Spelling is not grammar


One of the things that really bugs me about the “grammar police” type is their inability to distinguish grammar from spelling. I am sick of reading “grammar” posts on your vs. you’re. It is not a grammar mistake – it’s just a spelling mistake. Native English speakers absolutely know the difference. I am 100% sure that the mental grammar of an English speaker, the only grammar that really matters, distinguishes the lexical items your and you’re, even if the speaker doesn’t always know how to spell them.

If people really couldn’t tell the difference between your and you’re, and if this really was a grammatical problem and not just a spelling mistake, there would be evidence beyond the occasional confusion in writing. Here’s an actual grammatical property to consider: you’re is a contraction of a verb and a pronoun, and in question formation, this verb get moved before the subject, e.g. You’re happy becomes Are you happy? (I wrote about this movement in more detail recently.)

Note that when there’s a contraction, you have to “undo” it and move only the verb are to the front. The pronoun can stay put. If English speakers were truly, utterly confused about the difference between you’re and your, then you would expect them to occasionally “undo” the wrong one:

(1a) You’re walking your dog.
(1b) Are you walking your dog?
(1c) *Are your walking you dog?

(2a) Your parents are home.
(2b) Are your parents home?
(2c) *Are you parents are home?

No one would ever utter the (c) forms. No one would try to extract an auxiliary that isn’t really there. Those are clearly ungrammatical sentences in English. For everyone. The confusion between your and you’re is a spelling mistake. Plain and simple. Those words have really similar phonetic forms, and so people get confused about how to write them. Or they just have a “slip-of-the-fingers” when typing (cf. a “slip of the tongue”). But no one is fundamentally confused about it.

Now, I’m not saying it is therefore totally cool to just write whatever you like. Of course not. This kind of sloppiness suggests that the writer otherwise doesn’t care about detail or about the quality of her own work. I can maybe excuse one such mistake on an assignment or in formal correspondence (everyone screws up now and again), but too many and I start wondering.

Edit: If you liked this post, you might like my more recent attempt at the same topic

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32 Comments

Filed under Linguistics

32 responses to “Spelling is not grammar

  1. I’ve heard people utter the 2C form, and in fact it’s not uncommon in rural or inner-city contexts.

    As I replied to your comment on my blog, my concern is not with change, as such,but with the simplification, contextualization and loss of nuance. I see two related issues: the inability to communicate with precision and the inability to communicate at all (in cases of contextualization). Combined with the growing disdain for proper English (the “you know what I meant” crowd) it strikes me that English isn’t changing so much as diminishing.

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    • I’m sorry to say this so bluntly, but I simply don’t believe you. Sentences like (2c) cannot be generated by any grammar of English I am aware of. I need supporting evidence. What city do you live in? Or rather, what city have you heard such a sentence? If it’s “not uncommon” as you claim, then surely it’s been documented in the linguistics literature.

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      • What possible evidence can I provide for speech I’ve heard? I grew up in Los Angeles, but have done quite a bit of traveling around the USA. Dropping the ‘r’ from ‘you’ is quite common among the poorly educated. (I never claimed it was grammatical!)

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      • Peter

        Or even possibly, “in what city do you live?” or “in what city have you heard such a sentence?” I can only assume you are being ironic here.

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  2. I ask because it seems really unlikely to me that people do just say “you” all the time instead of “your”. I can’t think of any articulatory reason why that might happen (except before another liquid consonant maybe), and I can’t think of any syntactic pattern that this conforms to, and in all the schooling I’ve had I’ve never heard of a dialect like that. But you never know, I am open to being wrong, and since that’s a pretty striking pattern, it’s something linguists would document.

    Even if you “drop the r”, (2c) should still be ungrammatical because there’s a doubling of the auxiliary. That’s the part I don’t believe. What I’m going to do is look around the linguistics literature and see if it has been reported for any varieties of California English (or I guess American English generally because your answer was pretty vague).

    Besides my point wasn’t that someone might say “you” instead of “your”. My point was that no one would try to extract an auxiliary out of “your” (and thus leave a “you” behind) because there isn’t one there and people aren’t actually confused about that.

    And what does poor education have to do with anything? Education is NOT related to grammatical ability. Education helps with spelling, but see the title of this post. Also, if there is a group of people who all do the same thing, that means it’s grammatical for them, regardless of your judgmental opinion on it. Your dialect isn’t special and it isn’t the only one that exists.

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    • Not California; poor rural and inner-city. That said, I can’t say I’ve ever heard the insertion of “are” exactly, but I’ve definitely heard (and commonly), “Are you parents home?” The substitution of “you” for “your” (and not as an “r”-dropping dialect) is very common. Even more common is, “You parents home?” or “That you dog?” (referring to your dog, not the sense of, “That you, Dave?”

      But if your only point is the doubling of “are” then I agree that’s unheard of. Sorry if I mislead the conversation!

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      • Well, you said LA so that’s why I said California. Dialectal variation tends to spread over a particular geographical or social area. “Poor people” don’t form a coherent group that talk to each other often enough to form a dialect. If it’s inner-city, I accept that, I just want to know which city/cities.

        Are you absolutely sure that it’s not you? Maybe the /r/ is just very brief and you aren’t perceiving it.

        If it’s not a pattern of /r/-dropping, then what is it? I don’t accept “general sloppiness” as an answer. That’s just being mean for no reason. People don’t behave randomly with their language like this. If people are replacing “your” with “you”, I’d really expect a pattern. If it’s a pattern of replacing possessives with personal pronouns, then we should also see, e.g.:

        ?* This is him parents. (= his parents)
        ?* This is we parents. (= our parents)
        ?? This is me parents. (= my parents)

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      • Just to be clear, I originally said rural and inner-city and reiterated that it was not regional when you asked me where I was from. I think you might be underestimating the power and pervasiveness of media these days. We’ve been living in McLuhan’s “global village” for quite some time.

        Dialect can also be used as a form of cohesion and exclusion in social sub-groups that are perceived as lower in status, income or power. The black community, in particular, seems to enjoy playing with speech forms precisely for the reasons I just mentioned. (It’s my having lived in L.A. that’s brought me into contact with that.)

        I’m pretty certain it isn’t me. I think the explanation may have to do with speech rhythm or even with deliberate violation of the “rules.” You might expect a pattern based on your knowledge of how grammar works, but that isn’t what’s going on. There doesn’t need to be any pattern; there just needs to be a result that satisfies some goal. That said, it seems I have heard some odd pronoun substitutions, although I can’t think of one right now. (I’m pretty out of touch with my urban roots at this point; it’s been 27 years since I lived in L.A.)

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    • If education helps with spelling, why wouldn’t it help with grammar? Wouldn’t the same “everyone does it” logic apply to spelling? Doesn’t education help us figure out the way to say and spell things we are not familiar with?

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      • I think the most important difference is that learning a grammar is natural. All human infants do it automatically without any formal instruction. Learning to spell is not natural. You must be taught to how to represent your language on paper. And you can’t get that far until you already know a grammar. There are exceptions like the rare individuals who invented writing systems, but those really are exceptions.

        Formal education can give you an explicit understanding of your language. It provides you with the tools to discuss and analyze language. It can teach you how to speak the standard dialect. You can learn how to craft narratives and make convincing arguments. But formal education is not required to speak grammatically.

        Also keep in mind that for most of human history, schools and writing did not exist. Many (most?) modern languages are not taught in schools and do not have a writing system. Unless you are prepared to condemn all unwritten languages as “ungrammatical”, you must accept a distinction between grammar and spelling.

        And yes, the “everyone does it” idea applies to spelling too. Canadians like to spell -our and Americans spell -or (e.g. colour, honour, neighbour, etc.) We don’t spell words the same way as in Middle English times, and even the actual letters of the printed alphabet have changed over time.

        Given the artificial nature of spelling, and the importance of literacy, I’m comfortable with strict standards of “right” and “wrong” spelling though I abhor the notion of “right” and “wrong” dialects. It’s just an entirely different thing. This probably looks like a double standard, but this is a really long reply already so I’ll think more on this and write up a post later.

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      • I agree very much with your points, and I hope I haven’t given the impression I’m denying a distinction between spelling and grammar! I agree they’re (clearly) different things. As you point out, they both admit to local definitions as well as standard ones. (I’ll be interested in seeing how you respond to your own charge of there being a double-standard.)

        And I also hope I’m not giving the impression I’m condemning different dialects. I do recognize divergence from standard forms, but I have no problem with regional forms so long as some facility with standard forms remains. Otherwise we lose the ability to communicate with precision. My regret is the loss of interest, the sometime disdain, for learning standard forms.

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    • Griffin

      HI THERE! YOU ARE NEGLECTING YOUR OTHER READERS AND WE WILL NOT BE BACK.

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    • David

      Of course education helps with grammatical ability! If you are not taught correct grammar, you won’t know how to use it. For example, my son has Downs Syndrome and so finds learning difficult. We have been very diligent with his grammar training and his spoken English is flawless. His written grammar is also very good, although he does struggle with spelling. My highly intelligent nephew, on the other hand, has terrible grammar because his school never had grammar on the curriculum.

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      • It’s, FWIW, Down’s syndrome.

        Languages are primarily spoken; grammar is an attempt to force rules onto this. Far more important than arcane rules of grammar is the ability to get your ideas across to other people.

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  3. After thinking a little more, maybe you mean non-rhotic dialects of English? Those are dialects without an r-sound anywhere, not just in “your”. But those aren’t rare or limited to “poorly educated” people.

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  4. Your original point got a bit lost in the details of our discussion. I understand what you’re getting at, and it would be interesting to ask those people who insist they don’t care about you’re and your to explain their understanding of the two. Is it truly a (oft willful) spelling error, or a conflation of two separate concepts?

    On a perhaps slightly related tack, some studies have indicated that some people who use OMG and LOL don’t realize they are acronyms (let alone what they stand for). The latter one, in fact, has a frequently used form, lulz. And all acronyms seems to be suffering from the modern disinterest in case (omg and lol are prevalent).

    Is it possible we are becoming a verbal society and “yor” is just a sound that goes in a certain place in speech? It would be very interesting to me to see if there was a way to test your premise.

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  5. peter chicken rabbit

    you misspelled non-judgmental.

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  6. Poppa Chubby

    Using the wrong word with “your” and “you’re” is NOT a spelling mistake. They are both legitimate words but a quick look around the net will show you that many people simply don’t KNOW which one to use. All they really need to do is substitute “you are” for their word and see if it sounds right or not. They deliberately type the one they use which shows they don’t know the correct form; ie. a grammatical error. They clearly don’t understand which one means what. An incredible number also mix up “to” and “too”; unbelievable! A spelling mistake is something like “diveing” instead of “diving” or “evidance” instead of “evidence”. I wouldn’t worry about “whom” as virtually no one uses it anymore and many schools don’t even teach it.

    I believe that a good writer will never use a co-ordinating conjunction at the beginning of a sentence unless it’s dialogue. The definition of this type of conjunction is that it JOINS sentences, clauses and words. In every example I see, including yours, the sentence should have followed the previous one with a comma, or have been omitted altogether. A new sentence is a new statement and may very well be in contrast to the previous so there is no need for “But..”. A new sentence obviously follows, and the meaning is added to, the previous one so there is no need for “And..” either. I believe it’s poor education and the writer simply doesn’t know how to form a proper sentence.

    At first I wondered why so many people still use subjunctive form when a hundred years ago it was considered outmoded, useless and on its last legs. I quickly (not “But I quickly..” hehe) realised that the vast majority of people don’t think about how they speak (or even what they do, for that matter), they simply copy others that they hear.

    Anyway, I’m sure you have all heard the reports of the extremely poor standard of English grammar and spelling that young people have these days in America, Britain and Australia. Looking online is demonstration enough of the appalling standard and lack of education that is rife. I don’t see the point of anyone being a grammar-police type as all it accomplishes is to anger everyone else and it’s a huge waste of time. Sometimes I think that in two hundred years or so, my beautiful language will be reduced to a series of burps, grunts and farts.

    PS. I found this site by accident and I won’t be back. If you wish to comment on anything I have said then go right ahead, but I won’t be adding anything more.

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    • alidfe

      I know you said you won’t be back so you won’t see this but I still have to completely disagree with your assertion.

      First, just because they both are real words doesn’t mean it’s not a spelling mistake: The sentence “He sat down with pen and paper to right a letter”, contains all ‘legitimate’ words, but that doesn’t change the fact that there’s an obvious error in spelling there. Second, calling it an error in syntax and usage would imply that the person writing “Is this you’re hat” would have been fine writing “Is this you are hat” which I don’t think many would agree with. Pointing out that the usage is deliberate seems like a moot point because that’s irrespective to whether it’s a spelling or grammatical error.

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      • viraiasu

        It’s not an error in spelling. The word “right” is not a misspelling of “write”. To state something as an error in syntax does not imply that the writer would find their error acceptable. I don’t know how you came to that reasoning.

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  7. sarah

    I think I am afraid to read the comments if people are writing to you the way they write to me about this! I don’t know what the confusion between spelling and grammar is, and am called Grammar Nazi or police (hopefully in a joking way) and feel like giving up.
    i do explain to people that we have language and rules for writing it for one really important reason – humans need to be able to communicate in written form. Communication is not a one-way deal, and it is not my job to figure out why the blankity blank people of all ages refuse to learn to use “your” and “you’re” correctly. If I weren’t sure, I would just write YOU ARE. I had to add one whole character! Oh the anguish!

    I do wonder how long it’s going to take before I have no idea what 70% of people are trying to communicate through writing on FaceBook

    I just read the top comments and think i will stop,since it looks like a smack-down here. It is odd that someone who seems to love words would write ” Or rather, what city have you heard such a sentence?”
    I would have absolutely no idea how to answer that question :) THAT is my point!! Eventually we are going to no longer be able to communicate by writing. We can help each other without resorting to fighting… but you and wyrd or whatever might need to resort to fisticuffs if this keeps up much longer :D I am disappointed that the Blog lost the message I thought would match up with the title. Bummer.

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    • I’m sad linguischtick didn’t continue writing the blog — no posts since 2012 — but blog writing isn’t for everyone. The interweb can be a hostile place. By many standards, our discussion here was entirely polite and rational (and I, for one, enjoyed the heck out of it).

      I live in a world where it seems fewer and fewer people have the capability or the will to engage in a discussion of fine points on any topic, and it drives me to despair. It’s sad to lose the distinction between “your” and “you’re” but it’s tragic to lose the gift of reasoned discussion and debate.

      (FWIW: we all make typos in online comments. It’s a minor error not usually associated with a person’s point, so criticism ends up being largely ad hominem. Consistent misuse of grammar is one thing, sure, but — for example — I’m very careful about how I write, and I still often have those “D’oh!!” moments just after I click the [Submit] button.)

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  8. JonnyDeth

    Author are you college educated?
    I do not care enough to dig further into your personal information.
    Do you work a blue collar job and socialize with people in the middle class?
    The average high school graduate has the language skills of a 6th or 7th grader after about 5 years has passed. It gets worse though. Their math and science skills are junior high level by that point. Teenagers who passed Algebra 1, Geometry et cetera can rarely produce those math skills by the age of 23.

    Your belief that the loss of grammar, punctuation and spelling such as your used in place of you’re or the article “an” in front of vowel sounding words replaced by “a” as insignificant is highly confused and short sighted.
    These people already are and continue breeding the future shit *shovelers* of America!

    I am an electronic engineering major.
    I am current on the development of robotic technology.
    It is not just the average laborer who will be replaced by robots.
    It is the carpenter, electrician, plumber and countless others. There are existing robots that can build a house with less waist, less time and with materials that human hands do not accommodate well enough to currently implement.

    The loss of English skills is part of a greater plan.
    A plan created by the banks and corporations who know the less intelligent their customers are, the lower their standards are and the more they can be controlled. You can not profit off of people you do not have power over. The less skilled and educated the average person is, the easier it is to not just generate a profit off their purchases but to profit off their LABOR.

    Your rant here is sadly misguided and I suspect you are one of these jackasses that gives the average person WAY too much credit.
    The average person cries about the corruption of the banks and government yet when told the solution requires education in legalese and the structure of government, they refuse to listen and just look for a superman idol to put all their resources into believing this individual will clean things up.

    The average person is a useless moron in regards to the future of mankind and you have presented yourself as average in this arrogant, naive post.

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  9. Sherrie

    Unfortunately Wyrd Smythe is correct. I have heard many, many people say ‘you’ when they meant ‘your’. I have also heard many, many people say ‘they’ when they meant ‘their’. I live in Oklahoma.

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  10. Pingback: Spelling is not grammar, take 2 | linguischtick

  11. I couldn’t refrain from commenting. Well written!

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  12. Contractual misspellings

    A “teacher” typed the spelling, again spelling, of the contractual word isn’t as is’nt… This type of misspelling of several words placing the apostrophe (‘) in the wrong place…this request had nothing to do with the inappropriate usage of the contractual word “isn’t”… This spelling error was not made by a young person, but by a teacher…someone teaching our children. I am not a young person and, in this case, resent the grammatical versus spelling rant regarding individuals that do not know the difference between grammatical versus spelling.

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  13. Pingback: Proper Spelling and Grammar is a Dying Art | Being Stephen Kaplan

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  15. Youmakemelol

    Your naivety is cute. There are plenty of navite English speakers who say and spell youse which isn’t even a word. Trust me when I say native English speakers might know that the words pronunced your and you’re are different in one is the shorten version of you are but that doesn’t mean they under the grammar around ‘re after you to make it the you are of your.

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