Saturday, July 19, 2014

"Word Crimes"

I haven’t posted in a long while and I really shouldn’t be posting now. Things are a bit busy and chaotic as I prepare for my move to Carbondale. My house currently looks like a box factory threw up on a tornado site. I still have various phone calls to make. I have classes to plan and prepare and a half-million research projects on the back-burner right now. In short, I should be working on just about anything else. So why am I writing?

Weird Al.

I’m sure you’ve seen it by this point, that new Weird Al video where he lists the assorted assaults on the English language that he finds so abhorrent. And if, by some miracle, you have not:

Many other linguists have posted responses to this and I don’t want to repeat their discussion too much. I do highly recommend Lauren Squires discussion and pedgogical ideas:

Instead, I want to use this as an opportunity to reflect a bit on my time at Kutztown as I prepare to leave and along the way discuss why I find this song so dangerous and damaging.

At Kutztown, I had two main jobs: I taught introduction to linguistics primarily to students preparing to be high school English teachers and I taught freshman writing (six whole sections!). These duties really highlighted why it is so critical that linguists aggressively respond to the Weird Al’s of the world.

Linguists often talk about the differences between descriptive and prescriptive rules-- I’m not going to go into the whole distinction here, if you are unfamiliar, there are plenty of resources out there. To me, this distinction had always been largely academic. I’ve always been a confident writer (whether or not I should be is a totally separate issue). So I was personally never really troubled by many of the prescriptive rules. I may have also been lucky to have reasonable English teachers who understood that a particular peeve is not a hard and fast rule. In my experience, many professional linguists have similar backgrounds. It does take a certain confidence to 1) tell your family you’ve decided to be a linguist 2) enter a PhD program 3) finish said program. So, by and large, linguists view these rules with a bit of joyful, comic disdain. However, we often fail to recognize the damage that these rules can cause.

Kutztown helped put that into perspective for me.

There is a lot to be said about the preparation students get for college level writing in K-12. (The rise of testing couple with its content-free 5 paragraph essay has done major damage to a generation of students.) But, I got to see first hand the real damage that these cause. They convince students that 1) don’t understand the language well enough to write it effectively 2) that there is something deficient about their intelligence which prevents them from grasping the logic behind whatever rule.

With virtually no exceptions, the real issue is that the student’s native understanding of the language is more complicated and complete than whatever dumb prescriptive rule the instructor happens to be pressing. Language is systematic, prescriptivism is not.

I’m not going to look at the particular peeves that Weird Al hit on, but at a broader spectrum of “grammar rules”.

“Rules” such as these are never rules.

I want to start with English “they”. We typically describe English “they” as the third person plural pronoun. As such, sentences like the following are typically treated as errors:

Someone left their bag in the lobby, they may claim it at the lost and found.

The argument is that “they” in the above sentence is corefering with someone which is singular, so there is a mismatch between number that is unacceptable.

This, however, is based on a faulty assumption of what English “they” actually means. English “they” is probably more accurately described as a default pronoun-- we use it when our other pronouns don’t quite fit. That happens to be in the plural, it also happens to be in singular contexts where the gender is unknown or obscured.

What’s more, this use is not novel. Such use can be found throughout the English canon (Chaucer, Shakespeare, King James Bible, etc.). Style guides in the early 1900’s describe singular use of “they” as “old-fashioned” and suggest using “he” in its place. The singular use likely dates back all the way to English borrowing “they” from Old Norse.

However, most pedants view this use of “they” as a new desecration to the language brought on by lazy, inconsiderate youths who won’t get off their lawn-- and it is treated as an such.

Even instructors legitimately trying to help, end up framing the correction in a way that suggests that writer is deficient in some way. It is not unreasonable for a teacher to say that, in a particular style or genre of writing, singular “they” is not acceptable. But note how that ban is framed; it acknowledges that the ban is stylistic, not grammatical.

Telling student that their use of “they” is “incorrect” because of “agreement” is much more problematic. It is saying “you are too stupid to understand numbers” or “you have learned your language wrong”. Obviously, neither is true. The student fully grasps all of the uses of “they” that English provides-- the instructor is the one pushing deficient knowledge.

It is also critical to recall that this knowledge is subconscious. The instructor knows the true meaning of “they”, they (see what I did there) just don’t know that they know it.

More to the point, throwing half-cocked, poorly framed rules as students leads to greater confusion and critical damages a student’s confidence with writing.

Students must learn to diagnose problems and correct them on their own. Throwing unnecessary terminology and a stew of partially understood grammatical concepts at them, helps no one. The passive is maligned and misunderstood by students and writing instructors alike. See:
We’ve really got two major problems with the prescriptive ban on the passive. First, too many people (Strunk and White) cannot properly identify the passive. How can students be expected to know what to avoid when the style guide identifies a cacophony of grammatical constructions as the passive?

Last term, I had a student ask me to help him with a note he got from another professor. The student had written the following sentence: 

His arm was draped over the side of the couch.

The professor had circled the sentence and wrote with the note “passive”. This sentence is ambiguous. There is a passive reading and a stative reading. To get the passive reading we need to imagine a scenario wherein some force has taken his arm from a non-draped position to a draped position. This is a possible reading—but probably not a very likely reading. But critically it requires an event to take place. It was pretty clear from context that the sentence was intended as a stative. The student was describing an image from a film. Everything in the relevant paragraph was a description of the scene. There were no movements. No events.

In other words, that sentence ain’t a passive! And it is completely clear from context. And we can shift the context to clarify the ambiguity.


Scenario A:

Watson: It was a suicide.

Sherlock: This was no suicide, Watson. His arm was draped over the couch to make it appear as one.

Scenario B:

Lestrade: The scene was quite messy. We found the body on the couch. His arm was draped
over the side


Similar misunderstandings abound about the passive. Strunk and White batted only 1 for 4 on their identification! That’s 25%. That’s F-level work right there...

And second, the passive totally has legitimate uses!

We can use the passive when the subject can be generally understood by our encyclopedic knowledge of the verb and we want to focus on the object:

The police arrested John yesterday. (Meh... the police are the types of people that do arresting.)

John was arrested yesterday. (Dude, we are probably telling a story about John anyway)

We can use the passive when the subject is unknown and introducing a generic subject would
cause us to focus on the wrong element. Imagine you are reading a crime novel. Which opening
sentence would draw you in?

John was murdered yesterday.

Someone murdered John yesterday.

If you answered the second one, well, I don’t know. I don’t believe you. At all.

We can also use the passive when the subject is basically irrelevant (because it is understood by context). We see this a lot in descriptions of experiments or other similar contexts.

Heat was applied evenly to the glaze for 30 minutes.

The experimenters applied heat evenly to the glaze for 30 minutes.

There is just a small sample of instances where the passive might be preferred over the active.

Let me also be clear, I sometimes correct the passive in student work. Young writers tend to overuse the passive. It is perfectly acceptable to say, “hey, a passive isn’t appropriate here”. And this draws me to my larger point. Good writing takes a lot of hard work and a lot of practice.

A few simple magic grammar rules can’t suddenly transform a novice writer into a brilliant one. Rather, it takes years of blood, sweat, and tears from both the pupil and the instructors. To suggest otherwise is offensive.

Further, to reflexively deny a writer access to one of the tools in the writer’s toolbox is not sage advice.

Moving even further away from Weird Al, I want to turn to the recent cottage industry of machine-driven writing coaches (which are made all the more scary by the fact that testing agencies use machines as part of their “evaluation” of student essays). Here I examine the “Writer’s Diet Test”. I’m not going to provide a link, because, you know they’re evil.

Basically, you copy some text in and it gives you a rating of “how fat” your text is and also provides some suggestions.

And let’s be honest, we are probably not that far from the day when some testing agency integrates something like this into its evaluation process. So, what’s wrong with it? First, as your disclaimer notes, judging the overall quality of writing is not something that can be done by a machine. I certainly have to say that I agree. Let’s examine some of the overall results (based on a random 1000 words) of your test.

Hamlet’s “To be or not to be” soliloquy: fit and trim (how gracious of you)

MLK’s “I Have a Dream” Speech: needs toning

The Gettysburg Address: flabby

Churchill’s “Blood, Sweat, and Tears” Speech: flabby

The first 1000 words of this blog: flabby

Awesome. I’ll take any comparison to Abraham Lincoln I can get (except maybe in the looks department).

I have to say, it is one of the dumbest parsers I’ve seen in a long time. From what I can gather, the test is supposed to highlight every example of an adjective or adverb and examples of nominalizations and some other junk. To test it out, I input the following sentence:

The gilded lily is found throughout the impoverished nation.

Now, I know that the test is not calibrated to handle examples of less than 100 words. So, I really don’t care about the overall score. I’m interested in how the test treats the various words here. Also, I’m not saying that this sentence is an example of great writing.

The results are not pretty:

The test highlighted lily as a problematic adjective or adverb. This is, of course, patently absurd. Lily is a noun. Why is the parser confused? Apparently, it is coded to treat any word that ends in –ly as an adverb. Seriously? They didn’t even bother to give it a lexicon of basic words that might trip it up?

There’s a similar problem with nation. Nation is highlighted as a problematic nominalization. Obviously, because the word is derived from our verb na to... oh I don’t know, you make something up….

Neither gilded nor impoverished are identified as adjectives—which they clearly are.Identifying these forms correctly would not be a particularly difficult computational problem.

So what does all of this have to do with Weird Al?

Weird Al is part of a long lineage of folks who think that their particular peeve and/or fundamental misunderstanding about how the language works out to be codified and used to evaluate the intelligence and ability of others. It is wrong and it is damaging. And it is always based on an incomplete analysis of the language.

There is a lot more than could/should be said about all of this. There are important interactions of privilege and class that prescriptivism is built on, but I need to get back to packing.

Feel free to comment below.

Edit: A clarification to the texts used with the writer's test.