Tag Archives: prescriptive problems

Fewer, less, and (un)countable nouns

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

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Filed under Linguistics

Negatives, double negatives, and “hardly”

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

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Filed under Linguistics, Prescriptive

How (not) to test language proficiency

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.
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Filed under ESL, Linguistics

Grammarly doesn’t understand the subjunctive

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:
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Bad grammar guides: University edition

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).
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Grammarly has Top Linguists. Top. Linguists.

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.
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What can replace phrases?

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.

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