Tag Archives: English grammar

But what about plural “they”?

This article originally appeared on The Editors’ Weekly, the official blog of Canada’s national editorial association.

Singular “they” is here to stay, and that’s a good thing. There is no decent reason to require that third-person singular pronouns—and only third-person singular pronouns—always specify gender. “He” has never truly covered men and women equally, though starting in the 1800s some people tried to insist that it did, and constructions such as “he or she” or “s/he” are clunky at best. So it’s natural to accept officially what has been an informal workaround for centuries: extending the plural pronoun to cover the singular.

It’s not the first time that English has done this. As early as the 1200s, we started using the plural “you” for individuals of higher status, and by the 1800s, rather than continuing to specify respect—or lack of it—in pronouns, we had almost entirely stopped using the lower-status singular “thou.” If we can use a plural form in place of a singular to erase a status-based distinction, we can certainly do it to erase a gender-based distinction.

But there is one problem that we run into with singular “they,” a problem we have already encountered with singular “you”: how do you make clear when it’s plural?

That’s still a useful distinction, and it’s not always obvious from context. Consider a sentence such as “The CEO met the VPs at a bar, but they drank too much and started singing karaoke, so they left.” If specifying the gender of the CEO is out of the question, to clarify who “they” refers to you’ll need to rewrite it to avoid the pronouns—and if it’s a longer narration, that gets clunkier and clunkier. So what do we do?

Well, what did we do with “you”? For a time—quite a while, in fact, from the late 1600s through the late 1700s—singular “you” got singular verbs: “you was,” “you is,” “you does.” It was so common, Robert Lowth inveighed against it in his 1762 Short Introduction to English Grammar. Even Doctor Johnson used “you was.” Will we try the same kind of thing with “they”—saying “they is” and “they was”? A few people have tried it, but such usages are already strongly associated with “uneducated” English, and so they’re unlikely to become commonplace. And “you was” didn’t last, after all—Doctor Johnson and everyone else ultimately switched to “you were” even for the singular.

So how do we specify plural “you”? You know how: we add further plural specification to it. In the US South, “y’all” or “you-all” is very common, and it’s spreading; in other places, “yous,” “youse,” “you ’uns,” “yiz,” and “yinz” are local favourites. In many other places, we say “you guys” or something similar when we need to make the distinction. And I’ll wager we’ll end up doing the same kind of thing with plural “they.” “They-all” seems readily available; “those ones” and “those guys” are likely to show up; differential usages of “themselves” and “themself” are already in use and may be extended; and others may appear—I’ll be watching eagerly. And in some contexts, for added clarity, something like “the one” might be used for the singular.

What do we do as editors, here and now? We keep an eye on how popular use is changing. When we can, we use our positions to influence it a little. And, as always, we use our judgement to find what’s clearest and most effective for the audience of the text we’re working on. 

Global English?

This article originally appeared on the blog of ACES: The Society for Editing.

English is not one language and never has been. Even Old English had different dialects. Global English is a family of varieties, mostly mutually comprehensible but loaded with traps and surprises. And even when you can easily understand English from another part of the world, you will most likely recognize that it’s from somewhere you aren’t… and you’ll eventually get confused by something.

All of that shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone, but some people seem to think it’s possible to produce a neutral, non-regional, truly global English. I will grant that it’s possible to produce an English that seems at least slightly foreign to anyone anywhere – the famous “mid-Atlantic” English you hear in some movies is a spoken version – but it is not possible to produce a variety of English that is taken as unremarkably local by every English speaker everywhere. There are several reasons for this.

Pronunciation

The most obvious difference is in pronunciation. Get someone from Kalgoorlie, Western Australia, someone from Tuscaloosa, Alabama, and someone from Newcastle upon Tyne, England, to have a pleasant chat and see if they can understand each other at all. 

Pronunciation is less of an issue when dealing with the written word – you probably won’t have a person from Buffalo writing “hot” and a person from Toronto thinking it’s “hat,” as you may when it’s spoken. But text is, in fundamental ways, a representation of the spoken word, and it often relies on reference to the spoken word. 

Not just jokes but advertisements and catchphrases rely on rhymes and wordplays that are particular to just some varieties of English – “caught” and “court” sounding the same, or “quarter” and “border” rhyming for instance. These differences also help ensure the impossibility of English spelling reform: you can’t make a phonetic spelling of one variety of English that won’t be incomprehensible to users of many other varieties.

Spelling

Not that English spelling is the same everywhere of course. Canadians are used to American-style spellings but can be very patriotic about colour and centre in some contexts; if a Canadian book expects a largely American audience, however, you can count on those Canadian spellings to alienate them. And on the other hand, if you just go with British-style spellings in Canada, you’ll soon realise it doesn’t always suit. And there are more striking differences, such as gaol versus jail, oestrogen versus estrogen, and arse versus ass – though that last case is arguably a difference of which word is used, not just which spelling.

Same thing, different word

There are many, many things that have different names in different countries. It’s well known that British cars have boots and bonnets instead of trunks and hoods and that a British lorry is an American truck (of a specific kind); it’s generally famous that what Americans call a barbecue Australians call a barbie. Fewer people will know that South Africans call the same thing a braai, or that instead of saying bro or buddy they say boet (which sounds like “boot”) – while in India, they say yaar.

For that matter, there are regional differences even in America, some of them quite celebrated. Is a Pepsi a pop, a soda, or a Coke (used in defiance of trademarks)? Do children on playgrounds ride see-saws or teeter-totters? Such regional differences – which don’t always divide on the same lines – are what linguists call isoglosses, and maps showing the isoglosses are some of linguists’ favorite things.

Same word, different thing

Americans occasionally run up against the fact that pants and fanny mean less publicly acceptable things in British English, and Americans are likely to know that in England and Australia mate refers to a friend rather than a romantic partner.

They’re less likely to know that hotel can mean a restaurant in India; that South Africans call a traffic light a robot; that in India you don’t graduate, you pass out; that tea can be a full meal in England; that a torchlight in Nigeria is a torch in England and a flashlight in the US; that I understand you in the US is I hear you in Nigeria; or that South Africans say shame when they are shown a cute baby or told of happy news such as an engagement.

Americans may not even know what someone from a different part of the US means by boulevard (a grassy strip between sidewalk and street or a wide avenue with a green strip in the middle?).

Turns of phrase

The lexical differences also extend to idiomatic turns of phrase. Where an American might write Main Street on Friday is different from a suburb on the weekend, a Brit would have The High Street on Friday is different to a suburb at the weekend.

A person from England might say I’ll knock you up to mean I’ll drop by and might tell you to keep your chin up by saying Keep your pecker up, but if the hearer is from North America, the results could be… awkward.

Some differences are points of pride: New Yorkers make waiting on line rather than waiting in line a kind of local shibboleth, and for New Zealanders, a phrase like Kiwi as (as in This food is Kiwi as) is, well, as Kiwi as… as what? They expect you to fill in the blank.

Grammatical niceties

There is also the matter of things that are correct usage in one variety but terrible errors in another. I dreamed I dove into a lake may be fine in the US, but I dreamt I dived into a lake is necessary in England. I casted my vote yesterday is terrible in some countries but absolutely correct in Nigeria. I’ll call you when I reach is normal in India rather than I’ll call you when I arrive.

Cultural references

Words and grammar aren’t the only things that vary from place to place though. English-speaking culture is obviously far from uniform, and some baseline assumptions just don’t work the moment you cross a border. Food is different, and passing references can quickly be opaque: not everywhere has food trucks or pretzel carts or chaiwallahs; not everyone can order poutine or grinders or bangers.

And while any Canadian will know what another Canadian means by toque and parka, most other people in the world won’t.

Americanizing and Canadianizing texts is a large and expensive business, and the spellings are the least of the issue. I remember one time a Canadian colleague working on a converted document discovered a number of instances of underprovinciald in a document; it turned out that someone had done a replace-all from state to provincial without checking. But when a guide to a health care topic starts talking about insurance, no amount of word replacement will fix the disparity between the US and Canada – or, really, between the US and anywhere else.

Houses and other buildings can be different, including what’s called the first floor (ground floor in the US and Canada, the floor above ground in most of the rest of the world).

There are also regional differences. In Canada, for instance, if you talk about a condo in Ontario, you probably mean a high-rise apartment; in Alberta, a condo is more likely to mean a townhouse, possibly a vacation property. What you mean by the word bungalow can vary quite a bit depending on where you are in the US. And in some cities, a duplex is typically side-by-side residences with one common wall, while in others, it’s a house with one residence on the upper level and the other on the lower – meaning that a reference to the people in the other half banging on the wall may be confusing.

Global varieties

How many kinds of English are there? Hmm, get a book of paint colors from a hardware store and tell me how many kinds of white, or blue, or black there are. Get another book and count again. English has national standard varieties, regional varieties within countries, local variants, socially divided varieties (often people from the same social group in different cities will sound more like each other than like people from other social groups in their respective cities). 

And don’t forget that the status of English is not the same in every country where it’s spoken – it’s the historical main language in some, the language of a colonizing class in others, and a lingua franca in still others. 

But in every country where texts are published in English, someone needs to make sure that that English doesn’t seem strange. And that someone may be you. The one thing you can be sure of is that while one variety of English may be comprehensible to speakers of another, it may alienate them – and may give rise to significant misunderstandings.

No exceptions?

Do I see a hand in the back? …Yes? …Labels on boxes? And short warnings and things like that? Yes, it’s true that you can produce some short passages that look local to anyone anywhere. But that’s not a global variety of English; it’s a snippet, and many other similar snippets will not seem so universal. 

It’s like going up to a rail ticket office in a European country and knowing enough of the local language to buy a ticket without their noticing that you’re not a native speaker: it doesn’t mean you’re fluent. You couldn’t carry on a conversation without being smoked out. You sure couldn’t write an article – let alone a book – that would be smoothly idiomatic. 

The same is true with using English from one part of the world in another part of the world. Oh, they’ll understand you, probably. But they’ll know you’re not from there, and there will be extra friction and effort in the communication and comprehension. You may not realise it, but the little differences to what you’re expecting colour your reception. And editing means understanding, appreciating, and working with these subtleties.

In effect, localizing English is like translating from one language into another, just subtler. You should only localize into a variety you have native fluency in – if you try to adapt a text into the English of a country you’re not from, you will eventually make an embarrassing mistake. But you also need to know the variety you’re converting from well enough to understand the local points of usage and cultural assumptions, so you don’t think a Canadian’s toque is a chef’s hat, don’t believe that a South African at a robot is watching an android, or don’t get what the big deal is about jumping out a first-floor window.

Which, in my view, seems like an excellent excuse to do some international traveling… when you can.

One of those questions that are often asked

A friend passed on to me one of those grammar questions that are often asked and often opined on:

In a sentence like “She is one of those people who are always late,” I learned to cross out prepositional phrases when linking subject to verb, so I would cross-out “of those people” and link “she” with “is” instead of “are.” Isn’t “of those people” modifying “one” (which acts as a complement to “she”) and not acting as the actual subject?

The problem with just crossing out preposition phrases is that you sometimes miss where the phrase ends – or doesn’t end! There are a few ways to look at it. The bracket way is short but benefits from further explanation:

She is one [of those people {who are always late}].

What that means is that there are people who are always late, and she is one of them. Yes, “of those people” is modifying “one,” but “who are always late” is modifying “of those people.”

A person could object (as many do) that it could equally be

She is one [of those people] [who is always late].

In other words, of those people, she is one who is always late. The problem with that is only in part that “She is one who is always late” is a bit odd; after all, “She is one” is a bit odd by itself too, but we’re not saying it by itself. The issue is really with “of those people.” For one thing, if the “always late” isn’t there to describe the set of “those people” of which she’s a member, it’s not specified who “those people” are. Who are they? And why are we mentioning them at all? Let’s look at a similar structure:

She is an eater of those hot dogs that have fallen on the floor.

She is an eater of those hot dogs that has fallen on the floor.

The difference is plain enough: in the first, the hot dogs have fallen; in the second, she has. And we have to assume that which hot dogs “those hot dogs” are has been established or can be inferred contextually; if not, it may be perplexing.

She eats those hot dogs. She has fallen on the floor.

Umm… tell me which hot dogs.

Returning to the example in question, the “is” version means this:

She is one of those people. Specifically, she is one who is always late.

If you’re in a context where you know who “those people” are, OK; but otherwise you have to specify them, or why are you mentioning them? And if your answer to “Who are they?” is “People who are always late,” you have shown why you really want to say “those people who are always late.” If she is one of them, then yes, she is one who is always late (as are they all), but if you go with the “is” version then you haven’t actually specified who they are; in fact, you’ve implied they’re not all like her in this respect. It’s like saying

It’s one of those hot dogs that is delicious.

You can see that the implication is that not all of those hot dogs are delicious; otherwise, why would you be singling that one out? Or if you say

He’s an editor who is popular at parties.

you know that it implies that not all editors are! And likewise, if she is one of those people who is always late, by implication others of those people are not. On the other hand, if you say “one of those people who are” and she is one of them, then she is covered.

That’s the logical analysis, and it’s the one I go with as an editor. In casual speech, I admit that I sometimes say “who is” in similar instances before I can catch myself, just because the structure of the sentence is so analogous to others where “is” would be appropriate; “one of those people” is a noun phrase like “a member of the club,” and we would most likely say “She is a member of the club who is always late.” (Unless it’s a club of people who are always late. Which is, in fact, what we mean in this case!) But when I’m editing, it’s more important to make it stand up to analysis. And it sounds good to me.

Made-up rules are what get on my nerves

What many word lovers love most are books. But what some word lovers love most is, apparently, a tidy bookshelf. Everything in its place. A single possible spot for any book. And, similarly, some language lovers love a nice tidy grammar, one where there’s only one option at any given juncture.

I understand the inclination. I’m an editor, and I know that tidiness is valuable. But I also know that it needs to serve effectiveness. If your drive for tidiness reduces the expressive potential of the language and proscribes something that people do with good effect, I do not think you are doing the good work.

I’ve harped on this in many of my articles on grammar. Lately I’ve encountered yet another instance of forced tidiness that I don’t think serves a good purpose. On a couple of occasions, people have said that they learned that what as a relative pronoun subject always takes a singular verb. In other words, Good gin and a little dry vermouth are what makes a good martini is correct and, according to them, Good gin and a little dry vermouth are what make a good martini is not. Continue reading

When to Use Bad English

Here’s my presentation at the 2019 ACES conference in Providence on when and how to use “bad” English (not just swearwords but nonstandard grammar and other things some people look down on).

There is to be no overthinking and no false agreement

A colleague asked me about a grammatical judgement someone had questioned her on: a sentence of the type “There is to be no swinging the legs back, no leaning forward, no pushing down on the feet.” Surely it should be “There are to be…” said the person, because there are three things named. My colleague knew well that it’s is – if you use your native-speaker reflex, that’s the choice you’ll make unless you second-guess yourself – but there’s always the matter of explaining why.

Well, here’s a quick analysis of why. It has to do with no and the number it negates. Have a look at some sentences that most native speakers would find idiomatic (they all work without the to be as well):

“There are to be no flowers.” → negating plural

“There is to be no gardener.” → negating singular countable

“There is to be no water.” → negating mass object, which is treated as singular because it’s not plural (singular is the default in English and plural is the “marked” option)

“There is to be no watering the flowers.” → negating gerund representation of action, which is inflectionally the same as a mass object because it’s not plural

“There is to be no water and no wine.” → negating mass and mass, which is still mass and thus still singular (absence of mass is absence of mass; nothing plus nothing is still nothing)

“There is to be no watering the flowers and no drinking the wine.” → as in the previous one, singular because unmarked (equivalent to mass objects – no specification of plural number)

“There is to be no gardener and no bartender.” → distributively negating non-plural objects; compare “There are to be no gardener and no bartender” or “There are no gardener and no bartender,” which may sound not quite right

“There are to be no flowers and no water.” → may seem weird because it’s conflicting in number

“There is to be no water and no flowers.” → also weird, but possibly more acceptable because we default to the singular on existential predicates (why we often say “There’s flowers on the table” when formally it’s “There are flowers on the table”)

So negation of a mass object is a mass negation, and as such takes the singular, and negation of multiple gerunds is also by default singular because it doesn’t specify plural and because in any case it would get the distributive singular. It only gets plural if it is specified to plural (“There are to be no swingings back of the legs”).

The “There are to be…” thought is clearly an example of overthinking. It’s false agreement, because although there are multiple noun phrases, the agreement is with not the quantity of noun phrases but the quantity signified by them. A native speaker’s ear will normally by reflex give the singular, but we override that reflex if we overthink. It’s like thinking too hard about the muscles used in standing up: swinging the legs back, leaning forward, pushing down on the feet… you may end up stuck in your chair until you stop overanalyzing it.

If you’re interested on more on there is versus there are, by the way, I’ve covered the topic a couple of times, once on this site in “There’s a couple of things about this…” and once for The Week in “There’s a number of reasons the grammar of this headline could infuriate you” (their title!).

What’s logical about English?

A common complaint about English – by those who are inclined to complain about English – is that it’s not logical enough. Whatever that means. Words aren’t premises and sentences aren’t syllogisms, after all.

If you inspect the targets of their opprobrium, you find soon enough that what they mean is that English isn’t tidy enough for them. It’s inconsistent. Lacking in symmetry. Their experience has led them to believe that for every up there should be a down, for every in an out; when they see an over, they think “therefore under,” and if there is no under, they are… underwhelmed.

They’ve condemned themselves to a lifetime of disappointment. English does not satisfy their need for an overarching tidiness. It is not a Zen garden; it is a forested mountain, every tree grown unplanned in its place and conditions, every rock where the ineluctable complexities of physics left it. It is not an edifice of modernist design with proportions based on the golden mean; it is a Winchester House of a language, a veritable Heathrow Airport of accretions (for those who have not been to Heathrow, let me just say I suspect that J.K. Rowling based Hogwarts on it). Like any natural language, English has been built up by habit, need, association, and analogy. It does have structure – in fact, it has some inflexible syntactic requirements. We have slots to fill, and fill them we do. We just sometimes grab whatever’s ready to hand to fill them.

Let’s consider a few examples. One case where a desire for logic has actually prevailed is “double negatives.” Anyone who has studied logic will tell you that in “not not” the second not undoes the first one. “There will not be cake” is disappointing; “There will not not be cake” is affirming. Thus, the reasoning goes, “I do have nothing” and “I don’t have nothing” are opposite. But anyone who has learned a Romance language ought to know ça ne vaut rien, no vale nada – that ain’t worth nothing.

Nothing, you see, is not not. It’s a noun, not an operator. And one thing languages like is agreement. Concord. Adjectives tend to take the same gender as the nouns they modify, for instance. In English, we use concord with tenses in some contexts: “Should we expect them tomorrow?” “They said they weren’t coming.” Notice how we use weren’t even though we’re talking about the future? We even let negative concord pass unremarked in some contexts: “They won’t be coming, I don’t think.” This doesn’t mean I don’t think they won’t be coming; it just retains the negative aspect.

But since it’s possible, with shifting emphasis, to make “There ain’t no one here” and “There ain’t no one here” mean opposite things, an argument can be made for disallowing negative concord for the sake of unambiguity. So the proscription stuck, defended by pleas for logic – although “if negative noun, then negative verb” is perfectly reasonable if that’s the rule in the language.

Syntax has its requirements – as linguists would say, there are principles and parameters that specify how it functions in a given language. Negative concord is one parameter we have managed to turn off. Others are not so easily disabled. It’s necessary to have an explicit subject (except in imperatives), for instance; I can’t write “Is necessary to have an explicit subject,” so I stuff in an it that has no meaning. It may not seem logical to have a pronoun with no referent, but consider that, from the view of our syntax, “if it has a sentence then it has a subject” is solid. Sometimes we grab and stuff on the fly – we may jam a word in the place where a word like it normally goes, even if in this case it’s a whole nother thing and what even were we thinking? This, too, comes from a simple if-then – just a little simpler than it might have been.

Another plea for logic comes when a word is pressed into service in a way that seems untidy. One I saw recently was an objection to using disconnect as a noun, as in “There is a real disconnect between the labourers and the management.” We don’t say “There is a connect between them,” we say connection, so it’s illogical not to say disconnection. Indeed, this is untidy, in the same way as it’s untidy that when my wife is at home I heat two servings of food and pour two glasses of wine, but when she’s not at home I heat one serving and open a beer (or go out for sushi). But our little untidinesses have reasons: my wife doesn’t drink much beer and doesn’t like sushi. And disconnect is an allusive use borrowed from electronics and telephony.

A line of communication is expected to remain connected, so there is no instance where we would say that it has experienced a connect. We grabbed a bit and stuck it where it fit, and in so doing made a metaphorical connection. There’s no need to construct a symmetrical positive use any more than there is a need for a 33-storey building to have 33 levels of basement. And there’s no need to disallow allusions just for the sake of tidiness – we don’t forbid lights on Christmas trees just because there are none on the house plants. If you want to make a connection, you make it; if you don’t, you don’t. That’s logical, no?

Some people also like to laugh at how “illogical” English words are. “Why do our noses run and our feet smell? Why do we park in a driveway and drive in a parkway? Why do we say a bandage was wound around a wound? How come you can object to an object?” OK, now tell me why these are illogical.

Every one of them comes from a well-motivated historical development founded on consistent principles: metaphor, ergativity, historical sense developments and standard compounding rules, phonological shifts, stress-based differentiation of nouns from verbs. In every case there was an if-then judgement based on analogy. It just happened not to be exactly analogous to some other if-then judgements, and it produced results that seem inconsistent when juxtaposed. I think that’s fine – why not have funny things? But more than that, it’s not even illogical. In every case, we got to it from “if A → A´, then B → B´.” They just happened to be local judgements made in the context of a big, multifarious, inconsistent world.

But it would be illogical to treat a multifarious, inconsistent world as though it were elegant and pervasively consistent, wouldn’t it? It certainly wouldn’t be well adapted. It would be like laying down a strict grid street plan for a very hilly city (and San Francisco knows how well that worked out). It wouldn’t be as much fun, either. And it might do real harm.

Look! It’s a noun! It’s an adjective! It’s a number! No, it’s…

My latest piece for The Week is an introduction to that double-agent class of words, there in the numbers but not of the numbers: quantifiers.

Singular or plural? It’s complicated.

That old bad rule-seeking behaviour

Linguistics is great for making you aware of things you were already doing consistently but weren’t consciously aware of. In fact, that’s the basic point of several subfields of linguistics. There are a few particularly memorable examples that one learns in the course of an education in linguistics. One of these is the order of adjectives: we have a standard order for adjectives when there are several before a noun. We may not be analytically aware of it, but if someone says “a red big balloon” it will sound wrong.

If you’re a linguistics student, you take that as more data, and the point of such data is to use it to help you figure out why we tend to do that, and to do that you have to see what exceptions there are and sort out what the various inputs and influences are. It’s explanation-seeking behaviour.

If, on the other hand, you’re not a linguist but an ordinary English speaker, you may approach English with an eye to finding out what is right and what is wrong. We learn that good grammar is the great sorter, and we treat errors as evidence of flawed character and intellect. And so when you encounter a new fact about the language, you may well be inclined to turn that fact into a rule. It’s rule-seeking behaviour.

So when, recently, a book came out pointing out (in passing) the standard order of adjectives to the lay masses, many people were all “mind=blown” about it. The author, Mark Forsyth, stated confidently that the order absolutely has to be opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose-noun, and “if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac.”

Linguists, of course, quickly critiqued this overstatement; read Language Log for some responses. But non-linguists didn’t just say “Wow, I didn’t know I was doing that”; many of them were writing down that order and determining that any deviation from it must be wrong. I didn’t see any instances of people telling other people “You didn’t put it in this order, so you’re wrong,” but I did see instances of “What’s the correct order? I don’t want to get this wrong!” English speakers, you see, are in general convinced that they’re always making mistakes and doing things wrong, and they want to know the right way to do them for those instances where they’re going to be judged. (Ironically, many of them think one of those instances is when they’re talking to a linguist. Listen, honey, whatever you say or don’t say is great with us; it’s all data.)

So I feel I need to say this: There is no official correct order of adjectives you must adhere to. If something sounds wrong, then adjust it, but if it doesn’t sound wrong, it’s not wrong.

In fact, we vary the order depending on context, priority, and sets of words that we’re used to having together in a certain order. Consider a nice big old round red Spanish silk riding hood. Try moving any of the words and it may sound wrong (but not like a maniac!), although big old nice Spanish red round silk riding hood doesn’t sound awful to me. You might also get away with Spanish red silk. Some orders are more weighted than others. But change nice in the original phrase to good. Suddenly it doesn’t work as well: not good big old but good old big will sound better because of collocation – good old travels together. Also, any compound noun will defeat the word order. You have a tawny giant tortoise, for instance, because giant tortoise is a thing. And it will be different in what it can convey than giant tawny tortoise. We can even vary the order to adjust the sense: a little dumb ass is different from a dumb little ass because dumb ass is a common collocation.

So if you come up with a string of adjectives and it doesn’t sound right, just change the order so it sounds right. Make things that go together go together. Do not start overthinking it: don’t say “this one must go before that one because that is more common or more essential,” as is a common explanation for the ordering. Go with what sounds right. Afterwards, you can use that as interesting data to tell you what you see as more essential, but do not arrange the order by asking yourself which is more essential, because you could be wrong. For instance, we would all say big red building and not red big building, even though the building can be repainted more easily than it can have its size changed. And yet even that order can be changed in some circumstances: for instance, we use little closer to the noun to express an attitude towards it: I’m not gonna drive that purple little car of yours all over town communicates something not altogether the same as I’m not gonna drive that little purple car of yours all over town.

The number one thing we should learn from this, then, is that in general people aren’t fully aware of how their language works and yet they make it work, and when people start trying to analyze it and come up with prescriptions they very often miss things and get things wrong. The most poplar grammatical cudgels are based on thick-headed simple-minded misunderstandings of how and why we do things, and on grotesque overapplication of rules. That’s why they’re used as cudgels: not everyone follows them because they aren’t real rules, they’re made up.

Mistrust imposed rules, especially inflexible ones. You’ve been using English your whole life. If someone tells you that something that sounds right to you is wrong, and that something that sounds odd to you is right, they’re probably just wrong. And if your analysis tells you that a sentence that sounds awkward to you is right while one that sounds good is wrong, question your analysis. If you love the language and want to understand how it works and use it effectively, engage in explanation-seeking behaviour, not rule-seeking behaviour.

About this sentence that you’re reading

Originally published in Active Voice, the magazine of the Editors’ Association of Canada

About this sentence that you’re reading…

Should that be “About this sentence, which you’re reading”? After all, you’re not reading any other sentence, are you? So it’s not restrictive, so it must be non-restrictive, meaning it should have a comma and use which. Right?

I was talking to my wife Aina and a friend about this the other day…

What?

What do you mean, how many wives do I have? Look, if I set it off in commas, it would be “I was talking to my wife, Aina, and a friend about this the other day,” and you would be saying “So that’s three people? Who’s your wife if not Aina?”

Since you’re an editor, you’ve heard of restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. A nonrestrictive clause is like a little Santa Claus in the sentence: it gives the reader a gift, with a comma or two as tiny ribbons.

The cakes are served warm.

The cakes, which are kept in the refrigerator but carried under the waiters’ arms, are served warm.

The sentence would be coherent without it, but it’s there as a special bonus of information. It’s also called a nonrestrictive relative, which works because it’s not really Santa Claus giving you gifts, it’s your relatives. (The rules apply similarly to non-clause modifiers as well, such as the name of my wife, Aina.)

A restrictive clause or relative (or modifier) is like your aunt who says “I’m giving you anything you want as long as it’s this sweater!” It no sooner gives than it starts to take away.

The tea is served cold.

The tea that is carried by Pat is served cold; the tea that is carried by Alex is served warm.

But where there is a Claus, there may be a Grinch. What is a restrictive Grinch? It’s one of those people who carp at things that are perfectly clear to reasonable people. Consider:

He went to a famous school called Eton.

The restrictive Grinch might say “Oh, so there are multiple famous schools called Eton?” In fact, the sentence does not necessarily imply that there are multiple famous schools called Eton (although it does imply that there are multiple famous schools), and ambiguity is not automatically a grammatical error – although it can be worth avoiding… when a reasonable person might reasonably misread it, or when too many people might deliberately (and unreasonably) misread it for their own entertainment.

Reasonableness is important. Communication normally (outside of contracts and courts of law) depends on people being reasonable. We make inferences on the basis of what’s reasonable, given our knowledge of the world. If we have some new data, such as a sentence,* and we choose among different interpretations on the basis of what we already know to be the case, we’re using a loose form of Bayesian inference.

Let’s take a Bayesian look at “my wife Aina and a friend” versus “my wife, Aina, and a friend.” In the version with commas, if we don’t know my wife’s name, we need to conjecture or determine whether I use the serial comma; if I don’t, it’s clearly two people, but if I do, it may be three. In the version without commas, the possibilities are (1) that I have more than one wife or (2) that I am disregarding the usual rule about setting off nonrestrictives with commas. Why would I disregard it? To avoid interrupting the flow or causing ambiguity with the extra commas. Given that bigamy is illegal in our society, option 2 is far more likely. Indeed, only a restrictive Grinch would raise the objection that the comma-free version must mean option 1.

There are, of course, many cases where proper use of commas is necessary to set off nonrestrictive clauses for clarity or legal defensibility. But there are also cases where the commas make no difference to the meaning but may make a difference to the flow or tone. The moon, which orbits the earth, is also the moon that orbits the earth (since there are many moons but there is one we call the moon); the sun, which we orbit, is also the sun that we orbit (for the same reason). This sentence that you’re reading is this sentence, which you’re reading, and the different possible uses of this make both defensible, but flow and tone may make one a better choice than the other.

So, when we are faced with a modifier such as a relative clause and we’re not confident about whether it’s restrictive or unrestrictive, we should ask the following questions:

  1. Will the commas help or hurt the flow?
  2. How likely is it to be misread accidentally?
  3. How likely is it to be misread deliberately?
    1. By which readers?
      1. And do they really matter?

 

*Or some new data such as a sentence – equally true.