texting and the English language

I just finished my second time through the Great Courses lecture series Myths, Lies, and Half-Truths of Language Usage1 by John McWhorter. It’s an enjoyable and fascinating set of lectures about how language is used. Given that McWhorter is a linguist, he is as interested in how language is actually used as he is in how it “should be” used. (Yes, I do seem to have a fondness for linguists.)

cover: myths lies and half truthsIn his lecture on texting he suggests that the practice is not as harmful to the language as some people might want to think. He points out that the same questions arose when the use of email first became common. He also suggests that the abbreviations used in texting do not carry over into everyday speech and formal writing. He uses the examples OMG, LOL, BFF, and WTF.

It seems to me, however, that sometimes people do say “o-m-g.” It’s a nice alternative, perhaps, in polite company to using the complete phrase it replaces. Someone might also say “b-f-f” I suppose. But people certainly don’t go around saying “lol” in everyday speech. In fact “w-t-f” might be a useful euphemism to introduce into casual conversation, but I’ve never heard anyone say it.

In any case, I think that McWhorter is correct: texting has not had an adverse effect on other forms of communication. He sees four boxes, as he calls them:

  • Being a good conversationalist
  • Having great formal writing skills
  • Making a compelling and effective speech
  • Crafting oneself as a “maximally clever e-mailer and as an aggressively clever texter.”

McWhorter tells us, “Cultivate your four boxes.”

That makes sense to me.

1If the course is not on sale, check back – the sale price will come around again

Secular Music Friday: March Forth – The Grammar Song

Yes, I know it is Lent. Yes, I know that Ash Wednesday was this week. But I’m in the need for some whimsy, and tomorrow is National Grammar Day. So, please, enjoy!

English Grammar Boot Camp

English Grammar Boot Camp coverEnglish Grammar Boot Camp
Professor Anne Curzan, Ph.D.
The Great Courses
Audio download $44.95 when on sale, Video download $69.95 when on sale
If the course is not on sale, check back – the sale price will come around again

This is one of the most enjoyable of the over 60 Great Courses series I have purchased.

I generally buy lecture series from The Great Courses to listen to on my iPod when I’m out walking. When I discovered this course, however, I knew I would be missing out if I didn’t get the video. So I did something that I have never done: I got the video download. The vast majority of my Great Courses purchases have been audio downloads, and I have purchased a few DVD sets, but this was my first video download. I’m glad that’s what I did. I downloaded the Great Courses iPad app and was able to stream the course while sitting in my comfy chair.

I know Anne Curzan’s work. I very much enjoyed her course The Secret Life of Words. And this course was an absolute delight. Don’t let the title fool you, however. “Boot Camp” should not, in this context, be construed to mean “basic training.” This course is anything but basic. In the first lecture Curzan says, “I’m a complete geek about grammar—and I have a feeling that you’re here, taking this course, because you also care a lot about language and how to use it well. You’re in the right place.” (I was so taken by this course that I did something else I have never done: paid for the complete course transcript.) There is definitely a lot of grammar geek stuff in this course.

Curzan is a linguist, which means she is as much concerned with how language is actually used as she is with proper usage. In fact more so. That’s not to say that anything goes. She very much understands the need for proper grammar in written English, and she tells her students (and us) that using certain constructions might cause the writer to be judged by certain readers, or that a certain usage might simply be distracting to the reader. At the same time she points out that certain rules, such as not splitting an infinitive or not ending a sentence with a preposition, were established more or less arbitrarily.

If you are a grammar geek you will love this course. While I included the price of the audio download, I highly recommend the video.

the passive voice

I recently came across an article I had saved from the first quarter 1991 issue of Technical Communication, the journal of the Society for Technical Communication, or STC. The article by Kent Porter is entitled “Usage of the Passive Voice,” and is a hilarious spoof on the use of the passive in technical communication.

passive voice: "inconvenience caused is regretted"The passive voice, of course, is when the subject of the sentence becomes the object. The sentence “He clobbered me” is in the active voice. “I was clobbered by him” is in the passive voice.

Although most of Porter’s article is funny only if you have either been a technical writer or a user of technical manuals, the author provides a couple of tidbits that any student of language can enjoy. First, he re-writes Shakespeare:

Friends, Romans, countrymen, your ears should be lent to me. … It is intended that Caesar be buried, not praised.

In another example he writes:

Jane was asked to be married by Robert through a romantic proposal.

Both great examples of why to avoid the passive.

I belong to an online kitchen appliances group. One woman wrote about a particular appliance:

My husband and I agreed that the quiche is not going to be made again.

I’m not sure why she didn’t want to admit to who was responsible for making the quiche.

Of course, there are times when it is appropriate to use the passive. Anne Curzan, in her video course English Grammar Boot Camp, writes about starting a blog entry this way:

I have a new favorite mug. It was given to me by graduate students in the English and Education program.

Curzan points out that the passive is useful here because the focus of the second sentence is the mug and not the graduate students.

In The Elements of Style Strunk and White state:

The active voice is usually more direct and vigorous than the passive. … This rule does not, of course, mean that the writer should entirely discard the passive voice, which is frequently convenient and sometimes necessary.

The pompous H.W. Fowler states in Modern English Usage that the passive “sometimes leads to bad grammar, false idiom, or clumsiness.” Note the “sometimes.”

The bottom line, then: give preference to the active voice, but use the passive when appropriate.

By the way, if you are a technical writer or a user of technical manuals you might enjoy Porter’s original article. It’s here in PDF format. Note that the article starts halfway down the page.

photo credit: Scott Dexter, cropped.  license: Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 2.0 Generic.


kid in a candy shop

Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation coverOne of the blogs I follow is CMOS Shop Talk, from the good folks at the Chicago Manual of Style. They recently ran an interview with Bryan Garner about the May release of his Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation. (What took them so long?) Ann Curzan, the instructor in the English Grammar Boot Camp video course that I am taking often quotes from the author’s Garner’s Modern English Usage, and he seems to me to frequently take a conservative, overly pedantic, and restrictive stance on grammar and usage. But, I thought, he is writing the Chicago Guide for the Chicago Manual of Style, so he is going to have to adhere to Chicago style, rules, and conventions. Right? And in any case he is the author of the Grammar and Usage” chapter in the Chicago Manual of Style.

So I bought it.

And what a pleasure the book is. It tells me all about mass nouns and count nouns. It distinguishes between qualitative adjectives and quantitative adjectives. It discusses linking verbs, phrasal verbs, and ergative verbs. It discusses compound sentences, complex sentences, and even compound-complex sentences.

So much fun.

It’s that little old grammar nerd, me.




“we don’t have nothing to hide” or double negatives, part 2

Not long ago I wrote about double negatives. I said that we usually think double negatives cancel each other out, but that there is a school of thought that says that a double negative can be used for emphasis. I didn’t remember my source, but after I had written that blog entry and had it queued up for publication I began a course from The Great Courses entitled English Grammar Boot Camp. The instructor, Anne Curzan, discusses this in detail.

Curzan says that while there are sentences in English where the negatives do in fact cancel each other out, a double, or multiple, negative is also frequently used for emphasis. Similar to my “I didn’t do nuthin’” example, she uses the example, “We don’t have nothing to hide.” She says it is clear that the meaning is “We have nothing to hide,” and not “We have something to hide.”

multiple negationShe points out that double negatives used for emphasis can be found in Chaucer. She tells us that you can find double negatives for emphasis in Shakespeare. In As You Like It, Celia says: “I cannot go no further.”

Curzan says that she has two answers when someone says, “But when you multiply two negatives you get a positive,” to support the idea that two negatives in a sentence cancel each other out.

  1. “Language is not math.”
  2. “OK fine, let’s do math. If you have two negatives in math and you add them, what do you get? You actually get a bigger negative.”

So if we listen to the defendant on the witness stand saying “I didn’t do nuthin’” in that cartoon, I guess we’re going to have to acquit.


much ado about nothing

I spent the greater part of a recent morning getting my knickers in a knot over nothing.

I had just started a new course from The Great Courses entitled English Grammar Boot Camp. The instructor displayed a sentence which the editors of the American Heritage Dictionary sent to their usage panel to get panel member views as to whether the construction was acceptable. The sentence read:

Aptitude is essential; but equally as important is the desire to learn.

The question revolved around the use of “equally as important” in the sentence, the idea being that it might be better to streamline the sentence by writing “equally important.” However, I fixated on the words after the semicolon, thinking that they did not constitute an independent clause. I composed a rant for the blog on my business web site, describing how that bothered me, and citing the Chicago Manual of Style chapter and verse. Chicago takes the position that the phrase to the right of a semicolon must be an independent clause.

But wait. There’s a problem here. “equally as important is the desire to learn” is an independent clause. It is a sort of backwards Yoda English (“Much to learn you still have.”) that does not stand well on its own, but it is an independent clause nonetheless. Remove the “as.” “Equally important is the desire to learn.”

Subject the desire to learn
Verb is
Predicate equally important

Now there is a comparative (“equally important”) that does not have a referent, which is not good syntax, but grammatically this is an independent clause.

I wasted a morning on a rant I was wrong about.

In the words of Miss Emily Latella, “Oh, that’s very different. Never mind.”