23 December 2011

"grammar" as catch-all

yesterday, Mignon Fogarty (aka Grammar Girl) posted a link to "The 20 Most Controversial Rules in the Grammar World" on Google+. sufficiently baited, i read through it. as i did, i noticed that "The Grammar World" is a very vast place, and may in fact encompass several galaxies.

i went through the list a second time to categorize each of these alleged "grammar" points in terms of what linguistic realm they fall under. (several fail to qualify for any linguistic subfield.)  here were the results.

  1. the Oxford Comma
    orthography / style
  2. the pronunciation of "controversial"
    morpho-phonologycalling it that may be generous.
  3. double negatives
    they give a lousy example and fairly tone-deaf comments, but it's definitely a syntactic issue.
  4. "irregardless"
  5. ending sentences with prepositions
    while writing this post, i noticed that when you create a link in the new blogger interface it asks you "To what URL should this link go?" at least it's reassuring that my blog software is a robot, not a native speaker of English.
  6. "hanged" vs. "hung"
  7. "like" as a conjunction
    hold on, this is a double problem. anyone criticizing someone for using like as a conjunction should first ask themselves whether they know what a conjunction is. this peeve requires it to be anything that takes a clausal complement. the built in Mac OS X dictionary lists such uses of like under a subheading "conjunction", and does the same for when (which also baffled me: apparently Saturday is the day when I get my hair done contains a "relative adverb" while     I loved math when I was in school contains a "conjunction". this is completely backwards terminology, since it's clearly the latter that's modifying something verbal, the VP [loved math].)  however,  the entry for "after" has no erroneous label as conjunction, despite the fact that it too can clearly take clausal complements.
    so if this one was controversial, it's more likely because it's poorly defined, rather than having zealots on two sides of a clearly drawn line.
  8. "good" vs. "well"
    again, generously. this is a fight over the meaning and distribution of lexical items.
  9. text/internet speak
    vague orthographical morass
    not particularly grammar-y, and a grab-bag unto itself. this should have failed the criteria for inclusion on the list by not being a rule.
  10. starting sentences with "however"
    syntax / style
  11. starting sentences with "but" or "and"
    syntax / style
    should've been 10b.
  12. gender-neutral pronouns
    totally misses the point by not even mentioning singular they. in an article about controversy, we're failing to teach the controversy.
  13. split infinitives
  14. passive voice
  15. punctuation inside quotation marks
  16. possessive apostrophes on words that end in 's'
    side note: my students this past semester were unduly concerned with this. apparently this is a failing offense in certain US high schools now.
  17. "e-mail" vs. "email"
    very specific piece of orthography
    all the rest up to this point were at least generalizations that had to be applied to individual circumstances.
  18. universal grammar rules
    what is this i don't even.
    we are informed that Noam Chomsky is an "influential linguist", but otherwise…i mean sure, there's some controversy over whether UG exists, and plenty over what it contains, but this description of it says so little. and if you were thinking that this doesn't seem like a "grammar rule" on par with the rest of the list, just wait for the next one.
  19. the fact that there are different kinds of dashes
    GAH. orthography, ok. punctuation, at the fringe of orthography, maybe. EM AND EN DASHES ARE GRAMMAR? about as much as camera ISO settings are visual cognition, or audio file formats are hearing. this wins the award for shameless list-padding.
  20. "who" vs. "whom"
    infamous. covered previously. (now with dead Google Video link!)
the final tally, giving benefit of the doubt: 13 items that could actually be considered on the spectrum of "grammar" from phonology to pragmatics; 4 orthographic points that tangentially bear on the written encoding of language; 2 ill-defined bits of nonsense; and 1 complaint about the geometry of making writing look pretty.  i give it a C- and suggest it repeat its course on the definition of grammar.