Literary Hub

Attention Grammar Pedants, the English Language Isn’t Logical

grammar police

Americans have such a curiously un-English way of being strictly consistent
and logical in their doings.

–Grant Allen (1890)

“You may be right on a technicality.” That is how a copy editor—let’s call him C—tried to end an argument with me the other day. I was right. And it was technical. It started when C claimed that hung over must be spelled as two words: we put spaces between verbs and adverbial particles like over, so we must put a space in hung over, as we do in other verb + over combinations like flew over. That seems like a logical argument. But a logical argument is only as good as the premises it rests on, and the premise that hung over is a verb phrase is just plain wrong. I threw the evidence at him: if it were a verb, it could change its tense marking. But it can’t: the champagne I’m drinking tonight isn’t going to hang me over tomorrow. Hungover is an adjective, and so C’s argument could not hang together.

C was open to a logical argument when it supported the outcome he wanted: a space in hung over. Once new facts undermined his logic, they were “technicalities” that could be ignored. It reminded me of when people try to end arguments with the accusation “That’s just semantics!” I have news for them: semantics is the most important part of any argument. And technicalities are the essence of grammar.

I tell this story because it illustrates how very attached people are to the notion that their way of using English is more logical than other ways of using English—until the logic is tested. If you show that a grammar stickler’s premise is incorrect or if you offer an exception to their “logical” rule, you cannot expect to be thanked for that favor. At that point, logic is shoved aside and tradition, precedent, or aesthetics becomes the weapon of choice: “Write it this way because we always have.” “Write it this way because that’s how it works in Latin.” “Write it this way because it looks better.” Though their arguments for their preferred phrasing often end with appeals to its alleged age or beauty, language pedants do seem to like to start their arguments with appeals to logic.

The idea that English should be logical really got going with the popular grammarians of the late 18th century: Englishman Robert Lowth (1710–87) and American-in-England Lindley Murray (1745–1826) in particular. Rather than following the great writers and speakers as his model for good English, Bishop Robert Lowth’s A short introduction to English grammar (1762) dismissed the grammatical ken of everyone from John Milton to the King James Bible. Lowth argued that a double negative makes a positive and that one must say this is she rather than this is her. In other words, he started treating English as if it were mathematics. Negating a negative makes a positive. Two pronouns on either side of is must have the same (nominative) case, just like two numbers on either side of an equals sign must be equivalent.

Lowth’s grammar was popular in Britain, but also influential in America, where it was first reprinted in 1775. But Lowth’s rules became even more influential because they were imitated by the most successful grammar writer of the early 19th century: Lindley Murray. An American Quaker trained in law, Murray relocated to England after the revolution, hoping (don’t ask me why) that the weather in Yorkshire would improve his poor health. He published his English Grammar (1797) for the neighboring girls’ school, not intending to publish it further. But it proved too successful to hold back. Republished in the US in 1800, it went through ten editions in that first year alone. Murray repeated Lowth’s rules against double negatives, mismatched pronoun case, and prepositions at the ends of sentences, and added more rules, including the ban on singular they. These kinds of regulations, and the ill-applied logics used to argue for them, have plagued English ever since.

“Though their arguments for their preferred phrasing often end with appeals to its alleged age or beauty, language pedants do seem to like to start their arguments with appeals to logic.”

English isn’t arithmetic, but many people want it to have clear rules like 2 + 2 = 4. Rules themselves are not a problem. The problems come when so-called grammar fans conclude that if one rule is right, then anything else is illogical. That’s just not a logical way of thinking. It’s like saying that if 1 + 4 = 5, then 1 + 1 + 3 cannot also equal 5. Nevertheless if there are two ways to spell a word or construct a sentence, then people will conclude that one way must be the better way. And our natural egotism means that we’re particularly good at coming up with reasons why our own familiar ways of saying or writing things make more sense than less familiar things. That’s logic in the sense of Ambrose Bierce’s Devil’s Dictionary: “the art of thinking and reasoning in strict accordance with the limitations and incapacities of the human misunderstanding.”

But wouldn’t it be great if language were logical and maximally efficient? If sentences had only as many syllables as strictly needed? If each word had a single, unique meaning? If there were no hom- ophones, so we’d not be able to mix up dear and deer or two and too? No, absolutely not. No way. Quit even thinking that. What are you, some kind of philistine? If Shakespeare hadn’t played with the number of syllables in his sentences, he would not have been able to communicate in iambic pentameter. If words could only have one meaning, we would have to invent a completely new vocabulary every time a new technology came along. Instead of clicking on an icon to open a computer file, you might have to kilk on a zinwang to nepo a wordcomp dak. And if we didn’t have homophones, we couldn’t have puns. A world without puns! That would be a world without steak puns! And a steak pun is a rare medium well done!

Not only would a logical language be an unpoetic, humorless hassle, it wouldn’t be a human language. It wouldn’t vary across people and borders like human languages do. British and American English may follow basically the same rules and have the same basic structures, but sometimes the rules are vague and the structures are sketchy, and so they can be applied in different ways. We don’t differ on the big things—there isn’t a dialect of English that says cat the instead of the cat or one in which cats is the singular and cat is plural. But where the language leaves options open, dialects can differ. Some nouns for places need a the before them and some do not. Which kind of place noun is hospital? The suffix –ed marks a regular past tense, but is learn a regular verb or not? There are rules and patterns, but there are also choices to be made. The fact that we don’t make them all the same way is not a crisis of logicality—it’s a fascinating aspect of the human condition.

We make the choices we make on these matters because people around us made those choices and we heard them. A dialect is essentially a collection of social habits. We become so used to hearing particular forms that the choices behind them don’t feel like choices. When people ask me questions like

-Why do the British (often) say goatee beard when a goatee can’t be anything but a beard?

-Why do Americans emphasize the new in New Year (rather than the British style of stressing both words)?

. . . the answer I most often give is: “Because that’s how the people around them say it.” Whatever historical or linguistic reasons there are for these differences, that’s what the answer comes down to.

I don’t say tarp instead of tarpaulin because (in the words of a charming man on Yahoo Answers) “Americans shorten our language . . . because they only have half a brain.” I say it because that’s what my dad calls the thing that he uses as a dust sheet when painting. (And excuse me, Mr. Yahoo Answers: it was not Americans who shortened cardigan, spaghetti bolognese, café, and the BBC into cardie, spag bol, caff, and the Beeb. Plenty of Brits are shortening “your” language.)

We in Anglophone countries may be particularly prone to misunderstandings about how language works; few of us study other languages enough to have any sensible basis of comparison. What grammar we learn in school is often oversimplified to the point of self-contradiction. (“Verbs are action words!” they tell us. “Was is a verb!” they tell us. Can you see the problem?) And so our “logical” justifications for saying things in a particular way are often based on faulty premises. And the faultiest premise of all is: “If it’s logical to say it my way, then it must be illogical to say it your way.” Objectively speaking, your way of saying something is probably just as weird as anyone else’s. It certainly deserves no less explanation than theirs.


Lynne Murphy, The Prodigal Tongue

From The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British EnglishUsed with permission of Penguin Books. Copyright © 2018 by Lynne Murphy.

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