Tuesday, August 08, 2006

The Defenders of American English are at it again

Do you know how to recognize subjunctive sentences? If "Yes" is your answer, read no further and in the comment area, give a definition. It will be fun for all.

I posted this prematurely. I am still editing it.

James J. Kilpatrick, The English Language Curmudgeon, appears to have a loyal network of informers who love to squeal on those who make linguistic "mistakes." The subject of yesterday morning's offering in my daily paper was the death throes of the subjunctive. He starts off by quoting one Patsy Roberts' tattle tailing on S. Epatha Merkerson for saying (at her acceptance of an Emmy award)
"If I wasn’t in the middle of a hot flash, "I’d believe I’m 16."
Patsy "The Rat" Roberts asks,
"What’s become of the subjunctive? Shouldn’t she have said, ‘If I weren’t’? "
Kilpatrick joins in the fun but in the process displays his typically appalling ignorance of how one should go about describing the English language and evaluating what its speakers say. He sees a multiplicity of subjunctive modes, including, as in this case, "the subjunctive for conditions that are contrary to fact," (sic) or what philosophers and linguists refer to as a counterfactual conditional. This latter way of characterizing both utterances is straight to the point -- it is a conditional sentence in form and it has a false antecedent. Kilpatrick's description is nigh on uninterpretable. It is no wonder that most people don't have a clue what the subjunctive is and even less want to know. But it is time for us to have some fun at Kilpatrick's expense.

Now, why would Ms. Merkerson and the legion of other speakers of English who follow the pattern she exhibited do so? First, let us note that in her if-clause, Ms. Merkerson used the singular past tense form "wasn't," whereas The Rat suggests that it would have been better had she used the plural past tense form "weren't." Why would she want to do that? She is singular in number, not plural the last time I saw her (on TV). There is reason to suppose that the use of were and weren't occurred later than the use of was and wasn't. Check out Baugh's opinion, for instance. As Otto Jespersen, the great grammarian, says
Most of its forms have become indistinguishable from those of the indicative, but the loss is not a serious one...
The reason it isnt serious is that the meaning is conveyed by, in this case, if combined with the use of a past tense verb form. Future counterfactuals also exist, as in
If I go to Boston tomorrow, I will get you a Red Sox cap.
Notice here that
I go to Boston tomorrow
is a way of saying that I will go to Boston tomorrow but the previous example cannot be true at the time of utterance since it refers to a future possibility. I have no idea whether the numskull Kilpatrick would call this future conditional subjunctive or not, nor do I care since the term "subjunctive" plays no role in a description of English by competent linguists.

Kilpatrick cites as another kind of subjunctive the "subjectivie of wish" (sic) and provides as an example an alleged utterance by the almost certainly mythical King Arthur, who if he existed, didn't speak a form of English we could easily understand.
The King wishes he were in Scotland.
Here too we have a counterfactual, but not a conditional sentence. Again we have a plural form "were" being used in the counterfactual, but the verb wish not the verb form were serves to signal that the utterance is counterfactual. The lowbrow form is
The King wished he was in Scotland.
Here, as in Ms. Merkerson's sentence we find a singular past tense form of "be" being used in our counterfactual, as is appropriate since King Arthur, if he existed, was singular in number.

Kilpatrick goes on to provide other past tense forms being used counterfactually.
In the Austin (Texas) American-Statesman, columnist John Kelso writes about a book based upon hurricanes; its publication coincided so closely with Katrina, "It was as if the storm was trying to kill it." In the Daily Times of Farmington, N.M., a Navajo woman’s chances of finding a blood donor "would be better if she wasn’t a minority."
And he cites the columnist William Rusher being both low brow and high brow
After the death of Chief Justice William Rehnquist, Rusher speculated on a probable successor: "If someone as controversial as Scalia was promoted . . . " Then he thought of an alternative possibility: "If Gonzales were confirmed . . . "
Again, rational Americans are using the singular verb, not the plural when the subject is singular. Sadly, it seems that people like Kilpatrick (e. g., many English teachers) clearly have confused Mr. Rusher as to what he should and should not say..

Note further that if the subject were plural (note my deft use of the subjunctive), the verb form would be were, as in
If Kilpatrick and his ilk were to learn a little linguistics, they would not make such silly statements about English speakers.
The problem with Kilpatrick's position is that the concept that is critical here is that the utterances express or presuppose a contrary to fact proposition. We do not need the concept of "subjunctive" to account either for what he thinks we ought to say or for what we do say. We find that the singular past tense form was has largely replaced the form were when the subject is singular, as is rational, and the plural form is used when the subject is plural.

Why is the past tense form combined with if and wish in subjunctives? What do we know about the past? It is no longer the present and thus the past tense is in position for use to express or presuppose a proposition that is false at the time of utterance. For counterfactual conditionals that refer to past states of affairs that did not occur, our low brow would say,
"If he would have kissed her, she would have fainted."
Here "would have" replaces high brow "had". A quick googling of the form being discussed resulted in
Things I can say that I "Wish" my parents would have done.

I leave it to you to figure out why "would have" might be used instead of "had."

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Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

If someone were to read (fut. subj.) the post before commenting, there would be no way for you to know, correct? If I were (past subj.) less anal retentive, I might do something like that. Be (pres. subj.) that as it may, I'm stuck for a way to continue this one. If you had included (past perf. subj.) more blank lines, I might not have read the line about your "early release" of this post before scrolling down to the comment link!

Form-wise the present subjunctive is identical to the bare infinitive, the past to the (plural) past (distinguishable only for be), the future to the plural past of be plus the to-infinitive, and the past perfect to had plus the past participle.

Basically used to express counter-factuals (wishes, hypotheticals, suggestions, etc). And more honored in the violation than the observance in most modern American dialects (when speaking, I mean, of course).

There...that good enough? (I'm dying to see what all this is about!)

11:30 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Sorry to double-post; I'll probably have more to add after reading the, um, "cleaned up" version.

11:45 AM

Blogger Kelly said...

I think you mean "contra-factual" rather than "counter-factual". Basically, 2/3 of law school is thinking about contra-factual situations.

1:16 PM

Blogger Language Guy said...

No, Kelly, I mean counterfactual. You lawyers don't get to tell linguists and philosophers what to say.

1:49 PM

Blogger Kelly said...

I don't like your tone. You must be moody, as you claim.

I jumped down here to the comments as per your request at the top of the post. Since Ibad had already defined it by example, I did not. Since I had not yet read the post (as per your request) I thought I was correcting him, not you. I didn't know that this was a term of art for linguists and philosophers. The term we use (although not extensively--we more often use the term "hypothetical") is "contra-factual".

3:09 PM

Blogger Kelly said...

Let me add that if I had known it was a term of art, I would have simply said that we call it a "contra-factual" as a minor note of interest.

3:11 PM

Blogger Language Guy said...

When lawyers would try to drag me into their "hypotheticals" I would let them jabber on till they stopped and then point out as stated were unanserable. As David Lewis argued you can't just change the world in a few respects and think that one has a well-formed hypothetical question. To take an easy case, the "If Hitler had not been born, then would...?" is simply unanswerable. One would have to know if some other fascist leader might have emerged, etc. and if so did he love or hate Jews, etc. That was good fun. By and large lawyers had a lot of trouble with me and some of my friends who were specialists in the interpretation of language in context, i. e., pragmatics. I read the very, very long depositions of an Illinois linguist and psycholinguist in one case and we three took virtually identical positions on everything the lawyers asked. Sadly, some judge tanked the case on a technicality. If he hadn't we would be less dependant on foreign oil. It was a gasahol vs. gasoline case.

3:29 PM

Blogger Kelly said...

That's too bad. As a Nebraska resident and native (possibly also because I'm a rational, thinking person?) I think we'd be a lot better off if we focused on switching more to ethanol-based fuels. Of course, there's usually a damn good reason for the rules that the general public call "technicalities" (think 4th Amendment). Sure, in the one case injustice might be done, but it promotes justice in the future.

Your Hitler hypothetical is a little bit bigger than the kind of thing we usually talk about. We'll usually be confronted with a situation like the famous McDonald's spilled coffee case, and the (contra/counter)-factual situation (or hypothetical) is "What if there was a warning on the cup?"

3:57 PM

Blogger Marc André Bélanger said...

The subjunctive always seems to have a hard time, and not just in English. In French we tend to mess it all up. Then again, we have a few more tenses and maybe moods to get tangled up in.

But I have to disagreeon at least one thing: just because "were" as the same form as the plural doesn't mean it's one. There's still the matter of meaning.

btw, you've been tagged!

7:14 PM

Anonymous DonDraper said...

Yikes, Kilpatrick is a mess, as usual. I suppose that kind of prim and proper sounding verbiage sells more papers than, say, the discussion at http://itre.cis.upenn.edu/~myl/languagelog/archives/001192.html

I admit my linguistics classes are a couple decades behind me, but I seem to remember the profs there (U of Oregon) going for the term "irrealis" and not using "subjunctive" at all. Mainly, I suppose, because of the mass of officious confusion around such terms. Also, I had thought (hah!) that the grammatical inflections showed degree of irrealis:

If she wins the lottery...
If she won the lottery...
If she was/were to win the lottery... (it's accepted either way, JJK, sorry)

These are not equivalent, but the grammar is supposed to be consistent in showing the degree of likelihood in the speaker's mind of the proposition. In the above 3 examples, in order of more likely to less likely. Ack, it's been too long, but lucky for me someone will point either the error or obviousness of my ways.

10:28 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

That's a valid point, Marc, but I was coming at it more from a pedagogical perspective. (My students have a hard enough time with the distinction between the (non-3rd person singular) present and (bare) infinitive.)

10:36 PM

Blogger Michael said...

But don't we need irrealis to include more than just the subjunctive even in its various forms? Mood and modality might fall to a non-factual/irrealis usage without speaking of the possible other world that is so often an implied parallel to the f/actual world when the subjunctive is used. So future could be irrealis without being subjunctive.

11:32 PM

Blogger daniela said...

Great reading, in general. I like this site.

11:04 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I'm no linguist but I have been told by others that the following:

"It's important that John does his homework"

should be written:

"It's important that John do his homework".

and this is is somthing to do with subjunctive form?

I also heard that the subjunctive is very important in French and far more importance is attached to it than for English, it is a sign of good French apparently to a far greater degree that in English.

What's your view?


11:58 AM

Blogger Kelly said...

This is almost going outside my area of knowledge. But Don Draper I think may have a valid point.

LG, is there an objective standard for determining whether a particular usage is "high brow" or "low brow"?

1:03 PM

Blogger Kelly said...

Sorry for the double-post again. Must not be thinking clearly.

Anonymous, I think the difference between your two situations is not correct vs. incorrect.

"It's important that John does his homework"
Sounds like it's implying that it's important that he does his homework as a general rule.

"It's important that John do his homework".
Sounds like it's important that he do it now, whatever assignments he must do.

Also, I don't think those have anything to do with the subjunctive.

1:07 PM

Blogger Language Guy said...

I agree with Kelly as to the "does" and "do" cases Tony cites. The thing is that the subjunctive is a very fuzzy concept. Something's being counterfactual or not is straight-forward.

There are three classes of English at least. One is high brow -- hoity toity English, the sort of thing that Kilpatrick likes. Another is educated English. It wouldn't observe some of the really stupid things that high brow sorts observe, such as not ending sentences with prepositions or splitting infinitives. Then there are various low brow forms such as working class English, ethnic dialects, some regional dialects (hillbilly), etc. I love both educated and low brow English. They are real in that they don't have to be learned in school.

I don't know about the French and the subjunctive but the French are more prescriptionistic in general than we are on this side of the pond.

1:35 PM

Blogger Kelly said...

On a totally unrelated note, and I'm sorry if this is an inappropriate plug, my constitutional rights were very nearly violated the other day when I was taking pictures in a federal parking garage. Read it if you're interested. I thought you'd like this story, LG.

8:35 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hi Kelly

Here is what the website "Good grammar, Good style" has to say about this in an article on "subjunctive", I quote:

Which one of the following is (unless both are) correct:

I prefer that Mary do it, or
I prefer that Mary does it?


Answer: The first is proper English; strong requests require the subjunctive. The second is common English. Technically, it is not correct; but practically, you will hear and read it often.

I trust this clarifies your misunderstanding on this issue?


9:47 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

What we are seeing here is simply a conflict between a natural, ongoing development of the spoken language (merger of forms) and the resistence to such changes inherent in the existence of a written standard. As a (foreign) language educator, I try to make my students aware of the characteristics of both varieties. (Since most of my classes deal with writing, I emphasize the written.)

The use here of "proper" isn't, in my opinion. There are just different varieties of the language, each with its own proper sphere of usage.

(By the way, LG, have you looked into the historical development of the subjunctive forms? I haven't, but hope to over summer break. I'm wondering if it isn't another of those 17th century "Latinizations".)

12:33 PM

Blogger Mister Pregunto said...

Is it better to say:

"Six and seven IS eleven",


"Six and seven ARE eleven"?

9:14 PM

Anonymous Ibadairon said...

Plural subject, like in

Kelly and his wife ARE married, not just living in sin.

Would you ever say

John and Mary IS a couple?

In the original "is" version, it almost seems as though the verb is agreeing with the predicate nominative!

Why do you ask this?

3:49 AM

Blogger Paul F. said...

Yeah, but you wouldn't say the sum of six and seven are eleven. You'd say the sum of six and seven is eleven. When you leave out "the sum of", wouldn't it be implied?

6:36 AM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Duh. What I get I guess for looking only at the data as presented. Oh well.

So, revised answer: they're both right; the "is" version has an implied, singular "sum" as its subject.

7:21 AM

Blogger Mister Pregunto said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

7:27 AM

Blogger Mister Pregunto said...

Mister Pregunto said...
Nice effort guys, but you're both wrong.

The correct thing to say is...

Six and seven "EQUALS THIRTEEN!"


7:30 AM

Blogger Language Guy said...

Tony, your "Good Grammar" web site takes a quite riduculous position, one never honored in the history of the language when it says that "strong requests require the subjunctive." The concept of "strong request" is nonsense. Rules like these were made up by self-appointed grammarians but the fact is that there is no one in the U.S. who is qualified to legislate what is and is not good grammar.

8:57 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...


Regarding your position on the subjunctive, I agree that it is a "fuzzy" concept. I contend that it has become so due to gradual relaxation of the rules of good grammar. While I am in no way trying to say that only “high brow” English should be spoken and written, I do believe that this gradual relaxation of rules is contributing to the fact that many students leaving high school cannot construct a sentence where verb and subject agree; nor do they know where or where not to place a comma or semicolon. I am very surprised to hear that you think rules related to ending sentences with prepositions are "stupid". We have become tolerant of improper usage of grammar and I believe that it is this type of attitude that has led to acceptance of such common mistakes as the often heard, “between you and I”, “Bill and myself are going” and there are countless other examples. If you like educated and low brow English because they do not have to be learned in school, am I to assume that you place no importance on spelling either? English spoken among certain ethnic groups differs from one cultural group to another. This is to be expected and is valid, in that the spoken language is understood by those in and outside of that ethnic group. But, where do we draw the line between the spoken word and the written? Do you recognize “birfday” as a valid spelling of the word birthday, or “libary” for library? I am not trying to be pedantic or sarcastic, but am truly interested in your opinion.


10:11 AM

Blogger Mister Pregunto said...

Has there been a case where a language fell apart because the people who spoke it didn't head the rules?

Would such a language really be in danger of becoming ungrammatical?

11:43 AM

Blogger Mister Pregunto said...

Oops, there was a typo in my previous comment.

I should have said, "...because the people who spoke it didn't heed the rules?..."

12:07 PM

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1:57 PM

Blogger Language Guy said...

Mr. Pregunta, you have turned the "good grammar" issue on its head and I congratulate you for doing so. No, never has a language fallen apart because its speakers simply quit speaking grammatically to the point that communication became impossible. What happens when a certain set of speakers starts not following certain rules that other speakers do follow is that we get dialect changes that can result in their being unable to speak to each other. That is what happened to Latin. It evolved into Italian, French, Spanish, Romanch, etc. Language change like that is inevitable.

Even now, we have Scots English, English English, American English, and Australian English, among others. When two speakers of regional Scots English speak casually/rapidly to each other, an American would be unlikely to understand them. But, should they realize he/she is American they will shift into standard Scots English and when the American starts speaking standard American English they will be able to understand each other. There will be stumbles over purely regional slang expressions but those are easily worked around.

Jean, you need to read some of my blogs under the title "Lingusitics." The key to keeping Standard English alive and well is to understand it should be an obligatory part of reading and writing in school and purely a matter of choice when it comes to speaking. One might as well adopt this position because one cannot force people to speak the dialect you want them to. They will speak the way their homeys speak whether theior homeys are country club people or country boys and girls or inner city kids. We must insist that they learn to read and write standard English. The problem with failures in doing this latter has more to do with the failures of the teachers than the kids for any teachers who come to teaching inner city or country kids with your language prejudices will likely fail for you will communicate even if indirectly that how they are talking to each other is "bad" or "incorrect" and they will turn their ears off to what you are saying. It is imperative that teachers respect how kids speak and teach standard English as a different, possibly just written system. The point of doing this is that is doable. Changing how they talk is a waste of time for it is doomed to failure. The kids will learn to speak Standard English when it becomes important to do so, as when they go to college. This happens on university campuses all the time. Not in the Ivy League perhaps but at the big inclusive state universities where the kids begin to want to sound like the smart kids and the professors.

2:49 PM

Blogger BegsToDiffer said...

Let me get this straight, Ive just read through this topic and find myself, once again amazed at LG.

So LG are you saying that you would have no objection to a student who says “between you and I”, “Bill and myself are going” etc as Jean asked?

I really think it is irresposnible to endorse teaching written English to a high standard and adherence to grammar etc, whilst telling students it is quite OK to speak utter trash with mispronounced words ("burfday", "chimley" etc) and disregard (if not contempt) for these same rules, when speaking.

Anyway, please do answer the questions above (which you did not answer when Jean asked them).

Incidenatlly I am from Liverpool in the UK and I am no stranger to working class use of English, having grown up surrounded by it. Much as I adore accents, I do find bad English regrettable, most people learn English from their parents who themselves have often had little formal education in English, so bad habits become ingrained and perpetuated.

To endorse (as you appear to be doing) spoken English with a "free for all" grammar is only going to contribte to the problem.


4:39 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

I have one comment and one question regarding your response to my posting. 1.It is extremely presumptuous of you to suggest that I have language prejudices. 2. When was the last time you spent time at a big inclusive state university?

4:55 PM

Blogger Mister Pregunto said...

"...I really think it is irresposnible to endorse teaching written English to a high standard and adherence to grammar etc, whilst telling students it is quite OK to speak utter trash with mispronounced words ("burfday", "chimley" etc) and disregard (if not contempt) for these same rules, when speaking..."

Begstodiffer, is there some large scale negative impact on society that you fear will manifest itself as an imminent consequence of the fact that some people don't speak "standard" English?

7:16 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

Oh no, it's the end of civilization! O tempora, o mores!

Nothing ever really changes, does it?

Yeah, LG, when was the last time you were on campus at OSU, huh huh huh?


(Mr Pregunto...one can be too clever for one's own good. Head that.)

2:21 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...

The question was rhetorical.

7:49 AM

Blogger BegsToDiffer said...

Dear Mr Pregunto

The answer to your question is "No".

May I ask you, if you think one should only object to certain issues of langauge teaching if "some large scale negative impact on society" is likely?

Is such large, negative impact a condition that you think must be satisfied in order for my comments to have any bearing?

Perhaps you are able and willing to answer the questions that have been asked, so I now ask you Sir:

are you saying that you would have no objection to a student who says “between you and I”, “Bill and myself are going” etc as Jean asked? if you were a teacher of English?


8:39 AM

Anonymous pf said...

I'm proud of my slang. The fact that I can keep it real and speak in public is only a testament to the fine pre-1990's public education I received growing up in California. A person just has to merely switch gears. I like the fact that 90% of the people I hear talk say "li-berry" instead of library, or the fact that Bush can't pronounce nuclear, instead he says "nucular". That's what makes English such a great language. You can pronounce it almost any way you want and somebody out there somewhere is gonna understand what you're saying. Dig we all not Yoda?

9:08 AM

Blogger Language Guy said...

Hugh writes: "So LG are you saying that you would have no objection to a student who says “between you and I”, “Bill and myself are going” etc as Jean asked?

I really think it is irresposnible to endorse teaching written English to a high standard and adherence to grammar etc, whilst telling students it is quite OK to speak utter trash with mispronounced words ("burfday", "chimley" etc) and disregard (if not contempt) for these same rules, when speaking."

Interestingly, I showed up at Rice University as a sophomore saying "between Bob and I" and my uncles corrected me. It quite awhile for me to first start recognizing when I made a mistake and correct it and then to cease making it. It is not easy to correct how we talk and it is easiest learned in a context in which one is with speakers of the preferred dialect. So, while I strongly endorsed teaching of Standard English as a writing system (did you really read that?) I suggested that teachers not bother with how the kids talk. The reason is that teachers have very little time to teach the language sections at achool and they are fighting an uphill battle so long as the kids continue to live amongst those who speak nonstandard varieties. I am afraid, Hugh, you know too little about the nature of dialects, why they occur, and why they cannot be eradicated by the likes of you for you to be taking strong positions here. For someone like you living in the UK, it is amazing to read you put down regional dialects. When I taught in the UK some ten or so years go, I suffered a kind of sensory overload at the tremendous amount of variation there was in the UK English of my students. People will talk like those they love and/or respect. That is just a fact. Put the kid in a standard UK or American or Aussie Standard Englsh environment that the kid wants to be a part of and his/her English will take care of itself.

One thing you do not seem to understand is that written English and spoken English are quite different, especially when you consider that the Brits, Canadians, Americans, Indians, Nigerians, and Aussies (among others) have quite different spoken standard varieties. But we all write in pretty much the same way. And our standard spoken varieties are not wildly different except at the colloquial level.

Why, by the way, do you write in such highly charged way. Right now I see you as a linguistic nitwit who writes with little knowledge about langauge but much sound and fury. What is your linguistic training. Just speaking English doesn't make you an expert on English.

9:31 AM

Blogger Language Guy said...

This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.

9:33 AM

Blogger Language Guy said...

Repost due to wild errors.

Jean, I spent 30 years on big state university campuses and regularly am on campus. It is summer now so I am not on it much right now. When fall comes I will be there.

It is interesting that you all seem to be so exercised by the "between you and I" construction. IMO, this is actually the result of teachers improperly teaching kids how to correct "Bob and me left together." The idea is gotten across that "me should be replaced with "I" in compounds (note they do not say "Me left"). So, some kids overgeneralized what they were being taught. Then it caught on. At that point teachers had a new construction to correct.

The use of constructions like your "“Bill and myself are going”, Jean, is the result IMO of people telling kids when they write to avoid overuse of "I" when they should be being taught to avoid writing in the first person. So, the kids just move to "myself" and that catches on.

I may be wrong about where these errors came from but they are not things that I can see the language naturally evolving into. I think it took an outside agency, and my guess it is the teachers.

You guys, like grammar teachers, are focusing on very superficial grammatical constuctions. If you look at the totality of English you find that there is fundamental agreement among dialects in the vast majority of cases.

All is change, as Heraclitus, said. And that most definitely includes langauge. You and teachers generally are going to have to learn to fight the lingusitic battles you can win. One of our problems is that teachers by and large come from the very bottom of our university classes because education degrees are among the easiest to get. In short, the teachers tend not to be among the best and brightest and probably are insufficiently trained to do the job we want them to do.

9:47 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...


Your posting captures the essence of my concern. We have become so lax in our attitude toward good grammar, spelling and elocution that having a president who cannot pronounce nuclear does not phase (or embarrass) many of us.

I have only vsited your blog a few times but I have noticed that whenever someone disagrees with you, you often resort to insults.


9:49 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...


I could not agree with you more regarding your comments on teachers.


9:54 AM

Anonymous Anonymous said...


Did you delete your posting after saw it in print and realzed how ridiculous you sounded?


9:55 AM

Blogger Language Guy said...

Jean, I tend to respond with sharply worded criticisms directed at Hugh because he has proved to be very hostile to me on some of my political post. "Begs to Differ" is the right name for him for he never has a positive contribution to make that moves a dialog forward.

I also get tired of dealing with issues like the virtues of "correct" or "good" or "proper" grammar when I have dealt with them in past posts. A hostile attitude toward how people talk makes me hostile in just the way hostile comments of a anti-Black, anti-semitic, anti-hispanic, etc. do. In a past blog, The Last Bastion of PC Prejudice, I deal with that issue.

1:39 PM

Blogger BegsToDiffer said...

LG you are up to your old tricks Sir.

You appear to be suggesting that my lack of certification in linguistics renders me ineligible to comment on the topic; this is an oft used ploy to discredit someone.

Finding that to be insufficient you decide to add insult to injury with "linguistic nitwit who writes with little knowledge about langauge".

Please try to focus your mind on the questions that were asked; you either deliberately disregard peoples pointed questions or you possess an inability to answer them.

The questions that were asked, can I think, be answered either "dont know", "yes" or "no"; for you either would or would not correct the said student.

One does not have to be an "expert" Sir in English to point out that you, a self-appointed authority on grammar, are in stark disagreement with not only equally authoritive websites but several other participants in this blog and other noted authorities on English.

By tolerating, indeed encouraging poorly spoken English, you do your students a disservice, in that they will fall victim to the harsh realities of the real world when they attend interviews and the like and find that for some odd reason they just didnt get through!

Imagine being taught English by someone such as you, only to discover that upon completing ones education one is unable to speak at a standard suitable to impress a potential employer!

You are of course free to pontificate on these matters, as you so often do, but I do wish you would make some effort to answer questions that are directed at you.

Finally, I can only conclude that by "highly charged way" you are actually referring to the fact that I disagree with you and challenge you to answer questions, questions I hasten to add, that go straight to the heart of the issues you so often choose to lecture us all about.


7:13 PM

Blogger BegsToDiffer said...

Ahh LG you never cease to amaze me Sir!

I have just read how you equate the attachment of value to good spoken English as equivalent to racism!

Explain Sir, what is "hostile" about objecting to bad grammar?

By your own reasoning, a written court transcript of a person speaking poor English (e.g. "Well he never said nothing to me Sir") would indeed be an example of poor English, despite the fact that you consider the speaker to NOT have actually spoken poor English!


7:20 PM

Blogger BegsToDiffer said...

One more thing LG why do you think one should require "linguistic training" in order to discuss matters of grammar?


7:49 PM

Anonymous Anonymous said...


If you are tired of dealing with issues like the virtues of good or proper grammmar, then why in the world would you have introduced this thread again?


8:20 PM

Anonymous pf said...

You obviously can't even understand what I posted. Let me put it in words that maybe you can understand. I can keep it real means that I can hang with my friends and talk just like them instead of a pompous windbag such as Hugh. My ability to speak in public means that I can, if I choose to, speak standard English, clearly and coherantly if I choose to. I went to college and aced my English classes. I find English to be a fascinating language and I too would encourage regional dialects. I like to hear all the different ways people communicate in English. It's too bad that you cannot enjoy this aspect of spoken English, but a few of us do. So for those reasons, I support what LG says.

8:49 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

I seriously cannot imagine any action more definitive of being a prat than interrupting someone who is trying to tell me something simply to correct their grammar. (Talk about a sure way to lose friends or get a bad rep among students!)

One thing that functioning in Japanese on a daily basis for the last twenty years has taught me is the importance of context. The Japanese even have an acronym which emphasizes the importance of context in chosing how to conduct oneself, especially when using language: TPO. Time, Place, and Occasion.

I do my best to make my students understand that just as there are rules that dictate how they should speak in their own language, there are similar rules which govern how different forms of English should be used. Were I teaching native speakers in the States or elsewhere, I hope I would do no less. But in that case I believe I would try to teach more by example than explicit correction.

One final point: you don't have to be trained in grammar or linguistics to discuss how people use language. But it would be nice if you at least put some thought into it before sounding off.

10:49 PM

Blogger Mister Pregunto said...

"...May I ask you, if you think one should only object to certain issues of langauge teaching if "some large scale negative impact on society" is likely?

Is such large, negative impact a condition that you think must be satisfied in order for my comments to have any bearing?...

No. I merely wanted to get a sense of how much importance you attach to your concerns, and what potential consequences you are concerned about. (You may have answered that in the interim, but please elaborate if you are so inclined.)

"...are you saying that you would have no objection to a student who says "between you and I", "Bill and myself are going" etc as Jean asked? if you were a teacher of English?..."

Were I a language teacher, and my students spoke in a manner similar to what you describe, I would very likely point out the linguistic forms that receive greater social acceptance, and are considered so vitally important to a certain class of people. I would also point out the nature of the strategic choices they make in choosing to speak in one manner or another.

The fact is, I would give them as good an education as I could in the matter, if they showed even the slightest interest. But in the end, my concern would not be whether they chose to say "between you and I", "between you and me", "between you and myself", or "between you and my arse". Truth is, I couldn't give a rat's ass (arse) about that.

One thing that would be of particular concern to me is whether my students had learned to think clearly about the difference between descriptive and prescriptive rules. Sadly, a large part of our highly educated society seems to have trouble making out the difference, and so spend their time getting positively apoplectic about the fact that descriptive rules never seem willing to conform to the prescriptive rules.

Still more importantly, I would wish to ensure myself that they had learned about the role language plays in the formation, destruction, and reformation of social groupings. And how social power is often meted out--or withheld--by those would suppose that all rules are made to be obeyed.

Most of all, I would just like them to understand that language is a potentially empowering strategic tool which they can employ to either get closer to a group that they wish to be involved with, or to distance themselves from groups they don't wish to be involved in. And that either way, when they choose to speak, that they are making choices about how they will be perceived, treated, included and excluded by others, whether they like it or not.

11:33 PM

Blogger Mister Pregunto said...

When I woke up this morning, it occurred to me that there would be 3 questions I would like my hypothetical language students to be able to answer for themselves:

1) Which social grouping(s), if any, do you wish to make yourself accetable to?
2) What (linguistic and other) norms of acceptability are used to define status within the grouping(s)?
3) What are you prepared to do to be able to benefit from the status that such social groupings offer?

[Or, if all this seemed just too damn heavy and highfallootin', I'd just encourage them to learn about languages because it's interesting, and say nuts to anybody that wanted to make it into work.]

8:30 AM

Blogger BegsToDiffer said...

Well PG you have answered the question and I thank you for that. You may attach less importance than others and that's fine but you do attach SOME importance as do I.

My question was of course confied to classroom; whether one elects to correct someone under other circumstnaces is a personal choice dicated by rules of courtesy etc.


8:50 AM

Blogger BegsToDiffer said...

By PG I meant MP, Mr Pergunto!


8:50 AM

Blogger Language Guy said...

I don't know where to begin with you Hugh. First, I am a linguist, not a language teacher. I have never taught English and never will.

Jean, you are right to question why i would bring up the topic of language variation if I am tired of dealing with people like Hugh who do not understand the issues. The reason is that there is massive ignorance about language and massive language prejudice within our and every other culture and we linguists feel the obligation to air the topic from time to time.

Hugh, when I say you are hostile to me I mean to refer to your constant personal attacks such as "LG you are up to your old tricks Sir." This is a personal attack that has no other purpose but to be a personal attack. Because of this, I refuse to deal with you any more. Write away but don't expect me to reply to you. I do not refer to immature people like you. But I will reply to one thing.

In questioning your qualifications, Hugh, I mean to be questioning your knowledge of the nature of language variation, which is a constant of human life. The fact is, as I have demonstrated in other blogs and numerous linguistic texts will confirm as well, there is no dialect of American or UK English that is "better" on linguistic grounds than any other as an oral system of communication amongst those who speak that way. In fact, nonstandard varieties you view as trash tend to be more rationally organized than standard varieties. How they are "better" is socially. Read my post on Proper English.

In any event, I will never again interact with you. I don't have the time or patience to do so. So, don't demand that I answer any of your questions.

9:16 AM

Blogger BegsToDiffer said...

You clearly are a linguist, since you have an impressive ability to stretch the semantics of "personal attack" to include the highly offensive: "LG you are up to your old tricks Sir.", yes as anyone can see, that is a indeed an unwarranted, deeply hurtful, personal and derogatory "attack" without basis in fact and so you desperately use it as a pretext to do as you always do when challenged, avoid answering simple questions.

By all means disregard my posts it is if no relevance to me, nor are your pontifications.

Lets face it LG this is a "vanity press" (as Dr. Taoist so excellently put it) and is all about how you seek reverance from others.

It is absurdity to insist on written english that conforms to accepted rules of grammar, but drop those rules when discussing the spoken word; liniguist or not that is my personal opinion.

"But" you will cry, "this is yet another example of Hugh personally attacking me, look he refers to me as 'absurd'".

But wait, is there any logical basis for me describing LG's position as absurd? The answer is of course, yes!

Because (and I apologize for repeating myself):

By your own reasoning, a written court transcript of a person speaking poor English (e.g. "Well he never said nothing to me Sir") would indeed be considered by you to be an example of poor English, despite the fact that you consider the speaker to NOT have actually spoken poor English!

Incidenatlly, disregarding all rules of grammar does not a dialect make Sir. The statement "He never said nothing to me Sir" (not to be confused with "He never said 'nothing' to me Sir") is objectionable on logical grounds, given the accepted meaning of "never" and "nothing".

One last question, may I politely and humbly ask how many other langauges you are fluent in, since English clearly isn't your strongest.

Yours reverentially


7:43 PM

Blogger BegsToDiffer said...


Allow me to use your opening sentence to help make my own position completely clear, and hopefully demonstrate why I think you are wrong.

You wrote:

"I seriously cannot imagine any action more definitive of being a prat than interrupting someone who is trying to tell me something simply to correct their grammar."

Permit me to change this very slightly:

I seriously cannot imagine any action more definitive of being a prat than interrupting [a piano student] who is trying to [play for] me, something simply to correct their [playing].

I think this make my position clear, and if you re-read my post you will see that I referred to student, I was not suggesting that one should interrupt or correct a person under any other circumstance, for the very reason you no doubt wrote what you did; namely such acts are often considered impolite; you should not construe that I am judging people or objecting to people; I find my position to be completely in harmony with being a courteous, non-judgemental listener.


8:18 PM

Blogger BegsToDiffer said...

Before I retire for the evening, I would like to mention something that ocurred to me earlier during dinner with friends.

It is this, how can anyone (yes LG this includes you Sir) seriously expect students to find well written English accessible, when they have been encouraged to speak poorly?

My argument was and is, that it is one of the duties of a good language teacher to reduce the "gap" between how one speaks and what on reads.

By encouraging (ie NOT discouraging) students to speak using a different grammatical standard to that expected in what they write, one in-effect makes "well written" English less accessible.

I speak from experience, in that when growing up in Liverpool I often heard other people, express resentment and contempt for Dickens, Shakespeare etc primarily beause they despised the type of English used there.

The reason they despised it was simply because they did not understand it, because it is this lack of ability to comprehend that causes resentment.

Has anyone here ever read "Confessions of an English opium eater", because this is indeed challenging English if ever I read any.


10:46 PM

Blogger IbaDaiRon said...

And if you, Hugh, reread my comment, you will see that I also was referring to teacher-student interaction and only extended that at the beginning of my parenthesis. Sorry if that wasn't clear.

I do not accept your analogy, clever though it may be. Playing the piano is not comparable to speaking one's native language.

I suggest that you read up on the history of English, particularly in connection with the "logical objectionability" of double+ negatives. Whatever gave you the idea that language was logical?!

What other languages do you speak, btw?

PS. While I knew the title, I have never read the de Quincey. My time is more than occupied with work and the vagaries of my own personal addictions, but I think I shall find enough to read this; it looks interesting. (Thanks for the reminder.) As for the difficulty of the text, your assessment would seem to be correct: using purely formal tests a brief passage scored thus:

Flesch-Kincaid Reading Ease: 19 (The higher the score, the more readable the text. 60-80 is the suggested range for documents aimed at the general reader.)
Flesch-Kincaid Grade Level: 20 (The lower the score, the more readable the text. General reader, 6-7)
Gunning-Fog Index: 29 (The lower the score, the more readable the text. General, 11-15; anything over 22 should be considered the equivalent of post-graduate level text)
Average syllables per word: 1.78
Average words per sentence: 36.5

11:35 PM

Blogger BegsToDiffer said...


Yes that book was a struggle, I still havent completed it and need to restart it, a fascinating auto-bio of a 18th centruy dandy descending into drugs etc.

I only speak English.


8:52 AM


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