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November 5, 2004

The futility of grammar checkers
Posted by Teresa at 01:42 PM * 79 comments

I love English, a language in which the following three sentences use three different verbs:

She was going to put Up With People on as the opening act.
The seckel pears were put up with spiced crab apples in a heavy syrup.
She could no longer put up with his nonsense.
I’ve been explaining for years that while I can imagine that there might be languages for which an automatic grammar checker might be useful, English is not one of them.

This morning a further demonstration of the point occurred to me: in English, to have done with—a construction which might have been designed to trip up simple-minded grammar checkers—is a phrasal verb meaning to have no further concern with; while to have to do with means to be concerned with or to deal with. The latter is frequently used in combination with what, as in what has [foo] to do with [bar]; but if what is used immediately before it, the phrasal verb dissolves and to do reverts to being a bog-standard verb, as in he doesn’t know what to do with himself.

The day a computer can sort that out, I’ll ask it to parse the subjunctive.

Comments on The futility of grammar checkers:
#1 ::: xeger ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 01:55 PM:

I'm having trouble parsing subjectively, never mind subjuntctively.

#2 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 02:03 PM:

My favorite example is:

Time flies like an arrow but bar flies like a whiskey.

If you have the wits to ignore them, grammar checkers can be fine. That said, I've gotten into some surprisingly fierce arguments with colleagues who cited Word's objections to my use of the word "which" without a preceding comma.

#3 ::: Yoon Ha Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 02:10 PM:

I've known friends who get some mileage out of Word's grammar checker, but I seem to have an especial gift for generating grammatical sentences that the thing chokes on. That *is* probably an indicator that I need to streamline the prose, but dagnabit, I ain't takin' the grammar-checker's word (uh, pun intended?) for it.

I loooove phrasal verbs. :-) I think it was in middle or high school my sister and I picked up a dictionary of phrasal verbs (I can't remember the exact title). So mind-bogglingly fun to browse.

#4 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 02:16 PM:

BTW - every language poses grammar puzzles. I wouldn't want to have been the person who figured out the rules for grammar-checking German articles and pronouns!

#5 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 02:20 PM:

In a recent story, I wrote the line "Is that who that was?" I ran the Word grammar checker (since I'm quite prone to things like repeated repeated words) and it was unhappy with that sentence.

It suggested replacing "who" with "that," which would have rendered the sentence "Is that that that was?" which hardly seems like an improvement.

That was the story for which Teresa used no red pencil at all, for which I fully credit my wife's copyediting skills, not Word's.

#6 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 02:22 PM:

Were there a grammar checker that could sort that out, it could parse the subjunctive.

A colleague of mine in the Linguistics dept. at MSU used to have a button that said "Save the Subjunctive -- Would That We Could!"

#7 ::: Mary Aileen Buss ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 02:34 PM:

The "grammar checkers" I've seen are more like style checkers: they don't like passive voice or complex sentences. If you're writing a business report, this is probably a good thing. For anything else, it's a pain in the neck.

#8 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 02:37 PM:

I still feel negligent for having left no marks on your story. If I had it to do over again, there's a significantly different body of advice I would have given you.

#9 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 02:38 PM:

This is because no on at Microsoft knows JACK about English grammar.

#10 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 02:38 PM:

And no one (with an E!) at this keyboard can type worth JACK today.

#11 ::: Nicholas Rogers ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 02:46 PM:

This is probably going to sound pathetic, but thank you all SO MUCH for this thread and your comments. I had begun to fear I was the last language geek in the universe. Your one-liners and droll anecdotes have left me giggling all morning. And I have SO needed a good giggle.

Thanks again.

#12 ::: Alex Cohen ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 02:46 PM:

I still feel negligent for having left no marks on your story. If I had it to do over again, there's a significantly different body of advice I would have given you.

Well, you did leave quite a lot of blue pencil marks, all worthwhile. But I'd be thrilled to hear any more advice. I haven't sent it out yet. (Mostly due to Greg and Steve's helpful suggestion of completely changing the premise, which is quite unfortunately good advice.)

#13 ::: Rose ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 02:47 PM:

When I was but a wee thing (er, college exchange student) studying in an Italian-language immersion program in Siena, one of my fellow American students explained to our teacher that the reason why she was having so much trouble learning the subjunctive in Italian was that *in English we don't have a subjunctive*.

She seemed quite surprised by the howls of laughter that greeted her explanation.

#14 ::: melissa ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 03:05 PM:

Rose - I came out of HS and college with a lot of foreign language classes behind me - and I know I learned more about English grammar in those classes than in the English classes I took.

I always thought learning a second language would have been easier if I had known my English grammar better... I know learning the third was...

#15 ::: Beth ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 03:12 PM:

I still feel negligent for having left no marks on your story. If I had it to do over again, there's a significantly different body of advice I would have given you.

Wah! I didn't get any red marks from Teresa either. (Though you did give me tasty lunch, served with lots of excellent suggestions.)

Speaking of grammar checkers, I wonder how hard German grammar checkers have to work to handle that peculiar construction where you can make an adjective out of an entire clause. (As in, "The in the waning moments of the temporary truce and by the strongly divided and vocal parties negotiated treaty was signed in great haste.")

#16 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 03:18 PM:

melissa - Hmmm, High School French (which is it's own peculiar language, I suppose) taught me nothing about English grammar at all. I just applied my English language instincts and got it right most of the time.

Now, when I took German (in my early 30's, no less) I learned more about English grammar than I ever thought I would.

I suspect that the presence of a robust cases system in German had something to do with it, and likewise supports the claim that learning Latin teaches you all sorts of things about English.

#17 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 03:26 PM:

Hello, Nicholas. We're all word junkies here. And have you been to Languagehat?

#18 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 03:37 PM:

Beth: or even "The in the waning moments of the temporary truce and by the strongly divided and vocal parties negotiated treaty was in great haste but with much fanfare and great presence of dignitaries and the press signed."

I can't remember the actual sentence, but I wound up one in highschool German class with something like "studiert geworden können." Not really unusual in German, but I recall it impressed the heck out of my teacher.

#19 ::: Beth ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 04:13 PM:

Xopher: Aha. Nice. I see you've been reading German newspapers. :)

something like "studiert geworden können."

Yes, once you get to three levels of verbs at the end of the sentence, things get quirky and dense. (For example: "die Hausaufgabe, die wir haben tun sollen.")

Mark Twain was right, I think.

#20 ::: Laura Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 04:18 PM:

All I know about the German language, I learned from Mark Twain:

" . . . well, in a German newspaper they put their verb away over on the next page; and I have heard that sometimes after stringing along the exciting preliminaries and parentheses for a column or two, they get in a hurry and have to go to press without getting to the verb at all. Of course, then, the reader is left in a very exhausted and ignorant state."

#21 ::: Yoon Ha Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 04:48 PM:

And Teresa, I found your invisible pencil marks really tough to read! ;-) *grins, ducks, and runs* (Seriously, though, I will figure things out.)

Doing German first helped prepare me for Latin, which was sooooo fun. I still regret not taking Latin *earlier,* though--I was in a one-semester intensive intro for a last-semester-of-college elective. *wistful*

Korean spelling is entertainingly aggravating because the preferred spelling is currently (I believe) morphophonemic rather than phonemic, and I'm not (alas) fluent or literate enough to know all the roots...I keep sticking in [h]-bachim out of sheer paranoia, and am probably misspelling everything in the other direction. I must ask my mom about grammar checkers for Korean...

#22 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 05:04 PM:

English spelling is morphophonemic, also, to the extent that it's anything.

Otherwise 'electric' and 'electricity' would be spelled with a k and an s (respectively) instead of the second c, and an important piece of information relating the two words would be lost.

#23 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 05:09 PM:

Laura - My German teacher at the Goethe-Institut in Berlin said that even she (a native speaker, like all G-I teachers) sometimes had to go back and re-read certain overly complex sentences found in places like foreign policy articles Der Spiegel. Perhaps Mr. Clemens was closer to the truth than he thought.

#24 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 05:15 PM:

Morphophonemic? Squa tront? Explain.

#25 ::: David Elworthy ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 06:01 PM:

Xopher is wrong to say that "no on(e) at Microsoft knows Jack about English grammar". In fact, Microsoft Research has a very strong group in this natural language processing (see, and they have a large scale natural language processing system, based on an earlier system called PLNLP (see for a review of a book on the subject).

My recollection is that Microsoft's version of PLNLP is what powers their English grammar checker. I don't claim the grammar checker works all that well, and in fact I've only rarely used it. There are three very hard problems you have to deal with. One is the natural language analysis itself; as we like to say in NLP, "all grammars leak", by which it is meant that it is hard to come up with an (analysis) grammar that covers a broad range of language use without introducing massive ambiguity in the results. I've used PLNLP, or MSNLP as it is called now, and it actually does a fairly good job in getting a good syntactic analysis. I don't know that it would get the right results for the "put up with" examples, as the first one relies on making a good guess at some world knowledge, but I would expect it to do OK on the "to do with" examples.

A second problem is how to you translate that analysis into rules of usage which provide a simple critique of the text. If you want to understand what I mean, try taking a look at one of the comprehensive reference grammars of English such as Quirk, Greenbaum, Leech and Svartvik (over a thousand pages long) or the recent one by Huddlestone and Pullum.

The third problem is getting people to decide on what counts as right. Sadly, all too many people get hung up on essentially arbitrary rules, leading them to get diverted into what a text should be rather than whether they understood it. (Usually such people are editors or have taken Strunk and White's pox-ridden little pocketbook of pointless pontifications too much to heart).

This, to return to what Theresa originally said, is the one reason why I think grammar checkers might just be useful: they provide a normative way of checking the language so as to avoid distracting a certain kind of reader.

#26 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 06:23 PM:

Perhaps I should stay in the Stratificational frame and say morphonic, but more people understand morphophonemic.

In any language, morphemes (like 'pig' or the plural morpheme, about which more shortly) sometimes appear in different forms.

Everyone know what a phoneme is? Well, just quickly then, a phoneme is the basic logical unit of sound. Two speech sounds are different phonemes if (not only if, but moving on) they can make a minimal pair, that is, a pair of words, recognized as different words by a native speaker, distinguished only by the fact that one has one sound and the other -- the other.

For example, in English /s/ and /z/ are different phonemes: zoot and suit (/zut/ and /sut/ respectively) are different words. So are resent /riysent/ and resent /riyzent/, as in "I resent that email." The /s/ or /z/ pronunciation determines whether you sent it again or were offended by it.

When the same morpheme appears with different phonemes, we have to account for the difference somehow in how we spell out the morpheme. We do that with morphophonemes, most of which correspond exactly to phonemes, but a few of which don't.

Examples. The plural morpheme has three phonemic realizations in English, of which we'll discuss two (the shwa-z one is too complex for this venue, pace JvP). The plural of 'bird' is pronounced /brdz/, but the plural of 'goat' is pronounced /gowts/. /s/ and /z/ are different phonemes, yet specify the same morpheme. We spell it, morphophonemically, //-Z//. So we write (morphophonemic) //gowtZ// and //brdZ//, to indicate that the morpheme is the same in both cases; then realize them into phonemes as given above.

English does this all over the place. Our beloved mother tongue has a recurring phenomenon called k/s alternation (not to be confused with slash where Kirk and Spock take turns...never mind). Electric/electricity is the most obvious example. In these two words, the first morpheme is pronounced /ilectrik/ in the first, and /ilectris/ in the second. /k/ and /s/ are different phonemes. So English uses the spelling 'c' to represent this fact.

And it's not a matter of system-wide alternation, either. Compare the plurals of 'wife' and 'cliff'. Or even 'dwarf' meaning "genetically shortened human" vs. 'dwarf' in the sense "Tolkien's short race of carver/warriors." The first has the plural 'dwarfs' (or used to); the second has the plural 'dwarves'.

English spelling doesn't capture that one very well. But you see what I'm saying.

#27 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 06:30 PM:

OK, no one who gets to make decisions about the stupid grammar checker knows jack about English grammar. They can't even handle a simple restrictive clause, for gods' sake!

Sorry, and no disrespect, but if a grammar checker can't do better than that, it shouldn't even be part of Word.

And btw, while NLP may stand for Natural Language Processing inside Microsoft, out here it mostly stands for NeuroLinguistic Programming, which is a therapy discipline (Jon Singer is a famous practitioner).

#28 ::: Leslie ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 07:02 PM:

melissa and Larry Brennan:

My high school Spanish was what taught me about English grammar. Most of what I can actually articulate about English grammatical structures comes from my study of Spanish (and later linguistics), as opposed to any English class I ever took.

And Xopher, I have to agree with you about the grammar checker in Word. I find it worse than useless, unless I want to amuse myself with its ridiculous results.

#29 ::: dolloch ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 07:06 PM:


Had a question for the word junkies here. I was having an argument/debate with a fellow the other night about grammar. He insisted that it was a construct of the ruling class to identify themselves as different from the so-called uneducated masses. He reasoned that it was in their best interest to insist on keeping grammar as is rather than let it develop naturally. His example was the sports arena style of dropping out all adverbs in favor of adjectives.

I didn't have much of a counter other than I thought it was silly, which really isn't much of a position. Being controlled through words stinks of self-disempowerment, political correctness, and semiotics. Er, semiotics at least how my film school taught it. At what point does creative expression and style run into illiteracy? It seemed like a very... well, Marxist or Communist analysis (not sure which is the more proper term) of language.


*re-lurking, feeling vaguely dirty and troll-ish. Apologies*

#30 ::: jax ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 07:24 PM:

My spell checker is insane. It constantly tries to get my tenses to agree, so I bite sometimes and change it per SC advice. Invariably it will change one verb and not another. Then the SC says the verb it just changed is wrong. Then it will say the other verb is wrong. Then it says both are wrong and that's when I copy everything over to notepad. I think non-English speaking people created spell check to demonstrate the hair-pulling complications of our language.

[Aside: So, I'm beginning the ominous task of rewriting my VP submission and I CAN'T FIND the ms that you marked up, Teresa. Drat! My office is filled with about ten copies of other markups, but nothing remotely resembling Teresa's beloved red pencil marks.]

#31 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 07:25 PM:

Well, that depends on how you define 'grammar'. When linguists talk about the grammar of English, they're being descriptive. Therefore the grammatical and ungrammatical uses of "ain't," for example, can be discussed.

When grammarians and other self-appointed "authorities" use the term, it's often prescriptive. In that sense no use of "ain't" can be grammatical, since it's a banned word.

The uses that are considered "proper grammar" are, in fact, the dialect spoken by the ruling class. That's what makes it preferred. Scientifically, all dialects are equal -- and I've discussed elsewhere the usefulness of the aspect phenomenon in inner-city American English, a deeply non-standard (i.e. non-preferred) dialect. The standard dialect has to talk a lot longer to get to the concepts which "Black English" communicates with the presence or absense of a single word.

Of course, most of us here are committed to one or more of the standard dialects in a pretty intense way. I have to say, I prefer the standard ones in writing. Does that make me a classist prig? Perhaps it does, honestly. But there's a certain sense in which any standard is better than no standard at all; and a de facto standard (however unsavory the means by which it established itself) is preferable to a new one imposed by a Committee of the People or some such. IMO.

So, your friend does have a point. But the dynamic is much more complex than he realizes. One example in his favor: whether the New York upper class pronounces 'r' after a vowel goes back and forth; the "best" pronunciation is currently with, whereas if you rent some old movies you'll find the upper crusties not pronouncing it.

This is because the middle class tries to sound like the upper class. Once they succeed, the upper class changes so they won't sound middle class. This isn't my conjecture; it's a standard example in sociolinguistics class.

#32 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 07:32 PM:

Actually, Dolloch, that's a truly interesting question. Only problem is, I have to go fix dinner right now. I'll see what's developed when I get back.

#33 ::: Yoon Ha Lee ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 07:56 PM:

Xopher: Oh! You know, I had learned about the Korean morpho(phonem)ic thing separately. I don't really think in Korean, so it made sense as I tried to navigate Korean spelling (well--I can pronounce it if it's written, but because of the various contextual sound changes, there are multiple ways to write a given set of sounds). But I do think in English (including spelling) and I generally don't *think* about spelling words the way I have to wrestle with it in Korean. And so I hadn't seen the connection. Thank you!

P.S. I picked up _Introduction to Stratificational Grammar_ some time back. Am stalled out on simplifying the tree diagrams, but oh! Such pretty diagrams!

#34 ::: Tom Whitmore ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 08:01 PM:

Xopher gets part of it very right: there are differences between descriptive and proscriptive grammar. Grammar is an essential part of how we communicate, and (despite your friend's attempt to get rid of it) some elements of it are absolutely crucial -- in English, word order actually is more important than in other languages which mark noun cases, for example (John loves Mary does not mean Mary loves John; in other languages, like Latin, the order would not be the sole determiner of that meaning).

Your friend knows exactly what he/she means irrespective of grammar -- but the person listening to him/her may not know. Proper grammar helps cut down ambiguity (the subjunctive conditional-contrary-to-fact, for all that some people treat it as a joke, is an excellent disambiguator!). Those who attempt to relegate grammar to the dustbin of history are apt to find themselves on the rubbish heap of misunderstanding.

#35 ::: David Elworthy ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 08:04 PM:

Xopher: NLP doesn't stand for Natural Language Processing just within Microsoft, but within a research community that goes back to the 1950s. The use of it for Neuro-Linguistic Programming has been known to cause problems for both communities; my office mate when I was a PhD student said "hey, NLP, I've got lots of books on that", but did I find so much as one meagre parse rule? I did not.

#36 ::: Debra Doyle ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 08:11 PM:

dolloch -- I suspect that what your "grammar is a construct of the ruling classes" friend was actually talking about was a combination of usage and dialect. Grammar is the bones of the living language, and Black Vernacular English has just as much of it as WASP Lockjaw -- it has to, or those who speak it would not be able to talk to one another at all.

#37 ::: Yaka St.Aise ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 08:12 PM:

[gross hijack]

As a self-taught (obviously broken) english speaker, and likewise lacking any academy-endorsed training in my native language, I find myself facing a recurrent challenge when in doubt about english grammar:
how to figure whether I got it right ?

In French I can - so to speak - "play by ear", thanks to the respectable amount and variety of litterature and other french-language experiences piled up in the back of my brain (plus we have this fairly clear-cut separation between oral and written word).

When it comes to english, and even more so US english, I find harder to teach and correct myself based on what I read since what is proper, barbaric, sub-par, witty or poetic may be harder to tell apart from each other for my untrained eye.

Typical example: than or then ?

I used to assume then was the appropriate form for comparative clauses, as in:

"My blue donkey is smarter yet less succesful than your red pachyderm."

More than often I read the above construction with then substituting than ; so frequently, in fact, that I come to doubt my reference material (originally in this case a mid-'50s L.J.Kennel dog food commercial).

Did popular US english change so much over a measly half-century ?
Is that a barbaric form like the obnoxious your/you're that somehow made it to common acceptance 'dom ?
Did I just miss the obvious ? Then what is ?

I know by experience how in France the word-conscious foreigner (or for that matter native) should avoid like plague using contemporary mainstream media (written or otherwise) as reference material when it comes to grammar/syntax - the sacred cow "Le Monde" itself daily newpaper is not above third-choice prose quality.

The easy part, tough, is that *proper* french (at least in the written form) is a slow mover, so one can reasonably trust literary references up to late '70s to tell the 'correct' from the 'creative' when it comes to grammar, syntax and style.

French spelling ambiguity is close to a non-issue since it got mostly frozen somewhere around the time public schools became mandatory, more than a century ago.

Now, about contemporary english, how does one draw the line ?

Is there a convenient way to learn as you go and discriminate that comes to mind ?
...or am I doomed to take english classes 101 to make up for my autodidactic flaws (I'm not very good at that sort of learning, tbh) ?

Any advice from natives and non-native english speakers is welcome.

#38 ::: dolloch ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 08:15 PM:

Xopher -
Thanks for your response!

I think he (Rob) was trying to establish that grammar, specifically correcting "improper" grammar, was a tool of control and oppression. The Man keepin' ya down. For instance, if one were to use Ebonics in a coverletter while submitting a resume, it would be summarily rejected. Since grammar is largely arbitrary (in the prescriptive view), then he reasoned it was a tool to keep the uneducated from climbing the social ladder.

That makes sense in a rudementary way, but I didn't think it took into account a universal public educational system. Rob said the insistance on enforcing grammar in the first place was inherently an oppressive act; that fearing the fall of Western Civilization when a preposition appears at the end of a sentence is a culture demanding subjugation. I think that says more about how his mother would correct him than it does about society, but that's just me.

It seems to run a questioning loop - if it's arbitrary, why do we judge intelligence on the differentiation of a person's speaking and writing style? Conversely, how do we communicate effectively if everyone is essentially speaking their own language? Tool of society for division (of class), or tool of society for unification (of communication)?

Oop. I'll have to check-in later. Like Teresa, I must run for now.

#39 ::: jax ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 08:15 PM:

Dolloch wrote: He insisted that it was a construct of the ruling class to identify themselves as different from the so-called uneducated masses. He reasoned that it was in their best interest to insist on keeping grammar as is rather than let it develop naturally.

Interesting and perhaps true, but maybe just because it's true about the ruling classes doesn't make it the only truth, or even the only reason. Correct me if I'm wrong but if we kept grammar as it was, we wouldn't be using punctuation (since that only came about when language began being written and the punctuation was necessary for pauses, etc), and I imagine we'd still be talking in Old English (ye, thy, thine, etc).

I know that's a vocabulary and punctuation example, perhaps, rather than pure grammar, but my point is a language develops with a culture's necessity and advancements. It doesn't surprise me that it's a tool for higher classes, but I think it's a tool for every class now.

You asked: At what point does creative expression and style run into illiteracy?

My take on it is language was invented to communicate more effectively than hand signals and chest pounding (though sometimes one hand signal is worth a thousand insults). I suppose when the language serves to confuse more than it does to clarify or communicate, it borders on illiteracy, or at least, it ceases to be effective.


#40 ::: Aquila ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 10:47 PM:

I just googled "less then".

It's everywhere. It wasn't a substitution I'd noticed before, now I'm afraid it'll be jumping out at me everywhere.

I'm off to go test some more 'than' phrases for 'then' infiltration.

Here's a particularly painful example:
"What is greater then God? More evil than the devil? Poor people have it? Rich people
need it? And if you eat it you die?"

#41 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 11:08 PM:

Yaka - If your English is self-taught, I am truly in awe. Only bits and pieces of your construction betray a non-native speaker. (Well, non-native writer, anyway.)

Unless you're writing formally in English, my advice would be to not worry and just go with the flow, much as you do in French. If it really matters, ask a native speaker to proofread.

As far as “less than” (correct) versus “less then” (very, very incorrect), it's one of those things that people who know better can do without even noticing. I've recently posted comments here where I've left out prepositions, used "it's" where I should have used "its" and actually wrote (much to my post-hitting-post dismay) "web sight". (Sobs inconsolably.)

Because the web is such an informal environment, I wouldn’t rely too much on it for usage guidance, especially for matters of grammar. Surely there must be English grammars for non-native speakers. (Any English as a Foreign Language/ESL teachers out there?) I know that I rely on my Hueber A Practice Grammar of German whenever I am unsure of how to say something in German.

#42 ::: Yaka St.Aise ::: (view all by) ::: November 05, 2004, 11:12 PM:

Thanks to a bad copy paste job in my above post (that will teach me to be lazy about html tags) I actually provided a counter example:

[I used to assume then was the appropriate form for comparative clauses, as in:

"My blue donkey is smarter yet less succesful than your red pachyderm."]

Should obviously (as per my sample sentence) have read:

[I used to assume than was the appropriate form for comparative clauses, as in:

"My blue donkey is smarter yet less succesful than your red pachyderm."]

Arguably unimportant, typo-grade mishap, nevertheless confusing (not to mention embarassing) in this peculiar context.

#43 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 01:37 AM:

Than is comparative; then is chronological.

Dolloch, all language necessarily has grammar. If you use it correctly, your hearers aren't having to waste processing time figuring out what you meant, and can pay more attention to what you said. In this sense, learning grammar is valuable and important, no matter what the ruling class is up to at the moment.

However, it is true that certain bits of language are brought in primarily for their snob value. Some of them later get assimilated into the language and cease to be snobbish; they're just English. Other bits never fully assimilate into the demotic language, but nevertheless are kept hanging around as shibboleths cherished by people who're half-educated and desperate to prove it.

Most English mavens would agree on the foregoing. The problem, as is so often the case, is where to draw the line. What's mainstream English? What's imposed linguistic snobbery? Everyone thinks they know the answer. No two know exactly the same answer.

#44 ::: Lois Fundis ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 02:27 AM:

melissa and Leslie: when I was in what would now be called "middle school" (6th, 7th, and 8th grade -- this is ages 11 through 13, for those not familiar with the U.S. system), my English teachers often mentioned, while teaching arcane topics like indirect objects, that when we got to 9th grade and started taking foreign languages, it would be useful to us in learning French (or Spanish or German) grammar if we knew the parts of grammar in English. (To that end, they were also fond of diagramming sentences.) They were right, too. Thank you, Mrs. Wiley, wherever you are!

Yaka, than is used in comparative clauses, as in "Your English is much better than my French." And the than/then typo is a common one among native English speakers, so don't feel bad. As Larry mentioned, lots of us have made worse errors, even here on Making Light, where it's all too easy to picture our hostess editing our comments with her red and blue pencils.

#45 ::: jax ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 02:56 AM:

"...hostess editing our comments with her red and blue pencils."

There's blue pencils? Is it worse if we got red marks on our ms? Is there a blue pencil standard we should strive to achieve?

#46 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 03:59 AM:

by Dr. Suess

"...And the more the Grinch thought of the Who-Christmas-Sing
The more the Grinch thought, "I must stop this whole thing!
"Why for fifty-three years I've PUT UP WITH it now!
I MUST stop Christmas from coming!
...But HOW?"


Robert Frost - II. The Pauper Witch of Grafton

"...If anyone had seen me coming home
Over the ridgepole, ' stride of a broomstick,
As often as he had in the tail of the night,
He guessed they'd know what he had to PUT UP WITH."


The Military Wife - author unknown

..."I can't stop now," said the Lord. "I am so close to creating something unique. Already this model heals herself when she is sick, can PUT UP WITH six unexpected guests for the weekend, wave good-bye to her husband from a pier, a runway, or a depot, and understand why it's important he leave."


"Inside the heart of each and every one of us there is a longing to be understood by someone who really cares. When a person is understood, he or she can PUT UP WITH almost anything in the world."
~ Rev Ed Hird ~

#47 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 04:02 AM:

jax: depends on what state your ms is in, of course.

#48 ::: Christopher Davis ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 04:04 AM:

jax: depends on what state your ms is in, of course.

#49 ::: John M. Ford ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 04:52 AM:

There's blue pencils?

Another chance to feel old.

The blue pencil was once the stereotype editor's implement (along with the green eyeshade, string tie, sleeve garters, and a blackjack); the term survives in the phrase "blue-pencil," meaning to strike out words from copy. ("Stereotype" is of course also a printing term, but this is going to get weird enough.) These days, at least in my experience, the red pencil (or sometimes pen) is in general use for editorial markings, probably because of higher visibility: when you're skimming through the pages looking for the ones with marks, those arterial pumpers show up very clearly.

I'm surprised nobody's yet quoted Churchill's "This is something up with which I will not put."

#50 ::: Harry Connolly ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 09:14 AM:

Grammar checkers are certainly useless for actually checking grammar. But they are useful for something else.

If I type "form" when I meant to type "from," my spell-checker will not catch it. Neither will I, occasionally. Grammar checker will point it out, though. At least, in most cases it will.

#51 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 03:49 PM:


The rise of red and blue pencils marked a definitive end to the so-called golden age of editing. When M. Jacquard Ticondérogue, inventor and sole manufacturer of the Paisley Pencil took his secret manufacturing techniques to his deathbed, an entire generation of American writers, including Emily Dickinson, was able to get away with all sorts of fanciful construction. It took a full 20 years for the editorial profession to recover from this historic disaster.

There have been subsequent periods of experimentation, including the ill-fated Yellow Pencil Project and the Eyebrow Pencil Movement, which reached its peak with the screenplays of Pillow Talk and Cleopatra.

Today, editors who deviate from the two-pencil standard often find themselves ostracized from the publishing community, although there is some room for experimentation in the exact shades of blue and red employed in the markup process.

#52 ::: Yaka St.Aise ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 04:08 PM:

Thanks for the answers about the whole than/then thing, I suspected so, but running into this one on a daily basis under the quill (blattant gallicism, I think) of otherwise good writers led me to doubt myself.

Any suggestion for a good grammar/style handbook, preferably in electronic form (laptop wanderer here) would be welcome.

Grammar checkers - as in MS word - I don't use, since they are so obviously unreliable in french, and would most of the time prove only confusing in english.

Spellchecker I try to avoid, too, instead paying attention to my spelling and checking manually in a dictionary when in doubt, which in my case proved a better - if tedious - way to learn and avoid future mistakes.

Other than that, is there - as in french litterature - a 'reliable era' in US/UK books history, during which literary standards were high enough that style and grammar are generally correct, while being modern enough to not sound anachronistic ?

Larry Brennan wrote:
"Only bits and pieces of your construction betray a non-native speaker. (Well, non-native writer, anyway.)"

Good point, and my mistake, my spoken english sounds much more exotic than my written, I suspect, my accent being a weird patchwork of bits caught from movies, songs and TV shows, somewhat smoothed out over time, to the extent than speaking in circles of non-native speakers (airport/UN english) can help.

"Unless you're writing formally in English, my advice would be to not worry and just go with the flow, much as you do in French. If it really matters, ask a native speaker to proofread."

I didn't have to write anything overly formal at this point, except for very technical work papers, where legibility is a must and reader's enjoyment scores low, traditionally.
Were I to consider publishing for a larger public in english, I wouldn't dream of submitting a manuscript without serious proofreading, lest I later have to change my name and live under a rock for a couple centuries.

#53 ::: Kylee Peterson ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 06:04 PM:

The phrases I noticed recently as confusing to non-native English speakers were at the time, referring to a past condition, and at the moment, referring to the immediate present. "Time" and "moment" used alone mean very nearly the same thing, so I can only imagine how much people stumble over the distinction.

#54 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 06:30 PM:

Teresa pichala: The problem, as is so often the case, is where to draw the line. What's mainstream English? What's imposed linguistic snobbery? Everyone thinks they know the answer. No two know exactly the same answer.

This is very true. And there is a shift in every generation, too, to the annoyance of the previous generation. I myself am irritated by the use of the word 'awesome' which I first encountered in the 80s, though I'm getting used to it. I think 'awesome' should mean 'awe-inspiring'.

I've picked my example carefully, though. A century ago (or maybe longer; I'm good at what the changes ARE but spotty on the timing) the word 'awful' meant the same thing I'm saying 'awesome' should...and I'm sure there was a pedantic BOF complaining about its use for 'very bad'.

Linguistic change is like aging. Nobody likes it, and you can try to fight it, but you inevitably lose. That doesn't mean it isn't annoying, or that you have to accept it without complaining, though!

By the way, 'prescriptive' and 'proscriptive' are two different words; opposites, usually, in fact. To prescribe something is to recommend or even command that it be done. To 'proscribe' something is to condemn it, or forbid it entirely. We talk about 'prescriptive' grammarians because they tell you what to do. A 'proscriptive' grammar would only tell you what NOT to do.

However, since that's the position many of these silly people seem to take, I can't exactly say 'proscriptive' is incorrect in this context!

#55 ::: Linkmeister ::: (view all by) ::: November 06, 2004, 08:42 PM:

"lest I later have to change my name and live under a rock for a couple centuries."

Better you should bury the manuscript. The value to antiquarians may be enhanced that way.

#56 ::: Faren Miller ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2004, 01:30 PM:

"Different than" and "comprised of" still make my head hurt (especially the latter, since the meaning has been reversed of late). But I suppose we betray the Latinate words in our language more and more, as Latin becomes an archaeological curiosity in all but the sciences.

On a lighter note, my antique PageMaker spell check does catch some typos and other errors, but when it doesn't recognize a word -- including most words coined since the first half of the 20th century -- it offers wild, often ludicrous alternatives, like a Google search gone hopelessly wrong.

P.S. Teresa, your insistence on Preview can be a godsend!

#57 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2004, 03:25 PM:

The only good grammer program I've ever seen was a port of a Bell Labs package that was developed internally: Bell generated a fearsome amount of paperwork, and the goal was to make the lives of their copyediting department easier by developing an "electronic copyeditor" to do "donkey work" on first drafts.

The commercial release was called Reason and has features that still beats the crap out of Word--that's one reason (pardon the pun) I've kept a machine old enough to run it on. Sadly enough it was Amiga only back when the leading word processor on the platform made the cursor into a little flapping bird whenever you moved it outside the text area... By the time that WordPerfect came out for the Amiga the outfit that ported Reason had left for the Territories by then.

#58 ::: Bruce E. Durocher II ::: (view all by) ::: November 07, 2004, 03:29 PM:

Make that "left for the Territories." and drop the "by then." This shows I shouldn't be typing at a booth while trying to convince folks to buy Foolscap memberships...

#59 ::: David ::: (view all by) ::: November 08, 2004, 04:45 PM:

Oh, I do like fuzzy problems like this. Where do you draw the line at mainstream English is really pretty easy: it's not a line. It's a foggy boundary, not well defined. (If you could make it a line, you could program that, and grammar checkers would be more than a joke.)

Look instead at "inside the boundary" vs. "outside the boundary". These are two pretty sharp areas, easy to recognize. (Well, easy for ML readers anyway.) Then there is the fuzzy area in between. Mostly, that's ok, not least because the fuzzy areas don't occur all that often in daily life. (Unless you're TNH, reading the slushpile.) And I know that's no help at all to the non-native English speakers. Sorry. (I truly suck at other languages, so you're already up on me.)

But think about it. How often do you really run into fuzzy cases if you're not looking for them? One source is the upwelling of slang, but it's never stopped and hasn't killed off the language yet. Another is widespread redefinition of technical terms. (A font is a size. That is not a font. That is a typeface. Oh, I give up.)

While we can't do a rule-based analysis, most individual cases fall into clearly right and clearly wrong. Such rules as we do have are mostly aids to clarification -- if you don't write it this way, people will be confused about what you meant. That's bad, even if they do understand you eventually.

When you do come across an instance of clearly wrong, it's usually grouped with other errors such as spelling and punctuation. These let you know the writer has not mastered the basic tools of the trade, and tips you off not to waste any more time on it.

Murky and imprecise though the non-definition is, it nonetheless serves very well in most specific cases.

I wonder, in great ignorance here, whether a Bayesian approach working with whole sentences would be more successful than an ordinary rule-based grammar-checking system. Anyone know if this has ever been tried, and how well it worked?

#60 ::: Steve Gillett ::: (view all by) ::: November 16, 2004, 10:30 PM:

Re "than/then," "your/you're," etc.

One thing I realized after reading and grading altogether too many college papers is that there are "native-speaker mistakes." The native _hears_ the word, and if t/h/e/i/r/ there happens to be a homonym may write down the homonym instead. I find I do that myself in draft. (And OK, "then" and "than" aren't quite homonyms, but t/h/e/r/e/ they're close.)

But you should be able to fix it on proofing/rewriting. To sound like an old curmudgeon, I think that such errors' surviving into the turn-in draft is a result of the abysmal training in written English that people now get in the US school system...

#61 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2004, 01:16 AM:

Steve Gillett:

... and geology students write "quarts" when they mean "quartz?"

My students send me email explaining why they miss class, homework, and exams. More and more often, that email originated, apparently, as texting.

A writing prof at Oxy told me that one of his assignments to write the traditional essay on "How I spent my Summer Vacation" came to him as:

"we2 went 2 d-land. Miky maus wuz k00l..."

#62 ::: Epacris ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2004, 04:44 AM:

Arrgh!! JvP (way back there, I've been sleeping & going to work inbetweentimes). You hit one of my sensitive spots!

Since when was the plural of any version of a dwarf "dwarfs"? Grrr. "Dwarfs" is a verb! muttergrumblemuttergrumble

The rot seems to have started with -- or at least been greatly accelerated by -- the Disney version of Snow White. I'ts been continued in the Werner Herzog film Even Dwarfs Started Small (aka Auch Zwerge haben klein angefangen) as well as elsewhere.

I'm trying to fight a rear-guard action to save wharves, scarves, lives, wives & a few others, while also attempting to restore dwarves.Hooves seems to be a lost cause.

My one visit overseas & living in a tourist-heavy area of Sydney, have, however, made me think that perhaps we will get an 'international' version of English, simplified & frequently using common American words and spellings (well-known through film & publications) to make it easier for non-native speakers to learn & use. For instance, making nearly all plurals by just using an 's', like dwarfs and sheeps. So I've just confined myself to trying to retain a distinctive, useful & colourful Australian dialect. And muttering.

This sort of development & splitting of English has been an idea in SF for a while.

#63 ::: Jonathan Shaw ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2004, 06:38 AM:

rooves is good too

#64 ::: Steve Gillett ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2004, 10:54 AM:

Anent "dwarfs"--

Actually, "dwarves" is a neologism of Tolkien's. From Appendix F (p. 518 in the Ballantine edition of _Return of the King_):

" this book as in _The Hobbit_ the form _dwarves_ is used, although the dictionaries tell us that the plural of _dwarf_ is _dwarfs_. It should be _dwarrows_ (or _dwerrows_), if singular and plural had each gone their own way down the years, as have _man_ and _men_, or _goose_ and _geese_. ... I have ventured to use the form _dwarves_, and so remove them a little, perhaps, from the sillier tales of later days. _Dwarrows_ would have been better, but I have used that form only in the name _Dwarrowdelf_, to represent the name of Moria in the Common Speech..."

#65 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2004, 11:06 AM:

Steve, that was actually my point.

#66 ::: Jonathan Vos Post ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2004, 11:20 AM:


Okay: Mammoth Dwarves Hunt Dwarf Mammoths, Cook With Giant Shrimp, Pictures at 11...

And Tolkien insists that the plural of Hobbit is, properly, not Hobbits at all, but Hobbytla, or something like that. No time to look it up. Must drive son to college campus. *gulps coffee*

#67 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2004, 11:42 AM:

No, JvP. 'Hobbit' is a modern English (invented) word, derived by the regular sound changes of English from an invented compound in Old (or maybe Middle, this is from memory) English, 'holbytla', which means hole-builder. The plural of the OE version is 'holbytlan'.

He stresses in the Appendices that these are not the actual words, because Westron is not Old English, but he's substituting them so that they will evoke the same sense in an English-speaking reader that the Westron words would to a speaker of that language.

A favorite example of English words changing sound and meaning: if you take the OE word for house, 'hus' /huws/ and stick it together with the word for wife 'wif' /wiyf/, and take it through the historical sound changes, you know what you get?

'Housewife'? Is that your final answer?

Sorry, wrong. You get 'hussy'. 'Housewife' is a Modern English recoinage, the word 'hussy' having changed its meaning by a bit...

#68 ::: Steve Gillett ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2004, 11:59 AM:

I've heard that in actuality Tolkien had originally misremembered the plural of "dwarf" as being "dwarves"--doubly embarrassing for a language professor and OED contributor--so that passage I cited is an after-the-fact rationalization. I can't give you chapter&verse citation for this latter tale, though.

#69 ::: Laura Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2004, 12:09 PM:

He stresses in the Appendices that these are not the actual words, because Westron is not Old English, but he's substituting them so that they will evoke the same sense in an English-speaking reader that the Westron words would to a speaker of that language.

It's also extremely amusing that he says the names of the Hobbits are not actually Frodo, Bilbo, etc. I can't remember any of them now, but I do recall that -a is a masculine name-ending and -o is feminine.

Froda? Bilba? Don't have the same ring, really.

#70 ::: Steve Gillett ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2004, 12:11 PM:

Just a pedantic note: OE _wif_ meant "woman" as well as "wife," a meaning retained in such sayings as "old wives' tale." Cf. also German _Weib_. "Woman" is etymologically _wif-man_, literally "female person."

Another famous example of meaning shifts: There's a Middle English passage (no, I don't remember chapter&verse) about the "silly knave." Only it means "blessed boy," both "silly" and "knave" having changed a bit in meaning in the interim...

#71 ::: Glen Blankenship ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2004, 02:12 PM:
Since when was the plural of any version of a dwarf "dwarfs"?
Umm, since at least 1847, per citations in the OED:
1770 Bp. Percy tr. Mallet's North. Antiq. v. (1847) 98 They made of his skull the vault of heaven, which is supported by four dwarfs, named North, South, East, and West.

Indeed, the OED gives "dwarfs" as the only plural, despite an 1818 citation that uses "dwarves".

Merriam-Webster's 2nd, 3rd, and 10th Collegiate give both forms (and the 2nd, ca. 1953, says that "dwarves" is "Rare"), but the 1913 Webster's Revised Unabridged gives only "dwarfs".

The current American Heritage gives both forms.

That chronology seems to support "dwarves" being a Tolkienian neologism, but then I suppose that must mean that W. Taylor, author of "The history of Laurin, king of the dwarves", published in Monthly Mag. XLVI. 26 in 1818 (the OED citation above) must have been channeling the future Tolkien. :-)

#72 ::: Xopher ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2004, 03:16 PM:

It can be Tolkien's neologism and also Taylor's, if Tolkien was unaware of Taylor. Especially if Tolkien did it a-purpose, as he explicitly claimed, adn Taylor just flubbed.

#73 ::: Jill Smith ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2004, 03:37 PM:

Froda - wasn't she Mary Tyler Moore's friend who then got her own show?

[/willlful misunderstanding]

#74 ::: CHip ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2004, 07:46 PM:

Sondheim played on this disagreement; in Into the Woods the two princes, in the middle of relating their separate quests (in waltz time, no less) start arguing (in rhythm!) about the correct plural of "dwarf". (I think that's where I learned that there \was/ a disagreement.)

#75 ::: Steve Gillett ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2004, 09:48 PM:

Beating Dead Horse Dept.: More than anyone really wants to know on “dwarfs.”

This discussion actually motivated me to go back and look at my Student's Dictionary of Anglo-Saxon (Sweet, 1967 printing; 1st published 1896!). “Dwarf” in OE is "dweorg" (early West Saxon form), so presumably the final “g” morphed into \x\ (just as the final “g” of "burg" morphed into the final "-ough" of "borough") in ME. Presumably the "–ough" then further morphed into \f\, as in “enough,” except that, sensibly, the spelling got changed. (A final "g" could also turn into "–ow", which is presumably the basis of Tolkien’s form *dwarrows. And "–ough" didn’t _have_ to turn into \f\; cf. “thought,” “plough,” and “borough” itself. Btw, this also shows why the American form “plow” is an ancient variant.)

So, the plural in OE would never have reflected the voicing of a final \f\ (as with wíf). “Dwarves” would have been a very late formation, by analogy.

No wonder Tolkien was embarrassed :)

#76 ::: Larry Brennan ::: (view all by) ::: November 17, 2004, 09:58 PM:

You can beat the dead horse, just don't go tossing the dwarfs.

A good friend of mine from B-school once convinced a fellow student from a large South American nation that Dwarf Tossing was a major component of most celebratory parties in the US. He was doubly outraged, first when he took it seriously, and again when he realized that he had been had. For the next two years, all we had to do was mention dwarf tossing and he’d go all blustery.

Good times.

#77 ::: Laura Roberts ::: (view all by) ::: November 18, 2004, 10:26 AM:

Jill Smith said:

Froda - wasn't she Mary Tyler Moore's friend who then got her own show?

That's what I was reminded of, too.

#78 ::: Dana (Janet) Bellwether ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2004, 02:25 PM:

Who can tell me how to get in touch with Jon Singer? Dana (formerly Janet) Bellwether

#79 ::: Teresa Nielsen Hayden ::: (view all by) ::: December 21, 2004, 02:33 PM:

How hard did you look?

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