English grammar: not for debate

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Various Language Log readers have been sending me to this BBC report about a British columnist called Simon Heffer, who has a book about the decline of proper language use coming out, and in order to promote it recently visited a school and talked to the children about his prescriptive notions. The BBC used this sentence as a hook, claiming that it is ungrammatical and Mr Heffer can tell you exactly why:

[1]   The Prime Minister has warned that spending cuts are necessary.

Now, set on one side the issue of whether this truly exemplifies a grammatical mistake: of course it doesn't. What interests me here is the psychological question of what could possibly, even in principle, convince someone like Simon Heffer that he was wrong.
Here's the story about the alleged ungrammaticality of [1]:

The problem, as Heffer points out, is that the verb "to warn" is transitive: it requires an object. Somebody has to be warned.

In our example, the Prime Minister had nobody to warn.

We could have said correctly: "The Prime Minister has warned the House of Commons that spending cuts are necessary".

This is an asinine claim. But my point is not its wrongness so much as what might possibly work as a way of showing Heffer that it is wrong.

Let me point out first that he cannot possibly be relying on semantics, at least if he is capable of following an argument. Nobody (not even Heffer, I will assume) wants to say that the government cannot issue a health warning. One can say The government has issued a health warning concerning the high count of fecal bacteria in the water without specifying who was being warned. A warning is just a warning: pay heed or not, it's up to you. So why are we supposed to believe that one could not or should not say The government has warned of health risks associated with the high count of fecal bacteria in the water, or The government has warned that there are health risks associated with the high count of fecal bacteria in the water, without specifying who was being warned?

If the noun warning can be used without a recipient specification and the meaning can be understood, there is no semantic case that the verb warn could not also be thus used. If it is barred from such use, it must be a syntactic matter. It must be obligatorily transitive in syntactic terms.

So how do we determine whether it is obligatorily transitive in syntactic terms? It seems reasonable enough to look at people's use of the language and see whether they typically limit themselves to using it transitively.

The word sequence "has warned that" gets over 6 million Google hits. Some are spurious, I'm sure (Google ignores punctuation as well as case, so there might be cases where one sentence ends "whom he has warned." and the next begins with "That would be silly…"). But from a brief browse most of the 6 million seem likely to be cases of intransitive warn taking a that-clause complement.

In other words, the occurrence of sentences like [1] is so overwhelmingly well confirmed that (as Mark recently suggested in another context) developing support for it is "like footnoting the observation that … people already wore shoes" back in the 1960s.

What if Heffer just responded that no doubt six million cases of this error had appeared on the web, but that was just a sign that in recent years people had become increasingly stupid and careless?

Well, suppose I were to point out that the great Oxford English Dictionary gives a quotation from Spenser's Faerie Queene (so well known that it is cited as "F.Q."):

1590 SPENSER F.Q. I. ii. 1 And chearefull Chaunticlere with his note shrill Had warned once, that Phoebus fiery carre In hast was climbing vp the Easterne hill.

A case from one of Engand's greatest ever poets, dated 1590, rather puts a damper on the theory that this is a matter of recent sloppiness, does it not?

Probably not. I confess I cannot figure out what could convince this man. He has written in the Daily Telegraph that writing a book on what constitutes correct English is "relatively easy to do, once one has armed oneself with the Oxford English Dictionary (OED) and some reputable grammar books by way of research materials". But he apparently didn't read the OED article on the verb warn. Would it have made a difference if he had looked at it?

His view may really be just that he personally dislikes encountering the verb warn without a noun phrase complement. He may be calling it ungrammatical merely to make his personal peeve sound more like an objective opinion.

It is probably not sensible even to try raising such matters with him. One of the opinions he has put down in writing (here) is that "English grammar shouldn’t be a matter for debate." If it is stipulated that my topic of discussion isn't a matter for debate, I guess there is no hope of an answer to my question about what would convince him that he is wrong. Simon Heffer has warned that he is not up for discussing the matter at all. Too bad, because I would have liked to know.


  1. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 6:09 pm

    Unfortunately you've hit the nail on the head here: people like this have their opinions, and they're sticking to them. I know several such people, and they can be convinced neither by common popular usage nor appeal to "authorities" such as dictionaries and esteemed authors. If everyone uses a word a certain way, that just means everybody's wrong. If an esteemed author used a certain peevish construction, that just means that despite the generally good writing a mistake was made. To them it seems to be a matter of complete faith, where empirical evidence is not only not enough to prove them wrong, it's completey irrelevant.

  2. Rubrick said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 6:17 pm

    I think attempting to convince such people that they are wrong is certainly futile. It would probably be slightly more productive to try to convince others — especially journalists and book reviewers — to recognize such tripe and ignore it. Not that I hold out much hope for that either.

  3. Mark Liberman said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 6:19 pm

    More fodder for the non-debate, in case Mr. Heffer thinks that Spencer's usage is obsolete — this is from Robert Graves' poem Carcanet, written in 1934-39:

    First Voice
    113 Suppose the cock were not to crow
    114 At whitening of night
    115 To warn that once again
    116 The spectrum of incongruence
    117 Will reasonably unfold
    118 From day's indulgent prism?
    Second Voice
    119 Suppose the owl were not to hoot
    120 At deepening of sleep
    121 To warn that once again
    122 The gospel of oblivion
    123 Will pompously be droned
    124 From pulpit-tops of dream?

    I especially like the bit about the spectrum of incongruence unfolding reasonably.

  4. David Jackmanson said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 6:29 pm

    Seems like this article in The Daily Mash was written just for Heffer:

    Grammar Pedants Fewer Interesting

  5. Snarkyxanf said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 6:31 pm

    "Kill", "heal", and "love" are all transitive verbs, but the sentence

    "I have loved, I have lost, I have killed, I have healed"

    Makes perfect sense, and is just fine grammatically. If he had his way, I imagine everything would read like a writing demonstration for grade schoolers.

  6. Rubrick said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 6:35 pm

    I just noticed this gem in the article: "There are many contexts in life where formal communication in every sense of the word is required."

    Let's see, applying Heffer's own style of reasoning, this is surely an error, since "formal comunication" isn't a word. Let's be generous, though, and assume he meant every sense of the word "formal". Gee, that's quite a few senses. I'm hard pressed to think of any contexts in life where they all apply.

    Okay, okay, "in every sense of the word" is just a figure of speech. It's obviously not meant to be taken literally, but merely to indicate that the speaker is a pompous ass.

    (I do see in my trusty MW 11th Collegiate at least one sense of "formal" which Heffer nicely embodies: "Having the outward appearance without the substance.")

  7. Lars Karlsson said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 6:37 pm

    I'm new to this wonderful site and have English as my second language, so excuse everything about me. But does this new google approach to language research mean that lolcat-speak is set for mainstream? I can no doubt has problemz improving my english furrtherz.

    [Sigh. Another day, another newbie. Lars: there is no Google approach to language research. There is the obvious possibility of using Google to determine without going to the library that certain constructions are overwhelmingly accepted in a huge variety of respectable sources of prose. But no one is saying that if something appears anywhere on the web it is therefore grammatical. The problem with newbies like you is that you have seven years of catch-up to do reading Language Log. Start with my piece (from January 2005) called "Everything is correct" versus "nothing is relevant". Simon Heffer is of the "nothing is relevant" persuasion, and you (intending to be humorous, I hope) were voicing the "everything is correct" view. The important thing is that both views are idiotic.—GKP]

  8. MattF said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 7:07 pm

    I agree with the assertion you're making ("There is no transitive-only syntactic constraint on the verb warn") but the Google hit number is probably bogus. My understanding is that Google merely estimates large hit numbers– presumably based on some super-secret heuristic/probabilistic hocus-pocus. But it's not really good evidence for the whack-that-idiot-on-the-head type of argument that you're making.

    [(myl) All Google hit counts are "bogus", in the sense of being estimated by algorithms discussed at length in many earlier posts. But a hit count in the millions is an excellent clue that there are a very large number of violations of Heffer's decree on the web, including a large number of passages by native speakers of English writing perfectly normal prose.

    But if you want something with exact and believable counts, the COCA corpus has 90 hits for "has warned that", compared to 7 hits for "has warned me|us|him|her|them that". ]

  9. Dominik Lukes said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 7:09 pm

    GKP raises a serious question. What will convince a prescriptivist? I run into this all the time with students (literacy teachers) who read about language usage, codification and standardisation but still come out speaking about correctness and incorrectness in the same silly absolutes that Heffer does. I've got them using corpora, collecting samples and questioning everything but for many that's still not enough. In this, prescriptivists are like creationists. Impossible to argue with.

    BTW: Has anybody studied the what to me seems relatively recent use of a sort of transitive ellipsis for emphasis in phrases such as "I like" or "this bugs". I first noticed this on a few US TV shows but maybe it goes further back and is more widespread than I realise. Hard to search for in a corpus.

  10. Adrian Bailey said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 8:03 pm

    I switched on the radio at the point when the speaker was opining about "will" and "shall" and could hardly believe my ears. This is 2010 ffs and this buffoon thinks it's important to waste children's time with this??

  11. richard said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 8:15 pm

    "Simon Heffer has warned that he is not up for discussing the matter at all."
    I would submit that it is not that he is not up for discussing the matter so much as that he is not up to discussing it.

  12. Suzanne Kemmer said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 8:56 pm

    Taking on the mob of perpetually peeved prescriptivists out there with linguistic arguments is like a game of Whac-a-mole: a repetitive and apparently futile task. Still, somebody's got to do it. Geoff is the high scorer so far.

  13. Terry Collmann said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 9:00 pm

    Until very recently the Times of London had as one of its style guide fetishes that the verb "warn" needed an object, and insisted on the construction "gave a warning" if there was no object in the sentence being warned. A couple of years ago it finally caught up with Edmund Spencer and scrapped this rule.

  14. End the nonsense! said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 9:17 pm

    Pullum : prescriptivism :: Dawkins : religion

    aka "Thor's Hammer" in combatting nonsense and anti-intellectualism

  15. J.W. Brewer said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 10:50 pm

    Not that this is relevant to arguing w/ someone like Heffer who is presumably impervious to evidence, but in some other context where evidence is significant, I'm wondering if Spenser (or Graves, for that matter) is the best to use, just because poets often take "poetic license" with syntactic conventions that are otherwise quite firmly established. For example, I think the word order in "In hast was climbing vp the Easterne hill" would be markedly unusual in ordinary prose, and if one were debating whether it was (in ordinary prose) not only unusual but ungrammatical, that Spenser had used it in F.Q. wouldn't seem to establish much. Now obviously, poets tend to deviate from established syntax in some directions and not in others (i.e. "poetic license" has its own syntactic conventions which can in principle be described, just like any other non-standard dialect – it's not simply chaos and random rule-breaking), but that's a different discussion.

    [You can't just use "occurred in a poem" as an automatic indication of irrelevance to issues of grammaticality, any more than you can use "can be found on the web" as an automatic indication of grammaticality. Of course Spenser's English is different. It is true that in haste was climbing up the eastern hill has the modifier PP in haste in a very unusual position (before the verb). But if someone was suggesting that the progressive aspect construction was some kind of modern American innovation, it would be quite reasonable to cite this line as evidence that Spenser regarded was climbing as an unremarkable construction. Heffer is trying to say that warn is not usable intransitively (without an NP denoting the warnee), and if Spenser was already using the verb intransitively, Heffer has some explaining to do, and crying "Poetry!" won't get him out of it. —GKP]

  16. iching said,

    September 11, 2010 @ 11:36 pm

    The seach term "intransitive warn" led me to the 1994 edition of Merriam-Webster's dictionary of English usage and the witty (if intentional) remark that "Few commentators have warned against its use".
    I have some sympathy for Mr Heffer's position since I too have a few pet peeves (mercifully few that are language related) that I know at an intellectual level are petty and without substance, yet are hard to get rid of at an emotional level.
    There are some self-help strategies I have employed in such cases. For example, I assume that Mr Heffer would admit that there are many English verbs that can be used either transitively or intransitively. It's just that he insists that this particular verb (warn) can only be used transitively. A way out for Mr Heffer would be to say that while the verb warn must always be transitive, the object may sometimes be implicit (null), e.g. "The Prime Minister has warned (the nation) that spending cuts are necessary." , where the implicit object (the nation) could be omitted.
    Then he could have his cake and eat it too. He could maintain he was right all along without having to stick to a pronouncement that was obviously ridiculous.

  17. Jason Eisner said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 12:11 am

    I think J.W. Brewer has a good point. I've written exam questions around the distortions that poets are driven to by formal constraints.

    On the other hand, maybe poetic distortions sometimes bleed into ordinary language use, if only in semi-frozen constructions:

    Geoff, you may vaguely remember that when I met up with you earlier this year after a long ramble around Edinburgh, I was feeling all archaic and came out with the jokey line "Not 45 minutes ago was I atop Arthur's Seat." And that I then immediately wondered why that V2 ordering sounded okay to me, since "not 45 minutes ago" is not actually negative and shouldn't trigger inversion in English.

    (You agreed that my utterance was ungrammatical, and speculated that I must be aping a phenomenon that was not really in my dialect. However, negative inversion is in fact firmly in my dialect and I share the usual judgments.)

    Only that night did I realize that the influence was probably My Fair Lady, a show I grew up with and know extremely well, in which Freddy sings: "All at once am I / Several stories high, / Knowing I'm on the street where you live."

    I won't say that anyone else has generalized that lyric, since the Google hits for "all at once am i" mainly seem to be the lyric itself and twists on it. Still, positive inversion seems to sound decent to me only when the example is superficially similar to Freddy's specific line (roughly, if the AdvP is "all at once" or the verb is locative "to be").

    Interested in thoughts from others on this (apologies for going off-topic).

  18. Dierk said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 3:17 am

    I am still a bit baffled about how Mr Heffer came up with his idea about the wrongness of intransitive 'to warn'. Wouldn't that mean that every dictionary/grammar, i.e. DCE, OALD, OED etc., gets it completely wrong as they state the word to be both [in DCE parlance: I, T]?

    Which leads me to the main question I hoped the second part of your post would answer: How is transitivity determined? Is there a body of elves deciding which word needs an object [and what kind of object] and which does not?*

    *Let me make clear, while I do poke fun at Mr Heffer here, the basic queston of how to determine transitivity is a serious one.

  19. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 4:43 am

    Heffer is a daft old Tory whose natural audience will love this stuff. Glancing at his Wiki page reminds me of some of the idiotic things he's said over the years… he blamed the murder of two little girls by their school janitor on 'liberal society', called Portugal 'little more than a banana republic' when another little English girl was abducted there, called for drug dealers to be shot in the head China-style, and compared a Ken Loach film to Mein Kampf without having watched it.

    When his rants confirm your own prejudices they can be quite amusing. For instance, he wrote a famous (anonymous) editorial accusing people from Liverpool of 'vicarious victimhood', which is funny if you're a Manchester United fan sick of listening to Liverpool fans moaning… so I dare say a lot of prescriptivists will enjoy his grammatical sermons.

  20. jan wohlgemuth said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 4:58 am

    Regarding those people who make (unfounded) claims about language and how a particular language is or should be, a professor of mine once put it this way (translation mine): "There are many people who believe that they are experts on language because they speak (one). But I'm not a pulmonologist just because I've been breathing successfully for the last 60 years."

  21. Pflaumbaum said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 5:02 am

    It's nicely put, though I suppose someone like Heffer might counter that he's not just involuntarily using language, he was educated in it, he's carefully and self-consciously using it, and he makes a living from it.

    A closer analogy might be an athlete, who has trained their body to reach a high level of performance, but still isn't close to being a qualified physiotherapist.

  22. Joe said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 6:48 am

    I was a bit disappointed with the Headmaster's response (he was even identified as a linguist). I'm not sure if his remarks were edited out or if he was just being polite, but I wish he had said Heffer's ideas about English grammar were simply wrong (which is why they aren't taught in schools). He thus doesn't really identify the true problem with prescriptivism, and allows uniformed bullies like Heffer to define the terms of the debate.

  23. Dexter Edge said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 8:00 am

    For fun, I did a little additional investigation over breakfast of "has warned that" and "warns that."

    The Corpus of Historical American English (Heffer would undoubtedly dismiss American English as valid evidence for "proper" usage) has only 43 examples of "has warned that," the earliest from 1938: "The Massachusetts Federation of Taxpayers Associations already has warned that this action will result In local tax rates in 1939 being raised $1.38 per…"

    COHA has 195 example of "warns that," the earliest from 1924: "He warns that if a counter revolution puts the Reds out the loan will not be paid…" There is steady increase in the use of "warns that" over the decades: 4 in the 1920s, then 6, 10, 11, 20, 26, 33, 39, 46 in successive decades through the 2000s.

    A search for occurrences of "has warned that" in Google Books before 1920 (taking into account the notoriously faulty metadata in Google Books) turns up just 40 hits.

    The earliest of these actually have a direct object: " Is it not he who has warned that sailor of his danger?" and "…he has actually condescended to act as amateur policeman to the Lord Chamberlain, and has warned that official against his own near connections…" (1863).

    The earliest intransitive use of "has warned that" in this search seems to be from 1882: "And when Christ, as if to guard as with special majesty and sanctity the theme and hope so momentous, has warned that all sin might be forgiven to the penitent, sin against Father …"

    The legitimate hits in Google Books for "warns that" go back considerably farther.

    For example, Daniel Jablonski, "The Liturgy Used in the Churches of the Principality of Neuschatel" (1712), on 2 Peter 3: "THE Apostle warns, that there would be in the Church prophane Persons, who would doubt of the Last Coming of Jesus Christ."

  24. Sili said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 8:20 am

    I wish he had said Heffer's ideas about English grammar were simply wrong

    Not being a grammarian myself, I may be wrong, but I suspect that Heffer is more likely "not even wrong" rather than simply wrong.

  25. Peter said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 10:20 am

    On the “how to re-educate prescriptivists” question: firstly, at least if you catch ’em (reasonably) young, it is not completely hopeless: I for one was a priggish prescriptivist until the age of about 21, but over the next few years a few kind and patient friends gradually argued me out of it, and since then I’ve held reasonable views (or at least, views that chime with what most language loggers hold).

    Secondly, one approach that can work is to not say “here’s why you're wrong” and throw your favourite source at them, but to ask them “where is your source?”, and then show them either (if it’s eg Strunk and White) why their source is flimsy, or (with the more educated class of prescriptivist, if it’s eg the OED) that it doesn’t actually back them up at all. This way, they get to feel a bit better because you're at least giving them the choice of weapons, but the ensuing inevitable defeat is then harder for them to dismiss.

  26. Cecily said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 10:56 am

    For anyone wanting more details of Heffer's views, here are links to four excerpts of his book:

    One of his more bizarre themes is the supposed logic of language, "Like so much of our language this is a question of logic based on the etymology".

    If only he could be force-fed a little Language Log, including the etymological fallacy.

  27. mollymooly said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 11:12 am

    While modern linguists might consider the that-clause in "The Prime Minister has warned that …" to be a complement, tradition school grammar would call it a direct object. I imagine Heffer prefers school grammar, which makes me doubt that the example is Heffer's own idiocy, as opposed to a combination the BBC's compounding the felony.

    MWDEU p.947 states that intransitive "warn" is an early 20th-C innovation, and cites British objectors like Gowers. But intransitive "warn of" or "warn against" is not the same as transitive "warn that".

    It is possible that Heffer is a fool who doesn't even know how to parrot the objections of earlier fuddy-duddies like Gowers, but it might also be that the BBC reporter (Tom Bateman) was confused by Heffer's exposition and made up the "Prime Minister has warned that" example himself. In which case I expect an outraged Heffer to demand a correction.

  28. Mark Mandel said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 11:17 am

    Cecily said, "For anyone wanting more details of Heffer's views…"

    My gut reaction is: "Not me!"

  29. Jonathan said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 12:32 pm

    Maybe I'm analyzing it wrong, but I think that with verbs of communication, the recipient is usually the indirect object, like

    "I told her a story." The message itself is the direct object, the recipient the indirect. With "warn that…" the clause that follows that would be the direct complement, and the person being warned the indirect one. So "warning that" is still transitive, even if the recipient is not identified.

  30. Lance said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 1:24 pm

    I could hardly get through Heffer's second paragraph of the first piece Cecily linked without rolling my eyes and going off to check his facts. I'm fascinated that, twice in the article, he goes to "the dictionary" for validation (as if there's only one dictionary!), but on his very first peeve–that "collide" requires two objects in motion–he relies solely on his apparently native-speaker knowledge of Latin. "So two moving vehicles may collide, as may a car and a cyclist or even a car and a pedestrian, but not a car and a tree", he writes.

    Had he gone to the dictionary–at least my dictionary, Merriam-Webster's 11th Collegiate–he would have found as the first definition "to come together with solid or direct impact <the car collided with a tree>". In other words, "the dictionary" that he cites as an authority on how words should be used directly contradicts, in so many words, his insane insistence on the etymology of "collide".

    To be honest, I can't even begin to imagine what could convince this man that he's wrong about anything.

  31. John said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 1:30 pm

    I'm with mollymooly: why isn't the "that" clause the direct object? I'd have said so.

  32. Bob Ladd said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 2:30 pm

    Like Dierk and Dexter Edge, I think there might be an interesting question concerning how long it's been normal to leave the object of warn implicit. There are some verbs with which it would be perfectly intelligible to omit an object but the grammar doesn't like it. Non-native writers of English frequently write things like These results allow to conclude that…, where a native speaker would include us or one as the object of allow. Undoubtedly there are other such verbs as well. If the implicit-object construction is actually relatively recent with warn, maybe there's some real (if fairly thin) empirical basis for Mr. Heffer's peeve.

    Can anyone think of other verbs like allow?

  33. Marcel Z. said,

    September 12, 2010 @ 3:15 pm

    If you want to know what will convince Heffer, just ask him.

    Either ask him directly, or ask him the indirect question: Why do you think this construction is ungrammatical? What do you base this on, besides your own opinion?

    I suspect most prescriptivists base most of their opinions on whatever they manage to remember from Strunk and White or some similar grammar book.

    After reading Pflaumbaum's comments, I wonder if Heffer even believes what he is saying. He may simply be trying to earn a few pounds selling a book that will appeal to a certain audience. Whether his claims are true, or even make any sense, may be a secondary consideration for him. That is just speculation, of course. I know nothing about the man.

  34. Taylor Brown said,

    April 10, 2013 @ 8:23 pm

    I think Mr. Heffer does not believe that the doctrine of Correct English is just an idea or a notion or an object of study, but is a social institution that encompasses values, codes of conduct, and everything else that might be encompassed by an institution. To Mr.Heffer, a contending hypothesis to his grammar prescriptions, is not simply a matter of resolving a conflict of ideas, but is an attack against the institution to which he identifies himself with. Contradictory evidence is not likely to dissuade him because he is not simply adopting and promoting the most sensible and plausible ideas of the time (as scientists do) and therefore willing to discard false ideas all in the pursuit of truth, but because his institution, and consequently his identity and person, is being threatened.

    Besides this ideological aspect though, I think the behavior of the prescriptivist in the face of contradictory evidence is analogous to how anyone would behave if their creations were threatened. If you make a painting, and someone lights the painting on fire and destroys it, what is your reaction going to be? Mr.Heffer's grammar prescriptions are his own creation much in the same way a painting he might have made would be his own creation. Acknowledgement of evidence that proves him wrong would be the destruction of his hand-crafted ideas of grammar and would be like forcing him to put a lighter to his own paintings. Or if you built a snowman and someone then came by and punched its head off and told you that it's scientifically wrong for snowman to have heads.

    I think that both these considerations are relevant to the endnote of Everything is correct" versus "nothing is relevant":
    "it's not just the the existence of ignorant authoritarian prescriptivism in this culture that needs an explanation, it's also the level of anger that accompanies its expression."

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