Getting it all wrong

Back on November 3rd, Ben Zimmer posted on Language Log about another episode in the New Yorker‘s getting usage issues (“descriptive” vs. “prescriptive”) wrong, especially when Steve Pinker is involved: “Screwball reasons and gloriously simple distinctions”, in which

another New Yorker critic, Nathan Heller, makes a mess of things in his review of Pinker’s book The Sense of Style. [“Steven Pinker’s Bad Grammar”]

Heller accuses Pinker of “sentences [that] do not add up” and says that his usage suggestions “actually make the language more confused.” But I found Heller’s piece to be deeply confused, even while it purports to elevate clarity above all else.

Ben is actually being kind here; what Heller wrote is a monstrous fruitcake of flat-out wrongness, misunderstandings of both terminology and facts, and unexpressed (and confused) assumptions about language.

[Side complaint: it’s customary to frame these discussions in terms of “descriptive linguistics” vs. “prescriptive linguistics”, but that is itself a mistake. “Descriptive linguistics” is just linguistics, period. What came to be called “prescriptive linguistics” — the parallel terminology is unfortunately beguiling — should be called “usage aesthetics” or perhaps “language criticism” (parallel to “art criticism” and “music criticism”); or else “usage advice” (parallel to “relationship advice” and “gardening advice”); the point is that “prescriptive linguistics” is the expression of opinions, not an account of facts.]

In what follows I expose a number of mistakes and confusions in this passage from Heller:

It’s for grammatical consistency, not beauty or gentilesse, for example, that correct English has us say “It was he” instead of “It was him.” Pinker calls this offense “a schoolteacher rule” that is “a product of the usual three confusions: English with Latin, informal style with incorrect grammar, and syntax with semantics.” He’s done crucial research on language acquisition, and he offers an admirable account of syntax in his book, but it is unclear what he’s talking about here. As he knows, the nominative and accusative cases are the reason that we don’t say gibberish like “Her gave it to he and then sat by we here!” No idea is more basic to English syntax and grammar. In the phrase “It was he,” “it” and “he” are the same thing: they’re both the subject, and thus nominative.

But the problems with this passage are not equally serious. Some are minor, representing simplifications that linguists writing for a general audience customarily make: a kind of expository corner-cutting. Others are grave, in particular the claim that in the sentence (1) It is I, it and I are both the Subject of the sentence (I capitalize the technical term for a syntactic function, so as not to confuse it with other uses of the noun subject), and that we know this because it and I “are the same thing”.

The Subject of (1). How do we tell what the Subject of a sentence is? We look at syntactic phenomena that crucially involve the Subject — for instance, Subject-Verb Agreement. By this test, the Subject, the only Subject, of (1) is it, and not I: the verb is is, agreeing with it (and not am, agreeing with I). Other tests agree with this: in neutral declarative sentences, the Subject precedes the Verb, and other arguments of the Verb (in particular, a PredicateNominal) follow it; this is the order — Subject Verb PredicateNominal — in (1). And in yes-no questions with the Verb BE, we see Subject-Verb Inversion, the order of the (admittedly incredibly formal) Is it I? And so with more complicated tests: they unanimously say that the Subject of (1) is it, period.

How could Heller have gone so utterly wrong? Almost surely because of one of the the errors Pinker warned against, confusing syntax and semantics, in this case taking the Subject of a sentence to be defined semantically, as “what the sentence is about” — in this case, the speaker of (1) — so that if it and I “are the same thing” and (1) is about that thing, then they are both Subjects.

Minor issues here: let it pass. There’s a persistent confusion in Heller between linguistic expressions and the things they refer to. The Subject of a sentence is a linguistic expression, not a person or a thing or whatever. But ordinarily, this confusion doesn’t impede understanding, so we can let it pass.

In addition, the semantic function of the two pronouns in (1) is surely not the same and might not be usefully analyzed as reference in either case, but again we can let that pass.

Concepts and terms. On to nominatives and accusatives. Heller writes,

the nominative and accusative cases are the reason that we don’t say gibberish like “Her gave it to he and then sat by we here!”

This pretty much has things backwards, as I’ll show.

Back to basics: English has two sets of forms for most personal pronouns:

1: I, he, she, we, they

2: me, him, her, us, them

(the pronouns it and you do not distinguish the forms phonologically).

These are called, in traditional grammatical terminology, case forms — nominal forms associated with use in particular syntactic functions (Subject, DirectObject, IndirectObject, PredicateNominal, etc.). We could refer to the case forms of English personal pronouns just as “set 1” and “set 2”, or by something more inventive. (I am myself tickled by the idea of calling them “Pat” and “Mike” (alluding to characters in the 1952 romantic comedy film Pat and Mike — the Katharine Hepburn character Pat Pemberton and the Spencer Tracy character Mike Conovan, respectively.) The labels are just (basically arbitrary) ways of picking out which case forms we’re talking about. The question for syntacticians is to say how the forms are associated with syntactic functions; that’s something that has to be discovered. As a beginning, I note that Pat (form 1) is closely associated with the Subjects of tensed clauses. For many speakers of English, Mike (form 2) is used everywhere else.

In the extremely formal variety that Heller recommends — note Pinker’s warning about confusions of informal style with incorrect grammar — Pat is also used for some instances of PredicateNominal (the facts are, as we’ll see, complex). As in (1), which is of the form

Subject CopularVerb PredicateNominal

How, then, do “nominative” and “accusative” enter into things? In the grammatical traditions of a number of languages, Latin in particular, the first is the name of a case form associated with (but not necessarily only with) the Subject function and the second is the name of a case form associated with (but not necessarily only with) the DirectObject function (and there’s a “dative” form associated with (but not necessarily only with) the IndirectObject function, and so on). This terminology has been borrowed into English to suggest a (very) crude similarity between the way the cases worked in Latin and the way they work in English.

That is, we choose the terminology in English to suggest how the cases are associated with syntactic functions, but those associations have to be discovered. Certainly, the names don’t tell us how the case forms are used. (That would be a kind of verbal magic.) Now we can appreciate Pinker’s warning about confusions of English with Latin.

PredicateNominals. Directly on this point is an Economist piece on Heller vs. Pinker (Robert Lane Greene on pronouns, “It’s not you” of November 6th):

It’s time for a breakup. The person you have been seeing is lovely, but a relationship is not what you want right now. How do you break the news gently?

If you say “It’s not you, it’s me,” you are probably a native speaker of English or someone with a good command of how native speakers actually speak. If you say “It’s not you—it’s I,” you will quickly achieve the goal of making the other person not want to spend any more time with you. Yet this bizarre formulation is just how Nathan Heller of the New Yorker would have you speak.

This little conundrum illustrates a great deal of confusion about English grammar. Mr Heller was reviewing Steven Pinker’s “The Sense of Style” (which The Economist reviewed here). Mr Pinker writes that it is normal informal English style to use the accusative pronouns — me, him, her, us or them — in a predicate after forms of the verb to be (am, is, are, was, were and so on). In other words, it is natural and correct to say It is me as opposed to It is I. A granny facing a police line-up, jangled by her recent mugging, will point to the perpetrator and naturally shout, “That’s him, officer!” And as Geoffrey Pullum, a syntactician at the University of Edinburgh, points out, there are many cases where the nominative pronoun — I, he, she, we, they — in predicate position is so weird as to be unacceptable. He gives the example of looking at an old photograph, pointing to oneself and saying This one here is I at the age of 12.

… The situation is fairly simple. Mr Pinker argues [following a number of other writers on English syntax] that the accusative me in it’s me is in fact the default case, and can be used anywhere except as the subject of a tensed verb. In other words, in the absence of any reason to use the nominative, the accusative is natural:

Who ate the last piece of cake? Him.
What, me worry?
Me, I prefer skiing to surfing

The granny and the Pullum examples can be multiplied many times. Though you might knock at a door and identify yourself (hypercorrectly) by saying “It is I” (depending on the person on the other side of the door to identify you by the sound of your voice), it really won’t do to come up to the door with your partner, knock, and identify yourselves by saying “It is we”.

And with other copular verbs. Suppose your life has changed over the years and you have become a different person, but you really can’t get away with recollecting the old days by saying “That was before I became I”; it has to be me.

I can go on like this for hours.

In fact, the puzzle here is where the instances of nominative PredicateNominals in modern English come from. A suggestion I’ve made several times on ADS-L is that it started with some people — possibly school teachers committed to making English more like what they (not very accurately) fancy Latin to have been like — insisting that I be used in the identifying formula (1) It is I and so presenting others with the task of extrapolating this very unnatural formula (essentially a hyperformal idiom) to new contexts. Maybe It is he will get pulled along, but nobody’s going to go all the way.

Other responses to Pinker’s book. Heller’s appallingly ignorant review of Pinker — why does the New Yorker go off the rails on usage topics again and again? — is very much in the minority here, as suggested by Lane Greene’s very sympathetic piece. A few other positive opinions (to which I’d add my own):

The Economist on 9/6/14, in “Talking sense: A psycholinguist invites writers to improve their prose by getting into readers’ minds”:

Steven Pinker’s career began with language in mind—particularly in the minds of children. Since then, he has become a celebrated (and sometimes controversial) public explorer of human nature and the reasons violence has declined. With “The Sense of Style” he returns to his first love, language and thought.

… Mr Pinker steers writers towards a “classic style”, in which the writer clearly points out things that may have escaped the reader’s notice, but which anyone can understand with patient guidance. Classic style uses concrete words in straightforward sentences easily parsed by man’s limited brain. Bad writing, exemplified by academese, bureaucratese and bewildering gadget manuals, does the opposite. Sentences are long, filled with abstract words, and make sense only to those who already know most of the information. (Mr Pinker admits that he struggles daily with papers in his own academic field.)

… In the last third of the book Mr Pinker trades his lab coat for a blue pencil, wading into the battles over usage. As a linguist he is a “descriptivist”, believing that the mass of speakers, not a minority of experts, make the rules. Many so-called rules are superstitions that good writers routinely ignore. Readers should feel free to split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions, use “than” followed by an accusative like “him”, or come home from work and tell their spouses “Honey, it’s me.” Mr Pinker even offers an elegant defence of the despised “very unique”.

… Good writing is not easy. In one of Mr Pinker’s many clever metaphors, a good piece of writing is like the perfect soufflé appearing in a spotless kitchen at the end of a cooking show: “The messy work has been done beforehand and behind the scenes.” Gentle humour accompanies Mr Pinker’s good sense throughout the book, an antidote to bestselling, operatically irate usage guides that disparage those who disagree as idiots or barbarians. Mr Pinker explains eloquently not just what to do, but also why.

In the American Scholar for Autumn 2014, in “Anything Goes: Prose for the people” by Rachel Hadas:

“You can write with clarity and with flair, too,” writes Steven Pinker in his useful and delightful new book, The Sense of Style. Pinker should know. His clarity and flair illuminate every page of what the publisher calls “this short, cheerful, and eminently practical book.”

Cheerful The Sense of Style certainly is, and not only because it’s full of funny and apposite quotations from grammar experts ranging from Groucho Marx to Dave Barry to Boris and Natasha, as well as well-chosen cartoons. Pinker’s style, or maybe I should say tone, is cheerful in itself: brisk without bullying, sensible without pedantry, authoritative without pomposity. You sense what a wonderful teacher he must be: brimming over with information, generous with examples, disarmingly amusing.

Indeed, a recurrent theme of The Sense of Style is that the rigidity and pedantry of many style manuals and of the people who wrote them no longer serve us well, to put it mildly

… Pinker gives us permission to push back against prescriptive rules, many of which “originated for screwball reasons, impede clear and graceful prose, and have been flouted by the best writers for centuries. … Experts on usage (not to be confused with the purists, who are often ignoramuses) call these phony rules fetishes, folklore, hobgoblins, superstitions, shibboleths, or (my favorite) bubbe meises, Yiddish for ‘grandmothers’ tales.’ ”

… I especially enjoyed a chapter called “The Curse of Knowledge,” which tackles the contemporary (and not only contemporary) problem of opaque prose in a refreshingly new way (although not wholly new; Pinker rightly credits Helen Sword’s excellent 2012 book Stylish Academic Writing with some of the same insights). Scholars don’t write in murky jargon because they believe opacity is a requirement for tenure; rather, their fundamental difficulty is “imagining what it is like for someone else not to know something that you know.” As a cognitive scientist, Pinker has a lot to say about this, all of it engaging, but in general he steers laudably clear of what he calls academic narcissism—the assumption by scholars in any given field that everyone else will find the ins and outs of that field, its history and development, its cliques and infighting and consensuses, thrilling.

And an excerpt from Charles McGrath’s review of 10/19/14 in the New York Times:

Steven Pinker, the Harvard linguist and psychologist, is one of that new breed of top-flight scientists and teachers, like the physicist Brian Greene and the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, who also write uncommonly well. To those of us who try to write for a living and couldn’t pass a science course, let alone teach one, such people are a little annoying. And now, not content with just poaching, Pinker has set himself up as a gamekeeper of sorts; he’s bringing out a manual, telling the rest of us how writing ought to be done.

[Added 12/3: WordPress tells me that this posting has been extraordinarily popular — exceeding by a considerable margin all my postings with sexual content, including one that’s been at the top of the views list for many many months. Remarkable.]

5 Responses to “Getting it all wrong”

  1. matslj Says:

    Reblogged this on Views on grammar and commented:
    Here’s a long post on pronouns as predicatives.

  2. Strunk and White Suck: A Compendium | The League of Nerds Says:

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  3. Steven Pinker: 'Many of the alleged rules of writing are actually superstitions' - Says:

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  4. English – The Guardian – Steven Pinker: ‘Many of the alleged rules of writing are actually superstitions’ | Books Etc South Africa Says:

    […] defended by a number of linguists and language columnists (including Lane Greene, Oliver Kamm, Arnold Zwicky, and Ben Zimmer), who were incredulous that the New Yorker, which cultivates a reputation for […]

  5. Steven Pinker: ‘Many of the alleged rules of writing are actually superstitions’ | linguisticus Says:

    […] defended by a number of linguists and language columnists (including Lane Greene, Oliver Kamm, Arnold Zwicky, and Ben Zimmer), who were incredulous that the New Yorker, which cultivates a reputation for […]

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