The words less and fewer are a troublesome pair. There is a lot of variation in the way that people use them, but traditionalists insist that this is wrong and the two words are never interchangeable. What’s the difference? How does one decide which word to use? Let’s ask the grammar books: Continue reading
Tag Archives: prescriptive problems
Some dialects of English have a feature known as the “double negative”. In these dialects, a negative sentence can contain more than one negative word. For example, a speaker of such a dialect might say “I didn’t see nobody” to express that nobody was seen.
Double negatives are widely perceived to be bad grammar, and virtually all traditional grammar books contain a section condemning them. The same reason is given every time: Continue reading
The United States of America has no official language, although English functions as the de facto language of the government and media. This doesn’t mean English is the only language in use. In some regions, Spanish is spoken by the majority. Large cities often have a “Chinatown” area, where Chinese languages dominate.
There are many who view this multilingualism as a problem. Several groups exist to promote and lobby for legislation to make English the only official language of the US. ProEnglish is one very prominent example. You can read an essay over here outlining their philosophy.
A little while ago, someone on Twitter shared a link to a Grammarly blog post on the subjunctive, which I foolishly clicked on. This is not the first time that I’ve talked about Grammarly, and if you read my earlier post it probably won’t surprise you that nobody over there understands what the subjunctive is. Here’s how the blog post starts out:
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).
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.
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.
I noticed a few references to this book recently on Twitter, so I had to check it out. The “Gwynne” in the title is a Mr. Nevile Martin Gwynne. He is apparently somewhat well-known already for writing in the Sunday Times, and because he teaches children Latin through Skype. He also has a website over at http://www.nmgwynne.net.
This review focusses mainly on the preface and first two chapters of Gwynne’s Grammar, because that’s where he lays out his philosophy of language, and that is the interesting part. The second part of the book is basically just a reprinting of Elements of Style. Part three has appendices. Continue reading
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.
This is an unusual one. It’s a grammar book, but it’s written in a narrative style. And just look at that cover.
To give you a flavour of the book, here’s a little passage:
“You see, a noun is a word that – ”
Just then my body froze because a truly enormous, hairy spider was crawling up the table leg. I let out a scream that must have been heard for miles around. Tarzan was momentarily startled, but when he spotted the creature he grabbed a knife and slit the thing in half. Then he carried both halves outside.
When he came back in and sat down I seemed to be breathing normally again, so I continued, “Basically a noun is a word that names something. It can name a person, place, an idea, or an action”.