Grammar for white people

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From the blog "Stuff White People Like", a 12 May posting on "Grammar" that begins:

White people love rules. It explains why so they get upset when people cut in line, why they tip so religiously and why they become lawyers. But without a doubt, the rule system that white people love the most is grammar. It is in their blood not only to use perfect grammar but also to spend significant portions of time pointing out the errors of others.

(Hat tip to Bruce Webster.)

From the middle of the posting:

Another important thing to know is that when white people read magazines and books they are always looking for grammar and spelling mistakes. In fact, one of the greatest joys a white person can experience is to catch a grammar mistake in a major publication. Finding one allows a white person to believe that they are better than the writer and the publication since they would have caught the mistake.

The bold-faced words elicited the following comment from Laurie:

… how can you not see the misuse of the plural “they” when what is intended is the singular “he or she?” When did “they” become an acceptable non-gender-specific singular? Disgraceful!

This is followed by a smiley, presumably as a mark of intentional humor.

But I can't help pointing out that in Laurie's comment

"he or she?"

is incorrectly punctuated; it should be

"he or she"?

(Oh yes, there are at least two typos in the body of the posting. What can I say, I'm a white person.)


  1. Leah said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 1:41 pm

    Are we in England? I know the blog isn't, so Laurie is correct, right?

  2. Josh Millard said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 2:12 pm

    Worse yet, she misspelt "Lori".

  3. Derek said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 2:13 pm

    There are more than just two. I felt ashamed while reading the post yesterday: my obsessive grammar-fixing was like a self-fulfilling prophecy!

  4. kip said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 2:24 pm

    Plus, since or is inclusive in English, "he or she" could be either plural or singular.

  5. Melissa Fox said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 2:36 pm

    Tragically, a lot of US schools and publishing houses seem to teach that punctuation always goes inside quotation marks, without exception for such nonsense as logic. Alas, alas.

  6. Arnold Zwicky said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 2:59 pm

    To Melissa Fox: I haven't seen this punctuation rule given in the very general form you give; instead, the U.S. rule concerns only commas and periods (and not question marks or exclamation marks). General British usage is the "logical" one, with commas and periods inside quotation marks only if they were there in the quoted material, and some U.S. style sheets (for instance, the Linguistic Society of America style sheet) follow this scheme. We've posted on the matter several times on Language Log; you can get to two of my postings by searching for "punc-quot" on Language Log postings.

    If you know of a style sheet that extends punc-quot beyond commas and periods, I'd like to see the reference.

  7. Melissa Fox said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 3:08 pm

    I don't have a hard reference to hand, I'm afraid. It may be that it's not taught quite that specifically except by the occasional inexact elementary-school teacher, and that people's insistence that this is the rule comes out of the same overgeneralization that leads them to say "Come to the movies with my brother and I" (because they were taught never to say "My brother and me* went to the movies").

    *(Or "Me and my brother …", of course.)

  8. Melissa Fox said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 3:12 pm

    Er, and — I was helping a friend proof galleys once (for a book published by Bloomsbury), and marking a fair few things that she said were (regrettably) house style. This was long enough ago that I seem to recall one of them was this punc-quot business, but I wouldn't swear to it in court.

  9. Jonathon said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 3:15 pm

    Maybe that punctuation rule is erroneously taught in schools, but it's not used by any publishing house or style guide that I know of.

  10. john riemann soong said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 3:55 pm

    It's funny how all sorts of repressed opinions come on that blog, from all sides of the racial spectrum the least of which involve grammar.

    Further upsetting is that I ctrl-F'd "orthography" for any protest that an orthographical/stylistic mistake is *not* a grammatical mistake and found no such comment among the 404 already posted.

    What is it with the perception of grammar and spectrum of formality? My foreign language teacher used to explain how "ne-dropping" (in French) in films and music was apparently "not as grammatical," but it was fine to be "less correct" in some situations.

  11. Tristan said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 4:31 pm

    So what do we think of the thesis that grammar love is an extension of a general love of rules? I think the argument relies on the assumption that knowing the rules (and being able to point out mistakes) carries social power/distinction. Of course, this is consistent with my belief that language snobs are bullies who capitalize on others' mistakes.

  12. David Russinoff said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 4:48 pm

    As a white person, I have posted some remarks on my Web site that are relevant to Laurie's observation (see "their, etc.") and to Arnold's response (see "quoted punctuation").

  13. Theodore said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 5:25 pm

    I had never seen "SWPL" before reading this LL post. I don't think I'll go back, but for curiosity, I went to the index, and then to one item in the list, #30, Wrigley Field, since I'm a Chicagoan (albeit not a Cubs fan). Within a couple paragraphs, I encountered the Language Log-worthy usage of "troth" for the "trough". The pronunciation is probably pretty common in many American dialects, but that's the first time I'd seen it written.

  14. Craig Russell said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 6:02 pm

    Slightly off topic (although it does have a singular "their" in it)–from the posting:
    “Hey Jill, I’m sorry to do this, but I have a business degree and I’m a terrible writer. Can you look this over for me?” This deft maneuver will allow the white person to feel as though their liberal arts degree has a purpose and allow you to do something more interesting.

    Don’t worry, it is impossible for a white person to turn down the opportunity to proofread.

    I enjoyed that, but, as someone with an MA in Classics (Greek and Latin), I've got to say that the "allow the while person to feel as though their liberal arts degree has a purpose" bit hit pretty close to home for me…

  15. Jangari said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 7:03 pm

    Off-topic, but this infuriated me enough to comment on here. A post at an Australian political blog recently started a discussion of one's language footprint or, how much your actions affect the world's linguistic diversity, see Peter Austin's post Anyway, one of the commenters, after making a rather insignificant stylistic error, commented on their fault, saying:

    The most threatened language of all is good English.

    One step forward, three steps back.

  16. Harry said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 7:15 pm

    I learned punctuation-always-inside-quotation-marks as a hard and fast, never to be violated, absolute law of proper grammar. How sad…

  17. Zeborah said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 8:08 pm

    It's a long-acknowledged Law of Usenet that any post pointing out someone else's typo will itself contain at least one typo.

  18. john riemann soong said,

    May 13, 2008 @ 11:06 pm

    But punctuation *isn't* grammar — unless I've been somehow misinformed?

  19. panne said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 5:06 am


    No, punctuation isn't grammar, but. A lot of people use "grammar" as a term for absolutely everything that has to do with usage, style, and so on. Just a couple days ago there was a huge debate on a Livejournal community over this (the punctuation inside the quotes). It was pretty uncomfortable for me to see the term "grammar" used for something so tear-jerkingly mundane as that, but there we are. : (

  20. Carol said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 9:40 am

    See Chicago Manual of Style 6.8 and 6.9:
    Periods and commas precede closing quotation marks, whether double or single. This is a traditional style….

    Colons, semicolons, question marks, and exclamation points. Unlike periods and commas, these all follow closing quotation marks unless a question mark or an exclamation point belongs within the quoted matter.

  21. Arnold Zwicky said,

    May 14, 2008 @ 10:18 am

    Following up on panne: yes, indeed, a lot of people — maybe most people — use "grammar" to cover all regulation of language (in all its forms). I've posted a number of times on Language Log on the idea that "it's all grammar": in LLog Classic, #1189, 1983, 2881, 2985, 4268, and 4958 (and Geoff Pullum in #3041). Posting #4268 mentions the book:

    Feierman, Joanne. 1995. ActionGrammar: Fast, no-hassle answers on everyday usage and punctuation. NY: Simon & Schuster.

    in which quot-punc order is listed as #6 of ten mistakes in grammar "your boss hates most".

  22. redvalley said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 8:35 am

    "japanese and korean can be the most rule-anal groups in the world."

    At least in the case of Japanese, this excludes the usage of the Japanese language itself, which no 2 Japanese can seem to agree on.

    About punctuation and grammar, how about the blanket term "usage"?

  23. Peter E Dant said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 9:16 am

    As an English person I have only just noticed (to my own embarrassment) that the American usage of "couple" without the subsequent "of" grates on my consciousness. There have been at least a couple of these usages in the preceding posts. Is this a common usage in the US or is it limited to certain groups? While we are at it, and on a completely different tack, the pronunciation of the word "route" seems to have become a universal "rowt" in American TV programmes of recent years. Does this mean that the song "Route 66" is now sung with a "rowt" pronunciation?

  24. emmaeck said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 10:47 am

    Peter E Dant — to throw one random American data point at you — I would use either "couple" or "couple of" depending on context. I don't think there is any precise reason I would choose one over the other – couple would be more strictly informal for me I guess, but I probably wouldn't use either in a highly formal context — just as a matter of my own stylistic idiom.

    I typically use "root" for the noun, but have been aware I sometimes shift to "rowt" and have all my life. The word "route" in fact provided a defining nerdy childhood moment to me back in the '70s — realizing I varied my pronunciation of certain words depending on context was quite the epiphany.

    With the verb "route" I have exactly an opposite pattern — almost exclusively "rowt" but every now and then I notice myself pronouncing it "root."

    I haven't noticed "rowt" growing in dominance but will have to watch out for it now. It is my impression that perhaps IT is an influence, due to frequent references to routers etc.? I have a strong impression the "rowt" pronunciation dominates in IT talk, though I have no actual data to back that up.

    I would never ever sing "rowt 66" but it is not completely impossible I would ask someone to look it up on a map ; )

    I am originally from outside New York City and now from outside Philadelphia, btw.

  25. vlorbik said,

    May 15, 2008 @ 8:50 pm

    pullum wrote the definitive piece on where quote marks go
    way back before the internest. i refer of course, and much
    less obliquely than the last time i did so, ,
    to "punctuation and human freedom" in
    let's get with the program here.

  26. Peter E Dant said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 2:18 am

    Thank you emmaeck .

    You have, as one would expect, explained the situation on a personal level (what "I" do" which is helpful to an ignorant Brit, but I remain confused. Perhaps I am too much of the Rule-lover? I tend to use the pronunciation "rrowt" for the word ROUT and the pronunciation "root" for the word ROUTE, thus distinguishing the meanings (ROUT – a decisive defeat or a removal) and (ROUTE – concerning a pathway or means of getting from one point to another). Perhaps this is too simple, or maybe the two have become inter-twined by a lack of reading the words as opposed to merely hearing them?

  27. Peter E Dant said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 2:33 am

    My apologies. The first part of my post should have included :

    You have, as one would expect, explained the situation on a personal level (what "I" do).

    This typing thing is not natural to me.

  28. Arnold Zwicky said,

    May 16, 2008 @ 10:06 am

    To vlorbik, who cites Pullum's "Punctuation and Human Freedom" and ends with "let's get with the program here": I got with the program years ago, in Language Log Classic posting #1189 (referenced in my earlier comment) and in postings to ADS-L and newsgroups. It's good of you to point readers (especially those who know only the American-style punctuation in CMoS and similar style sheets) to this wonderful piece. But you could have done that without suggesting that earlier commenters were defective in failing to mention it.

  29. Jimmy said,

    May 19, 2008 @ 8:49 am

    Peter E Dant — to throw a second American data point at you —

    1. I hear "couple" and "couple of" used interchangeably.

    2. /rut/ and /rawt/ are both used, sometimes by the same person (I'm just such a person.). Perhaps related, "tour" has two common pronunciations where I live: /too-ur/ and /tor/. I say the former, but my neighbors say the latter. I'm located in Illinois near St. Louis, MO. Further, I don't know if this is in any way related or not, but my Chicago brethren to the north say /ruf/ and /rut/ (short u sound, as in "put") where I say /roof/ and /root/ (as in "boo").

  30. Peter E Dant said,

    May 20, 2008 @ 11:01 am

    Thank you Jimmy.
    On further reflection I have decided (in my own personal case) that my view gives a clear distinction of pronunciation related to meaning – anything related to travel or movement is ROOT – a road or a Broadband Router is pronounced ROOT, whereas something to do with a defeat (the army was routed) or a clearing out (using a router in carpentry) is pronounced ROWT. I somehow think that the natural US antipathy to Rules and Authority has resulted in what I perceive as a confusing situation. (Maybe I should blame King George?) Your point about the "U" and "OO" variation is true of Britain – largely a North – South divide where the long sound is generally Northern (book and look pronounced as you would say boo) – also true of a short and long "A" (Cassle or cahssel for the noun castle, this time the 'long' sound being 'Southern'.

    In short – people ARE funny, wherever they are.

  31. marie-lucie said,

    May 22, 2008 @ 11:47 pm

    I want to ask about the use of "rout": the other day I was reading about Hillary Clinton and her "rout" in a certain state. My first thought was that she had been "routed", meaning "thoroughly defeated". But in fact she had won the state, and it was the Obama camp that had been "routed". This use of "rout" as a noun, applied to one individual rather than a group, and to the winner rather than the loser, was new to me. Am I just behind the times?

  32. Peter E Dant said,

    June 5, 2008 @ 5:41 am

    marie-lucie – sorry this is late – been away.

    Rout, in the OED, is defined (in part) as a decisive defeat. Thus I feel you are correct in being confused if it is applied to a winner. I think it may be applied to an individual as well as a group, but it seems more applicable to the latter. I suppose it is used to emphasize the size of the defeat, and I might have used the word debacle, if one word only were necessary.

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