Tuesday, March 13, 2012

Survey Review: Grammar Faux Pas or Language Change?

By Richard Firsten
Retired ESOL Teacher, Teacher-Trainer, Columnist, Author

I want to thank all of you who took the time and put in the effort to respond to my little survey. I really appreciate the help you gave me and the insights that I received from looking over your acceptances or rejections of certain items and your comments on things. By adding them to responses I’d gotten from others, some very interesting observations and conclusions emerged.

Let’s review the 15 items listed in the survey. I hope it’ll be interesting for you to compare what you decided to change or let stand as is and see what my thinking is about each item on the list. I’m sure you noticed that I deliberately placed the same kind of discrete point in different environments to see if you’d perceive a difference in accepting or rejecting it depending on where you came across it. That was very telling. In what follows, you’ll see that I’ve highlighted “grammatical issues” in red and put any changes I felt necessary in blue within brackets.

1. You never know what psychopaths look like. They can look like you or I [me].

It’s a standard rule of grammar that a noun phrase or personal pronoun following a preposition or verb is considered the object of that preposition or verb and must appear in the object form if there is one. It’s become apparent, however, that many educated native speakers don’t adhere to that basic grammar rule when two personal pronouns, linked by and/or, or a noun phrase and a personal pronoun linked by and/or, follow a preposition or verb. When that linked second element is a personal pronoun, they keep it in the subject form.  I think this is a result of hypercorrection with people feeling it sounds “more educated” or “more refined” to say phrases such as you and I rather than you and me, even when the object form is what’s called for. The fascinating part of this phenomenon is that people never confuse the subject and object form after a preposition or verb if there’s just one personal pronoun involved, but when two or more are involved, then this improper usage takes over more often than I like to think. That’s why you’ll hear someone say She looks like me, but that same speaker may very well say She looks like my sister and I.

2. If folks who have preceded us in history did not do [had not done] that, as a woman, I’m not sure I would be a member of this legislative assembly.

I find it interesting – although troubling – that more and more educated speakers, movie and TV script writers, and others seem to be doing away with the use of the past perfect to represent a past imaginary idea. Here’s how real sentences and their imaginary counterparts should look, first in the general present or universal sense, and then in the past:

[real] Folks do that… → [imaginary] If folks did not do that…

[real] Folks did that… → [imaginary] If folks had not done that…

At the rate things are going and the frequency that I hear this change, we may very likely be heading to an accepted alternative way or new way of forming imaginary ideas in the past. It’s also interesting to note, by the way, that the native speakers who use the simple past when they should use the past perfect in these past imaginary sentences never make that mistake in the other clause involved that uses could have, should have, or would have:

If folks who have preceded us in history did not do that,

I’m not sure women would have gained political equality.

 3. The study’s author [The author of the study] claims that high fructose corn syrup contributes to adult onset diabetes.

I remember a time when there were clear rules about when it was and was not appropriate to use the –s genitive. The use sited here wouldn’t have been considered appropriate according to those prescriptive rules. To sum up the basic way the rules used to go, they were:

  • We normally use the –s genitive for higher forms of living things that move (the boy’s bikea lion’s stealth) even though we do have the option to choose the of genitive in certain circumstances such as a general observation (the stealth of a lion / the stealth of the lion).
  • We use the –s genitive for things that are anthropomorphized (Solar energy will prove very important in the future, and the sun’s heat….│She’s a great seagoing vessel. Our ship’s cruising speed…).
  • We use the –s genitive in formulaic expressions (a stone’s throw from here).
  • For inanimate and abstract things (a room, a survey) and for lower forms of living things (an amoeba, a germ), the of genitive should be the correct way to go (the décor of this room as opposed to this room’s décorthe life of an amoeba instead of an amoeba’s life).

Nowadays, it seems, there’s more and more blurring of the distinctions that help us choose the –s genitive or the of genitive. The –s genitive is now being used on practically any kind of noun.

4. Was there a big argument between she [her] and her fiancé before the physical altercation?

Here’s another example of native speakers not realizing that a personal pronoun is supposed to be only in the object form after a preposition or verb. Somehow the speaker is treating the phrase she and her fiancé as a whole unit, making it sound okay to leave it intact instead of changing the subject to the object form of the pronoun she. But if we were to substitute she and her fiancé with they, you can be sure that the speaker would correctly say between them and not between they. Interesting, right?

5. The heat pump was broke [broken], so the house remained very cold for two days.

It’s amazing how many people use broke nowadays instead of broken as the past participle of break. I say it’s amazing because this “shouldn’t” be happening with a high-frequency verb like break – and yet it is. Normally a misuse of the simple past or past participle  happens with low-frequency verbs that people aren’t too comfortable with because they use them so rarely (The burglar creeped across our yard, low to the ground.)

6. There’s lots of products in the stores these days for teeth [tooth] whitening.

I have to admit that I was a little sneaky here. I’ve highlighted There’s, but as you can see, I haven’t put in a correction. The reason is that with so many educated native speakers using the singular form of this existential phrase for so long now, whether the accompanying noun is singular or plural, it’s become acceptable to do away with the subject/verb-agreement rule in this case. So it’s equally acceptable to say There’s lots of … or There are lots of …

As to the other item in that sentence, I find it amazing that so many people think there’s nothing wrong with saying teeth whitening. I can only guess that this is because, until relatively recently, it wasn’t a commonly heard term. Nobody says teethpaste or teethbrush, and nobody says feetprints or feet massage, right? But teeth whitening doesn’t seem to be jarring to many people. Go figure.

7. The kids thought the puppet show was really cool. They were loving it.

As you can see, I haven’t put in a correction. There’s a trend going on in the English-speaking world to make some stative verbs behave grammatically as active verbs, with like, love, and want among them (I’m just loving the intricacies of this murder mystery novel I’m reading. That’s what I’ve been wanting to do for a long time.) As for I’m loving it, I think that when love is used in the progressive forms, it’s being used as a synonym for “enjoy very much”: The kids thought the puppet show was really cool. They were enjoying it very much.

 8. We can expect less [fewer] showers in the forecast over the next day or two.

Yes, yes, fewer + countable nouns, less + uncountable nouns. But how many times have you heard less used with countable nouns? Even though we’ve got our “rules,” it seems that more and more educated native speakers either use less in place of fewer themselves, or it doesn’t dawn on them that a grammar faux pas has been made when they hear somebody else use less with a countable noun. This is another example of what makes me feel there will be some major grammar changes at some point in the future when ungrammatical usages will become grammatically acceptable.

9. She picked up Brian and I [me] and drove us to the store to pick up some groceries.

I’m amazed at how many people think this one is acceptable – not in the responses I got to this survey, but in the responses I got from many others I’d asked about it. Betty Azar started pointing out this interesting phenomenon years ago in her grammar series, and I recall some teachers were almost scandalized that this should even be mentioned in a grammar book. The truth is, regardless of how “wrong” we know it to be since after a verb we should use the object form of personal pronouns, how long can you fight city hall, as they say? (You might want to revisit number 1.) I wonder if this illogical usage will someday be considered acceptable. I have a feeling it will be, much to my chagrin.

10. The express checkout is for ten items or less.

Notice that there’s nothing in red? That’s because this use of less is quite different from what we reviewed in number 8. It’s acceptable – in fact, normal – to use less when discussing things like money, distance, or time and in certain environments such as less than $50 │less than 50 miles │less than an hour or $50 or less│50 miles or less │an hour or less. It’s acceptable to use less when it means “under”: ten items or less = “under ten items.”

11. The cruise we took up the Danube last spring was so fun!

I don’t know why it started catching on that fun should be treated as an adjective in the environment shown above, but that’s just what’s happened. In my opinion, the correct usage would be so much fun or such fun, but not so fun. If I want to use so, I’d go with a phrase like so enjoyable. But once again, many people – including teachers – who were asked about this item, thought it sounded just fine. I’m sure this stems from the fact that we commonly and correctly use fun as an attributive adjective (a fun experience a fun trip), but as far as I’m concerned, that doesn’t hold true for it being used as a predicative adjective, which follows the head noun and a linking verb. A fun experience is okay, and an experience that was so much fun is okay, but the experience was so fun isn’t okay).

12. We found teeth [tooth] marks on the victim’s left arm.

There were people – including teachers – who found this perfectly acceptable, while the very same people didn’t accept teeth whitening that we discussed in number 6. And then there were people who did just the opposite; they wouldn’t accept teeth marks, but they found no problem with teeth whitening. Aaaarrggh! There are exceptions to the following rule, mostly involving items normally used in the plural (the arms race comes to mind), but the general rule is that when one noun is used adjectivally to describe another noun (as in a compound noun [starlight] or noun adjunct [birth defects]), the descriptive element remains singular just as adjectives in English remain singular even when the nouns they describe are plural. So even though the marks may have been made by two or more teeth, they’re tooth marks, and that’s the reason we say toothpaste and toothbrush and footsteps, too. Of course we aren’t thinking of just one tooth or one foot!

13. We drug [dragged] the heavy bag of top soil to the flower bed to finish preparing it for our flowers.

I have to admit that I’ve been blown away in the past few months by how many times I’ve heard people say drug as the simple past tense of drag. It’s astounding to me, but seems to be quite a common occurrence, especially in the American Midwest and South. I’ve checked various dictionaries thinking that I’m perhaps out of touch with current trends, but nope, I haven’t found any that list drug as an alternate for dragged. I’ve found shrunk in lieu of shrank and I’ve found bit in lieu of bitten, but I haven’t found that drug can be used in place of dragged. And yet I hear it used so often.

14. If they didn’t lose [hadn’t lost] their compass, they could have found their way out of the woods.

Here we go again. I wanted to try this kind of item one more time to see how people would react to it, and I was surprised again to find out how there are teachers, among others, who find this acceptable grammar. Maybe one day it will be, but at the moment, it’s still just wrong. We should not use the simple past in an imaginary idea unless we’re talking about either the present or some universal concept. We are supposed to use the past perfect in a past imaginary idea. Just compare these two and then I’ll rest my case:

[real] He loses his temper much too often.

[imaginary] If he didn’t lose his temper so often, more people would like him. He needs anger management classes.

[real] He lost his temper last Friday.

[imaginary] If he hadn’t lost his temper last Friday, the boss wouldn’t have fired him.

 15. Me and my secretary [My secretary and I] were met at the airport by the CEO himself.

Talk about a common ungrammatical occurrence! Here’s another one that seems to be popping up everywhere. I used to ascribe it to uneducated native speakers or kids who hadn’t had good language arts classes either in middle school or high school, but I can’t do that anymore. It makes me just shake my head and sigh every time I hear things like Me and him did this or Him and her did that. I don’t think I’ve ever heard Us and them did this, but it may just be a matter of time. What’s fascinating about this is that it’s always “somebody and somebody.” The speaker will never use the object form of the pronoun if there’s just one pronoun, i.e., Me did this or Him did that. Anybody looking for a great topic for a Ph.D. thesis? Hmm…

Thanks again if you participated in this survey. You may agree with my statements here or you may disagree, but it’s good if we can start a conversation about what’s going on in the English language, for better or worse. One of the participants mentioned that she’s noticed more and more of a rift in her native Russian between the “classically grammatical language” and the colloquial language. That’s true for English as well. Of course a living language keeps evolving; we know that. But whatever evolves still should make common sense, grammatically speaking, don’t you think? I don’t know if that’s always happening anymore.

Oh! Look at the time! I’ve got to go now. Me and my partner have to help our neighbor with her mowing.


Comment from muharrem
March 27, 2012 at 6:27 am

That is what we have always been facing in our classrooms when students prove the opposite of what we teach them thorugh some native speaker materials indicating just the opposite of our humble standart rules…Regards from Turkey…

Comment from Richard Firsten
March 27, 2012 at 8:30 am

I hear you, Muharrem. This is actually quite an important issue that rarely, if ever, seems to get addressed at TESOL conferences or other ELT meetings. All we can do as teachers, both of ESL and EFL, is to keep current on how educated native speakers are actually using the language. Thanks for your feedback!

Comment from muharrem
March 28, 2012 at 4:52 am

Hello Richard.Thanks for your kind reply.

Comment from Ana Almiron
April 15, 2012 at 8:21 pm

I completely agree with you Richard. However, I was surprised to find out that it’s grammatically acceptable to say “there’s lot’s of…”. Of course, I often hear it, and I’m sure I’ve said it many times, too. Although it doesn’t sound wrong to me, I’ve always thought it’s one of those things that are incorrect but that many people use.

Comment from Richard Firsten
April 15, 2012 at 8:27 pm

Yes, I’m afraid it’s considerd acceptable. Actually, it’s “supposed” to be considered acceptable in the less formal, spoken language, but things like this have a way of intruding into even formal, written language. I don’t think schools in the US at least bother teaching the fine points between colloquial or informal language and formal language as they used to, I’m sorry to say.

Comment from muharrem
June 25, 2013 at 5:28 am

I have got a question for the use of “are” after “news” in this statement: Regardless of how it is presented by different news
media breaking news are usually announced almost as it happens. thank you in advance…

Comment from Richard Firsten
June 25, 2013 at 2:41 pm

“News” is only a singular noun, Muharrem, so you must say “breaking news IS…” In addition, there should be a comma after “by different news media.”

By the way, I suggest you become a member of the Azar Grammar Exchange, a forum where English teachers and students from all over the world can ask the kind of question you posted here.

Comment from Richard Firsten
September 24, 2014 at 7:19 pm

You’re most welcome! And thank you for letting me know.

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