Showing posts with label prescriptivism. Show all posts
Showing posts with label prescriptivism. Show all posts


Jan Freeman, in her The Word Blog, reacted to the zebra post by writing:
What with my near-daily dose of BBC News on the radio, I thought I was pretty current on British-American pronunciation differences: furore with three syllables (and an extra letter), vitamin with a short I (VITT-a-min), con-TROV-er-sy with a different stress, and so on.
...which made me remark to myself with surprise that I've never got(ten) (a)round to blogging about controversy, since (and this is the crucial thing about my blogging, isn't it?) I have an anecdote. (I think I didn't do it earlier because I was going to write a lot more about stress patterns in Latinate words, but in my new working-mother-on-the-go incarnation, I'll do this word now, and a hundred other words a hundred other times.)

And now, the anecdote you've managed to live without so far (but how?):

When I lived in South Africa, I had the altogether ego-enriching experience of being a relatively big [linguistic] fish in a relatively little [language-fascinated] pond, and so I had the pleasure of being a panel(l)ist on the SAfm (sort of the equivalent of BBC Radio 4 or NPR) program(me) Word of Mouth (which is like Radio 4's Word of Mouth or a bit less like KPBS/NPR's A Way with Words). Listeners write to the show with their language-related questions, and a couple of language experts join the host, John Orr, to answer them. Not once but THREE TIMES during my experience with WoM, some member of the South African native English-speaking population wrote in to complain that South African English was going to the dogs because people had started pronouncing controversy as conTROVersy (there's a short 'o' in the stressed syllable), rather than CONtroversy, and THREE TIMES they blamed this on the influence of American English.

Now, I only answered that one on-air once, but when I did, I did so with great glee as I pointed out (as I seem always to be pointing out) that just because something is annoying and new, it doesn't mean it's American. No, this "perversion" of the English language has its home in SAfE speakers' linguistic motherland. To quote Fowler's Modern English Usage (3rd edition, 1996):
controversy. The mood of the moment is to challenge orthodoxy by placing the main stress on the second syllable. This stressing is often used by newsreaders and also, in my [editor R.W. Burchfield's] experience, by many scholars and lexicographers, not to go any further. My verdict is that the traditional pronunciation with initial stressing is at risk, but is still, just, dominant among RP speakers in the UK. In AmE the stress is always placed on the first syllable in this word.
I believe I read this on the radio--but since I no longer own a working cassette recorder, I doubt I'll ever hear those old program(me)s again.
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diagramming sentences

Lazybrain has been reading Anne Tyler's Digging to America, and asked about the phrase diagramming a sentence:
I hadn't come across this term before, although in my 'progressive' education I missed out on being taught formal grammar so I wouldn't swear to the fact that it is not used in Britain.
Most American and British native English speakers who are younger than 50 missed out on the technicalities of English grammar in school because grammar teaching went out of fashion in the 1960s-70s. But if you're an American, you're more likely to be familiar with the phrase diagram a sentence for a few reasons: (a) the verb to diagram is 'chiefly' AmE, according to the OED, (b) there were pockets of resistance to the downgrading of grammar in the US (which would have been harder to maintain the the UK because of national standards, and later the introduction of a national curriculum), and (c) it was probably a more popular activity in the US even before the 1960s, because grammar study enjoyed more status there.

Dick Hudson (Emeritus Professor of Linguistics at University College London) has written a helpful concise history of grammar teaching in England and, with John Walmsley, a much longer academic paper on the subject (published in Journal of Linguistics (2005), 41:593-622; warning: link=PDF file). Before the dropping of grammar in the 1960s, the status of grammar as an area of study was a bit different in the US and UK. As Hudson and Walmsley write:
Up to the outbreak of war, it seems, little serious work on grammar was being pursued in Britain, still less on the grammar of English. The work which was published was produced primarily by free-lances or practising teachers and was orientated to the needs of schools, journalists or civil servants. But although there existed only the most rudimentary institutionalised framework for academic work on the grammar of contemporary English in Britain, and little motivation to produce anything outside such a framework, writing grammars only constitutes a small part of the country’s linguistic endeavour as a whole: the energies of the next generation were being absorbed by other tasks.

Outside the UK, by contrast, the first half of the twentieth century was a productive period for English grammars. Major works were published in the Netherlands, Denmark and Germany - in English, but not by British authors. During the same period, other important grammars appeared in the United States (Curme 1935, and the first of Fries’s grammars - American English Grammar, Fries 1940). The latter is significant in that it is the first grammar of English to be based on a specified, limited corpus of material – 2,000 personal letters written to U.S. government departments, together with excerpts from 1,000 others.
After the war...
While work on the description of English proceeded apace on the mainland of Europe, it was not apparently seen as sufficiently prestigious, intellectually challenging or stimulating, to draw scholars in England into its sphere of influence. A perceived gap in scholarship can, though, act as a spur to filling it. The question that exercised some scholars’ minds was how to do this. In the United States, the new insights provided by structuralism were already beginning to work through into descriptive grammars.
Now, Hudson and Walmsley here are writing about academic work on grammar, but there seems to be some reflection on this in what as happening in schools. In his brief history, Hudson writes:
The early 20th century [i.e. pre-1960s] saw a steady decline in the quality of grammar teaching in English schools, and increasing calls for its abandonment. One reason for this decline was the complete lack of university-level research on English grammar, which led a government report in 1921 to conclude that [it is] “…impossible at the present juncture to teach English grammar in the schools for the simple reason that no one knows exactly what it is…”. Another reason was an energetic campaign on behalf of literature, presented as a liberal and liberating alternative to the the so-called 'grammar-grind'.
Meanwhile, in the US, (AmE) students/(BrE) pupils were learning to diagram sentences using the Reed-Kellogg system. Because I went to a Catholic school rather than a (AmE) public/(BrE) state school (and the Catholic schools, at least then, were less easily swayed by educational fashions), I did learn to diagram sentences--and I couldn't get enough of it. (Had I known then that I could get paid to do such things as a grown-up, I would have been a less awkward adolescent, I'm sure.) But I should note that 'diagramming sentences' is not the same thing as drawing sentence [or phrase structure] trees (i.e. what most syntacticians do nowadays), although sentence trees are indeed diagrams of sentence structure. 'Sentence diagram' generally refers to Reed-Kellogg diagrams, a different animal, and I'm thrilled to have an excuse to post this one from Capital Community College's grammar guide (which I read about on bOINGbOING yesterday). It shows the grammatical relations among the words and phrases of the preamble of the US constitution. (Hey, maybe the UK doesn't need sentence diagramming, since it has no written constitution. Any American my age can recite a modified version of this preamble [leaving out 'of the United States' in the subject], to a tune, because we learned it while watching Saturday morning cartoons.) The preamble goes:
We the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect union, establish justice, insure domestic tranquility, provide for the common defense, promote the general welfare, and secure the blessings of liberty to ourselves and our posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for the United States of America.
And it can be diagrammed like this:

Dick Hudson also has a web page addressing frequently-asked questions about grammar teaching, which includes:

Q. Wasn't there once a thing called 'sentence diagramming' that was part of grammar teaching?

A. Yes, and in many countries it's still a popular activity - e.g. in the USA, which is well provided with web sites explaining how to do it. The system that's widely used in the USA and parts of Europe was invented in the 19th century and is rather rigid, but it has its uses as a way of showing how a clause is built out of a verb and its subject, with various bits and pieces added to each of these and to each other. Modern linguists have devised much better ways of diagramming sentences which would be very useful in KS3 [ed: Key Stage 3] classrooms. For a good illustration of how they might be used for teaching syntactic structure, try the VISL web site in Denmark, which was built for school children; but there are plenty more to choose from (e.g. one for KS3 teachers on my web site).

In my last job in the States, I really enjoyed teaching a grammar course for Education majors. (I taught it in the summer term [i.e. during vacation time], which meant that most of the students had already failed the course at least once and were re-taking it. Gotta love a challenge like that!) And these are the types of diagrams that that course required. I hadn't done such diagrams since I was 12 or 13, but I have to say I really enjoyed them--even if they're not the types of diagrams that come with academic-linguistic approval.
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could (not) care less, adverbs

A flock of relatives came from Indiana for Dad's birthday party and were underwhelmed by the hotel services in Hometown. At various times, at least three relatives told the sad story of the check-in and said that the staff "could care less if they got any business." This set off the prescriptivist alarm bells in my head, and it took great acts of willpower to not play teacher and correct them with "could NOT care less." Just hours later, regular reader/contributor David in Dublin sent me a link to John Cleese's podcasts, and in particular podcast 18, in which he lectures Americans about the correct form of this phrase. It's an entertaining little rant.

Let's keep this straight: there are BrE speakers who erroneously say could care less as well. But AmE speakers do it a LOT more often.

Besides could care less, the use of adjective forms in adverbial slots is, from time to time, brought to me (by BrE speakers) as a certain sign of AmE inferiority and of the degradation of BrE through the influence of AmE. Here are some examples, in case you don't know your adverb from your elbow:
He did it realADJ well. VERSUS He did it reallyADV well.

He did it real
ADJ goodADJ. VERSUS He did it reallyADV wellADV.

She did that so cuteADJ. VERSUS She did that so cutelyADV.

When BrE speakers chide me about "ignorant" aspects of AmE, I have a ready arsenal of BrE illogicalities, "errors" and losses to throw back at them--some of which have been or will be discussed here. And the adjective-as-adverb issue is easier to dismiss as "not our fault", since using adjectives as adverbs is an established feature of several BrE dialects. Furthermore, both adjective-as-adverb and could care less are considered to be "non-standard" in AmE--we do have some standards, I say. But on the way home from an American Christmas party, I remarked to Better Half "I don't think I've ever gone for so long without hearing an adverb," to which non-linguist BH replied, "I wouldn't have been able to say it that way, but I know what you mean!" (The last adverbless example above is an actual example from the evening.) One does hear adjective-as-adverb in BrE--and not just in noticeably dialectal speech. But it's certainly not heard in BrE at the rate one hears it in AmE speech these days.

Tomorrow we're back to Blighty, so this ends my (BrE) holiday-/(AmE) vacation-time blog-o-rama. Next week we'll be back to term-time posting frequency.
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which vs that

Author's note (2020): This was an early post on this blog, before I learned much of what I've since learned about AmE and BrE. Thanks to those who've pointed out its problems. I've corrected it a little below. I'm happy to say the issue is treated much better in The Prodigal Tongue. I'll put a screenshot of it here (you'll probably have to enlarge it on your screen), but if you'd like the full benefit, I suggest the book!






David in Dublin emailed about the relative pronouns which and that, saying:

In American English there seems to be a strong distinction, particularly among educated speakers/writers. I'm fairly sure this distinction doesn't exist in the dialect that I speak. However, as the American standard usage is a subset of the local standard usage, it seems that the American version is used by most writers addressing both audiences (say academic publications, software documentation, ...) because American readers will assume you to be uneducated if you misuse them! I have tried to determine if I am really uneducated or if this is a real Am/Br distinction by looking up "which" and "that" in the OED. My reading of the ODE seems to support it being a distinction, but I may be deceiving myself!
You're right, David, non-American Englishes have mostly lost  American English is most particular about a distinction between which and that in restrictive relative clauses. But, as you've noticed, its persistence in American English is limited to certain types of people/discourses. The distinction is far more likely to be observed in writing, especially academic and copy-edited publications. I must admit that I have the distinction, even usually in speech, but it's something that (which!) I acquired as a doctoral student. If you have acquired the distinction, it can interfere with your ability to process writing that doesn't have the distinction--I'll explain why after explaining the distinction in a bit more detail. A relative clause (RC) is a clause (i.e. a sentence within another sentence/phrase) that's used to modify a noun. Relative clauses usually start with a relative pronoun: that, which or who/whom (and sometimes some others that aren't relevant here). There are two types of relative clause. Restrictive RCs reduce the range of things that the modified noun refers to. So, in sentence (1), I use who lives upstairs to indicate that living upstairs is the property that distinguishes this man from other men I could have talked about.
(1) The man who lives upstairs has a new piano.
In contrast, non-restrictive RCs aren't used to identify who/what the noun refers to, but to give more information about the referent of the noun, as in (2). Notice that using a non-restrictive RC is a way to fit more information about one noun's referent into a single sentence.
(2) [pointing to man] That man, who lives upstairs, has a new piano. (= That man has a new piano. He lives upstairs.)
As these examples show, who can introduce either type of clause. In speech we can tell the difference between them because restrictive and nonrestrictive RCs are spoken with different prosody (=speech melody, intonation). In writing, the non-restrictive type is correctly set off by commas. In any English dialect, that can only introduce restrictive relative clauses. In other words, non-restrictive RCs must start with which or who/whom. So all English speakers have a distinction between which and that to that extent. BrE and most other Englishes don't have a strong distinction in the restrictive RC:
(* marks grammatical impossibilities, £ marks stylistic variation common in BrE.) (3) That dress, which [*that] changed my life, is red. [non-restrictive] (4) The dress that [£ which] changed my life is red. [restrictive]
Anyone who has used Microsoft Word's grammar checker will know that if you use a restrictive which, as in (4), it highlights it. That's because it seeks out which relative clauses without commas around them in order to query whether you should have commas. Since that depends on your meaning, the grammar checker has to ask you--it can't tell from the grammar. However, if you use that, it knows that your lack of commas was purposeful. Although I learned the that/which distinction late, I have it very strongly now—probably because I've worked as a copy editor. I frequently misread relative clauses that have which where a that could be--thinking that they are non-restrictive, even though the comma rule for restrictive/non-restrictive RCs should prevent misreading. I then must go back to re-read and re-evaluate my interpretation when I reali{s/z}e that the non-restrictive interpretation doesn't make sense. This confusion almost always happens when I'm reading student writing, so it could be that I've learned to ignore punctuation since it's often fairly random. At any rate, I do appreciate it when people use the distinction in writing--and I do wonder why my BrE colleagues don't seem to have the same disambiguation problem when it comes to reading restrictive whiches. When I first started reading student work in the UK, I was also struck by some students' apparent comfort in writing the man that lives upstairs, rather than the man who lives upstairs. It seemed like I was 'correcting' that far more often here than I had in the US. However, I've not seen anyone else note it as a dialectal distinction and I've noticed it less and less, so perhaps I just had some odd students my first year here. What do the style authorities say about all this? On restrictive that/which, the 3rd edition of Fowler's Modern Usage, a British guide (though the current editor is a New Zealander), quotes the 1926 edition in saying: "Some there are who follow this [distinguishing] principle now; but it would be idle to pretend that it is the practice either of most or of the best writers." Larry Trask (an American acting as an authority to a British audience!) in Mind the Gaffe doesn't mind whether or not you distinguish that/which in restrictive RCs. For American audiences, the Modern Language Association Handbook (5th edn), the style book for many American academics, simply says, "Note that some writers prefer to use which to introduce nonrestrictive clauses and that to introduce restrictive clauses." The Chicago Manual of Style (14th edn--my AmE books are a little out of date) warns that "Although the distinction is often disregarded in contemporary writing, the careful writer and editor should bear in mind that such indifference may result in misreading or uncertainty. [...] When the commas intended to set off a nonrestrictive clause are omitted, perhaps with the intention of using which restrictively, the reader may well ponder whether the omission was inadvertent" (exactly my problem). All of the guides recommend that you use who instead of that when referring to people. A last point to make is that the American prescriptivist preference for that in restrictive RCs is undone by the other prescriptivist rule that clauses shouldn't end in a preposition. If you want your preposition at the front of the RC with the relative pronoun, then that pronoun cannot be that:
(5) the building that/which I ran into (6) the building into which I ran (7) *the building into that I ran
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AmE = American English
BrE = British English
OED = Oxford English Dictionary (online)