Death of the Queen's English Society

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The Queen's English Society (QES), mentioned only a couple of times here on Language Log over the past few years, is no more. It has ceased to be. On the last day of this month they will ring down the curtain and it will join the choir invisible. It will be an ex-society. Said Rhea Williams, chairman of QES, in a letter to the membership of which I have seen a facsimile copy:

At yesterday's SGM there were 22 people present, including the 10 members of your committee. Three members had sent their apologies. Not a very good showing out of a membership of 560 plus!

Time was spent discussing what to do about QES given the forthcoming resignations of so many committee members. Despite the sending out of a request for nominations for chairman, vice-chairman, administrator, web master, and membership secretary no one came forward to fill any role. So I have to inform you that QES will no longer exist. There will be one more Quest then all activity will cease and the society will be wound up. The effective date will be 30th June 2012

(Quest is the society's magazine.) Is this a sad day for defenders of English? Not in my view. I don't think it was a serious enterprise at all. I don't think the members cared about what they said they cared about. And I will present linguistic evidence for this thesis.

First, let's look at the seven sentences of the letter above in the light of the usual kind of judgmental prescriptivism that the members of QES always purported to care about (and keep in mind here that in some cases I am applying what prescriptive authorities generally say, not endorsing it):

  1. At yesterday's SGM there were 22 people present, including the 10 members of your committee. [The existential construction ("there is/are/was/were") is condemned by Strunk and White (page 18) as weak writing, to be avoided.]
  2. Three members had sent their apologies. [Not clear why "had" is included to make a past perfect where a preterite would have been perfectly correct and appropriate. Omit needless words!]
  3. Not a very good showing out of a membership of 560 plus! [This is a fragment: it has no main verb.]
  4. Time was spent discussing what to do about QES given the forthcoming resignations of so many committee members. [This is an agentless passive, condemned by Strunk and by Orwell and by writing tutors and prescriptivists everywhere.]
  5. Despite the sending out of a request for nominations for chairman, vice-chairman, administrator, web master, and membership secretary no one came forward to fill any role. [This is also evasive about agency: who sent out the request?]
  6. So I have to inform you that QES will no longer exist. [This begins with a "conjunction".]
  7. There will be one more Quest then all activity will cease and the society will be wound up. [Ungrammatical because of punctuation: a comma or semicolon is needed after "Quest". And as a magazine title, Quest should properly have been italicized. The last clause is another agency-avoiding passive.]
  8. The effective date will be 30th June 2012 [Ungrammatical because of punctuation again: the final period has been carelessly omitted.]

I repeat that I am not endorsing the stuff about how the existential and passive constructions are always bad, you should never begin a sentence with a "conjunction", and so on: a lot of such advice is mindless overkill (because some people have occasionally used the passive evasively, everyone should be told not to use passives at all). But even if you ignore all the stupid stuff, the last two sentences really are genuinely ungrammatical for perfectly clear reasons. Isn't this a surprisingly bad piece of writing to be sent out to the entire membership of a society devoted to grammatical nitpicking, and to be released to the press?

I turned to the web site of QES to remind myself of their activities, and stared at this amazingly incompetent paragraph at the top of the home page (as of early June 2012):

The Queen's English Society is neither a museum nor is it a preservation Society. These are but two of the myths promulgated by our detractors. The 'anti brigade', are a strange group of people, often quite well educated themselves, but appear to be against others who strive to achieve. They seemingly have no knowledge of why the QES exists and what we seek to do. They appear to actually believe that anyone can simply freeze the language at a given time and leave it in that state indefinitely.

Again, every single sentence is badly written, either in terms of genuine grammatical rules or according to the dictates of the usual suspects in the prescriptivism industry:

  1. The Queen's English Society is neither a museum nor is it a preservation Society. [Malformed coordination: "is neither A nor is it B" is quite common, but is generally taken to be an error for "is neither A nor B", and usage books warn against such constructions.]
  2. These are but two of the myths promulgated by our detractors. [The subordinate clause is yet another passive.]
  3. The 'anti brigade', are a strange group of people, often quite well educated themselves, but appear to be against others who strive to achieve. [Clear ungrammaticality in punctuation: the comma after brigade is between subject and verb. In addition, there is a puzzling coordinate structure that I cannot understand. The verb phrase "appear to be against others who strive to achieve" is preceded by "but", in its coordinator role; but what is the first coordinate? If it is "are a strange group of people, often quite well educated themselves", then "but" doesn't make sense. If it is meant to be "often quite well educated themselves", then the structure is ungrammatical, because the first coordinate has no verb.]
  4. They seemingly have no knowledge of why the QES exists and what we seek to do. [This seems to have an "and" where we need an "or". The claim is surely that the anti brigade have no knowledge of either X or Y, not that they have no knowledge of X and Y, considered conjointly. And surely Orwell or White would have insisted that have no knowledge of is wordy officialese for do not know or are ignorant of.]
  5. They appear to actually believe that anyone can simply freeze the language at a given time and leave it in that state indefinitely. [This has a split infinitive, which is an eyebrow-raiser, but it also has a genuine mistake: "anyone" should be "someone". They are saying "No one can simply freeze the language at a given time and leave it in that state indefinitely, but the anti brigade appear not to believe this."]

Again, don't interpret me as believing that split infinitives are wrong: They are not, and never have been. The prejudice against them is ridiculous. But the belief that they are a grammatical awkwardness or ugliness that ought to be avoided wherever possible is widespread among the sort of people who belonged to QES, so the appearance of an example of it in this context surprises me. I thought these were the sort of people who loved to jump on split infinitives in other people's writing, and studiously avoid them in their own writing. But even if we ignore the split infinitive and so forth, there are genuine errors too.

And we're not just talking about one or two accidental slips that I managed to find after reading thousands of words. I haven't gone further than the first paragraph of their home page yet. When I turn to the second paragraph I see this:

The QES is by nature a prescriptivist organisation, because to adopt a wholly descriptivist approach, would render our existence to be meaningless.

Again, there is a comma (after approach) between the subject and the predicate in a short, simple, declarative clause. That was grammatical in the 18th century, but by the 20th it was very definitely not.

After the sentence just quoted, they suddenly lose the plot altogether, and say:

Put very simply, we refuse as a nation to adopt the word 'sidewalk' when there is already a perfectly good word — pavement, nicely settled in our language.

So now it's nothing to do with Standard English, it's about United Kingdom nationalism and a war (in defiance of the special relationship) against using familiar American nouns? This kind of jingoism has nothing to do with correctness. Sidewalk is a fully correct and well known Standard English noun, mostly limited to the American variety of the language. It is utterly presumptuous to assert that the UK is not going to adopt it. Britons never, never shall be slaves, lexically or politically. Pavement happens to have a rather dangerous transdialectal ambiguity, because in the USA it refers to the bit of the road where the trucks are. So we'll refer to either keeping lorries off the pavement or to keeping trucks off the sidewalk, as and when we think it appropriate. We'll adopt such American nouns as we damn well please, OK?

And, returning to my theme, let me just point out that the QES sentence quoted in the foregoing paragraph is, once again, ungrammatical in its punctuation: the dash should be matched by a second dash, not a comma, and pavement needs quotation marks (correct version: . . . there is already a perfectly good word — 'pavement' — nicely settled in our language).

Browsing just a little bit more on the QES site, I read the following astonishingly inaccurate stereotype of my profession in an FAQ page:

The Society prefers the prescriptive approach to the descriptive approach, as we do not want the language to lose its fine or major distinctions. We believe that descriptive linguistics, which declares anything anybody said or wrote to be 'correct' caters to mass ignorance under the supposed aegis of democracy and political correctness.

The cartoon depiction of linguists here is outrageous: I have no desire to see distinctions lost, and (of course) I have never declared that "anything anybody said or wrote" is correct. I have frequently stressed the opposite. Of course native speakers make mistakes. But put aside the absurd substance, and look at the form: that second sentence is ungrammatical, because the comma before the supplementary relative clause (descriptive linguistics, which declares . . .) lacks the matching one that should mark the end of the clause (there should be a second comma before the main clause verb caters; here there must be a comma between the subject and the main verb, but only because supplementary relatives have to be comma-marked at each end).

These people cannot competently punctuate their sentences according to the standard rules. Why were we supposed to take them seriously as guardians of our native language? Their writing looks tired, hasty, and careless. It's extraordinarily bad when judged by the sort of standards that one might expect an organization of educated professional people devoted to the protection of Standard English and education in its use.

How could the entire leadership of a society devoted to defense of the language have approved such passages of prose in their own publications? I think it is quite likely that most of them didn't even read it. It seems to me that Geoff Nunberg hit the nail on the head with this recent remark on Language Log about the sort of people who parade their grammar peeves in public:

You hear people saying that a misused hopefully or literally makes them want to put their shoe through the television screen, but nobody ever actually does that—what it really makes them want to do is tell you how they wanted to put a shoe through the television screen. It's all for display, like rhesus monkeys baring their teeth and pounding the ground with their palms.

That rings true. The QES members didn't really want to spend valuable spare time in meetings about how to promote English; they just wanted you to think they were the sort of people who might. Their own PR says they want to be a "recognised guardian of proper English" that will "strive to halt the decline in standards in its use", but they didn't care enough to write respectable error-free prose in society materials. I seem to care more about decent writing than they do, despite the caricature of descriptive linguists as anything-goes people who don't believe in either rules or style.

Their brain slip in suddenly announcing the struggle against sidewalk as their hallmark issue suggests an inability to identify their raison d'être, or to tell the serious from the trivial. (The idiotic Guardian news report by Lewis Smith reflects this confusion, muddling up the issue of defending Standard English grammar with random things like texting, slang, and non-standard London dialects. Newspaper reporting about language really is unspeakably brainless, but the QES must bear some responsibility if their mission was never really clear.)

The Queen's English Society was a passing whim for the sort of people who write harrumphing letters to the Daily Telegraph, superficial and silly from the start. It never had real missionary zeal, or a serious groundswell of linguistic or literary educated opinion behind it. Educational questions like how to encourage clarity in writing, and how to reduce the frequency of puzzlement due to genuine grammar errors, will have to await a more serious movement, and a more informed and committed group of people than this sloppy and ineffectual ex-group of soi-disant grammar guardians.

[I have monkeyed with the above text quite a bit after first hitting the Publish button at 3:47 a.m., and added several paragraphs as well. For the first six hours of its life at least, this post was a work in continual progress. —GKP, Wednesday 6 June 2012, 9:51 Eastern time]


  1. Simon Martin said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 4:03 am

    Hopefully the Apostrophe Protection Society and other such silly organisations will go the way of the QES soon.

  2. Adam said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 4:16 am

    I'm under the impression that missing final periods are becoming more common on multi-sentence signs and short documents these days. I wonder if people are starting to think (maybe not consciously) that the "." separates sentences instead of ending them. (I've also noticed the reverse of this with indentation: the proliferation of word processors without training seems to encourage the use of indentation as a paragraph-starter rather than a paragraph separator.)

    [In The Economist and other magazines a single-sentence sub-hed or standfirst has no period, and a multi-sentence standfirst will have periods at the end of each sentence except for the last. That's a convention (declarative-form heds and subheds etc. do not end in periods). But surely no one thinks that convention applies to business letters. —GKP]

  3. Stan said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 4:19 am

    Hear, hear. The websites of the QES and its "academy" are eyesores that tie themselves up in knots trying and failing to say simple things clearly. They show remarkably little understanding of how language operates, preferring to fixate on zombie rules and to lament current standards.

    As I said to the founder of the "academy" during a spat on my blog, there are great discrepancies between what the QES does and what it says it sets out to do. Anyone turning to it for guidance would be doing themselves a disservice.

    But I would not be surprised if this latest round of publicity generated enough support to enable the organisation to continue. In the news stories about it I read many sympathetic comments from people intent on assuring the world how much they care about the language.

  4. Tom Freeman said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 4:45 am

    Their writing is inept by any standards. I can only imagine that the peevish mindset brings with it a sense of infallibility, with the result that they don't need to even try to be self-critical.

    They somehow manage to make the Plain English Campaign look good…

  5. Adam said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 5:13 am

    I've had a quick look around on the QES's website and I wonder if the organization is really as bad as people expect it to be from the name. Sure, it's prescriptive, but it seems to deal mainly with formal writing; I couldn't find anything about split infinitives; the passive voice is mentioned only as being more common in formal than familiar styles. Yes, it covers traditional pronoun case and proscribes double negatives, but even the linguists in the Evil Descriptivist Conspiracy generally conform to those rules in their writing.

    [Fair enough: they do not publish materials explicitly endorsing standard prescriptivist bugaboos. They do say they are "by nature a prescriptivist organisation". But I didn't intend my side references (snide references, one might allege) to these bugaboos to be a central point. It is true that their writing couldn't conceivably be considered good writing by the likes of George Orwell or William Strunk or E. B. White or William Zinnser. But that is not as important as the fact that there are genuine errors of written English grammar in the materials I cite above (a letter to their membership and the top of their home page). It seems to me that they're not paying attention: Actual writing doesn't matter to them; what matters instead is being thought to be the sort of people who think it matters. Correctness is unimportant; they just want people to imagine them to be the kind of people who know what's correct. —GKP]

  6. Mark Liberman said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 5:51 am

    I suppose that the "QES Academy of Contemporary English", said to be "now a separate organisation", will continue to exist, providing amusement to all with passages like this one:

    Can you count on your lawyer?   Well, that depends.   A lawyer's principle tool is language, but lawyers, just as any other people, can get it very wrong.

    For those who are reading quickly, I'll point out the ironic substitution of "principle" for "principal", and the formally incorrect use of "just as" for "just like". Quoting Bryan Garner:

    When writers fear using like as a conjunction, they sometimes fail to use it when it would function appropriately as a preposition or adverb. Thus, She sings like a bird becomes *She sings as a bird. […] The hypercorrection, then, results in a miscue.

    As Geoff points out with respect to the QES site, the QES Academy of Contemporary English site is full of such mistakes, along with some extraordinarily awkward writing.

  7. Johanne D said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 6:50 am

    The clause "would render our existence to be meaningless" jumped out at me. I believe "render" in this case means "to cause to become, to make", so: "would cause our existence to become to be meaningless"?

    Clearly, one could leave out "to be", but is the sentence all right as it is anyway?

    (Oops, sorry for the "one": not a britishism here, but a gallicism! And a passive avoided ;-) )

  8. Ray Girvan said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 7:06 am

    QES > There will be one more Quest then all activity will cease and the society will be wound up.
    GKP > Ungrammatical because of punctuation: a comma or semicolon is needed after "Quest".

    I wouldn't call that a grammatical issue but a fairly flexible stylistic convention. I was under the impression that the "comma before coordinating conjunction" rule could be, and is, waived if the overall sentence is uncomplicated. The QES sentence looks fine to me.

    [I definitely disagree. Then is not a "coordinating conjunction". It's used as a connective adjunct here, not a coordinator. I don't think sentences like *The doors closed then the train began to move are even close to grammatical. —GKP]

  9. Jason said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 8:06 am

    In some ways, this is very sad, and perhaps even worrying. Without such silly old fustigarian curmudgeons, how will the kids rebel? Txtspeek won't do it any more, they'll have to turn to methamphetamine benders and thrill killing.

  10. Jon Weinberg said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 8:23 am

    @Adam: I don't think you can attribute indentation in initial paragraphs to "the proliferation of word processors without training". I was taught to indent initial paragraphs well before my teachers or I ever encountered a word processor, and I'm glancing over at my daily dead-tree newspaper (the New York Times), where nearly all the initial paragraphs are indented. Am I missing something?

  11. NW said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 8:53 am

    There was a letter from one of these people in the newspaper i (sic to non-UK readers) bemoaning the society's fate, and as expected the letter was painful to read. The writer wanted to say 'X or to be more precise Y' and managed to say it as 'X, to be precise Y,' from memory without 'or' but I won't swear to that. The thing is, X was something like 'correct' and Y was 'accurate', so it said 'to be precise accurate', which struck me as the most tone-deaf thing I'd read in ages.

  12. Dennis Paul Himes said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 9:40 am

    I agree with most of your analysis, but not with point 2 of your first list. The pluperfect is correct there, since it describes an event (the sending of apologies) which occurred prior in time to the main topic of the paragraph (the meeting).

    Also, I couldn't pass up the chance to use the word "pluperfect" in a situation where it's actually relevant.

  13. Joshua T said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 9:45 am

    In response to Adam and GKP: The note about '.' as a sentence separator as opposed to a sentence terminator is an interesting one that has a parallel in programming language design. In some programming languages ';' (or another symbol) is a statement terminator, while in others it is used as a separator (and so a final ';' isn't required). A quick search now turns up a comparison on Wikipedia: . I wonder if any programmers have started to adopt any such (non-standard) conventions in their writing. (I doubt it, but now I'm a little tempted. :) )

  14. mike said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 10:04 am

    It's fun to wale on the wretched writing on the QES site (easy pickins, that), but it has limited satisfaction. Pointing out to folks of the QES mindset the beam that is their own eye in some senses plays into their hands, because it brings the game down to their level — Let's see if we can find mistakes in a sentence! Any editor can tell you that one has excellent odds of being able to find _something_ to criticize in any given piece of text.

    In the end it doesn't really address the gaping flaw in the society's whole premise. Finding fault with the individual sentences in the QES's text is no more going to change their mind about their mission than listing (e.g.) economic or historical facts influences the opinions of one's political opponents. The QES may be an ex-society, but the religio-linguistic fervor that engendered it has not, I'm sure, changed a whit. Alas.

  15. Steven Grady said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 10:07 am

    "The QES is by nature a prescriptivist organisation, because to adopt a wholly descriptivist approach, would render our existence to be meaningless."

    This quote reminds me of the Society For Putting Things On Top Of Other Things:

    "For, we must never forget that if there was not one thing that was not on top of another thing our society would be nothing more than a meaningless body of men that had gathered together for no good purpose."

  16. Ben Hemmens said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 10:18 am

    For AmE 'pavement/sidewalk' one could use 'carriageway/footpath' – this is the choice of words, for example, in the UN Vienna Convention on Road Signs and Signals.

    While not quite attaining the conceptual clarity of a GKP, the following Guardian article is at least refreshingly free of howlingly wrong statements:

  17. Lauren said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 10:18 am

    Following up on Mark Liberman's comment, the QES Academy of Contemporary English also has this gem on their library page:

    Foreign English — This is another fascinating and amusing volume in which we give examples of the many ways in which English is constantly being deformed and misused by non-English mother-tongue people who are convinced that they have mastered our language, but in fact mutilate it.

    There seems to be a serious misunderstanding of where autotranslations stop and L2 English begins. The links within this "book" are labeled things like "Spanglish" and "Franglais". True Spanglish is not a misuse of English but a shibboleth of Heritage English speakers and bilinguals. From my brief exploration of the page, however, I observe only autotranslation and general translation errors. How frustrating.

  18. Cecily said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 11:01 am

    Adam, what you can see on the QES website now is only a fraction of what was there a year ago, some of which was underpinned by negative attitudes to minorities (in addition to being at best unhelpful and misleading, and at worst completely wrong).

  19. Dan T. said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 11:19 am

    They also don't follow domain name usage as prescriptively as they advocate for language usage; although they're a registered charity, they use a .com address (implying a commercial entity) instead of a more appropriate .org or

  20. Jonathon said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 12:18 pm

    I wonder if the "anything goes" strawman of descriptivism is ever going to go away. Here's my own take on the matter.

  21. Stuart said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 2:01 pm

    The QES's website seems to have been altered recently and a lot of the worst content removed. There was a time when it endorsed many more prescriptivist bugaboos than it does now.

  22. Pali, Cambodian, lately Taiwanese Hokkien said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 2:33 pm

    The scholarly society itself is an endangered species of institution (a type of predator that is becoming ever more scarce along with its prey); although many are wistful about it, the decline of this type of institution has generally been for good reasons –perhaps especially in the geographic (and ideological) slice of the world my own research has dealt with. The following parody comes extremely close to anthropology:

    The All Ceylon Russian Roulette Club (south asia’s second oldest) will
    be dissolved through an unanimous vote by its interim central
    committee. The ACRRC’s announcement comes in the wake of numerous
    scandals and tragedies that has dogged the organisation in the past
    few years. According to a member speaking anonymously, this final blow
    was “inevitable”. Dissolution however is unlikely to end the many
    Police investigations originating from the organisation’s last years.

    The tragic death of long time ACRRC president, Mr Pupurana Mahathuwaku
    during a training session hastened the process of decline. The 5 time
    SARRAC Russian Roulette gold medallist was a colourful figure. Yet
    many believe mismanagement during his divisive tenure was fatal to the

    Famous for challenging anyone to investigate him, Mr Mahathuwaku’s
    death has come under Police investigation. […]

    The ACRRC’s original position was
    that the numbers quoted in the invoices are a clerical error. However
    the interim central committee has distanced itself from that claim. In
    a statement they described the previous stance as a unauthorised
    declaration by the late president. According to the club secretary,
    the late president had issued the statement “unilaterally and without
    central committee authorisation”


    Although that parody originates from Sri Lanka, it isn't far removed from real examples even in Thailand, etc. etc.

  23. Adam said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 2:36 pm

    @Cecily, Stuart, GKP:

    I don't think I'd ever looked at the QES's website until this morning. Maybe they had a mole in Language Log Plaza and threw the code-books over the rails!

  24. Adam said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 2:43 pm

    @Jon Weinberg:

    Maybe it was the typing teachers? Anyway, I checked a treeware copy of The Guardian, which doesn't indent first paragraphs; I'm surprised a newspaper would indent anything unnecessarily (because of "column width pressure").

    @Ray Girvan, GKP:
    I'm not sure about the Conjunction Question, but I'd find it hard to argue that the comma is either required or wrong in any of the following (although I'd personally use it in all three):

    There will be one more Quest [comma?] then all activity will cease and the society will be wound up.

    There will be one more Quest [comma?] and all activity will cease and the society will be wound up.

    There will be one more Quest [comma?] and then all activity will cease and the society will be wound up.

  25. Mark Liberman said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 3:10 pm

    Does anyone have any copies of the QES journal Quest?

    According to the Wayback Machine's copy of the QES website from 9/27/2007, issue #95 came out in spring 2007, "and contained, inter alia"

    I wonder whether the Malcolm Skeggs who wrote about David Crystal's linguistic permissiveness is the same Malcolm Skeggs identified here as "a leading member of the far-right British National Party and in charge of the party book club", Either way, I'd like to read the article, but I can't find any further references to it.

  26. Circe said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 3:31 pm

    The passing away of QES was also mourned, I am sad to say, in the Indian newspaper The Telegraph. It also contains a delightful quote from the erstwhile society's 'chairman [sic] (not "chair") Mrs Rhea Williams':

    Mrs Williams is conducting a personal campaign against the misuse of apostrophes, a surprisingly common problem in Britain.

    “What I do now is that I have a pen in every pocket and when I come across apostrophes in notices where they shouldn’t be or where they are wrong, I correct them and it gives me secret pleasure,” she laughed. “It’s my little bit of anarchy. The older I get the more attractive anarchy becomes.”

    I am sad to see the usually progressive Telegraph falling for this.

  27. Circe said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 3:35 pm

    The Telegraph article I referred to above also features the following gem:

    Ideally, she wants grammar to be taught as rigorously as Nesfield’s Grammar is to generations who have attended English medium missionary schools in India.

    I can so from personal experience that not all of us Indians are LP records of Nesfield's grammar. I went to an "English medium missionary school" in India, and they used to teach as grammar not by ramming Z, Y or Z's book down our throats, but simply by asking to do exercises in transforming sentences from one form to another.

  28. Steve said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 4:05 pm


    I'm curious, were you asked to transform an incorrect sentence to a correct one? Or were you asked to transform a correct into a different, but still correct, sentence?

    Because while I remember doing the first in school, I don't think I've ever done the second as a scholastic exercise. But it strikes me as potentially being very effective.

  29. B.Ma said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 5:07 pm


    At school in Singapore, I was asked to transform correct sentences to different correct sentences. They were mainly active to passive transformations and v.v., and occasionally rearranging word order in sentences that had multiple components. We also had to think about things such as why we say "the big white dog" instead of "the white big dog".

  30. Ellen K. said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 6:17 pm

    Regarding the comma, I'd call it bad punctuation rather than ungrammatical, but other than that, I agree with GKP. It would have a pretty distinct pause in speech, and thus needs a comma, or a period, or a semicolon; some form of punctuation.

  31. Circe said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 6:22 pm


    The exercises used to be about transforming correct sentences into different forms. Typically, they would give us a sentence, and then a fragment of another sentence with a fixed beginning or ending phrase, and we would have to complete this to get roughly teh same meaning as the original sentence.

    All the grammar we did in my last 5 years of school consisted of this, and some fill in the blanks exercises about prepositions and verb forms. Of course, they did teach us some grammatical terminology and some rules, but a typical class would have about 10 minutes of that and 30 minutes of exercises. One of the teachers in our school said that this was a conscious decision by the school board to promote the teaching of what she called (if I remember correctly) "functional grammar".

  32. Mark Liberman said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 7:11 pm

    Part of what Gertrude Stein wrote about commas:

    What does a comma do.

    I have refused them so often and left them out so much and did without them so continually that I have come finally to be indifferent to them. I do not now care whether you put them in or not but for a long time I felt very definitely about them and would have nothing to do with them.

    As I say commas are servile and they have no life of their own, and their use is not a use, it is a way of replacing one’s own interest and I do decidedly like to like my own interest my own interest in what I am doing. A comma by helping you along holding your coat for you and putting on your shoes keeps you from living your life as actively as you should lead it and to me for many years and I still do feel that way about it only now I do not pay as much attention to them, the use of them was positively degrading. Let me tell you what I feel and what I mean and what I felt and what I meant.

    When I was writing those long sentences of The Making of Americans, verbs active present verbs with long dependent adverbial clauses became a passion with me. I have told you that I recognize verbs and adverbs aided by prepositions and conjunctions with pronouns as possessing the whole of the active life of writing.

    Complications make eventually for simplicity and therefore I have always liked dependent adverbial clauses. I have liked dependent adverbial clauses because of their variety of dependence and independence. You can see how loving the intensity of complication of these things that commas would be degrading. Why if you want the pleasure of concentrating on the final simplicity of excessive complication would you want any artificial aid to bring about that simplicity. Do you see now why I feel about that simplicity. Do you see now why I feel about the comma as I did and as I do.

    But I don't see the QES writers as disciples of Ms. Stein. And apart from Ms. Stein and her disciples, you'd have a hard time finding competently-written English prose with sentences of the form "S then S" without a comma preceding the "then", especially when the two sentences both have the pattern SUBJ will VERBPHRASE.

  33. Ruben Polo-Sherk said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 7:25 pm

    I think in the UK, many commas that are required from the point of view of grammatiality in Standard AE are often left out ("many" because there are different kinds of commas, and "often" because it is not uniormly done). I don't know whether this is considered Standard BE.

    Corpus data cannot show whether or not it's grammatical; you can, for example, find many sentences with a comma after the subject. There is no such comma with that function in standard English (of any variety, as far as I know), but that usage is definitely a feature of many people's idolects.

  34. Andy Averill said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 8:24 pm

    The older I get, the more I agree with Ms Stein. The older I get the more I agree with Ms Stein.

  35. Victoria Simmons said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 9:10 pm

    What is the technical difference between the 'like' in "examples like these" and the 'like' in "Winston tastes good like a cigarette should"? In both cases, I was taught that I would go to hell if I used 'like' instead of, respectively, 'such as' and 'as.'

    [The difference is that in examples like these the preposition like takes a noun phrase complement but in like a cigarette should it takes a comparative clause complement. The old prescriptive poppycock tells you never to use like with a clause as complement. It is baseless, of course: like has been taking clause complements for a century or more. See Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage. —GKP]

  36. Ruben Polo-Sherk said,

    June 6, 2012 @ 10:18 pm

    My god, that piece by Stein was hard to read! It always takes me some time to adjust to her style of writing. It looks like English, but it's not really English.

    Obviously, the most immediately striking thing is the lack of commas; but it's not simply a refusal to use punctuation–she does use it, sometimes, and so you see that the whole structure of the language is changed (though, of course, it is still very close to English).

    She must have felt that normal English would provide too poor a fit to her thought, and so decided to make her own English.

  37. Opeye said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 3:29 am

    I am only a first-year Nigerian undergraduate (a trainee peace researcher for that matter), and, in awe of the linguistic refinement that Language Log is reputed for, I probably spent more time steeling myself with courage than I did posting this comment. So here is what I'm so scared to ask. 'The Society prefers the prescriptive approach to the descriptive approach, as we do not want the language to lose its fine or major distinctions.' In this QES's sentence, is there any case of unclear pronoun reference? As the singular infinitive 'prefers' already refers to a singular 'the society', does 'we', a plural noun, agree with 'the society'? Though 'society' is a collective noun, is there a usage clause that permits its singular and plural character to be explored in a single sentence?

    [The answer is that although you could use an anaphoric pronoun here, like it understood with the Society as its antecedent, you don't have to; the Society chose to refer to itself as a corporate entity using we, and that's fully grammatical. We is a pronoun, yes, but not an anaphoric pronoun here: it doesn't have an antecedent, it refers directly to a group including the utterer. —GKP]

  38. Doreen said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 8:55 am

    The link myl posted about Malcolm Skeggs is shocking.

    Perhaps someone could contact the esteemed president of the QES at his day job to request a copy of the relevant issue of Quest and to enquire whether it is indeed the same Mr Skeggs.

  39. David Crystal said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 9:32 am

    The QES always sent me copies of Quest – mainly, I suspect, because they hated me so much that they wanted to make sure I didn't miss any of the vituperation. There was Crystal-bashing in most issues, which always gave me great amusement. Anyway, the point is that I do possess all these issues, and can send a scan any of the articles (when I'm next home) upon request.

    Oh yes, there was always a far-right element in the pages of Quest. And an unpleasant intolerance over diversity. I recall an amazing piece a few years ago, responding to something I'd written about endangered languages, in which the writer said it was a jolly good thing that these languages were dying out, and the sooner the better.

  40. Geoffrey K. Pullum said,

    June 7, 2012 @ 11:53 am

    Wow. I've never previously seen any hard evidence of a proper connection between the prescriptive poppycock of the preserve-of-our-beautiful-language people and the pseudo-fascism of the very nasty extreme right wing in the UK. There always seemed to be a loose connection between favoring the Conservatives over the Liberals or the Labour party, but a link between QES and the BNP (the quasi-Nazi, violently anti-immigrant "British National Party") looks considerably more toxic. Time to thank our commenters and say goodnight, I think; this is Language Log, not Hang-and-Flog-and-Send-Back-the-Wog Log!

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