The thin line between error and mere variation 5: getter better

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My posting on getter better (and its sisters and its cousins and its aunts, which I'll refer to as GetterBetter as a group) has elicited considerable comment, both here on Language Log and on languagehat's blog. I've responded to several of the Language Log comments with comments of my own (which might have to be reworked into full-fledged postings), but there's at least one issue that comes up in both places and is, I think, important enough to merit a posting on its own, even though the central point is one I've posted about many times before: the thin line between error and mere variation.

My original "thin line" postings — four of them, in order here, here, here and here — come from 2004, which might as well be 1850 as far as most net users are concerned. These postings had several points, starting with the distinction between inadvertent slips and other sorts of "mistakes": in my terms, between INADVERTENT and ADVERTENT mistakes; in Erving Goffman's terms, between KNOWS BETTER and DOESN'T KNOW BETTER mistakes; in Geoff Nunberg's terms, between TYPOS and THINKOS (see the discussion in Michael Erard's book Um).

Then there was the point that you can't tell what the status of any PARTICULAR mistake is just from its form: the same output can be the result of several different mechanisms. One person's slip can be another person's intended production (possibly non-standard, but intended).

Then there was the point that (as a result of the previous fact) you can't just assume that all outputs of similar form have the same status — all as slips, all as elements of a non-standard grammar. Although I'm a student of slips, I'm also a sociolinguist, and one thing I do a lot is argue that it's plausible that SOME body of examples of a particular form represent different grammars rather than inadvertent slips. Not ALL but SOME. (I don't think this is an especially subtle point, but I am repeatedly misunderstood.)

Finally, there's a point I didn't bring out so clearly in these earlier postings: that the mechanisms that gave rise to a type of expression don't necessarily have anything to do with the status of that expression-type now. Some things start from slips of the tongue or misperceptions; many arise from understanding details of the form or meaning of an expression-type differently from the way other people understood them. (We can't know what's in other people's minds; the best we can do is guess, on the basis of what we hear.) So even if you're pretty sure that an expression-type originated in some kind of "mistake", that doesn't tell you what people have in their heads now.

Back to GetterBetter. What I'm interested in is the resistance, on some people's parts, to the idea that such things COULD POSSIBLY BE (for other people) anything other than slips: if you can find an interpretation of these productions as slips, then they are. Read some of the blog comments.

Well, you can almost always find a slip interpretation. (Hammering this home again: I AM NOT CLAIMING that all GetterBetter examples are evidence of an alternative grammar on some people's parts — only suggesting that some of them might be.) Why should some people insist on always opting for a slip interpretation?

Here, I think we have to look at how many people, at least many educated people, tend to view the use of non-standard and unfamiliar variants, especially when these violate "rules" that can be formulated explicitly: as a failure, despite effort, to reach the expected (standard or familiar) variants. Given this view, as I said back in the fourth "thin line" posting:

You will … discredit reports that other people use a variant that you don't — say, Isis ("The problem is is that I don't speak that way"), GenXso ("I'm so not going to talk about this"), or themself ("Everybody should get themself a research project"). You'll be inclined to treat these usages as errors, not as real linguistic variants, that is, parts of somebody's grammar …

I have a pretty hefty history now of trying to deal with people who just dismiss my reports of variants that strike them as either unfamiliar or non-standard: the three above, GoToGo ("She's going to San Francisco and talk on firewalls"), WH+that ("I wonder how many people that were at the party"), and many others. I tell my correspondents that many of those who produce these things do so intentionally, do not disavow them, and usually don't understand what the complaint is about. My correspondents are dubious, even in cases (like GoToGo) where I can tell them that I myself am a happy user of the variant, non-standard though it is.

[Side point: I'd like to do my best to discourage readers from filling up the Comments page for this posting by re-opening discussions of the phenomena I've just referred to (and those I'll refer to below). There's a lot about them on Language Log and elsewhere, and they are not the focus of this posting.]

Why should people think this way? My hypothesis is that instead of trying to figure out what other people might be doing, they're using themselves as yardsticks and projecting their own systems onto others, according to the following principle:

(X for Y) If I'd say X only as a slip for Y, then other people who use X must be getting to it as a slip for Y.

Reasoning this way is entirely understandable, but it's not even a remotely valid argument-form in general.

Somewhat more generally, what we're looking at is a kind of "grammatical egocentrism", the idea that

(GE) Other people's language should be judged according to what YOU would say in the circumstances.

So, if GetterBetter would be a slip for you, it's a slip for everyone.

GE is a principle of wide applicability. In another variant, it lies behind the claim — any number of people have said this to me, over many years — that those who use non-standard double negatives ("I didn't see no dog" 'I didn't see any dog') aren't actually being "illogical", as is often claimed, but just "don't say what they mean". [Exercise for the reader: how does the critic know what the non-standard speaker meant to say?] The claim is that the non-standard double negation means (for the user of this variant) what the critic would mean by it ('It's false that I saw no dog'). But that's clearly false, and egocentric.

A recent entertaining example of GE in action: the variation between think and thing in the formula "If that's what you think (about X), then you have another think/thing coming" has come up, once again, on ADS-L. It surfaces every few years, with pretty much the same ground gone over, as if there had been no previous discussion; in this case, I set off the new thread by posting about Jeremiah Wright's use of the formula (see Mark Liberman's recent posting, which includes links to earlier Language Log treatments of the formula; please check out these links before adding your opinions to the net din). So we got, yet another time, think users who saw thing as a slip (an eggcorn, or possibly a misperception), and thing users who saw think as a hypercorrection (a different kind of error). GE on both sides.

It is indeed difficult to figure out why people say what they do. But this task isn't helped at all by grammatical egocentrism.

There are ways to investigate these things. Looking at data from, and talking to, particular speakers or writers is one way. For some expressions (including all of the examples I've mentioned so far, except GetterBetter, on which the jury is still out), such investigations indicate that the "off" expressions are clearly grammatical for some speakers, even if they might be slips for others and might have originated in some kind of slip. Insisting on GE is a bad way to go.

Final reiteration: I am NOT saying that whatever occurs is standard, only that there are more grammatical systems out there than the standard one. I am also NOT saying that anything that occurs in someone's speech is countenanced by their grammar; everybody makes inadvertent errors. GetterBetter is, at least at the moment, deeply non-standard, but it might be part of some speakers' grammatical systems; that's a question to be investigated.

[Addendum 5/4/08: The original posting had GetterBetter sometimes, but mostly (incorrectly) had BetterGetter and better getter, including in the title. Sigh. I need to getter better at proofreading. (Ben Zimmer got in first with the correction.)]



  1. Ran Ari-Gur said,

    May 4, 2008 @ 12:17 pm

    That's really interesting. I think personally I've sometimes been grammatically egocentric and sometimes not; having a clear conception of GE will both help me avoid it in future, and help me understand what's going on when others are showing it.

    And I'm egocentrically assuming that other readers will have the same benefit. :-)

  2. Jason Eisner said,

    May 4, 2008 @ 12:40 pm

    > [Addendum 5/4/08: The original posting had GetterBetter
    > sometimes, but mostly (incorrectly) had BetterGetter and
    > better getter, including in the title. …]

    Noticing this error in the original post inspired me to Google for "better getter." This reversed phrase turns out to be common too, with over 4000 hits. I've sent some data to Arnold, who suggested that I mention the fact here and that he'll try to post on it soon.

    Briefly, it looks like "better getter" can substitute for normative "better get," "better get it" (especially in resultatives like "better getter done"), "better off getting," and others. We even see several examples of "better getter get." Email me if you want more details with full examples.

    "Getter better" and "better getter" may have influenced each other's rise. Earlier commenters found the former as far back as 1848 in England. I wonder how far back the latter goes.

  3. Kenny Easwaran said,

    May 4, 2008 @ 4:23 pm

    Isn't there also another explanation for the reasoning that people use? If many instances of an expression can be shown to be just slips, then a sort of Occam's Razor type argument suggests that it's better to analyze them all as slips, unless there are compelling reasons to analyze some as an alternate grammar.

    Grammatical egocentrism can also be seen this way. The presumption is that generally other English speakers are speaking approximately the same language as me, so unless I have compelling reason to think otherwise, if something they utter sounds like it would have been a slip for me, then I'll assume it was a slip for them.

    Of course, both of these arguments should be given up in the face of some sort of compelling evidence, but it's unclear how high the standard ought to be for that evidence.

  4. Andy Hollandbeck said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 10:58 am

    >"My hypothesis is that instead of trying to figure out what other people might be doing, they’re using themselves as yardsticks and projecting their own systems onto others…"

    These are great words of astounding reach. It seems that this is the basis of most religious and ethical conflict. Think abortion clinics. Thing gay marriage (or homosexuality in general). Think suppression of women.

    [from AMZ: you typed "Think abortion clinics. Thing gay marriage (or homosexuality in general). Think suppression of women." The "thing" in there could be a sly allusion to the think/thing variation, or just a typo.]

  5. Aaron Davies said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 4:49 pm

    > Here, I think we have to look at how many people, at least many educated people, tend to view the use of non-standard and unfamiliar variants, especially when these violate “rules” that can be formulated explicitly: as a failure, despite effort, to reach the expected (standard or familiar) variants.

    Aside: I had to try two possible parsings of the "how" in the part before the colon before I settled on the correct one–the (almost identical) one where you wouldn't expect a comma, and the completely different one where "how many" is a unit and you're talking about counting the people.

  6. Aaron Davies said,

    May 5, 2008 @ 4:57 pm

    D'oh. For "comma" in my comment above, read "colon".

    2nd aside: I find myself at a loss to explain the difference between your sentence with and without a colon, apart of course from the distinct pause involved in reading it aloud if the colon's present. Nonetheless, they "feel" like very different ways to express the same thing.

  7. Arnold Zwicky said,

    May 6, 2008 @ 1:51 pm

    To Aaron Davies: my bad on "how many people" (I intended "how" + ["many people"], but ["how many"] + "people" is, unfortunately, also possible; this is a textbook example of a structural ambiguity!).

    Your other point is a subtle one. To bring out the point, let me use a much simpler example:

    Look at how these people view pigeons: as flying rats.


    Look at how these people view pigeons as flying rats.

    The first of these poses a question (how do these people view pigeons?) and supplies an answer (as flying rats), and the colon (or a dash) is necessary. The semantics is much like that of a pseudocleft sentence:

    How these people view pigeons is as flying rats.

    The second has declarative semantics, very close to:

    Look at the fact that these people view pigeons as flying rats.

    I don't recall having seen a discussion of "factive" uses of "how", but surely they've been noticed. Here are a couple more invented examples:

    Have you noticed how he wears the same tie every day?

    Good children? Consider how they never pick up their rooms.

  8. David Marjanović said,

    May 8, 2008 @ 8:04 pm

    ”I wonder how many people that were at the party”

    Interesting. This exists (at least) in southeastern German dialects (if I interpret that as the conjunction dass, not as a relative pronoun); the probability of its use is proportional to the length of what comes after the wh- word.

    [AMZ: see my article on WH+that, available on-line at
    There are references there to Bavarian, and a discussion of the "size" condition on the WH phrase. I now have a lot more to say on the topic, and intend to post on it.]

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