Sunday, November 28, 2010

In language, two and two can be four, or a foursome, or a quartet or maybe two couples, but it doesn't equal anything

I recently saw this extraordinary statement on a language blog:

We have often noted that often repeated language and grammar errors seem to become “correct” usage. Wouldn’t it be weird if math used that philosophy? When enough people said 2+2=5, it would! It would still equal 4, of course, but it would also equal 5.

Quite extraordinary! And I’m not referring to the frequency of the word often. Nor to the quotation marks around 'correct' and the corresponding lack of them round 'errors'. But to the fact that somebody would want to compare language to maths.

Now I’m no mathematician, even less a scientist, but as far as I understand it, maths, like physics, follows certain immutable laws, over which human beings have no control. We discover these laws, and maybe change our minds about them, but we do not make them. They would equally exist in a world without people.

Language, on the other hand, is purely a human creation. That is not to say that some of it may very well be wired into us, and governed by various cognitive processes and the physical apparatus we have for making sounds. But we only have to look at how the languages of even our neighbours vary grammatically to see that there is no single definitive grammatical system, although there may be many similarities in overall patterns. I imagine that most languages have nouns and verbs, for example.

What makes this even more extraordinary is that it was written by someone who has published a book on English, called ‘Literally, the Best Language Book Ever’. (I assume the hyperbole is meant to be ironic). So you would think he would have some idea of how language works.

I sometimes think that these people imagine that the English language arrived fully fledged, sometime in the nineteenth century, with its rules carved in stone, like the Ten Commandments. (Sorry, there’s probably a mixed metaphor in there somewhere). Or that they accept that it has indeed developed over time, but only to reach some mythical state of perfection, again sometime in the nineteenth century.

Here are some examples of how so-called ‘grammar errors’ have become normal usage in my own lifetime. I won’t use the word ‘correct,’ because that implies there is only one way, which in these cases isn’t true. The old ways are still accepted, but increasingly seen as more formal. I should point out that I’m talking from a UK perspective; in other countries it may be different.

When I refer to ‘Swan’, I’m quoting from ‘Practical English Usage’, by Michael Swan, used by many TEFL/ ESL /ELT students and especially teachers for reference, and which I highly recommend as it is very clear and easy to understand. You can download a PDF sample here to see for yourself.

  1. may vs can for permission
    When I was at school, if someone asked the teacher, ‘Please Sir, can I go to the toilet?’, the teacher would reply, ‘I don’t know. Can you?’ - can was for ability; you had to use may for permission. Nowadays, when used in conversation, may can often sound over-formal and a bit old-fashioned.

    Swan: ‘In an informal style can and cannot / can’t are more common [than may and may not]’
  2. to whom vs who to
    Which sounds more natural to you:
    • To whom should I give this book?
    • Who should I give this book to?
    For anyone in the UK under the age of about 100, the answer is undoubtedly the latter. The former sounds too formal and old-fashioned. (Note that for some people my use of the words former and latter, in that previous sentence, probably also sounds a bit formal and old-fashioned).

    Here is Swan again: ‘Whom is not often used in informal English. We prefer to use who as an object, especially in questions’, and he gives as one of his examples: ‘Who did you go with?’, at the same time pointing out that if you do put the preposition first, then you need to use whom: ‘With whom did you go?’, which he calls ‘very formal’.

    I actually saw a comment on another ‘grammar’ website, which said that the sentence: ‘Who is this book about?’ is incorrect, and that we should say instead: ‘About whom is this book?’. Nobody, but nobody, speaks like that. If you said something like that, people would either wonder which planet you’d just arrived from, or think that you were trying to sound clever.
  3. if I were vs if I was
    This use of were in second conditional sentences is one of the few instances in English where subjunctive is still used. I’ve written about the subjunctive before, but basically over the centuries it has been gradually disappearing from the English language. And in this context, in the UK at least, it is increasingly being replaced by past simple, except in fixed expressions such as ‘If I were you’.

    The use of ‘I wish’ for hypothetical situations follows the same rules as second conditional. Egypt’s tourism office ran a series of TV ads (no doubt made by a Western advertising agency) with the slogan, ‘I wish I was in Egypt’, and I can’t remember any great outcry of indignation. This is how many ordinary educated people speak nowadays.

    Swan gives as an example: ‘I wish that I was better looking’, but admittedly does goes on to say, ‘Many people use were instead of was, especially in a formal style.’
  4. fewer vs less
    This is more about a change that seems to be in process right now, than one that has already happened. I imagine that most grammar books still agree: use few / fewer for countable nouns and little / less for uncountable nouns.

    I have few friends (c) and little money (u). I’m such a saddo. But somewhere there’s somebody with even fewer friends and even less money than me. Now that makes me feel much better!

    But increasingly people are using less where they ‘should’ say fewer. The most notable example is the supermarkets, who have check-out aisles marked, ‘10 items or less’, although one large chain, Tescos, has recently changed from less to fewer, bowing to pressure from the 'grammar police' (see below). I often catch myself saying less when I know it 'should' be fewer. At the moment I try and correct myself, but I suspect that in fifty years time or so, people will not worry much about the difference.

    Again according to Swan, ‘Less is quite common before plural nouns, as well as uncountables, especially in an informal style. Some people consider this incorrect.’ My emphasis would be on ‘some’.

    NB But in English exams you're better keeping to the formal rule: fewer for countable nouns and less for uncountable nouns. That way you can't go wrong.

This is how language develops. It has more in common with evolution than with maths, with rule changes taking the place of random mutations. These changes are probably tentative at first, and are maybe practised by only one part of the language community to start with, but gradually win common acceptance among a majority of educated people.

It is perhaps the closest we get to a real democracy. There is no absolute authority, except our common sense and our wish to be understood, accepted and not to be thought stupid, that can tell us what to do. (Which of course doesn’t stop some people from trying.) We make the changes ourselves, separately and together, in small groups and large, sometimes knowingly, often subconsciously, and over shorter or longer periods of time. This is what makes language so wonderful, and in all the original power of that word, awesome.

We live at a time when we have more contact with other cultures than ever before, when the rate of technological and social change is greater than ever before. To take some examples: fifty years ago it was common to call colleagues by their title and family name - ‘Good morning, Mr. Johnson.’, whereas nowadays first names are probably the norm. Secondly, email has completely changed the way we write to each other. And thirdly, regional accents are increasingly seen as part of the accepted, even preferred, standard. In short, our social interactions are becoming less formal. (And in case anyone is worried by that, formality has nothing to do with politeness or good manners).

Is it then reasonable to expect that language will remain static through all this? Or fossilised, more like, if the pedants had their way. Funnily enough, the Oxford Advanced Learners Dictionary gives this example sentence for pedant: - 'A pedant will always insist that you ask for "fewer" items rather than "less". '
This is a subject I have to admit I find fascinating, and that we will no doubt be returning to. Many times. Many, many times.

Links for Tescos and those signs


Incidentally the BBC article says that:

Tesco is changing its checkout signs after coming under criticism from linguists for using "less" rather than "fewer". (my emphasis)

I think this is highly unlikely, as linguists, that is those people who actually study language and linguistics, are usually pretty relaxed about this sort of thing, simply observing the changes. Very few pedants are linguists, or vice-versa.

Incidentally English has a bit of a problem with the word linguist, as it has two meanings:
  • Someone who studies language or linguistics
  • Someone who studies foreign languages and/or speaks several of them.

It is apparently not uncommon for a linguistics expert to be introduced to someone as a linguist, and to be asked , 'How many languages do you speak?'. 'Just the one', they reply, much to the confusion of the other person.

11 comments:

Thomas said...

If you think those are changes that happened during your lifetime, you couldn’t be more wrong.

1. The reason your teacher told you to use “may” for permission is that he was one of those people who think the rules of grammar are carved in stone. The fact is that “can” was already being used for permission as early as 1858, as a line from Anthony Trollope’s “Doctor Thorne” shows:

“Can I come in, Frank?”


2. Even Shakespeare used “who” instead of “whom.” Did he live during your lifetime?


3. The use of indicative “was” instead of subjunctive “were” can be traced back to the end of the 16th century.


4. A strict distinction between “fewer” and “less” never even really existed! “Less” has been used of countables for just about as long as there has been a written English language. The rule that you should use “fewer” for countable nouns and “less” for uncountable nouns was made up out of whole cloth by some guy called Robert Baker in 1770.


Language does change, but not at the insane speed you think it does.

Warsaw Will said...

@Thomas - I think you're preaching to the converted, so it would be nice if you didn't shout.

My lifetime is probably a bit longer than you think, and I've simply reported what I've seen and noticed on the ground, not what I've read in linguistics books.

As far as my teachers were concerned, they weren't particularly pedantic, but neither were they linguists. This was about par for British education in the fifties. Maybe your books didn't tell you that.

You only have to watch British films from the fifties to gauge how much British English has in fact changed.

Thomas said...

“I think you're preaching to the converted, so it would be nice if you didn't shout.”

No, misinformation is misinformation, no matter how hard you try to style yourself as a descriptionist.


“My lifetime is probably a bit longer than you think…”

Oh, you’re over 150 years old?`


“…and I've simply reported what I've seen and noticed on the ground, not what I've read in linguistics books.”

You mean, instead of doing research, you present your opinion as fact? Sounds like the modus operandi of the peevologists to me.


“As far as my teachers were concerned, they weren't particularly pedantic, but neither were they linguists. This was about par for British education in the fifties.”

This doesn’t have anything to do with anything. The fact remains that the usage of “can” any “may” is not something that has changed within your lifetime.


“Maybe your books didn't tell you that.”

You are in no position to criticize people for trying to get their facts straight.


“You only have to watch British films from the fifties to gauge how much British English has in fact changed.”

Yes, because people in movies talk just like in real life.

Warsaw Will said...

OK. I make no claims to be either a linguist or a historian. I'm simply a humble TEFL teacher trying to write a relatively light-hearted blog.

I'm not sure exactly what I've done to upset you so much, but I don't think anything I say is going to mollify you. So as far as I'm concerned - end of conversation.

Warsaw Will said...

But on second thoughts that bit about “Maybe your books didn't tell you that.” was a bit catty, and I take it back. Sorry.

Thomas said...

Now I feel bad. I apologize.

kujira said...

I think Thomas's point is that while language does change over time, some things in language change more rapidly than others.
(I can't confirm his examples though).
I think words like "can" and "may" and the others talked about may in the category of things that only change after a relatively longer period of time.

Well, I think what we can conclude from that is that it's very hard to make a non-trivial claim about language that actually is completely true.

Incidentally, that's why I sometimes think EFL teachers, even EFL teachers who are linguists, should keep away from trying to "explain" so-called grammar to their students...

Also, you said it is apparently not uncommon for a linguistics expert to only speak one language, but I actually highly doubt this.
I know a lot of EFL teachers only speak English though :-P

By the way I really like your website!

Warsaw Will said...

Hi. Thanks very much for the last comment.

I quite agree with you that EFL teachers should teach grammar on a 'need to know basis' in the classroom. In fact, I think most EFL teachers learn grammar in a similar way.

But this is a blog; nobody is forced to read my rants. And as you'll know, as I see you've had a good look around, this isn't exactly a conventional EFL/ESL website and makes no claims to be so. In any case I would find that really boring.

The only reason I write this blog is because I'm passionately interested in the history and development of English and the way it works. If I didn't have the opportunity to sound off now and then, basically this blog wouldn't exist. And hardly anybody reads my rants anyway. But they do do some of my exercises, which is very gratifying.

I didn't write this particular post as an EFL teacher, but just as an ordinary Joe Bloggs, although being an EFL teacher does inform my opinions, as its approach to grammar is deeply rooted in descriptivism. I really hope you don't think discussion of language should be left to the grammarians and linguistics people, and I make it very clear I don't claim any expertise.

I can assure you the stuff about 'can' and 'may' is from my own experience. And I have to say that I think Thomas's argument about Shakespeare is somewhat of a red herring, because the prescriptivists who came up with many of the so-called 'rules' I question, came long after Shakespeare, mainly in the 19th and early 20th centuries. The development of language doesn't necessarily work in a linear way.

Also, since the war Britain has seen enormous social change, the cultural revolution of the late 50s and early 60s, the loss by RP of its dominant position, and the move to more informality. All of these have had a profound effect on British English.

Since originally writing this post, I've read David Crystal's The Stories of English and have had several discussions with my British colleagues on the subject. I have neither read nor heard anything that would make me want to retract a word from that post.

On a lighter note, I got the bit about linguists from a linguistics blogger, and most of my colleagues do in fact speak quite a bit of Polish, as they mostly have 'sleeping teachers'. My Polish is, I'm ashamed to say, what I would call shopping Polish.

kujira said...

Thanks for the reply to my comment!
I think it's great that you write about this kind of thing as well as EFL stuff!

Thinking about it, I also vaguely remember my Japanese professor (who was English) telling us a story about something involving "can" and "may" and his old pedantic school teachers.

But I think the kind of people who decide there must be "rules" for language are mostly just satisfied with the first thing that comes into their minds that seems to fit. They're that stupid!
And those made-up rules don't necessarily have anything to do with recent changes in the language of the rule-maker(s).
Those changes might have already happened or been happening a long time ago, in other words.
That's another attempt at interpreting Thomas's argument, by the way (which if he meant it that way I tend to agree with, although again I don't know the truth of his examples and if they would be very significant anyway...).

I don't believe you about the linguists who only speak one language though... Linguistics is about a theory of all human languages in general, as well as observing phenomena in specific languages. In my opinion, you have *infinitely* more capacity to make insights into *language in general* if you're interested in more than one language.

For what it's worth, in my university you have to complete a course in a foreign language to major in linguisitcs.

May I ask who that linguistics blogger who told you that is? ;-)

(Suprisingly enough, the "may" in the previous sentence came quite naturally to me... I'm a NZE speaker in my 20s!)

But it's great stuff to think about! I learnt a lot just reading and thinking about this ;-)

Warsaw Will said...

Hi again.

Firstly about school teachers in the 1960s: as I said to Thomas, I don't think mine were particularly pedantic; this was just the norm for the time.

".. it was only through the school system that prescriptivism had been able to propagate itself. In the UK, from the 1970s, changes in school syllabuses and examination systems heralded a new dispensation, with an unthinking adherence to mechanical sentence analysis and old-style canons of correctness being gradually replaced by broad-based investigation of the forms and functions of language in all their social manifestations." David Crystal - The Stories of English p523

About making up rules, you might be interested in this essay on 'assertionism' at the Volokh Conspiracy blog.

That 'How many languages do you speak' thing is apparently an old joke among linguists (because of the double meaning of the word linguist). I think I originally saw it on Language Log, which seems to me to be the doyen of linguistics blogs. I can't find it just now but this from Jan Freeman at the Boston Globe should do in the meantime.

Warsaw Will said...

How many languages?

The Lousy Linguist quotes Lynne Murphy (aka lynneguist) at the excellent Separated by a Common Language as saying:

"Asking a linguist how many languages they speak is like asking a doctor how many diseases they have."

And there's more in a similar vein at
Linguistic Mystic, LanguageHat and on a Facebook thread.