Review of “Comma Sutra”

I was looking for something grammar related on google books, when I came across Comma Sutra, by Laurie Rozakis. I read the first chapter and was pretty shocked by some of the content. This is no amateur either. She has a PhD in English, she’s written 100 books including some of the Dummies and Idiot’s guides, and she’s on faculty at Farmingdale State Collge.

So while I can’t speak for the quality of her teaching or writing on other subjects, I’ve got more than a few things to say about her explanations of grammar and language.

I’m only covering here what I could read in Chapter 1 of the book, but I think it definitely showcases the problems in Rozakis’ understanding of grammar and language. I have low expectation that things go uphill from the first chapter. Rather than giving a summary of the chapter, I’ve organized this post as a series of rebuttals to some of the wilder claims in the book.

To give credit where due, I thought Rozakis did a good job on the early part that covers some of the history of English. It’s non-technical and written in a humorous style, but conveys essentially the correct information. Where things start to go south is around here the time she says:

According to Ripley’s Believe it or Not, only 1 person in 100,00 can pronounce all of the following words correctly. How well do you measure up? Give it a shot. Then check your pronunciation in a dictionary. Here are the words: data, gratis, culinary, nuclear, gondola, version, impious, chic, Caribbean, Viking

I’m firstly a little surprised that she’s using Ripley’s as a source. She has a PhD, surely she could find a better source that this. But more to the point, that Ripley’s thing is ridiculous because there’s no such thing as “correct” pronunciation and Rozakis ought to know this if she’s writing a book on language. Everybody has an accent. Everybody. We only think we sound normal because we mostly talk to other people who have the same accent. What counts as normal really depends on what community you are in.

Standard “normal” English in Canada is very different from standard “normal” English in Australia, England, Scotland, Jamaica, or South Africa. There is no such thing as an absolutely correct pronunciation, pronunciations are only correct with respect to some particular dialect.

I have no idea how Ripley’s invented the probability 1 in 100,000, but I would guess it went something like this:

Standard English pronounces a word as X, therefore X is correct.
Some dialects pronounce the same word as Y, therefore Y is incorrect.
There are N speakers of Standard English.
There are M speakers of the other dialects.
There is 1 in (N/N+M) chance that a random person speaks Standard English, hence uses the correct pronunciation. (And in this case I’m guessing that must be equal to 100,000.)

I don’t really know what the numbers are for English dialects, nor how to find that out, so I couldn’t even guess if this is an accurate number. But it kind of doesn’t matter because it ignores a basic fact about language, which is that everyone speaks a dialect. Rozakis is perpetuating ignorance about language in a book that’s supposed to be educational.

Also I checked Merriam-Webster’s online dictionary, as suggested, and some of these words have multiple pronunciations listed. So I don’t know what the point of the excercise is, except maybe to highlight that Rozakis doesn’t understand how dictionaries are compiled: they are at heart descriptive books and they print what people actually say, not (necessarily) what the “right” way is.

Each language has its own distinct grammar. Fortunately, English grammar is a lot easier than Chinese, Japanese, and Russian grammar. (See, there’s always a silver lining)

This is pure speculation. There is no known measurement of language complexity that would be able to tell you which language is “easier”. A lot of really smart people have worked on this problem, and continue to work on this problem, and no one has an answer yet. It’s a very complicated issue. Part of what makes the problem so hard is that it’s not clear what you should compare in each language to decide what counts as complex.

To use Rozakis’ example, Russian has a complex case-marking system (oh god the Russian genitive) with six cases, each having possibly distinct suffixes for masculine nouns, feminine nouns, neuter nouns, and plural nouns. This adds a lot of additional information to each word, and as a result the order of words in a sentence in Russian can be less strict than in English. English doesn’t have any real case marking (except on some pronouns). Instead there are more complicated rules for word ordering and you have to infer case relations instead of having suffixes that lay it out for you.

Here’s a few more things to chew on: Russian verbs encode perfective distinctions, while English verbs can be marked for progressive. English has some rare interdental fricatives plus /r/ and way more vowels than Russian. Russian has contrastive palatalization practically everywhere and some scary consonant clusters. How do you weigh these things? What exactly would make one more complex than the other?

This is not to say it’s an impossible problem, it’s just very hard, and Rozakis is certainly not qualified to be solving it (and nor am I for that matter).

Grammars develop as spoken languages move into written versions

This is so wrong it hurts. I really want this to be a sentence-long typo, and not something written intentionally by a PhD with decades of experience in grammar education. Let’s be clear: Grammar exists independently of writing, and that’s true whether you mean descriptive or prescriptive grammar.

Human language is suspected to have emerged about 50K years ago, while the earliest evidence of human writing is from about 5K years ago. That’s a 45,000 year gap. Does Rozakis think that all human language in this time period was just grammarless babbling?

It’s not like all languages suddenly started to get written at the same time, either. There are about 6,000 languages in the world today, and only a few hundred have any writing system, and even fewer have a literary tradition, let alone grammar books. What about the hundreds of languages of North America that are unwritten? Are they without grammar?

Also, spoken languages don’t “move into” written language. Cultures speaking a language develop a way of writing it. Writing isn’t really a language, it’s something you can learn to do with a language. Our mental grammar, our knowldge of language, is fundamentally knowledge about the spoken (or signed) form, because we acquire our languages in infancy through interaction exclusively with the spoken (or signed) form. We have to learn that first, before we can apply that knowledge and become literate.

(If perchance Rozakis meant “grammar” here in the sense of ‘a book containing the rules of a language’, which is a legitimate use of that word, then I wonder why she would bother saying this at all. Because that’s like saying ‘books develop with writing’.)

We can argue the right to say “ain’t” until the cows come home, but incorrect grammar is like farting at a dinner party. Don’t go there.

Great, now she’s completely abandoned any pretence of making rational arguments. She’s literally saying that she’ll just plug her ears and sing la-la-la i’m not listening if you try to talk to her about dialectal variation. She says ain’t is wrong and there’s no changing her mind about it.

I wonder how far she takes this. Does it extend to prestige dialects of other countries? In England its normal to treat collective nouns as plurals, for instance ‘the government are debating’, ‘the crowd are noisy’, or ‘the band are playing’. Is this bad grammar? It doesn’t follow the American norms that Rozakis so strongly believes are correct, but I’ll bet she doesn’t think that speaking a British dialect is like ‘farting at a dinner party’. So why randomly pick on dialects that use ain’t? At some point you have to wonder if these judgements are really being made about the language, or about the people who use the language.

Use an adjective to describe a noun or pronoun

I’m not really sure what she means here. Adjectives can’t do that because they they get replaced, along with the noun, when a pronoun is used, so they can’t stick around to modify anything. For instance, I bought a yellow car with a pronoun object becomes I bought it. You certainly don’t say *I bought a yellow it. Other ungrammatical examples: *I see handsome him, *Tall she is my sister. (Click here if you don’t know what that * symbol means.)

One of the easiest ways to remember a word is to know its history. The word grammar, for example, comes from and Old French word that means “letter”.

No, this is absolutely not a good or reliable way to remember what a word means, because we speak Modern English, and the history of a word is more or less irrelevant to its use and meaning today. Rozakis is just cherry picking an example here. There are just as many words whose history is of absolutely no help. Take the word ‘silly’ for example. It had an original meaning of ‘happy’, the moved through ‘blessed’, ‘pious’, ‘innocent’, then on to ‘harmless’, then ‘pitiable’, and we’re only in the 1300s here. There were some further changes along to the way to its current meaning of ‘ridiculous’.

And I’d like to finish off with this completely ridiculous chart Rozakis provides:

This is just more ignorance about the difference between grammar and formal style. The first row is complete bollocks. Nonstandard English is GRAMMATICAL and follows GRAMMAR RULES. If it truly lacked grammar, if it truly ignored “most” rules, then it would be a chaotic mess of words. But it isn’t. It has rules, it just has different rules from standard English. Let’s go back to that dirty word ain’t for example: you can’t just stick it anywhere in the sentence (*I eaten ain’t dinner) and it can’t appear with modal auxiliaries (*She must ain’t be home). There’s obviously grammar involved. Why is this so hard for her to understand?

The claim that non-standard English lacks grammar is also at odds with her third row where she claims non-standard English uses many contractions. Contractions are a perfect example of grammar at work: there are rules that govern when you can contract and when you can’t. And in fact this is grammar exclusive to non-standard English in this model, since Rozakis claims that formal English doesn’t use contraction.

For example, when can you contract going to into gonna? Whenever you want? No, only when to is part of an infinitive; it doesn’t work if to is a preposition.

I am going to leave on Monday.
I am gonna leave on Monday.

I am going to the store.
*I am gonna the store.

And here’s a really bizarre rule of contraction: In the exclusive condition of auxiliary inversion in a negative question with negation fronting, the verb to be in the first person singular takes the second person inflection. An example helps:

I am not involved.
I’m not involved.
Am I not involved?
Aren’t I involved?
*Am not I involved?
**Amn’t I involved?

If this isn’t grammar, then I don’t know what is. Did she not even think about this before writing her book? Surely somewhere she must have taken a class on descriptive grammar, or read a book that wasn’t Strunk and White. She teaches in a English department for crying out loud, she should know how contractions work.

The chapter finishes with a list of 10 grammatical terms, which puzzled me. Why? Why is this here? How was this list compiled? Why these terms? This looks like a random list of 10 terms just to fill space. There’s no apparent coherence among the terms, and it doesn’t link much with anything she just said, because most of this chapter has been focussed on words rather than grammar. I’m done with this book.



Filed under Book Review, Prescriptive

4 responses to “Review of “Comma Sutra”

  1. Pingback: Review of “Grammar Crammer” | linguischtick

  2. “At some point you have to wonder if these judgements are really being made about the language, or about the people who use the language.”
    At every point.
    It sounds as if the author wants to be flip about ain’t because she knows people will giggle and feel superior when they read that because this “grammar” book is not a serious exercise in the study of language but an educated, white-bread indulgence written for other educated, white-bread indulgers.
    I think one thing is these grammar authors get caught up in their own cleverness and forget to get down to brass tacks.

    Liked by 1 person

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