might imagine that if college papers were graded by a linguist everyone would get an A+, because the instructor would endorse and excuse all their mistakes. Well, Ben Yagoda is a real live English professor (he's at the University of Delaware, where he mostly teaches journalistic writing), and a couple of months ago he published an article in The Chronicle of Higher Education about college writing and the changing kinds of awfulness that he sees in it. (One or two points from it were discussed here on Language Log, and Ben responded in the first comment below it.) He can surely serve as some kind of example of the prescriptive curmudgeonliness of writing instructors. He goes through this (possibly invented) sample of what he sees as error-stuffed prose to pick out its mistakes:

For our one year anniversary, my girlfriend and myself are going to a Yankees game, with whomever amongst our friends can go. But, the Weather Channel just changed their forecast and the skies are grey, so we might go with the girl that lives next door to see the movie, "Iron Man 2".

So let's check with a real live descriptive linguist and see if there is agreement, shall we?

I'm the Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh, and co-author of a large and resolutely descriptive grammar called The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language; I should do fine as an example of a linguist. If it's true that linguists are soft on writing errors, I should disagree with Yagoda all the way down the line. So let's just see. I'll be as honest as I know how to be.

Here are the eleven errors he identifies in the piece above (in red), with my comments (in blue).

1. There should be no comma after "But."
Yagoda is exactly right. Contemporary standard written English has a comma after initial connective adjuncts like However, but not after coordinators like but or and unless the comma is independently motivated. (By the latter, I mean that there could be something else like an interpolated supplement demanding the comma, as in But, one might say, this is irrelevant. The comma in that case is one of a matched pair around the parenthetical one might say. That's not applicable here.)

2. The period after "Iron Man 2" should be inside the quotation marks around the title.
I actually dislike this convention aesthetically: British publishing houses are much freer in allowing punctuation according to the sense, and here the sense says the punctuation should be outside the quotation marks (because the period is not part of the name of the movie). But Yagoda is correct if he is pointing out that US publishers overwhelmingly require keeping low sentence punctuation marks (period and comma) inside quotation marks even when they logically belong outside, and young writers in America need to know this.

3. No comma is needed after "movie."
I'm not fully in agreement here; there's an imponderable. It is true that the movie "Iron Man 2" is also grammatical; but I think in the above case the writer might have intended a supplementary expansion rather than an integrated appositive, making the comma crucial: I think the intended meaning could have been ‘we might go to see the movie I am referring to, which happens to be called Iron Man 2’; (not just ‘we might go to see Iron Man 2’), and in that case the comma would be not just permissible but required.

4. "Its," not "their," is needed with "Weather Channel."
I don't agree here; the use of they with antecedents denoting corporate entities (companies, committees, sports teams, TV channels) is much better established in Britain, but I really don't think it is sensible to object to its occasional appearance in America. I wrote about an American example of this sort here once, in "Postcard from Vegas, 2: Syntactic data collection on the Strip" — where I certainly did camp it up, but basically I was noting that a sentence like If you look to the right, Treasure Island's having their show right now is thoroughly natural standard English. I don't see the point of nagging over it when there is so much else for a teacher to do.

5. "Whomever" should be "whoever."
Right, on balance. The matter is difficult, and usage differs: with whomever can go is one of the curious cases where the external context says it should be accusative (as in with them) but the context internal to the relative clause says it should be nominative (as in they can go), and the two are in conflict. But with whomever moribund, and whoever still vibrantly alive, I vote with Yagoda in saying that whoever is definitely the better choice.

6. "Myself" should be "I."
Yes, basically it should: there aren't many situations that would excuse using the reflexive/emphatic myself where I or me would serve. It's found often enough, but it isn't to be encouraged.

7. "Girl that" should be "girl who"
This, by contrast, is a triviality that no instructor should bother with. It's not an error at all. Relative clauses introduced by the subordinator that can certainly have human antecedents (check for sequences like the man that was in the text of novels or any other writing you respect; it occurs all the time). Yagoda only insists on who because it seems to him more precisely targeted (who is grammatically restricted to human antecedents, where that isn't). But there's no danger of misunderstanding here, and no grammatical prohibition. Leave it alone.

8. "Gray" is the correct spelling, not "grey."
Very much a US/UK thing: grey is definitely standard in British English, and I like the look of it, so I tend to use it no matter which side of the Atlantic I'm writing on or for. But if the gray spelling overwhelmingly predominates in America (and I think he's right, it does), then Yagoda is right to recommend the American spelling. I'd switch to it instantly if writing for an American publisher who cared. Spelling is not an area in which your ordinary human freedoms should be allowed free rein; there are no human rights appeals against the facts of spelling.

9. "Amongst" should be "among."
Another British/American contrast: British speakers have amongst, amidst, forwards, and backwards, where Americans use among, amid, forward, and backward. Delaware journalism students might as well write the American forms. It's reasonable to tell them that.

10. "One year anniversary" should be written as "one-year anniversary," but, really, "first anniversary."
Well, the hyphen is definitely a good recommendation, but I see one-year anniversary and first anniversary as synonymous alternatives, so I would not have picked on this as an error.

11. It's a "Yankee," not "Yankees," game.
This is another point that is (curiously, despite the example being about the Yankees) very much about dialect difference: British English is very happy with plural nouns as first halves of lots of compounds, and American usage disfavors that. However, I would have thought we could go along with the British when the modifying noun was something like Yankees: "I'm going to a Yankee game" sounds quite odd to me. And surely (correct me if I'm wrong, sports fans) "I'm going to a Red Sock game" would be insane. Does even "I'm going to a Knick game" sound sensible? I kind of doubt it. I think Ben has been bitten by the pedantry bug on this one, and is pushing for an unreasonable choice on the basis of a personal peeve. (He defended himself against this charge in a comment here on Language Log a couple months back.)

So what's the score here? I agree with Ben Yagoda on 6 of the 11, which is a small majority, and I think one of them (number 3) is debatable (we'd need to know the writer's intended semantics).

It does look as if I would have graded the sample piece of writing more leniently than Ben Yagoda. But for anyone who thinks I would see no faults, and never wield the red pen, disappointment looms. More than half the time he and I would reach for the red pen over the very same faults, mainly in the area of punctuation, spelling, and departure from standard word senses.

One interesting point is that Yagoda sees Britishisms creeping into American English and seeks to stamp them out. This is a puzzling area. Borrowing of words and phrases across the Atlantic is one of the characteristic ways in which English evolves. Americanisms are constantly becoming established in British English. The side-by-side occurrence of variants like among and amongst is only weakly correlated with west and east of the Atlantic, and hardly matters; my main feeling about peeves like that is that it just isn't worth Professor Yagoda's time. This is piffling stuff compared to the sentences with no main verb and the horrible punctuation botches that one finds in student writing. He had no examples of those, because he was trying to illustrate the emergence of clunky style in student writing. (He wasn't trying to illustrate straghtforward gross failures of syntax. I would agree with him vastly more on those.) But why fiddle around trying to draw dialect boundaries that apply to harmless lexical doublets like among and amongst?

And as for cases like the use of they for morphologically singular antecedents denoting corporate entities, I am wondering what on earth is supposed to be the rational objection or the interpretational danger. Don't get me wrong: where some pernicious ambiguity is creeping in as a result of a common illiteratism, I am perfectly prepared to be prescriptive. (An example: I have a real objection to people writing We can not do it, which I read as consistent with being able to do it, when they mean We cannot do it, which is certainly not.) But no distinction is being collapsed when people refer to the Weather Channel as "they". It's not as if Yagoda objects to the gender-neutral use of they as a singular (he calls it the epicene pronoun, and reckons it will soon be accepted as standard). He just wants the Weather Channel called "it", for no serious reason that I can discern. It's just a peeve, I think.

As you can see, there would be mild disagreements about such matters as these in the English department faculty lounge if I were Yagoda's colleague. But nothing apocalyptic. There is no necessary clash of values between a descriptive linguist like me and a professor of journalism like Yagoda. Because, if you look back over my recent writings on Language Log, or my older ones, it isn't the sensible prescriptivism of telling students how to write clearly and grammatically that I have opposed. It's prescriptivism by people who shouldn't be allowed to hold a license for a red pen: the passive denigrators who can't tell passives from actives, and so on. It's the dopey prescriptivists who fulminate irrationally about alleged faults that were never faults and have always been found in good writing. My view is that there isn't any point in wasting class time over imaginary grammar errors. I'm opposed to wasting time. There are plenty of real errors to chase down.

[Comments are closed because if I left them open you might commit writing errors.]


Comments are closed.