In the News: Professor Pullum’s Five Points

An article written by Tom Chivers for The Telegraph, a London-based newspaper, has recently gone viral—partially, no doubt, because of Mr. Chivers’ eye-catching title: “Are ‘grammar Nazis’ ruining the English language?” His subtitle reads, “Split infinitives make them shudder and they’d never end a sentence with a preposition. But linguist Geoffrey Pullum has a message for all grammar pedants: you’re wrong.”

The article has been quoted and shared on several language websites I follow and has been linked on the linguistics and grammar subreddits on The responses to the article have been quite predictable: readers are all ready to take up their metaphorical swords and shields and go to war, whether they stand for grammar by the book or an ever-evolving language.

As you read in my first post on this blog, I would much rather camp out in the middle or, better yet, not be on the battlefield at all, drawing up peace terms in an undisclosed neutral location. Although Mr. Chivers makes a clear case against “grammar Nazis” in his title, I think his interview with Professor Pullum reveals a less combative point of view I can stand behind.

Professor Geoffrey Pullum is one of the most famous linguists in the world. He co-authored The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language in 2002, a new English grammar book for the twenty-first century. He also regularly contributes to Language Log, a very popular linguistics blog. He’s currently the Professor of General Linguistics at the University of Edinburgh. Basically, he knows his stuff.

Professor Pullum vehemently argues for descriptive grammar. He makes several key points I would like to discuss.

Point One: Standard English is necessary for all speakers of the language to communicate effectively.

“’It’s entirely to the benefit of all of us that newspapers’ editorials are written in Standard English, and that we can all speak it in situations such as business and air traffic control, and understand each other.’”

My Thoughts:

Agreed. Standard English is important to preserve because it gives us all common ground. Mr. Chivers adds that Standard English is vital to success in the business world, and children should learn it as a key to a better life. While that may be important, the bigger issue here lies in the idea of a standard language. Different dialects of English develop everywhere, from urban Detroit to the Caribbean to Scotland to Australia to India—they aren’t all the same. If we don’t teach Standard English to children (as opposed to their regional dialect), we are limiting them to their own geographical location and diminishing their potential for successful interaction with other parts of the world. If English truly is a lingua franca (which, of course, is up for debate), a strong grasp of how it works and how to use it to effectively communicate ideas is absolutely necessary.

Point Two: Grammatical rules come down to personal preference, and you shouldn’t try to impose your preferences on others.

“I ask him if he has any personal dislikes, which aren’t ‘wrong’ but which annoy him. ‘I have bugbears. But I like to think I have a healthy attitude towards them: they’re my bugbears, so I regulate my own usage, not yours. For example, I’ve always disliked the term “people of colour”. I refused to use it even when I was a graduate dean working on affirmative action in the Eighties in California.’ The key, he says, is to realise that your preferences—using ‘fewer’ instead of ‘less’ when referring to plural objects, for instance—are just preferences, and claiming that they’re ‘wrong’ is false.”

My Thoughts:

This sounds nice in theory, but it seems pretty impractical to me. Everyone who uses the English language imposes preferences on others simply by using it. If I say “fewer cookies” rather than “less cookies,” I’m making it quite obvious what I prefer. It’s hard for me not to condemn “less cookies” as wrong, because—well, according to everything I know about grammar, it’s wrong. The structure of English, in this case, already makes perfect sense and there isn’t a good reason to change it, in my opinion. When speaking casually with friends, this isn’t something I would bring up, because I agree with Professor Pullum that it’s rude. However, if a friend handed me a formal letter for her boss to edit, I would most certainly circle this mistake—If someone asks me to edit something, they want my preferences, and my preferences tend to follow the book quite closely.

Point Three: English is not the best language on the planet.

“English is the most important language on the planet, he says – not because it’s better but because, by historical accident, it happens to have spread around the globe. ‘It’s not that English has won out because of its virtue,’ he says. ‘In some ways, English is highly unsuited to its role; it has 200 irregular verbs, where Swahili, for example, has none. It would have been wonderful to have Swahili as a global language, but it didn’t happen.’”

My Thoughts:

Agreed! English is incredibly difficult for a non-native speaker to learn, and different cultural nuances make it even more difficult. I would never call English the best language, or even the most beautiful. However, English has been used (and will continue to be used) to produce some of the most historically significant documents ever written, some of the most beautiful poetry ever written, and some of the most influential literature ever written. I agree with Professor Pullum: English may not be the most ideal global language, but it has become the most important. That’s why learning about how it works and how it affects us is so important to me.

Point Four: All dialects of English are just as valid and significant as any other.

“‘Other, non-standard English dialects aren’t bad or inferior. Saying that African American vernacular English is Standard English with ignorant mistakes is as stupid as thinking that Dutch is just standard Berlin German with ignorant mistakes.’”

My Thoughts:

I’m a little torn on this one, but that goes back to my philosophy about the different functions of language. Speaking is geared towards an immediate effect, and different dialects are perfectly acceptable in that case. Many people have much less control over how they speak versus how they write. So, I agree with Professor Pullum on half of his point: non-standard dialects aren’t bad, but if they carry over into how a person formally writes, I see a problem arise. I’m in no place to condemn any dialect (I live in the American South, after all), but I still hold strong to the idea that all speakers of English can write clearly and effectively on paper.

Point Five: There is a middle ground between strictly following the rules and throwing the rules out the window.

“Whenever linguists point out that the rules of language can’t be what the ‘grammar Nazis’ think they are, people claim that they’re saying anything goes. Not at all, says Pullum. ‘We grammarians who study the English language are not all bow-tie-wearing martinets, but we’re also not flaming liberals who think everything should be allowed. There’s a sensible middle ground where you decide what the rules of Standard English are, on the basis of close study of the way that native speakers use the language.’”

My Thoughts:

I mostly agree. I like to think I stand in the middle and try to look at language objectively. However, I don’t think I’m in any position to make my own rules. So, if I get confused, I’m much more likely to consult a grammar book than carve my own path and decide for myself what to do.

I like the way Professor Pullum thinks. He casts a different light on the world of grammar, which is usually shadowed by knuckle-slappers and tsk-tsk-ers. However, I’m not quite ready to follow him into the void. Without the grammar rules I know and love, I would be out of a job.

You can learn more about Professor Pullum on his website.

In the News: American Dialects

Ten days ago, Josh Katz and Wilson Andrews published a dialect quiz on The New York Times website called “How Y’all, Youse, and You Guys Talk.” Since its publication, the quiz has circulated through social media and many of my Facebook friends have shared it. Part of its success is, no doubt, the commendable way The New York Times has adapted to current technology trends: at the end of the quiz, readers are encouraged to “share” their map with friends and family through social media.

However, the main reason why the quiz has been so popular is because it reveals a novelty trait about the good ol’ US of A: we are all so incredibly different, it’s amazing we all manage to coexist (I use that word liberally, of course). We span 3,794,101 square miles and six time zones. Until fairly recently, we were not audibly interconnected. The introduction of “talkies” (talking movies, as opposed to silent films) in the late 1920s—as well as the advancement of radio and, later, broadcast television—began to reveal to the masses just how differently we spoke from each other. Before mass audio communication, Americans communicated through written word: telegrams, newspapers, pamphlets, and letters. Different pockets of the population (New York factory workers, southern plantation owners, western settlers) developed their own speech patterns.

As I’ve mentioned before, Americans sound alike on paper (aside from informal grammar and local slang), but in person we sound like different nationalities. In fact, only 80% of Americans speak English at all.

Taking the Times quiz is a pretty fun experience. You will be asked things like, “How do you pronounce ‘aunt’?” and “How would you address a group of two or more people?” It’s interesting to see all of the answer choices. Your choice should stand out immediately, and this thought will probably cross your mind at least once: “All of those other choices are weird and stupid.”

“Yinz”? Seriously, y’all?

Another reason why the quiz has been shared so much is that it’s eerily accurate. By taking a short survey about your speech patterns, the quiz can pinpoint either where you live or where you were raised. Mine is a great example:

I was born in Amarillo and lived in the area until I was five. My family then lived in Abilene and Midland, both of which are within two hours from Lubbock. I currently live about 20 miles from Irving. How did the quiz know where I’ve lived? It’s not coincidence, not magic. Mr. Katz and Mr. Andrews have undoubtedly dedicated years of their lives to linguistic research so your Aunt Dee-Dee could post, “LOOOOK Evrybdy this quiz is cray cray! Try it NOWWW!!!”

Almost a year ago, a trend started popping up on YouTube called “The Accent Tag.” The challenge encouraged YouTube users to read a list of words in their own unique accent and answer questions similar to what you would find in the Times quiz. The users could then tag their video as “The Accent Tag” so other users could find it and compare it to their own accents.

Here is “The Accent Tag” Challenge:

The Words to Read Out Loud:
Aunt, Roof, Route, Wash, Oil, Theater, Iron, Salmon, Caramel, Fire, Water, Sure, Data, Ruin, Crayon, New Orleans, Pecan, Both, Again, Probably, Spitting image, Alabama, Lawyer, Coupon, Mayonnaise, Syrup, Pajamas, Caught, Naturally, Aluminium, Envelope

The Questions to Answer:

  1. What is it called when you throw toilet paper on a house?
  2. What is the bug that when you touch it, it curls into a ball?
  3. What is the bubbly carbonated drink called?
  4. What do you call gym shoes?
  5. What do you say to address a group of people?
  6. What do you call the kind of spider (or spider-like creature) that has an oval-shaped body and extremely long legs?
  7. What do you call your grandparents?
  8. What do you call the wheeled contraption in which you carry groceries at the supermarket?
  9. What do you call it when rain falls while the sun is shining?
  10. What is the thing you change the TV channel with?

The point of the challenge was to draw attention to different accents and speech patterns. One of my favorite examples is the word “fire.” Most Americans pronounce this word with two syllables: fy-rr. Some parts of New England might pronounce it fy-uh. In Texas, some of us tend to cut this down to one syllable: farr, or fyrr. As a concrete example, I present to you an entrepreneur selling firewood down the road from my university:

I’ve also noticed that other syllables get lost in some parts of the US. “Probably” becomes “prob-ly,” “naturally” becomes “natch-ur-ly,” “mayonnaise” becomes “man-aiz.”

I’ve found several examples of different American accents, but I wanted start with British actor Hugh Laurie, who played American Dr. Gregory House on the television show House M.D. Here is a brief clip from the show. Pay attention to his American accent.

Pretty convincing, huh? He talks about using an American accent in this interview with David Letterman. (You can stop watching around the 2:40 mark, when they change subjects.)

Here’s an example of a Texan accent I hear very often around here. (Don’t watch the whole video. Just watch the first ten seconds or so and move on with your life.)

This is a girl participating in the Accent Tag challenge, this time from Southern California. Again, ignore the content and pay attention to her speech patterns:

Here’s a clip from the 1996 movie Fargo that does a good job of portraying the American midwestern accent:

Here’s a good example of a Boston accent:

Finally, here is a Cajun man from Louisiana explaining how cook his favorite meal. Don’t worry, I can’t understand a word, either.

Not only do these two experiments (the TImes quiz and The Accent Tag challenge) show how different words are pronounced differently, but they also show how different colloquialisms refer to the same things. The most famous example in America is the sweet, carbonated beverage we all enjoy:

The choices given are: soda, pop, coke, and soft drink. Where I live, we call everything “coke,” even if it’s Sprite, Dr. Pepper, or Coca-Cola. I know, it doesn’t make any sense, but we’re firmly rooted in our ways. However, I will admit that “soda” is more practical. “Soft drink” is a little to stiff for me, and “pop” sounds a little silly. What this map shows, though, is my previous point: different pockets of culture in the US have developed their own language patterns. In the above map, you can clearly see the line between the American South, the Midwest, and the Coasts. In Texas, the pocket of red that matches the Coasts is centered around Austin, which famously has its own culture apart from the rest of the South. You can also see pockets of red around big cities like Chicago and St. Louis.

To learn more about different language patterns in the United States, I strongly encourage you to check out a documentary series on PBS called “Do You Speak American?” On their website, you can find the type of highly pedantic language dissection that I love, including a list of commonly mispronounced words you should stop mispronouncing, or else; several articles addressing language prejudice; and a hot debate about which American dialect is “correct.”

You can watch the second installment below, which explores southern American English:

Phony Phonetics: How Pronunciation Affects American Spelling

When teaching  children  to read, people  often tell them to “sound it out.” While this works in many cases, English phonetics is so complicated that attempting to “sound out” words can easily lead to confusion.

The problem with English—specifically American English—is our casual pronunciation. Compared to proper British English (“The Queen’s English”), we slur our vowels and cut our consonants short. Americans are known for talking very quickly. The less work your mouth has to do to form syllables, the faster you can speak.

If you are American, say the following sentence out loud:

I didn’t want the little cake.

Did you hear the “t” in “didn’t,” “want,” or “little?” Did you hear a hard “k” sound in “cake?”

If you spoke it quickly and casually, chances are you replaced the “t” sounds with “d” sounds, and cut the “k” short so there was no air behind it. This has to do with the shape your tongue makes in your mouth and if your vocal folds are contracted or relaxed when you make these sounds.

A “t” sound is called a voiceless alveolar stop, while a “d” sound is a voiced alveolar stop. A voiced sound uses the vibrations of your vocal folds to make noise, while a voiceless sound only uses air. Your tongue touches the alveolar ridge on the roof of your mouth when making the “t” and “d” sounds. The “k” sound is called a voiceless velar stop, referring to the way the tongue interacts with the soft palate (velum) to make the noise. The voiced counterpart to the “k” sound is the “g” sound. By saying these sounds out loud, you can clearly hear the difference in the parts of your mouth being used.

If you try saying the sentence about cake with the proper consonants, it will take you considerably longer to say. Your friends will look at you strangely if you start talking like that. They might stop hanging out with you.

Although there are strict rules for written language, spoken language is extremely open to interpretation depending on social standards. There are so many ways to speak the English language. Consider the different accents: Bostonian, American Southern, Californian Valley Girl, Canadian, Scottish, American Midwest, and many more. That doesn’t even consider those who learn English as a second language and bring the speech patterns from their first languages.

Almost all children learn to speak before they learn to write. They are generally taught very basic phonetics to learn how to read: “KUH-AR” spells “car.” Most carry this into their adult lives, enabling them to pronounce complicated words without knowing what they mean. For example, the word antidisestablishmentarianism is one of the longest words in the English language, but you can probably sound it out just by breaking it into syllables: an-ti-dis-es-tab-lish-ment-tar-i-an-is-m.

The following chart shows the phonetic alphabet, a group of symbols used to represent sounds we make while speaking. You will probably recognize most of these symbols from the pronunciation guides in a dictionary.

Unfortunately, our quick American pronunciation of vowels and consonants leads to a slew of common, irritating spelling errors.

Correction: Definitely

Americans sometimes pronounce this word as “def-in-uht-lee” (de•fɪ•nʌt•li). We also occasionally use “def-uhn-it-lee” (de•fʌ•nɪt•li). The pronunciation “def-ehn-it-lee” (de•fə•nit•li) is accepted as correct. Both incorrect pronunciations cause the common misspelling “definately,” because the “a” sounds like it matches the sound better.

Correction: Calendar

We tend to pronounce this word with a hard “derr” at the end, and that is the pronunciation listed in in the dictionary (ka•lən•dər). However, because of the hard “r” at the end, many assume it is an “er” sound. The word ends in “ar,” so sounding out the word does not work in this case.

Correction: Government

Technically, the “n” in “government” is pronounced, but it’s so subtle that most people either don’t notice it or forget it entirely (gə•vər(n)•mənt). Because we tend to say “guv-er-ment,” trying to sound out this word causes many to leave out the “n,” resulting in a spelling error.

Correction: Separate

The verb “separate” is pronounced several ways, causing confusion on how to spell it. The formally accepted pronunciation in America is “seh-puh-rait” (sɛ•pə•ret). The most common pronunciation, though, is “seh-per-ate,” leading many to spell it with an “e” in the middle instead of an “a.” I learned how to spell this word in sixth grade when we were dissecting rats in biology class. The teacher told us to “separate” the skin from the muscle, and emphasized that there is “a rat” in the word separate. It it weren’t for that trick, I would probably misspell it often, too.

Could Of
Correction: Could’ve

This also applies to the phrases “should’ve,” “would’ve,” and casual super-contractions like “can’t’ve” and “shouldn’t’ve.” Though spelled with an “f,” the word “of” uses a “v” sound (əv). Contractions like “could’ve” just add the “v” sound to the end of a word, but Americans often add an “uh” sound to make it easier to say: “could-uhv.” So, “of” and “uhv” sound so similar that many people confuse the two, resulting in a phrase that makes absolutely no sense.

Incorrect pronunciation also causes many people to mix up similar-sounding words. 

Your vs. You’re

This mix-up is so common that it begs addressing. Technically, the word “your” should rhyme with “pour” (yor), but many pronounce it to rhyme with “per” (yər). This makes it rhyme with the commonly confused contraction of you are, you’re.  “You’re” should really be two syllables, a quick combination of “yoo-r” (it almost rhymes with sewer). However, we Americans like the convenience of single-syllable words with short vowels, so both words are generally pronounced as “yer.”

Effect vs. Affect

In many English-speaking countries, these words do not sound alike. In America, they are both pronounced “uh-fekt.” Though they mean completely different things, people can’t seem to keep them straight because, when speaking, they only know the difference through the context in a sentence.

Then vs. Than

This mix-up is much like “effect” and “affect.” These two words have very different definitions, but our short American vowels make them sound so similar that people often can’t tell one from the other.

Being from Texas, I completely understand how our relaxed accent can lead to confusing phonetics. I love talking the way I do– it’s easy, fun, and quick. However, sounding intelligent on paper has many advantages, so study up on your phonetics and make sure you’re not making any of these mistakes when writing.