Tuesday, December 26, 2006

Grammatically Speaking III: On pronoun agreement

Still with the Dec. 2005 column by Richard Firsten, (see also, here and here), we come to the issue of the following sentence:
  • If someone feels that they’ve been unfairly passed over for a promotion, they should speak to their supervisor.
My old professor, Patrick Rosenkjar, at Temple University Japan, is credited with providing the first correct response; to wit, "strictly speaking, in formal situations the sentence you cite is grammatically incorrect because the plural pronouns (they and their) do not agree with their singular antecedent (someone)."

I'm afraid not.

As Mark Liberman writes, "singular they has routinely been used throughout the history of English, by all the best writers, until certain subcases were artificially turned into 'errors' by self-appointed experts. Successively less discriminating pseudo-authorities then generalized the proscription in successively sillier ways, although they have largely been ignored by the users of the language."

Similarly, Merriam Webster's online dictionary has this to say. "The use of they, their, them, and themselves as pronouns of indefinite gender and indefinite number is well established in speech and writing, even in literary and formal contexts."

Firsten still isn't buying it. He says that "strictly speaking" it's wrong. I take this to be based on the single-sense fallacy that often turns up in grammatical prescriptivism (see here). That is, a word has a single meaning and other meanings are wrong. In particular, because they means "two or more people or things that have already been mentioned or are already known about", it couldn't possibly also mean "a person or people of indefinite gender and number." This same argument would hold as ungrammatical it to refer to a person since it is "used to refer to a thing, animal, situation, idea etc that has already been mentioned or is already known about." Remember that every time you identify yourself on the phone.

Wednesday, December 20, 2006

Grammatically Speaking; Part II

Continuing on from my last post, in the December 2005 Grammatically Speaking column, Richard Firsten provides a number of questionable answers to language teachers' grammar questions. I'll deal with the first here:
"...During the commercial, the voice-over person says "teeth whitening." Shouldn't it be tooth whitening? I find it hard to believe that whoever writes scripts for commercials would make such a glaring grammatical error, but then again, I'm wondering if they have. What do you say?"
Richard is unequivocal in his response. "You’re right; they're wrong; case closed!"

Well, I asked, is there anything wrong with an antiques show? an admissions committee? A Steelers fan? A singles bar? A publications list? Would you really go for "datum bank", "purple person eater", or "arm race"? What is the plural of manservant?

"No," Richard answered. In fact, he had had a paragraph to account for many exceptions to the rule, probably, he said, due to lower frequency of use than something like toothbrush. Blame the editors.

Well, yes and no. I'm glad to see that Richard accepts exceptions, but frequency has nothing to do with it (and couln't you just argue that teeth whitening is low frequency and be done with it?) No, it's a lot more interesting than that. According to Steven Pinker's Words and Rules.
"A simple explanation, based loosely on Kiparsky (1982), might run as follows. Morphological composition of words takes place in several stages. First there is a lexicon of memorized roots, including, according to the word/rule theory, irregular forms. That lexicon supplies the input to rules of regular derivational morphology, which creates complex words (including compounds)out of simple words and morphemes, outputting a stem. Stems are then inputted to a third component, regular inflection, which modifies the word according to its role in the sentence. In simplified form, the architecture of morphology would look like this:
  1. Memorized Roots (including irregulars) -->
  2. Complex word formation -->
  3. Regular inflection
The word mice, stored as a root in the first component, is available as an input to the compounding process in the second component, where it is joined to infested to yield mice-infested. In contrast, rats is not stored as a memorized root in the first component; it is formed from rat by an inflectional rule in the third component, too late to be inputted to the compounding rule in the second. Hence we get rat-infested but not rats-infested. "
This accounts for the roots with irregular plurals (e.g., purple people eater), but what about the regular plurals (e.g., a red rats eater)? Pinker argues that a phrase can be inserted as the first constituent. That is, you have a [red rats] eater rather than a red [rat] eater. He goes on to argue that the plural in expressions like antiques show, admissions committee, and publications list are one-word phrases, built in the first of the three components above. So, if we have this option, when do we choose to make use of it? When, according to Pinker, we want to emphasise the individuality of the publications, etc. You can read all about it, in the chapter, "of mice and men" in Pinker's book Words and Rules.

In the end, as Margaret Atwood writes, "I felt mice-feet of apprehension," when I read Richard Firsten's prohibition. I hate it when people lay down the law when they've just made it up. Why not allow TV copy writers their "teeth whitening"? Because it's wrong. The wordanistas have spoken.

Heading in the wrong direction

Richard Firsten writes a column called "Grammatically Speaking" in Essential Teacher a quarterly TESOL publication. The premise is that English language teachers write in with their grammar questions and Richard answers them.

Although some of his answers are fine, it's not uncommon that he gets it wrong, sometimes shockingly so.

In his most recent column, the first question is why you can say "how good a student he/she is!" but you can't use the same construction with plurals "*How good students they are!"

Richard answers, basically by saying, 'well it doesn't work with plurals,' (more specifically, it works only with countable singulars) which is fair enough. The actual whys behind many of these questions are opaque even to linguists. But it would be helpful to elucidate, pointing out, as the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language does, that you run into the same issue with so/such.

Not so bad! But then he blows it with the next question: [or not. Update: here]
"In the sentence I'm headed for the beach, what part of speech is 'headed'?"

Richard answers in part,
"Some verbs have given birth, so to speak, to adjectival forms that have distanced themselves from the original meaning of the verbs they come from. For example, when you say She's determined to finish the job on schedule or She's very determined, you’re describing the subject, so you can clearly view determined as an adjective. The use of determined in this context doesn't rely on the verb to determine. Similarly, to head for is obviously a verb, but to be headed for can be viewed as an adjectival phrase in that it will describe a person or thing (If the company doesn't change its fiscal policies, it's headed for bankruptcy)."

In "He is Fred" and "He is running", you're also describing the subject, but that doesn't mean there's anything adjectival about them. The test of an adjective is that it share most of the following properties:
-can be graded
-can be modified by 'very'
-can appear both attributively and predicatively
-can appear in a fused head construction (e.g., the *rich* get richer)

All are true for 'determined'.
they're more determined.
they're very determined.
the determined people / they are determined
the determined are hard to beat

All are false for 'headed'.
*they're more headed
*they're very headed
*the headed people / they are headed (for the lake)
*the headed will arrive sooner

Clearly, 'headed' is a verb.

The second part of the question is, "I think that I'm headed for the beach and I'm heading for the beach mean basically the same thing, which is very strange. I can't think of another sentence where you can use the present participle and the past participle and have the meaning be the same."

Richard brings up rumored for some reason I can't seem to fathom (maybe I'm missing something) but doesn't offer any other verbs that follow this pattern. Anyhow I would say that all of the following are at least as similar as the headed/heading pair:
  • When the Northern hemisphere is pointed/pointing towards the Sun, the days are longer,
  • The hemisphere that is tilted/tilting towards the Sun is warmer because sunlight travels more directly to the Earth’s surface
  • Position the hearing aid so that it is faced/facing towards the. sound chamber speaker.
I think now that classes are finished and I'm headed for the holidays, I'll have some more time to blog so you can look forward to a few more posts on the problems with this column.

Tuesday, December 12, 2006

No Brizendine on Quirks and Quarks

At the end of the Dec 2 edition of Quirks and Quarks on the CBC, Bob McDonald tells us that next week we can look forward to an interview with Dr. Louann Brizendine. Now, Mark Liberman on Language Log has been telling us all about the problems with Brizendine's book, so I thought I'd urge the Q&Q folks to read his posts.

Flash forward to this week's edition and there's nary a word about Brizendine, her book, or her ideas. It would have been nice to have Q&Q expose the problems rather than just sweeping them under the carpet, but at least they didn't just provide her with another vehicle for her baseless claims.