Phony Rules of English Grammar

The phrase "to boldly go where no man has gone before," popularized by Star Trek, includes a split infinitive--but the grounding for this prohibition is shakier than you may think.

The phrase “to boldly go where no man has gone before,” popularized by Star Trek, includes a split infinitive–but the grounding for this prohibition is shakier than you may think.

You have heard the rules before: Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. Don’t split an infinitive. Don’t start with a conjunction. But who makes these rules? How did they become incorporated into English grammar?

One culprit is Robert Lowth, who advised against ending English sentences with prepositions based on an earlier Latin rule. Similarly, according to Smithsonian Magazine, Henry Alford popularized the prohibition against splitting infinitive’s in A Plea for the Queen’s English.

In Latin, sentences don’t end in prepositions, and an infinitive is one word that can’t be divided. But in a Germanic language like English, as linguists have pointed out, it’s perfectly normal to end a sentence with a preposition and has been since Anglo-Saxon times. And in English, an infinitive is also one word. The “to” is merely a prepositional marker. That’s why it’s so natural to let English adverbs fall where they may, sometimes between “to” and a verb.

We can’t blame Latinists, however, for the false prohibition against beginning a sentence with a conjunction, since the Romans did it too (Et tu, Brute?). The linguist Arnold Zwicky has speculated that well-meaning English teachers may have come up with this one to break students of incessantly starting every sentence with “and.” The truth is that conjunctions are legitimately used to join words, phrases, clauses, sentences—and even paragraphs.

This is a case where a little learning is a dangerous thing. Because the rules are easy to remember, snobs can readily point them out in writing or speech. There is also a desire for social acceptability: no one wants to look stupid, even if the reasons for the rule make no sense. Writers trying to stick to the letter of the law often contort their sentences, while the better practice is often simply to say what sounds natural.

Micro-institutions can seem so ingrained that we fail to question them. Just going with the flow can sometimes make sense, but looking a little deeper can help to expose senseless rules or useless norms. The key is to understand which rules fall into which category. I do not have an answer now. But it’s something I would like to know more about.

Micro-Institutions Everywhere: The English Alphabet

We take our ABC’s for granted, learning 26 letters in a precise order from our youngest days. When introduced to a second or third language later in life we may realize that even similar tongues to English contain slightly different alphabets–the Spanish ñ, the French ç–despite the fact that they evolved from the same roots. Historical variation in the English alphabet seems largely glossed over in contemporary education, but identifying some of the “missing letters” can help explain a few historical puzzles.

First, there’s ampersand, considered the 27th letter of the English alphabet until about 150 years ago. It’s name comes from its position at the end of the ABC’s:

The word “ampersand” came many years later when “&” was actually part of the English alphabet. In the early 1800s, school children reciting their ABCs concluded the alphabet with the &. It would have been confusing to say “X, Y, Z, and.” Rather, the students said, “and per se and.” “Per se” means “by itself,” so the students were essentially saying, “X, Y, Z, and by itself and.” Over time, “and per se and” was slurred together into the word we use today: ampersand. When a word comes about from a mistaken pronunciation, it’s called a mondegreen.

Anglosaxonrunes.svgBefore the introduction of the Latin alphabet after the Roman conquest of Britain, Anglo-Saxon had an alphabet all its own known as furthorc. In the ensuing battle of cultural power politics Anglo-Saxon lost out. Collateral damage included the letter “thorn,” pictured at right, pronounced with the hard “th” sound. It was replaced by the humble Y, always ready to do double duty in that ambiguous no-man’s-land between consonants and vowels. This explains the anachronistic use of Y in titles like “Ye Olde English Shoppe”–it’s just another spelling of “the.”

On Friday we’ll take a look at another missing letter, the long s (resembling “f”). For a sneak peek and a list of nine other extinct English letters, check out this article from MentalFloss (via @johndcook).

Punctuation Politics – The Curious Case of the Apostrophe

Apostrophe-manSome of the context is unfamiliar to me as a non-UK reader, but Michael Rosen makes an interesting argument that there is a politics of punctuation:

My position is that the apostrophe is on the way out. It’s an inconsistent item anyway; it was invented by printers – not grammarians or linguists – and like a lot of other ‘rules’ of punctuation is modified by use. No bad thing.

Like many other norms in everyday life, punctuation emerges through patterns of common usage. Declarations of these rules like the AP Guide to Punctuation and Strunk & White codify common patterns, but are not the source for them. Rosen uses the inconsistency of the rules to show how they have shifted and evolved over time:

We say as a general ‘rule’ that we use an apostrophe for ‘elision’ (when we leave stuff out) and for possessives (when we want to indicate that someone or something owns someone or something). So when we write ‘haven’t’ – that’s supposed to show we’ve ‘left out’ the ‘o’ of not. When we write ‘Michael’s writing’ that’s supposed to show that the writing is possessed by Michael. He owns it. So far so good.

But is all possession marked with an apostrophe? Oh no. So if we use what have been called the ‘possessive pronouns’, its, his, hers, yours, ours, theirs – no apostrophe! Why not? er…well, no one really knows.Look at eighteenth century texts and you will find phrases like, let’s say, ‘the lands were her’s’. Even Mr Strict, Bishop Lowth, the inventor of crap grammar, used an apostrophe there. So, if it was a ‘rule’ then, when did it become a ‘rule’ to not use an apostrophe in, ‘yours’ or ‘ours’? Answer, it’s only a ‘rule’ if you’re the kind of person who thinks this sort of stuff is a ‘rule’ and not, what I would call a ‘convention’.

Rosen discusses apostrophes for elision–it’s, haven’t, they’re–in some detail. Two other use cases also point out historical irregularities:

By the way that complicated stuff about plural possessives ‘the boys’ caps’ – meaning two or more boys’ caps only became a ‘rule’ in the nineteenth century. Up until then, people like Jane Austen and Daniel Defoe managed to get by without worrying about it.

And in case you’re wondering if the decade was the 60′s or the 60s, the answer is, it all depends on the house style of the whoever is publishing it. Again, it’s a trade matter, not a grammatical one of rules.

And if you’re wondering why the possessive apostrophe came in in the first place? Because most nouns used to express possession with an ending ‘es’ with the ‘e’ sounded out. ‘dogges ears’ – with the ‘e’ heard. That sounded out ‘e’ started to disappear just as the first efforts to standardise orthography came in so with the ‘elision rule’ they reckoned that they ought to mark the ‘loss’ of the sounded ‘e’. So it wasn’t a rule of possession after all! It was the old elision ‘rule’. So when you hear people say that the apostrophe is for ‘possession’ as I did all through this article, I was talking nonsense. It was the ‘rule’ of elision but as with vast amounts of so-called grammar and information about language, we believe in the necessity of lying to children – or just foisting our ignorance on to them. That’s because the old idea of ‘investigating language’ rather than laying down the rules has gone out the window.

When we focus on rules as they exist in the present without regard to their historical record, they seem fixed rather than emergent. But the near future may show us how short-sighted this is. Rosen argues that conventional usage of the apostrophe is slipping away as we generate more and more text at a rapid pace in the form of emails, text messages, and the like. We are already beginning to see a sort of double standard for formal and informal written language. The difference is not yet as stark as between, say, colloquial dialects and Modern Standard Arabic (the codified version used by college-educated professionals and journalists) but it is growing. There you have it–political change at your fingertips.

Wednesday Nerd Fun: The Sounds of America

DARE’s Linguistic Map of the US

The Dictionary of American Regional English (DARE) is a project initiated almost 50 years ago to document “words, phrases, and pronunciations that vary from one place to another place across the United States.” The map at the right gives a sense of how much variation field interviewers found between 1965 and 1970. Beginning with those interviews DARE has grown to five volumes, the last of which is now available.

One technique that the interviewers used to record regional dialects was a story called “Arthur the Rat.” The story’s main purpose was to include almost all of the sounds of American English when read aloud. A sample recording includes speakers from Brooklyn, Boston, Memphis, and rural areas across the country. Over 800 recordings were made, all of which have been digitized in a collection at the University of Wisonsin.

The DARE website also includes features such as quizzes to test your knowledge of American English and a word of the month. Did you know google dates back to 1859? Happy 4th of July!