It’s All Grammar

Commenter James C. on my “Grammar shit” posting:

What would you propose instead of ‘grammar’ as a cover term for things like spelling, punctuation, and other topics of peeveology?

I’ve pondered about this for quite a few years now; my current position is to challenge the folk categorization of all these things as having something in common. But first, a little history of IAG (It’s All Grammar) on Language Log and this blog.

Some IAG highlights (from Language Log unless otherwise noted):

AZ, 7/10/04: It’s all grammar (link)

To PITS, People In The Street, “grammar” embraces pretty much everything having to do with language, spoken or written, so long as it’s regulated in some way: syntax, morphology, word choice, pronunciation, politeness, discourse organization, clarity and effectiveness, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, bibliographic style, whatever.

AZ, 3/14/05: Two types of “errors” (again) and it’s all “grammar” (again) (link)

AZ, 2/26/06: It’s all grammar, redux (link)

So what DO we call the domain that takes in spelling, punctuation, choice of inflectional form, word choice, syntactic usage, and actual grammar?  “Usage” is a bit too broad; in fact, usage dictionaries are reluctant to discuss more than a few common misspellings, since there are just too many of them.  “Usage and style” takes in even more.

AZ, 4/4/06: It’s all grammar, one more time (link)

I do wish there were some short and punchy label for all the kinds of conventions of language use (as well as labels for the many different types of these conventions), so that “grammar” wouldn’t have to serve this purpose and could continue to be used by linguists for the system of regularities connecting the phonetics and semantics of a (variety of a) language.  Or maybe linguists should just give up and follow Geoff Pullum and Barbara Scholz in calling this system the “correctness conditions” for a (variety of a) language.  Though I worry about how “correctness” would be taken by non-linguists.

[Note: this last comment amounts to a suggestion to abandon the term grammar to PITS, who would then be free to use it any way they want, and to change the usage of linguists, who would be obliged to use some neologism; similar suggestions have been made for the technical terms passive, tense, and some others. Even if linguists were willing to shift their vocabulary, the proposal is unlikely to be a long-term success: any proposed substitute is likely to pick up the wider usage of the expression it replaces. As in the cycle of euphemisms.]

GP, 4/19/06: McClellan’s mangled sentences: where are they? (link)

AZ, 3/4/07: Foolish hobgoblins (link)

GP, 6/1/08: Public discourse about public discourse (link)

AZBlog, 8/12/09: Grammarian stereotype (link)

AZBlog, 2/13/11: And still they come (link)

AZBlog, 3/3/11: Apostrophe abuse (link)

AZBlog, 3/24/11: Grammar and the Postal Service (link)

AZBlog, 7/24/11: Disregarding context (link)


So much for history. What’s to be done?

We should probably start by asking the question: why do people think of such a diverse collection of phenomena (check out Mary Newton Bruder in “It’s all grammar, one more time”, for an extreme case) as constituting a natural category?

The short answer: they all involve aspects of language or language use that (some) people object to and so would (literally) regulate; they are domains of linguistic peeve-triggers. But otherwise there’s no common thread, and it’s a serious confusion to treat them as deeply similar. Meanwhile, there is a place for a term denoting ‘the system of regularities connecting the phonetics and semantics of a (variety of a) language’ (above). If you really have to have a term for the great grab-bag of linguistic peeve-triggers taken together, I suggest garmmra.

36 Responses to “It’s All Grammar”

  1. SpellMeJeff Says:

    Because it’s all stuff you get dinged for in middle-school and high-school English class, and it’s all lumped together in your “Language Art” textbook?

  2. arnold zwicky Says:

    From Eugene Volokh in e-mail:

    Your posts about the overuse of “grammar” reminded me of this item – forgive me if you’ve already seen it – from Justice Harlan in Cohen v. California, 403 U.S. 15 (1971) (here):

    First, the principle contended for by the State seems inherently boundless. How is one to distinguish this from any other offensive word? Surely the State has no right to cleanse public debate to the point where it is grammatically palatable to the most squeamish among us.

    Of course, the case had nothing to do with grammar, or even with punctuation, spelling, or usage disputes in the “what does ‘presently’ really mean?” sense – rather, the question was whether someone could be prosecuted for wearing a jacket with a vulgarity on it (“fuck”). Yet whatever the objection to “Fuck the Draft” might be, surely it is not a question of the phrase being grammatically unpalatable, no?

    I certainly remember the case, but I’d forgotten that grammatically played a role in it.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      A follow-up. I can in fact see how the use of taboo vocabulary would come under the heading of “grammar” for some people: it’s a matter of linguistic politeness. Here’s Mary Newton Bruder (p. 68) on how things like addressing widows get included among her “grammar points”:

      Someone even had the temerity to ask if this topic wasn’t an etiquette question… On one hand, this is an etiquette question, but it also involves language use and thus falls into my area of interest.

  3. John Lawler Says:

    Your use of the term peeve-triggers above suggests to me that we take another leaf from NPI terminology and call the topics in this area Peeve Polarity Items. Then we could use the Trigger metaphor, and also talk being in the scope of a Peeve Trigger, and so on. A completely formal Generative Theory of Peevage would undoubtedly take shape soon after.

  4. Steve Says:

    When I think grammar, I think of the subject covered by the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language. Does the “system of regularities connecting the phonetics and sematics of a language” mean the same thing or something different? If it’s basically the same, it strikes me that although grammar seems very familiar and has a common word that is in everyone’s vocabulary, it needs to be described at such a high level of abstraction that the description is hard to understand unless you know a lot about linguistics. Maybe that’s the problem with the PITS usage.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Your understanding of grammar is in fact linguists’ understanding of the term, and, yes, it’s an abstract and complex matter.

      People like Geoff Pullum and Rodney Huddleston think of themselves as grammarians (as do I), but we recognize that it’s foolish to identify ourselves as grammarians to the public in general, since no one will understand the label correctly. So we say that we’re linguists specializing in the structure of particular languages and of language in general. Or something lame and prolix like that.

  5. Jonathon Says:

    This makes me think of an article I read a little while back: Richard McLain, “The Role of Explanation in Teaching Standard English: Constitutive and Regulative Rules in Language,” College English 38, no. 3 (November 1976): 242–249.

    In a nutshell, what most people think of when they think of language rules are the regulative ones; but linguists are generally interested in constitutive rules, which often fall below the level of consciousness of most people.

    As you said, regulative rules don’t form a natural class, though the thing they all have in common is speaker attitudes and perceptions. I think the reason people lump them together is that they’re never exposed to any sort of scientific way of thinking about language. Our pedagogical system teaches students that there are rules that you should learn not to break, and that’s the end of it.

  6. Coby Lubliner Says:

    Historically, “grammar” (γραμματική, grammatica) was the study of a nonvernacular literary language such as Homeric Greek in the Hellenistic world or classical Latin in medieval Europe. It was first applied to a living language (Spanish) by Nebrija, and only two of the five books (3 and 4) of his Gramátice de la lengua castellana (1492) deal with grammar and syntax in the modern sense; book 1 deals with spelling and pronunciation, book 2 with prosody and syllabic stress, and book 5 is a teach-yourself for foreigners. If linguists have chosen to restrict the meaning of the term, they should not hold it against the general public for keeping an older, broader sense.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Are you seriously falling back on etymology here, appealing to a usage from 500-1500 years ago?

      In any case, modern popular uses of grammar are far from this historical use. Not unconnected to it, but seriously disconnected.

  7. Carl Says:

    Your coinage is interesting, but the public has already beaten you to a much more mellifluous one: grammer.

  8. Xtifr Says:

    It seems obvious to me that grammar is what they teach you in grammar school, and thus, errors in math, science or history can be considered grammatical.

    2+2=5 — error in grammar.

    “Queen Victoria was the daughter of Henry VIII” — ungrammatical statement.

    “Neutrinos can travel faster than the speed of light” — claim that violates the known laws of grammar.


  9. maidhc Says:

    There’s “gramarye” which has a whiff of occult knowledge.

  10. mollymooly Says:

    Dictionaries define “grammarian” something like “an expert in grammar”, but I’ve only ever seen it applied by and of prescriptive enforcers rather than linguists who specialise in syntax, morphology, etc. In that light, I suggest “grammarianism”, which I find is already out there in pretty much this sense:

  11. Mai Kuha Says:

    The “diverse collection of phenomena” could be called “weeds”, which also have nothing in common except that some people think they shouldn’t be there.

  12. Ellen K. Says:

    I’m thinking, maybe those people who (erroneously) think of written language as the base form of language are more likely to think of spelling and punctuation errors as grammar.

    Whereas those of us who look at spoken language as the base form and written language as (for the most part) a reflection of that are more likely to see the morphology, syntax, etc of a language as separate from spelling and punctuation.

    There are also those who don’t make the distinction between word choice and grammar. I’ve no theories on why for that. But, if using the wrong word is a “grammar” issue, and if the written form of language is seen as the base form, then “your” for “you’re” becomes a “grammar” issue.

  13. John Baker Says:

    It lacks the virtue of being distinctive, but I think the answer to the question posed by James C. is that these are all “English usage” issues. I assume that the editors of MWDEU would support this view.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Not really. MWDEU did its best to stay away from orthographic issues, not to mention mechanical matters of “style”. Word choice and construction choice, however, were within its purview. So “English usage” does indeed cover a fair amount of what’s labeled “English grammar” many places.

  14. ben Says:

    Since it concerns things that people get peeved about, it should be “aarrmmg”.

  15. Walter Burleigh Says:

    Are entries still being accepted for the Name-That-Folkway contest (Ostentation Division)?

    If so, may I suggest “Applied Orthoglottics”?

  16. Where’s the grammar in these “common grammar mistakes”? « Sentence first Says:

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  17. On the garmmra watch « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

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  18. Anna Wiggins Says:

    This reminds me of my high school principal (the first of 3 that we had during my stay there – it was a turbulent period), who would frequently use the word ‘grammatically’ as a synonym for ‘extremely’, most commonly in the phrase ‘It is grammatically imperative’.

    • arnold zwicky Says:

      Fascinating. Quite possibly the principal wasn’t really using it as a synonym for extremely, but as a wry way of uttering an imperative sentence — a grammatically imperative one.

  19. DaveB Says:

    Another bit of barely relevant but interesting etymology: I remember an excellent lecture as part of my English degree in which the lecturer pointed out that “grammar” and “glamour” come from the same root (seems implausible from the look of them, but I took him on his word). The idea was that for the illiterate, the ability to understand written words was no less mystical and awe-inspiring than the ability to, say, look at entrails or bird formations and predict the future. He also noted in this context the at-least-double-meaning of “spell”.
    I seem to remember this being used as a jumping-off point to make us think about literature, exegesis, how they have variously been conceptualised over time, and the relationship of all this to power, culture and so on. (NB: being of sound mind, he explicitly warned against seeing the etymology itself as anything other than a natty little curio to introduce the topic.)

  20. Joyce Melton Says:

    Is it just me or does Garmmra sound like a 1950s Japanese movie monster to anyone else?

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  24. On the garmmra watch: The Oatmeal « Arnold Zwicky's Blog Says:

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