Grammatical politics

« previous post | next post »

Geoff Nunberg posted this on his Facebook wall, with the note "Luring the grammar scolds in the Mission":

Advertising genius, in my opinion.

Two relevant recent columns by John McIntyre:

"All hail the Unkown Peever", 12/29/2015
"What grammar arguments are really about", 12/30/2015



  1. Y said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 1:29 pm

    Should have been "beautifull".

  2. Bob Ladd said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 1:44 pm

    Should have been "should of been "beautifull"".

  3. Simon Fodden said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 4:18 pm

    Bah!. Spelling.

  4. Ken Miner said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 6:02 pm

    This is as good a place as any for this, I guess. (I agree that the sign is advertising genius; I'd love to have a beer with that guy.)

    We are all aware of the differences between prescriptive and descriptive treatments of language. Prescriptivism consists in somebody’s ideas about how a language ought to be; descriptivism is interested in how a language actually is. You would think it would end there, each group doing its own thing and the two occasionally feeding each other ideas. But that is not what happens. Instead, descriptive linguists regularly tend to scold prescriptivists for not only their historical mistakes but also for their arbitrary rulings on language, a constantly changing social product with no genuine norms at all. As Wikipedia puts it, they tend to argue “that linguistic prescription is foolish or futile.”

    Descriptive linguists of the scolding variety do not seem to realize that language is not the only social product that is constantly changing and has no norms other than arbitrary ones. Marriage and the family, law, industry, mass media, education and so on are all social institutions that evolve, sometimes chaotically and sometimes in a semi-principled way, but never according to absolute norms. As far as we know it’s all pretty much random variation and natural selection, or some equivalent mechanism depending on the institution, unless you’re a Hegelian or a Marxist. In a word, descriptivist scolding applies to not just language but to all other social institutions.

    So I've never understood just what the scolders believe they are doing, and I've never done it. (I don't think I have anyway.)

    [(myl) You've misssed the point. For discussion, see the posts linked in "'Linguistic norms vs. 'groundless peeves'", 5/16/2011.

    See especially "The origin and progress of linguistic norms", 2/22/2009.]

  5. Guy said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 6:08 pm

    Is "your" for "you're" really a grammatical error, as opposed to a spelling error? Nobody ever says "my happy" when they mean to say "I'm happy", so it seems a little odd to attribute "your beautiful" to a failure to understand (consciously or unconsciously) the grammar of the utterance as opposed to simply retrieving the wrong written form to match the intended sound, much as I just now accidentally initially mistyped "invented" instead of "intended". Or am I just being pedantic?

    [(myl) Just as passive voice has come to mean "not clear as to agency", so grammar has come to include spelling, punctuation, word meaning, and anything other aspect of language that someone can (be said to) get wrong.

    This is not completely ahistorical or unreasonable, since traditional "grammars" did generally cover orthography, punctuation, and so forth.]

  6. Adam said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 6:41 pm

    Guy: on first reading of the sign, I figured that was the second, subtler joke.

  7. Graeme said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 7:05 pm

    So by using 'grammar' in a loosey-goosey way this proprietor is inviting a meta-scold as well? Street genius.

  8. RP said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 7:21 pm

    [(myl) This is not completely a historical …]

    I see what you did there …

    [(myl) I wish. Just careless typo and poor proofreading.]

  9. Guy said,

    December 31, 2015 @ 7:24 pm


    I just passed the 16th and 24th street Mission stops on BART, and if I had known the exact address, I would have had half a mind to go down there and give them a talking-to.

    [GN] It was in front of Coffee Mission, on 24th St just west of the BART station. But when I walked past it yesterday the sign wasn't there. Maybe they hadn't realized what they were signing on for.

  10. Duncan said,

    January 1, 2016 @ 7:52 am

    Guy's reference to "my happy" called to mind Gollum/Smeagol's references to "my precious" in Tolkien's Lord of the Rings series. "Your beautiful" takes on an /entirely/ different meaning in that context, and the sign now has me wondering if anyone that does go inside to "tell me about my grammar", ever has some item in their possession pointed out with reference to "your beautiful!" as Tolkien's series play on the nearby monitor or appear in the theme of the decor, etc. Probably not, but it's an interesting mental image.

    Thanks, Guy. I'd have never seen that viewpoint or had that mental image, had you not referenced "my happy". =:^)

  11. John Roth said,

    January 1, 2016 @ 10:06 am

    I believe if you go back to the Medieval university, "grammar" in the Trivium included everything needed to express yourself effectively in speech or print. Restricting "grammar" to syntax is, as far as I'm concerned, an academic affectation, and it has some bad side effects. For example, I've found that including the semicolon as a sentence conjunction simplifies the explanation, which of course is going to horrify the academic grammarians: a semicolon is punctuation; it can't be included as a part of speech!

  12. Jerry Friedman said,

    January 1, 2016 @ 12:05 pm

    I think that sign is clever and amusing, but it wouldn't tempt me to go into whatever it is, and if I did, it wouldn't tempt to buy whatever they're selling. Based on this sample of one, I wonder how effective the advertising is.

  13. Joyce Melton said,

    January 1, 2016 @ 1:35 pm

    Perhaps he hasn't heard from his grammar in a long while and is worried about her?

  14. Russinoff said,

    January 1, 2016 @ 3:58 pm

    [(myl) Just as passive voice has come to mean "not clear as to agency", …]

    Have you informed your friend Pullum of this development?

    [(myl) You could say so: "'Passive Voice' — 1397-2009 — R.I.P.", 3/12/2009.]

  15. Guy said,

    January 1, 2016 @ 4:27 pm

    At the risk of sounding emotionally invested in this issue (I'm really not, I swear), I'm not sure that I've ever heard a spelling error described as a grammatical error except in cases where the spelling of one grammatically central word is substituted for another. This would seem to support the idea that these things are actually being misdiagnosed in the public consciousness as situations where the writer is unaware (either consciously or on the "automatic" level of language production) of the fact that different lexemes and grammatical roles are involved.

  16. Ray said,

    January 2, 2016 @ 8:44 am

    I recently spotted this amusing language-fail sidewalk sign in philadelphia:

  17. Randy Hudson said,

    January 2, 2016 @ 9:32 am

    @Ray: Unless the intent is something like "we don't [just] sell suits, we make them [as well]", I don't see the fail. Does this establishment in fact sell suits?

  18. Akito said,

    January 2, 2016 @ 11:08 am

    Why do people say "my bad" but not "my happy"?

  19. Ray said,

    January 2, 2016 @ 5:35 pm

    @Randy, yes they indeed sell suits at the establishment — bespoke suits!

  20. Brilliant advertising: “Your beautiful” | Column Catcher said,

    January 4, 2016 @ 3:12 pm

    […] Coffee Mission, with the caption “Luring the grammar scolds in the Mission.” Prof. Mark Liberman (Language Log) declares it “Advertising […]

  21. Mark Mandel said,

    January 5, 2016 @ 8:41 pm

    Was typing "Unkown" for "Unknown" on both LiveJournal and Dreamwidth, though not on LL, also an attempt to lure language peevers?

  22. Ian Horwill said,

    January 6, 2016 @ 8:41 am

    This is likely a reference to the song "Beneath Your Beautiful" by Labrinth and Emeli Sandé, which I believe caused a minor grammar storm. The lyrics of the song ("let me see beneath your beautiful") make it clear that "your" is correct since "beautiful" is being unconventionally used as a noun to (rather hauntingly I think) describe a person's façade based on their (good) looks.

RSS feed for comments on this post