Spelling is not grammar, take 2

I’ve written before about how spelling mistakes are not grammar mistakes, and gave an example of how you could test this. In the case of your/you’re confusion, no one ever tries to extract an auxiliary out of your. So even people who write “You’re parents are home” would never attempt to make a question like “Are you parents are home?”. People fundamentally know the difference between the possessive and the contraction, and it’s really just a simple spelling mistake.

Anyway, I think it’s time to revisit this issue, after reading a quiz on the Telegraph: How much of a grammar pedant are you?. (edit: this link now seems to be dead. Sorry!) I’m not a grammar pedant, but I am a picky linguist, and I don’t like this quiz. It’s supposed to be about grammar, but not all the questions are actually on that topic. They are mostly about spelling, punctuation, or writing style. First, I’ll give a quick overview of grammar vs. writing, and then I’ll tackle the quiz specifically.

From the perspective of a linguist, writing and grammar are very different things. In general, when you hear a linguist talking about grammar, it’s in reference to the rules that apply to spoken language (or signed language). Of course, linguists write things down, and lots of linguistic research is done on written texts, so it’s not like writing doesn’t matter. However, the primary goal of linguistics, as a science, is to understand the abilities that underlie spoken language.

Why exclude spelling rules? The simple reason is this: grammar is natural, spelling is artificial. All human cultures have language. All normally developing humans acquire one or more grammars in childhood. A “grammar” in this sense means something like a set of mental instructions for using language (and to use a language you also need a mental “lexicon”, which is all the words and affixes you know, but that’s a different topic). On the other hand, not all humans cultures have writing. Humans do not spontaneously learn to write, and they must be explicitly taught.

Language is suspected to have originated about 50K years ago. The fist examples of writing come from about 5K years ago. That’s a span of ~45,000 years where grammatical language existed, but writing did not. Even now, out of 6,000 or so human languages, only a few hundred have a writing system, and even fewer have an established literary tradition. Nearly all humans who have ever existed have been illiterate, but everyone has had command of a grammar.

To put it simply, language (and hence grammar) can exist without writing. Indeed, language is a pre-requisite for writing. You can’t put a language to paper if you don’t know the language. To be sure, writing is not totally unrelated to grammar. The writing system of a language, in general, reflects the grammatical and phonological properties of that language. For instance, if the spoken language has a Subject-Verb-Object order, so will the written form of the language. If something is a prefix in spoken language, it will probably be written before the root and not after it (although Mayan writing had superfixes and subfixes). If nouns are marked for case in spoken language, the cases will be written down too. Languages represent most or all of their sounds in their spelling system, with the exception of Chinese languages that use logograms.

But there are also certain written conventions that are just that – written conventions. They have no obvious connection to the grammar of a language. There is whitespace between words on a page, but there are no pauses between words in speech. Capital and lowercase letters are purely written conventions that have no relation to the grammar of a language. Periods may represent a pause between sentences, although there are no clean obvious breaks in speech. Periods are also used for abbreviations, acronyms, titles, and in ellipses, but none of these things have anything to do with grammar. They’re just writing conventions.

Some writing conventions even run completely counter to the grammar of a language. In English, for example, the regular past tense ending has three possible pronunciations. The past tense “baked” is pronounced with a final /t/, “bagged” is pronounced with a final /d/ and “fitted” is pronounced with a final       /əd/. There’s a general rule here: if the final consonant of the root is a voiced consonant, then the past tense is /d/. If the final consonant is a voiceless consonant, the past tense is /t/. If the final consonant already /t/ or /d/, then the past tense is /əd/. Yet we write all of these suffixes as -ed, even the ones that are not pronounced that way.

A similar rule governs regular plural formation. The plural suffix is /z/ in “dogs”, it’s /s/ in “docks” and it’s /əz/ in “dishes”. Again, we spell many of these with an -s letter, even though that doesn’t properly represent the grammar of plurals in English.

It’s common, by the way, for writing systems to ignore such systematic variation in pronunciation (technically called allophony or allomorphy), but it does illustrate that knowledge of writing and grammar do not go hand-in-hand. Indeed, if your knowledge of English was solely based on writing, you would be missing these two crucial grammar rules.

OK then, on to the Telegraph quiz.

Question 1
“Let’s meet a noon on ______” she said.

Answer: Tuesday,

This is just a test of punctuation. To get this right, you’re supposed to know that (a) punctuation goes inside the quotes and (b) you end the statement with a comma not a period in this particular case. This has nothing whatsoever to do with the grammar of reportative verbs in English. In fact, if you ignored this rule, you would still have a completely comprehensible, grammatical sentence, it just wouldn’t follow the norms of written English.

Question 2
When he picked up the umbrella, he noticed ____ handle was broken.

Answer: its

This is arguably a grammar question, since the words its and it’s have different parts of speech. However, as I argued in my other post, this is really just a spelling problem. The words sound the same, and people can’t remember how to represent that on paper. No one would ever say “He noticed it is handle was broken” even if they would write “He noticed it’s handle was broken”

Question 3
The book was adapted as a ____ mini-serires.

Answer:  five-part

This was a 2-choice question, and the alternative didn’t have a hyphen. Again, I’m unclear what relation this has to grammar. I think that people are able to compute the correct interpretation of five modifying part whether they know the hyphen rule or not. If I left out the hyphen, there would be no obvious ungrammaticality, and I doubt the meaning would be unclear.

Question 4
He went to the store to buy _____ they were sold out.

Answer: onions;they

I got this wrong because I prefer a dash here. That is, I would write “…to buy onions – but they were out”. How is this related to grammar though? You could be a fluent user of English without knowing this rule. Just like I am. Then again, this quiz was for pedants.

Question 5
The German flag is black, ____.

Answer: red and gold
This is the old Oxford Comma Debate, a favourite among grammarians who have nothing better to write about. In some places, the style is to use a comma before the final conjunction, other places the style is to leave it out. This, again, has literally nothing to do with with the grammar of conjunction in English. It’s an arbitrary convention whose main purpose is to start fights on the internet.

Question 6
The company decided that ___ would cut hours.

Answer: it

I got this right, though I’m surprised. The alternative answer was they. In many varieties of British English, collective nouns are treated as grammatically plural, and this quiz is from a UK newspaper. You can say “The crowd are applauding” or “The government are debating”. It would stand to reason that you could say “The company decided they would cut hours”. I dunno. I guess I don’t expect grammar pedants to be consistent or reasonable.

Question 7

“She came in yelling _____ recalled.

Answer: ‘Who are you?’ he

This one was about using single quotes inside of double quotes. This is 100% a writing issue and has no bearing on the grammar of the language.

Question 8
He loved going fishing, sleeping under the stars, and _____.

Answer: taking long walks

The alternative answer was to take long walks. This question is one of the few to actually be about grammar, because the wrong answer would give an ungrammatical sentence. I think the creator of the quiz was probably thinking about parallelism: The last verb in this list should be – ing because the first two were.

Question 9
It will be years before we know the ____ of the law.

Answer: effect

The alternative was affect. This is either a spelling question, or a question about lexical semantics. It’s not a grammar question. Both possible answers are nouns that would fit in that place in a sentence, and they would both make a grammatical sentence (though only one makes a sensible sentence). In passing, I think this spelling mistake is common because in English unstressed vowels all sound the same (they become schwa), and the initial vowel in both these words is unstressed, leaving speakers unsure which letter to write down.

Question 10
This is a long one I’m not copying down. It’s about dangling modifiers. This is also a grammar question, since it’s actually about compositional semantics and the relative position of phrases in a sentence. I don’t have much to say on this one, except that I dispute the claim dangling modifiers are bad grammar. They are example of plain, regular English grammar. However, they can be used improperly and throw the reader for a loop, and you should probably take a second look at any that you use. This is one of the few traditional sticking points that I can actually support.


Filed under Linguistics, Prescriptive

5 responses to “Spelling is not grammar, take 2

  1. Pingback: Spelling is not grammar | linguischtick

  2. “From the perspective of a linguist, writing and grammar are very different things.” Are you arguing for the “purity” of the word “grammar” in common usage? :)

    As I understand it, spelling and writing rules became a thing once the printing press was invented. Perhaps, now that text has become such a huge part of life, our concept of what grammar involves expands to include the written word? One doesn’t often hear complaints about spoken grammar, but the concept of a “grammar nazi” seems reserved for text. We usually expect a greater formality and correctness there than we do in speech.

    FWIW: It may be that Question #6 was about person versus thing. A company is an “it” rather than a “they” (person or persons)?


  3. We do expect written language to conform to different standards, and I’m even OK with that. The difference is that spoken languages is mainly spontaneous, while written language is planned. Since you have the time to plan your language, people expect you will do so, and it also means that people can follow more arcane rule that they have the time to go verify. The fact that writing can be permanent, while speech is ephemeral, is also relevant. We have come expect different standards in text messages than other writing for the same reason: texting on a phone is closer to spontaneous speech because you are generally expected to answer quickly, and we don’t keep texts for very long, so we permit a looser style of writing.

    As for the term grammar…
    Of course, there is a “grammar” to written English in the sense that you can write a set of rules that describe it. However, this set of rules will be very different from the set required to describe spoken English. I know from other conversations that you are concerned with clarity in language. Surely you aren’t going to argue for muddying the lexical waters here by using one term for two different things? ;) I’m proposing reserving the word “grammar” for the spoken language and using other terms like “spelling rules”, “punctuation rules” or “style” to refer to writing to keep it more obvious what it is we’re actually referring to.

    I think it’s also important to keep the two thing conceptually distinct because we shouldn’t judge someone’s language or mental grammar based on their writing. People who think grammar and spelling are the same thing are also prone to thinking that speakers of languages with no writing are less intelligent, or that their language is less sophisticated, when this is entirely untrue.


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

  5. Some guy from Ohio

    I stumbled on this piece, and enjoyed it – except the typographical error of “fist” when you meant “first” above. Or did you?


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