As you might know, I like to review grammar books. For this post, I decided to look at the grammar advice offered by university Writing Centres. Virtually all universities have something like this. It’s a place for students who are struggling with assignments such as essays and reports. Generally they’re aimed at first language speakers, but some have ESL support as well.
One thing I found was that a number of writing centres offer little or no grammar advice. Instead, their focus is on topics like how to structure essays, how to write for different academic disciplines, how to do a bibliography, and so on. Some offered almost no online advice at all, and their website was mainly a contact page for students looking for in-person help. This is perfectly acceptable, of course, since that’s what the writing centre is for.
Some, however, offered guides on grammar, and these the ones I’m reviewing here. I picked three universities for this post, and focussed on only one or two issues in each case. This is to keep the post a readable length, and to avoid repeating myself too much. Many of the issues that I’ll discuss were not unique to a single university, and I could easily have picked a different three (although the website design for the University of Calgary is something special).
The New York Times recently published an article about Myanmar’s transition into a more modern state. You can read the article here. The focus is on how the national language, Burmese, is an impediment to the country’s future. (The name of the language is based on “Burma”, the older English name for the country.) The article is full of fallacies, bad arguments, and misinformation that leaves us with the impression that Burmese is linguistically impoverished, and that the speakers of the language have no chance of making it in the modern world. Here’s the opening statement:
I suppose I should start the post by describing what a gerund is, in order for us all to be on the same page. In extremely non-technical terms, a gerund is a word-type that looks like a verb with an -ing suffix, but also looks like a noun because it can be the subject of a verb. For example, the following sentences contain gerunds (bolded):
Eating is enjoyable.
Reading Chomsky makes my head spin.
I can’t believe Mark’s cheating on the test doesn’t bother you.
These are tricky words to describe, and traditional grammars are often at odds with each other about how to treat them. Some people will tell you these are definitely verbs, but others will insist they are nouns. Some grammarians take a half-way view and say something like “gerunds are verbs that act like nouns”.
It turns out that this is one occasion where I will not be picking apart the traditional view, because things really are messy. Gerunds have weird mixed behaviour that makes them look a little bit like verbs, a little bit like nouns. They also have unique properties of their own that they don’t share with either nouns or verbs.
This issue comes up all the time on grammar blogs and in grammar books: which form of a pronoun should go into conjoined subjects? For example, I want to know which of these to choose:
- Kimberly and I defended the fort.
- Kimberly and me defended the fort.
Maybe you’ve heard of Grammarly. It’s software for checking your spelling and grammar. It’s getting a lot of promotion around the internet recently, probably because it’s free and everyone is afraid of bad grammar, so I checked out their website.
The world’s leading linguists? Sounds impressive. I have complained before about grammar products created by non-linguists, so this is refreshing. Let’s have a look at the blog.
One of the most intriguing things about language is the way that meaning is tied to context. Take this sentence for example:
“Everybody was there yesterday”
Which day is ‘yesterday’? The word ‘yesterday’ has no fixed meaning and needs a context. It refers to a different day each day that you say it. Same goes for the word ‘there’. We need a context to know where ‘there’ is. How about “everybody”? Does that literally mean every individual in the entire world? Of course not. It means something like “every person within a contextually relevant group of people”. Since this sentence has no context, you probably had to invent one, maybe by imagining a room full of people you know.
The branch of linguistics that studies how context interacts with meaning is called ‘pragmatics’, and in this post I want to introduce you to one of my favourite topics in pragmatics: implicatures.
Which language do you think is the most complex? There are a lot of different answers that people will give to this question. Some people are sure that whatever language they struggled with in high school is the most complex. Others are certain that highly influential cultures must have complex languages, so they choose Greek, Latin, Sanskrit, or Chinese. Language buffs might break out a rare one like Tlingit or Lardil. Many people insist it is their own native language that’s the most complex, though oddly, I’ve found that just as many people seem willing to say their own language is terribly simple.
But ask a linguist, and you get a really wet blanket answer: no language is any more complex than any other. Or, put another way, all languages are equally complex. That answer tends to stop conversation dead in the tracks and no one is really satisfied by it, so I’m going to spend some time in this post explaining this answer and making it more interesting (maybe).
A morpheme is the smallest unit of language that carries meaning. A word consists of one or more morphemes. For example, elephant is a morpheme, the plural suffix –s is a morpheme, the word elephants is a word consisting of two morphemes.
Morphemes can be “free”, meaning they are used by themselves, (e.g. house, car, walk, eat, from, to, but, him) or they are “bound”, meaning they only appear when attached to another free morpheme (e.g. the plural suffix –s, the past tense –ed, the prefix re-, the possessive ‘s, etc.). The concept of a morpheme is extremely useful in describing any language, and I’ll make use of it throughout this post.
Traditional analysis of English has a heavy focus on words. The eight parts of speech, which is a core concept in traditional grammar, is all about classifying individual words. Many prescriptive rules are concerned with which words to avoid: Don’t end sentences with prepositions. Don’t start with conjunctions. Don’t say ain’t. Don’t use singular they. Nearly every “improve-your-grammar” book has a list of commonly confused or misused words: their/they’re/there, who’s/whose, that/which, principal/principle, etc.
However, languages are not just big bags of words. Words work together, and they can be grouped into larger units called “phrases”. Phrases are an essential part of any theory of grammar. It’s impossible to properly describe a language without at some point needing to talk about groups of words, instead of just individual words. The most obvious example of such a unit is the “sentence”, which is actually just a very large phrase.
Let’s say you’re planning something with your friend on the phone. You are going to her place later. You say “I’ll be there soon”. She says “I’ll be here waiting”. Even though you are both referring to the same location (her house), one person called it “there” and the other person called it “here”. Why?
It’s because the words here and there don’t have fixed reference. The location they refer to depends on the location of the person who is speaking. Things that are nearby the speaker are ‘here’ and things that are far away from the speaker are ‘there’. That can cover a lot of distance, from the table in the next room (“I left my keys there”) to the surface of Pluto (“What knows what’s there?”).
Words like here and there are called “spatial deictics” in linguistics. They give a sense of where something is located, relative to a reference point. The simple system of English, which divides up space between close to the speaker vs. not close to the speaker, is actually pretty common, but it is certainly not the only way to do things. Continue reading