how linguists can deal with grammatical “mistakes”

Thank you for the feedback on my previous post about the difference between linguists and grammar snobs!  This time, all of the feedback, positive and negative, was through personal correspondence, and I don’t have permission to make that public, so you’ll have to take my word on this next bit.  In talking about grammar snobbery, one question that came up more than once was (and I’m summarizing crudely) what I’d do if I came across a mistake, and by extension what I think other linguists would do and other people should do.  In other words, if grammary snobbery is wrong, then what’s right?  That’s a fair question.

While the answers (yes, plural) to that question might differ depending on the context and the mistake, I think the means of answering that question can be summarized with a single, overarching statement.  As a good friend of mine often says, “it all comes down to consequences.”

Everything we do has consequences, and our use of language is no different.  What we say, write, or communicate non-verbally can have positive or negative effects on other people, on our relationships with those people, and in some cases, on our relationships with other people we don’t even know.  A simple sentence can rally a city or a whole nation, as in “Tear down this wall,” or “I’m taking my talents to South Beach.”  On a personal level, if I’m consistently able to come up with perfectly worded witty statements on the spot, I might win more arguments, or win over a girl, or win respect from my peers.  On the other hand, if I put my foot in my mouth all the time and say asinine things as a matter of course, then I might become the Governor of Texas.  If I tack on a “just kidding, lol” to the previous sentence’s little paraprosdokian, then it’s likely that fewer people will take issue with my slighting Rick Perry, but other people will take issue with my use of “lol,” and my friends will think I’m writing this while vaguely drunk.

In sum, any language use has consequences, and there are consequences to using forms that snobs deem to be “bad grammar” as well.  Linguists wouldn’t use the term “bad grammar,” but we should be able to understand what those consequences likely will be and respond appropriately.

Before I try to explain what “responding appropriately” means to me, I should first explain why we wouldn’t say “bad grammar.”  In my last post, I tried to clarify why the very phrase “bad grammar” is confusing and almost comical to linguists; it would be like a chemist saying that there are “good” molecules and “bad” molecules. If some chemistry textbook called strychnine a “bad molecule,” you would have to assume that either the author was being facetious or that “bad” was being used figuratively to mean something more like “potentially fatal if ingested by humans.” In other words, the molecule itself isn’t “bad” per se, but its presence might have consequences that we consider negative.  And there you have it.  The way linguists would respond to instances of non-standard language use is in many ways very similar to that.

To reiterate, grammar is the system of context-dependent form-meaning associations in a speech community. In X circumstances, speakers of language Y say A (or B, C, etc.) in order to communicate Z idea. If something is “ungrammatical,” that means either that there is an important mismatch between the intended meaning and the meaning that is understood, or that the phrase wouldn’t be understood consistently or at all.  The key here, though, is that we have to conceive of the phrase “intended meaning” very broadly so that it includes not just the literal meaning of the words, but also the intended social effect.  That’s a bit tricky, so here’s an example.

I work with many international students who have trouble with English noun phrases, especially when talking about abstract nouns.  Sometimes, the presence of a plural-looking marker doesn’t make that much of a difference, as in the following:

  • I like strawberry.
  • I like strawberries.

On some level, there is a difference between liking the flavor of the fruit and liking the fruit itself.  One could imagine some person who likes strawberry-flavored candy but who doesn’t like eating the berries or vice versa.  On the whole, though, if you were talking with a person who said either of those sentences, you probably wouldn’t be confused.  Sometimes, though, there can be a very large difference, as in these two sentences:

  • I like dog.
  • I like dogs.

Suddenly, the difference between liking the thing itself and liking the flavor of it is more consequential.  If you meant to say one and said the other, then there could be a fairly large and important mismatch between what I would understand and what you intended for me to understand.  Now, if you were one of my international students, and you saw me walking my dog on the street and said “I like dog,” I would assume that you were going to pet her and not that you were imagining how my dog would taste, but if we met each other at a potluck and you said “I like dog” while chowing down on some unlabeled casserole, I might think twice before putting some on my own plate.

"I like dog. By the way, this is good.  Want some?"

“You have a dog?  That’s great.  I like dog. By the way, this is good. Want some?”

Typical grammar snobs would probably respond to someone’s uttering “I like dog” by calling it a “mistake.”  Next, they might add “It should be ‘I like dogs’ because…” and then that’s where it gets really tricky.  What could they say after that?

Some of them might say, “In English, we need the plural in that position.”  Well, no we don’t.  No one says “I like ice creams,” or to take John McWhorter’s example, “I like corns.”

So maybe instead they say, “In English, count nouns require the plural in that position.”  You can count dogs: one dog, two dogs.  You can’t count corns.  You can count kernels of corn, or rows of corn, or something else of corn, but we don’t say one corn, two corns.  That would be closer, although there would still be problems.  Certain nouns can be either count or non-count, like strawberries.  “I like democracy,” and “I like democracies” are both possible sentences; it’s just that they mean slightly different things.  And that’s when they’d finally get at what I think is the right answer:

The sentences “I like dog” and “I like dogs” mean different things to native speakers.  Saying “I like dog” is a “mistake” if you intend to say that you like canines as pets because the way that is typically expressed in English is “I like dogs.”  At this point, we’ve largely abandoned any “prescriptivist” argumentation (i.e. “thou shalt do X and thou shalt not do Y”).  We’ve simply described the observable reality of the world, and laid out the consequences of the language so that the language user can make a choice.  If one option is more desirable, then the language user should choose the form that corresponds to that option.  We can only say “you should say ‘I like dogs'” by understanding that behind that “should” is a much more important “If what you mean to communicate is ___.”

At this point, you might say, “But surely you can figure it out from context.  Wouldn’t saying ‘I like dog’ to mean that labradors are cute and lovable be just fine by linguists as long as it’s said in a context where the intended meaning is clear?”  Well… in fact, there are some scholars who make a very similar argument, but I personally wouldn’t go that far, no, for two reasons.

A)  The context often doesn’t disambiguate, or at least doesn’t do so in an objectively clear way.  I work with a law student from China.  I help copy-edit his papers, and I remember once running into trouble with one of the subheadings he’d used.  He knew that he had problems with this very same form, so he had even suggested multiple different options, as if to give me a multiple choice question!  I was immensely entertained, but as it turns out, it wasn’t an easy choice:

  1. A Democracy in China
  2. Democracy in China
  3. The Democracy in China
  4. The Democracy of China

Most people, I think, would agree that (3) doesn’t sound like a plausible English phrase.  It’s  unclear what that one would mean, but the other three options are all possible section titles.  Which one he should use really depends on very subtle distinctions like whether or not he is claiming democracy already exists, whether he is referring to democratic principles and structures in society or to a larger government body, whether or not he is being ironic or cute, and so on.  He may or may not be aware that these functions apply to these language structures, and may or may not be intending to use any one or combination of them.  I might be able to disentangle those things by reading the rest of his paper, but I might get that wrong.  I might accidentally attach a meaning to his subheading that he didn’t intend on being there.  He might even have meant to say something completely different, like “Democracies in China,” and as it turns out, after conferencing with him, we decided on “Chinese-style Democracy,” which sounds far removed from any of those previous options unless you add quotation marks as in “The ‘Democracy’ of China.”

The point is that, in many contexts, we can’t simply rely on the audience to figure it out for us.  If we use a form whose meaning is unclear, then our chances of successfully communicating our intent decrease.  Using the clearest, most unambiguous language possible might still not result in a perfect match; indeed, some theorists argue that a perfect match is an impossibility and we can only hope to approximate understanding.  Even if we assume it is possible in principle, listeners might just not get it, some might not be fully paying attention in the first place, or they might not have native-like listening comprehension abilities.  In other words, we almost never have ideal circumstances for communication, but even under ideal circumstances, communication is a probabilistic, messy process, so we’d do well to maximize our chances.

B) “Intended meaning” doesn’t just concern the literal denotation of any one particular set of words.  Let me tell a story to illustrate.  During my first few days living in Japan, I was happy if the food a waitress gave me vaguely corresponded to what I wanted to eat, let alone what I thought I’d ordered.  I had coughed up some garbled string of Japanese-sounding syllables, and victuals were brought to my seat, very likely in part because of my linguistic efforts or at least because they took pity on me and knew I had money.  Still, success!  I was happy and enjoyed my meal until the time came to think about what I had to say to pay the bill.

That sense of satisfaction for completing simple tasks didn’t last long, though.  After all, I didn’t just want physical sustenance.  I also desired to be thought of as a capable, functioning adult.  Often when people start learning a second language, they get frustrated or embarrassed because they feel like they sound like a child (and, in fact, we all do).  We don’t start out in Japanese 101 expounding on the perils of complementary schismogenesis.  We start by learning how to say simple phrases, but the eventual goal for most people is to be able to say what they want to say, how they want to say it.  For me personally, I wanted to be seen as capable of saying what I wanted to say, how I wanted to say it in Japanese, and if that is my intent, then only a very specific set of linguistic forms will do.  (It’s 相補分裂生成の危難, in case you were wondering… although I imagine you weren’t)

So, going back to the example of “I like dog,” a linguist would have a couple different answers depending on the situation.  If one of my students is writing to a potential host family abroad and wants to make a good first impression when introducing his likes and dislikes, I could tell him that “I like dogs” is better.  If he asks or cares to know why, I could even add that saying “I like dog” means that he likes the flavor of dog meat, and that while his future host family could probably figure out that he doesn’t mean to say that, he will sound less competent in English than if he had used the other form.  If he doesn’t care or isn’t present for me to terrorize, I’d probably just “correct” it without making a big deal of the situation.  After all, it looks like a simple sentence, but it’s actually a tough distinction to learn, with lots of exceptions and subtleties, and so I can’t reasonably get angry that he hasn’t learned it despite however long it is that he’s been trying to do so.

If another student says “I like dog” to me as I’m walking my dog on the sidewalk, I’ll probably just smile, ignore it, and move on in the conversation.  It’s not really an appropriate time to launch into an exposition on English noun phrases, and the student’s desire to communicate is probably more central than the desire to achieve native-like accuracy in that specific moment.  If I chose to comment on the statement, that might not help the student remember the form anyway.  More likely, switching the topic of conversation from my dog to English grammar would just cause embarrassment and frustration, and maybe even engender some small amount of resentment.  I could always bring it up at some later time when I thought it would be more helpful, but nitpicking then and there might give the false impression that I care only about formal clarity over meaningful exchange of ideas.  In short, it would make me look like a grammar snob, and that is a consequence I definitely want to avoid.

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