Grammar Wednesday!

You people need to send along some requests; I’m a little thin on Grammar Wednesday fodder.

Today, we’re going to put a stake in the heart of something that bugs a lot of people, especially teachers (sorry; I just finished reading a vampire novel). It’s a question that comes to us via Kizz (who is the most ardent Grammar Wednesday material provider; thanks, Kizz!). She asks:

Re: Grammar Wed, have you done alright vs. all right? Is alright even a real thing or just something I see too much? I know I never use it.

I’m glad you never use it because it’s NOT a real thing. According to my Webster’s New World English Grammar Handbook (“the ULTIMATE desk reference,” it says. Gee, hyperbole much?):

Alright is a corrupt spelling of all right. It is not generally accepted.

The Columbia Guide to Standard English is also pretty clear on the question:

All right is the only spelling Standard English recognizes.

I see no equivocation there.

I suspect that, eventually, alright will be integrated into the language. It does get used an awful lot, and it’s generally mass acceptance of a grammatical or linguistic structure that dictates its “correctness” within a language. Right now, though? It’s wrong. Don’t use it.

In addition to Kizz’s question, I wanted to touch on something that I’ve heard and seen too many times in the last few days. It has to to with subject/verb agreement, and I’m starting to feel as though only about seven people in the world (okay, maybe only in MY world, but still) know how to do this right:

There’s a million reasons why you shouldn’t date that guy.

There’s a lot of people out there who don’t know how to use commas correctly.

The subject of the first sentence is reasons. Reasons is plural, so the verb of the sentence is are, not is. So, too, with the second sentence: the subject is people, so the verb should be are. I hear and see this sort of thing ALL THE TIME and, in the words of Julia – my once-lurker, now commenter – it just “chaps my hide!” Please don’t do it.

Happy Wednesday, All! Keep those suggestions and questions coming!

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25 Comments

Filed under Grammar

25 responses to “Grammar Wednesday!

  1. jamie

    There’s followed by something plural seems to be EVERYWHERE these days.

    It is very frustrating, and perhaps people should not be allowed to use contractions until they can figure it out. :)

  2. How about the grammarical impropriety of the word “there” that my teachers always steer me away from.

    Or you could do something with semi colons, or the double dash.

  3. ‘Bugs, explain the problem with “there,” please. I’m not sure I understand what your teachers are bitching about.

  4. Michelle

    Adverb placement question.

    Is it better to say Blah blah blah is the only museum solely dedicated to blah blah blah or

    Blah Blah Blah is the only museum dedicated solely to blah blah blah

  5. I don’t know if you struggle with it out East, but the number one way to know you’re in the Chicagoland area is the fact that everyone ends sentences with adverbs.

    “Where ya goin’ to?”
    “What time you got?”
    “Where’s that at?”
    (Just kinda makes you shudder….and yet, I still SOMEHOW have to fight against using it in formal papers!)

    You could also discuss my need to abuse the elipsis (elipse? moose? meese?).

    Or you could address when one should use “everyone” vs. “every one”.

    Or you could lay into my overuse of the word “that”. I originally wrote an earlier sentence as “One way to know THAT you’re in the Chicagoland area…”.

    Is it more proper without the “that” there? (Ooooh! You could talk about awkward sentence wording….like the example above!)

  6. I’ve been given hell for using “there” at the beginning of the sentence.

    “There are several…” It was never explained, but it was surely discouraged.

  7. JuliaDream

    I would love to know the correct usage of “dreamed” vs. “dreamt.” “Dreamed” always sounds kind of wrong to me (sort of like “funner”) but I know I should be using it in certain situations instead of “dreamt.”

    I have often dreamed of learning this. Thanks!

  8. Bah!

    *Bashing my head against the keyboard in angst*

    Putting aside all the arguments from historiography that show quite conclusively that alright has been a feature of English for hundreds of years, it has a completely different meaning from all right and never the twain shall meet. Take this exchange as an example:

    Parent: How was Egbert’s exam?
    Teacher: It was alright.

    versus

    Teacher: It was all right.

    There is a clear distinction in meaning; in the first, Egbert test was only mediocre, but in the second he got a perfect score.

    Another argument, this time from the hard-core science of phonology. The prosodic pattern of the two differs. In alright they are written as one word because they are articulated as one word, initial stress on ‘all’ while ‘right’ is unstressed. In all right the ‘right’ element gets stressed instead as it is the head of the constituent – an adjective phrase, with ‘all’ as its specifier.

    I suspect that, eventually, alright will be integrated into the language.

    Sorry MrsChili, but it’s well and truly here.

    As for there, well this is a complicated area. English has a condition that subject roles must be filled, but some verbs, like to rain lack the semantic role that would plausibly fill the subject slot. So dummy subjects are inserted. It’s raining, ‘it’ isn’t anything, it merely fills the slot.

    The existential be is another one, and to avoid ambiguity with its identification guise, it’s a chair, it uses ‘there’ instead, there’s a chair in there.

    I’m not going to go out on a limb and claim that there’s reasons… is not wrong, but I will point out that there are confounding factors here that may interfere.

    Another issue is that the verb to be is very problematic for linguists in many many languages. For instance, we might want to call ‘reasons’ the subject of this sentence, except it isn’t in a subject position, it is actually in a position usually filled by the object. It is still semantically the subject, while the syntactic subject is filled by the dummy ‘there’, but this could screw with the syntax just enough to override the subject-verb agreement rule.

    Finally, I would hazard a guess that as much as someone says there’s a million reasons… they wouldn’t say a million reasons exists… any more statistically significantly than the rest of the population.

  9. All of this wrangling and wringing of hands is (is it possible?) giving me a headache!

  10. We take our grammar questions very seriously. CTG, and are more than willing to duke it out. I’m fine with that, as long as it stays civil.

    Jangari, I completely understand your angst. I’ve used “alright” in a lot of my informal writing for just the reason you elucidated in your comment. If we’re “strictly speaking,” however, it’s not yet been accepted by whomever accepts such things; I haven’t been able to find what I consider a reputable source (Webster’s, OED, etc.) which approves of it yet.

    This, from Random House:

    The spelling of all right–or more appropriately the spelling of alright, since the former is never questioned–is one of the Great Usage Debates of recent times.

    Forms like all right, in whatever spelling, were around in the Middle English period, and then died out for no obvious reason. They reappeared in the early eighteenth century; it is uncertain whether all right was a re-coinage, or whether we just have no written evidence for four hundred years.

    In modern times, the form alright is first found in the 1890s. Presumably, it was created and/or popularized based on analogy with such words as already and altogether. These spellings, though, had been long established by that time, while alright, being newer, could be criticized. And criticized it was, from the early 1900s onwards.

    Usage writers and copy editors (and schoolteachers) tend to really, really hate alright. Some of the comments one can collect from them are “horrendous,” “ignorant,” “illiterate,” “over my dead body,” “lazy,” and the like. This hostility has not changed much in recent years, despite the ever-increasng frequency of the form.

    It has always been true that the form alright has been more common in non-formal contexts. But it has also been used for the better part of the century by undoubtedly notable writers. Theodore Dreiser used it through the manuscript for The “Genius”, though H.L. Mencken made him change it to all right. Other alright users include James Joyce in Ulysses, Flannery O’Connor, Mordecai Richler, Langston Hughes, and Gertrude Stein.

    While in general, alright can be found in all the senses of all right, in practice there can be a real semantic distinction between the two, because the two word form all right can mean ‘all correct’ or something like that, while alright can only mean ‘good; safe; healthy’, etc. when used as an adjective. (Similar distinctions are found with already and all ready, though these forms have diverged to the point where they are not interchangable at all.) Thus the sentence “The Kids Aren’t All Right” can mean ‘not all the kids are right’, or ‘some of the kids are wrong’, while “The Kids Aren’t Alright” can only mean ‘the kids are not OK’.

    This sentence is not theoretical; it appeared as the cover line in New York magazine in 1995, which occasioned such an outburst of criticism that the magazine felt obliged to run an explanation several issues later. Their main points were that alright was a clear allusion to the song “The Kids Are Alright,” by The Who, and the clarity issue mentioned above. Their explanation probably did little to satisfy the many outraged English teachers who called their offices.

    The current status of alright is hard to assess. It is very common even in edited writing–some studies have suggested that it is more common, which seems unlikely. Many people and many periodicals use it regularly. Yet it is still loudly condemned (your spell checker, like most, is designed to reject anything that’s even slightly problematic). Depending on your linguistic philosophy, it is either an outright error that is distressingly widespread, or a perfectly standard usage that is unnecessarily condemned.

  11. Mrs. Chili: No one gets Jangari to geek out about English quite like you!

    IRT Jangari: You crack me up. In a good way!
    Like, in a I-Have-a-Blog-Crush-on-You-and-Your-Geekiness kind of way!

  12. I’m kind of crushing on Jangari, too, Cass…

  13. Grr, your flattering comments are but a subterfuge, to distract me from the issue at hand!

    Mrs Chili, this quote sums up the crux of the greater issue for me:
    it’s not yet been accepted by whomever accepts such things.
    I would maintain that usage is the driving mechanism behind language description and that therefore, speakers themselves decide when something is acceptable. I do not think it’s right that ‘acceptability’ should be decided by a single style-guide or even a consensus among many style-guides.

    But in the interest of finding common ground, I will accept that, in a certain register of written, formal English and, to a lesser extent, formal spoken English, ‘acceptable’ is slightly more constrained. Novel forms appear first in informal spoken English, through a variety of processes such as reanalysis, lexicalisation, grammaticalisation, neologism and analogy, and only after many years of gaining a solid foothold in semantics and syntax are they eligible for use in formal English. Now, I would maintain fervently that alright has well and truly demonstrated its ability to join the club of accepted forms. Even if Webster’s or Random House are slow on the uptake.

    Cassie: I have written a greasemonkey script for my browser that automatically seeks out any tokens of “IRT” and replaces them with “Re:”. Just thought you might like to know.

  14. Yes, Jangari; we’re just trying to soften you up so we can sneak preposterous grammar claims past you!
    While I appreciate your comments – and, for the most part, agree with your assertions – I have to ask this: if we can’t rely on the standards bearers to determine what is “right” or “accepted” in the language, then what proverbial leg do we have to stand on? If I’m reading your comment correctly (and please, call me on it if I’m not), you’re essentially saying that something or other is “correct” or “accepted” just because *I* say it is (and we all know THAT’S so not true!). By what I understand your contention to be, “There’s a million reasons why you shouldn’t date that guy” is a perfectly correct sentence, simply by virtue of the fact that, if you yank 100 people off the street and ask them, 99 of ‘em would say there’s absolutely nothing wrong with it.
    Now, I’m not saying that we should base our entire language on what the books say it should be; English is a living, breathing, changing thing and no book could ever HOPE to keep up. What I AM saying, though, is that we’ve got to have some place to go and point to a text to say “this is what the current keepers of our language say is correct.” Without that, isn’t it “anything goes”?

  15. Yes. ‘Anything goes’ is great, it means that the only thing to constrain language change would be interpretability.

    When I comment here I’m well and truly wearing my linguist’s hat rather than my speaker’s hat, and linguists are concerned with the observation and measurement of language change rather than making value-judgments about what sort of change is good or bad.

    Bear in mind though, that ‘anything goes’ isn’t strictly true. If I decided to reduce English to an extreme logical conclusion of simplicity by communicating only with the word ‘chicken’ (like this), then it wouldn’t be very useful – that’s obvious. What’s less obvious but no less true is that language will always be constrained by internal grammar (by which I mean morphosyntax rather than memorising irregular verbs and apostrophe placement) which is more or less fixed by the time you reach the age of 5. Therefore what’s interesting to the linguist is actually to ask someone on the street “Is there’s a million reasons… grammatical for you?” As I mentioned earlier, anyone who thought it was grammatical wouldn’t likely make the same ‘error’ with another syntactically identical sentence like those chairs is comfortable, yet the internal grammar shouldn’t have a different rule for two instances of the same thing, so these two must be differentiated in at least one crucial respect (I would stipulate that it is the dummy subject, but that’s just a hunch).

    Having said all that, I’m perfectly able to accept that there is a formal register of English that is highly constrained, and those constraints can be expressed in the form of rules and so on. But some rules, you have to admit (and have done so in the past, in fact) are completely arbitrary and fallacious. A perfect example being the split infinitive, another is clause-final prepositions. The rules against these sorts of things were essentially made up by the earliest language mavens (term taken from Steven Pinker) as shibboleths. They served (past tense; no one follows them anymore) to differentiate the elite of society, who were able to put enough of their effort into forcibly enacting change of their own internal grammar, from the ‘commoners’ who didn’t care as much.

  16. Pingback: Manners Matter « Blue Door

  17. bowyer1

    If we are going to quibble about inappropriate word use that has been accepted by the masses I would have to point out that in a previous response Mrs. Chili uses one of the items that irks me.

    “I’ve used “alright” in a lot of my informal writing…”.

    In this case “a lot” is used to indicate “many times”, but the word “lot” is a noun meaning, a group or collection of items, not simply “many things”, or “often”.

    The course of time has brought acceptance to using the words “a lot” as an informal adverb meaning “much” or “many times” (I feel a lot better now.), or as an informal pronoun meaning “a large number” (There are a lot of people here.)

    If we can accept that a lot of experts have accepted the modern use of “a lot”, and there is not a lot of outcry over this; then why can we not accept alright especially when, as Jangari has pointed out, there is a distinct difference in the meanings of “all right” and “alright”?

    Now a general question. How come other people can use italics, but I can’t, even when I type my responses in a separate document and paste it in? Can anyone enlighten me? (This is why I have been using quotation marks so often. I can’t underline, italicize, or make anything bold.)

  18. Bowyer, you’re absolutely right, of course; a lot is used to signify a quantity of things and, as I used it, of time, as well.
    Not very long ago, I did some grammatical investigation into the term a lot and found that I couldn’t get any one of my sources to tell whether it was ever determined a fixed quantity, like a gross or a bushel. It’s a term used in auctions and the like, sometimes to designate a collection of like things (a lot of antique cameras, for example) or a collection of UNlike things (lot #25, for example – take your chances on what’s in there). It’s seeped into the everyday language of the everyday person, certainly, but I’ve not found a source yet that can tell me when or how (I haven’t, I have to admit, consulted my OED. I bet THEY know).
    Finally, in answer to your final question, you need to use what’s called a “tag” to get your words to italicize. Immediately before the word you want to italicize, you’ll put the “less than” symbol, then an “i,” then the “greater than” symbol. Write your word (no spaces) then put the “less than” symbol, followed by a backslash, followed by another “i,” then the “greater than” symbol.
    I can explain more when I see you next – you can also bold words this way, but the stuff inside the alligator mouths is different.

  19. Bowyer, you raise a good point which I had hitherto glossed over. And Mrs Chili, you imply another very good point that I hadn’t yet thought to mention.

    (The latter first) Meaning is not objective. There’s no way to go into someone’s head and make for absolutely sure that the meaning they ascribe to a word is completely correct. Rather, the meaning to them is formed by induction. They hear it enough times in enough different contexts and it begins to gather its own distinct sense. With that in mind, for the most part it doesn’t help to look in a dictionary and form one’s understanding of a word based on that (at least not for the sort of word/phrase I’m referring to here, such as a lot). So, if a word means something to the person who uses it, then that meaning is legitimate. If a lot can denote a larger number of occurrences rather than a numerical quantity to the speaker, then that meaning deserves merit (plus I don’t think that a lot is restricted to physical quantities any more).

    Another issue is metaphoric extension, which is hugely prevalent in every language, I’d even go as far to say it’s a universal mechanism for coping with language that extends too far beyond its descriptive capabilities. The concept of spatial relation, things being here versus there and so on, is usually applied also, and later, to chronological relation (here and there aren’t the best examples for this sort of thing, since we have now and then, but here and now and there and then somewhat demonstrate this). I would claim that the original lack of terms denoting reiterated instances, many times, motivated the borrowing of a lot from its original meaning, a large quantity, to fill the gap.

    The point that Bowyer raised that I wanted to point out was that the outcry about language changing for the worse is not a new thing. Every generation had its grammarians decrying the loss of some aspects of the language. If we’d heeded their advice, we’d still be using ye for 2nd person plural subject (as opposed to you which is object¹) as well as thou and thee for the relative 2nd person singular forms. I’m not suggesting that the changes are for the better, in fact I’m not placing any value judgement on it whatsoever. As a linguist, I can’t. Just like a physicist can’t (or shouldn’t, rather) put a value judgement on the ability of subatomic particles to do the things they do.

    I was going to expand on this point, but I’ve run out of time.

    ~

    ¹At least I think I read that ye was the subject form, but the clear irregularity in the pronoun paradigm suggests otherwise. I’d have thought that the subject forms were you (pronounced yow) and thou and that the object forms were ye and thee or vice versa, it’s much more symmetrical that way. But I’m not going to disagree with my source (Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct).

  20. Dang, messed up my italics tags.

  21. Just because…..

    Microsoft Word says that “Alright” is a word. No little red squiggly lines or anything. If Bill Gates says it’s a word…. it must be a word.

  22. J

    Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage says that “alright” is standard English. And btw, I think that Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English is the best style guide on acceptability, if we’re looking for such a thing.

  23. J

    Jangari makes a good point: “anything goes” is not true. Most languages have no dictionaries or usage books. And yet I don’t think anyone would claim that those languages are being used incorrectly. It isn’t true that without explicitly taught rules, language descends into chaos.

  24. No. Just no. Both of those examples are singular.

    There’s a million people out there.
    There’s a lot of people out there.

    The operative word in both is “a” – which can only be used with singular nouns. In this case at the least, million and lot aren’t plural because there’s only one set, which is why it’s marked as singular with “a”. Compare them with these if it helps:

    There’s a pack of wolves out there.
    There’s a murder of crows out there.
    There’s a group of children out there.

    Or maybe the plural equivalents will help:

    There are seven million people out there.
    There are several people out there.
    There are two packs of wolves out there.

    Even still, plurality has so many complicated little oddities, especially in English, like singular they, that I wouldn’t be surprised if we’re more arguing about a dead distinction. For me, I would never say something like “Is there twenty people behind me?”, but I might get away with “There’s twenty people behind me”, although it still sounds a little forced compared to “There are twenty people behind me.”

    Just some food for thought.

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