Monday, January 11, 2010

Uncheck Word's Grammar Checker

You know those wavy green lines that Word sticks under some of your words and phrases?  You click on them and Word presumes to tell you that you have just made a grammar gaffe.  Pretty humiliating for a PhD in Linguistics, or even a BA from Podunck College.  Well, beware before you  believe what Word is telling you. The truth? Word doesn't know grammar.  At all.  (Yes, they'd tell me that's a fragment. I know it's a fragment. I wanted to have a fragment there because it is justified.  It is clear what it means. I am trying to emulate speech. The writing is not formal) 

Well, that's another problem with Word.  It doesn't distinguish between different styles of writing. However, that can be dealt with.  Most people, if they knew they were deliberately writing a fragment would have the guts to leave it.  You can always tell Word to ignore this instance of the error.

The same advice accrues when they tell you your sentence is too long. Apparently, the program makes this decision by simply counting the number of words in the sentence, but, it's not the number of words that make a sentence too long.  It's how they are joined together.  If, as in the sentence starting with Apparently, the program makes this decision, you have joined the next phrase to  it with a preposition, by and adding simply counting the number of words in the sentence, and then used the conjunction but to tie it's not the number of words that make a sentence too long, that is fine. (But that sentence isn't. It's a monstrosity. I really needed to have a blackboard and an eraser and to be able to speak to illustrate that.  Sorry.)  Just try to envision how one group of words is attached to another.  Each group of words that you recognize as going together is a structure like a clause or a prepositional phrase.  Your native speaker intuition automatically tells you which is which.   

This doesn't mean that it's okay to write a sentence that goes on for two pages. It isn't.  It's just that the structure and resulting clarity of the sentence is a better determiner of length than an arbitrary number of words is. You can't just say that no sentence should be no longer than twelve words.  There is no way that Word is equipped to determine when a sentence is too long, but any native speaker can.

Those are but two examples of Word's word problems. A bigger gaffe occurred when I wrote  "She cried and cried."  Word greenlined cried.  Why?  Because the program tagged it as  "Passive, must be changed " or words to that effect.  Well, not only is cried not a passive verb form, it can never be used as a passive.  You can not say or write "She was cried."  That would be a passive, but it also would not be English.  That is, it is ungrammatical because no native speaker, no matter how uneducated would ever say it.  The passive voice is a construction that can only be made with certain verbs.  Besides, it is nonsense to claim that every passive verb should be made into an active

Yes, we have a passive voice in English because sometimes you need one.  The first set, 1-6 below, boldfaces passive verbs.  That is the P set. The second set, 1-6 below boldfaces the corresponding set of active verbs, the ones Word wants you to use.  That set is the A set.  So, P 1-6 are  the passives of A 1-6.
P (passive)
  1. The papers were xeroxed.
  2. The car was hit by a truck driven by a drunken teenager.
  3. Bobby was astonished by Sally's behavior.
  4. The turkey has been stuffed already.
  5. The veal brisket will be stuffed by the time you get here.
  6. You should have been being paid for that work by then.
A (active).
  1. The secretary xeroxed the papers.
  2. A truck driven by a drunken teenager hit the car.
  3. Sally's behavior astonished Bobby.
  4. Mom has stuffed the turkey already.  (When the hearer know Mom is preparing dinner.)
  5. Mom will stuff the veal brisket by the time you get here. (Ditto)
  6. Whoever gave you the work should have been paying you for that work by then. (The speaker doesn't know the name of the employer)
What difference does it make in each sentence if it is active or passive?  The flow might differ.  The degree of wordiness differs.  The emphasis differs. 

In P1, it doesn't make any difference who xeroxed the papers.  If it did, then A1 would be better.  However, usually, when someone says "The papers were xeroxed,"  it makes no difference who xeroxed them.  The information that is needed is the fact that the work was done.  Hence, the passive is more economical.

Similarly in 4 and 5, there is no reason to say who has or will be stuffing the turkey if it is known that Mom is doing the cooking.  What is important is that it is done.  Maybe Dad says sarcastically to his lazy daughter, "The turkey has been stuffed already" to emphasize the work has been done.  Similarly, the passive in 5 emphasizes to the hearer "Get here already," because the veal brisket will be stuffed and who wants it to get cold?  Making the active "Mom will stuff the ..." doesn't add any new information and takes the emphasis off of the readiness of the meal.  In other words, many times passives are used because there is no reason to identify who is doing or has done or will do the action.  Either both parties already know or the emphasis is on the activity, or both.   Notice, every one of the passives involves a verb that is doing something to something or someone else.  They aren't verbs like cry.

In P 2 and its active counterpart, the doer or cause of the action has to be named.  It is important that the hearer knows that a truck driven by a drunken teenager caused the accident.  As a linguist, I find the passive the better way to report this than the active for two reasons.  First of all, using the passive throws that long phrase to the end of the sentence.  In English, important information belongs at the end of a sentence, not at the beginning.  Yes, I know this contradicts what your high school grammar teacher said. 

Linguistic studies of excellent prose have shown conclusively that, in elegant writing or in just plain good writing, the sentences flow from what is known to the new information being imparted.  That is, in a discourse, after the introductory sentence, the flow of information goes from old information to new.  That is why we use phrasing like "It is important that...." where the it has no meaning whatsoever.  That is a ploy to get the important information to the end.

Also, in spoken English, we start our sentences on a low pitch and raise it as we near the end, then dramatically drop on the last word., so why should the important new information be put at the beginning? That is when voice pitch is lowest.  What's at the end of the sentence  is heard most distinctly.  Yes, there are researchers in phonetic labs who investigate just such phenomena.

The second reason that the passive form of 2 is better is that, in the active, there are five words between a truck and  the verb hit.  That is, the subject is seven words long.  The rule is that one should always try to throw a long subject to the end of a sentence. The passive is one way to do that.  A sentence with a lot of words between the cause of the action and the verb is awkward.  The passive flows more naturally in such circumstances.

English is a word order language.  That is, we know how a word is intended to be used in a sentence by the position it is in.  For instance, in  "The dog bit the boy, " we know the dog is the biter and the boy was bitten because dog comes before bit and boy comes after it.  In "The boy bit the dog," the positions of boy and dog tells us that the boy was the biter and the dog got bitten.  In languages like Russian or German, there would be word endings that give that information, so the word order isn't as crucial.  Why do I mention this? 
Because emphasis, especially in writing, is effected by word order changes. 

Whenever words are placed out of their usual position, they become emphasized.  We know that the doer or the cause of an action comes before the verb, but, as shown above, sometimes we don't want  that.  That is where the passive comes in.  If you say, "The dog was bitten by the boy," the hearer knows by the was followed by the -en ending on bit that the dog did not do the biting.  This contrasts with "The dog bit the boy."

You've probably had enough for now, so I'll quickly explain the other sentences.  As for Bobby's being astonished, Sally's behavior is emphasized more in the passive because of its being thrown to the end.  In the last sentence, if the speaker doesn't know the name of the person who should  have been paying you, the passive allows the speaker not to mention a person.  By circumlocuting whoever gave you the work as in A 6, the active, no new information has been provided, but a lot of new words have been. 

In other words, the passive voice is okay. It has its uses. Yes, it can be abused because it does allow people to avoid saying who did something.  Therefore, politicians use it to avoid naming a perpetrator.  However, there are all sorts of ways to abuse language, and the passive is but one.  So, do we throw it out? If we did, and fortunately it would be impossible to, our writing and our speech would be the worse for it.

Now, how do we let Word's programmers know they don't know grammar?

(If this post is too heavy, don't hesitate to let me know. If you don't and I decide to do another grammar lesson, well, I warned you.  Also, let me know if grammar and writing are good topics)

Sunday, January 10, 2010

Are You a Prisoner of Your Language?

It was a pleasure to read a comment on my Orwell blog. In that, I showed that Orwell's nightmare can't come true because we can all make up new words for new things or ideas, and we can all create sentences that have never been said or written before. In fact, without this ability, there could be no poetry and no good novels. Even people in oral cultures, cultures which don't rely on writing, create oral poetry and revel in original metaphors.  This has been well-documented.  It is a human ability.

My friend Iner sent me a news article about a convention on new words that was just held.  They voted on the best new words of 2009  (tweet, twitterati, sexting, unfriending), and the best word to define each of the decades past. Whoever invented googling had first to think up what that activity would be.  Since it didn't exist before computers, or even for a long time after we had computers, that person was putting a word to something that didn't yet exist and hadn't yet been talked about.  Probably, and note I say "probably," he (or she?) first extended the meaning of  search.  That's one way to get a new meaningMaybe the original inventor of broad computer searching software wasn't the one to come up with the term google. But someone who was googling, going to Google, or was a google lover (verb, noun, adjective), did.

Okay, so Brenda, the knowledgeable commenter on my Orwell post, would say, "That's true, but can we think of time the way some Native Americans can with their very different tense systems?"  She claims that their tense systems are more complex than ours.  Actually, Bernard Lee Whorf  first claimed that we are such prisoners of tense in our European languages, that we can't perceive the world as wholly as the Hopi  can because their languages don't divide their verbs into past, present, and future. My grandson Ben argued passionately with me when he was studying Greek that English can't express time as exactly as the ancient Greeks could because we don't have their sets of verb endings. The implication of both arguments is that we all perceive time differently because our languages indicate it differently in their verb systems. (see Language the Social Mirror,4th ed., pp. 337-344)

As for the Native American languages, they were all very different, and not all related to each other.  There were 13 Native American Families of languages on this continent when Europeans invaded it.  Within each family, there were languages as different as English is to Russian (both of which belong to the Indo-European family of languages). Whatever one says about one does not apply to all of them. That's a minor point, however.  They were all structured quite differently from what we descendants of conquistadors speak.  Still, recent research has shown that the Hopi, despite not sharing our verb tenses, could certainly conceive of things happening in a series of events unfolding, which Whorf claimed they couldn't.  It turned out, he didn't know their language all that well.

First, when evaluating how complicated or simple a language is in any one sphere, one has to  be very careful.  Just because one language use endings on words to convey time and another doesn't, that doesn't mean that one conveys time more precisely than the other.  For one thing, all languages have adverbs which modify time, like   early, earlier, just then, at the point of, now, later, before, way before, soon, not for a long time, shortly, ..... The Sino-Tibetan languages don't use endings or prefixes on verbs to express time at all.  Yet their speakers, including the Chinese, segment time. They do it differently, that's all.

Another argument is that English doesn't have the nuances of conditionals that French has because we don't have conditional endings.  Also, it is claimed, that English is lacking the subjunctive, the mood that indicates that what you are stating is not necessarily real or going to happen.  Well, these arguments forget that languages go about expressing the same things in very different ways. Of course, we have conditional clauses introduced by if and although, but we also have modal auxiliaries like would, could, should, might, and may.  These may operate alone or with if and other adverbials.  As for our missing subjunctive, its remnants persist in sentences like "I prefer you be honest,"  "He insisted that John come."  Did you never wonder why, after words of indirect speech, there is no agreement marker -s?  Since we've lost all our other agreement markers, the subjunctive shows up only in the 3d person singular, or the verb be.  To make up for the loss of those old subjunctive endings, English developed the infinitive to+verb.  I want you to come. You may want all you like, but that doesn't mean the person will come, hence it is subjunctive.  If you ever have to learn a European language with a subjunctive, one easy way to do so is to remember that if, in English, you have to put a to + verb in, in the new language, you use a subjunctive ending.  To me, there is a subjunctive-indicative (it really happened) difference between

John tried to marry.  (subjunctive. He never got married)
John tried marrying.  (indicative. He was married once, but it didn't work.)

Another common claim is that whites don't understand African Americans because their verb system in English is so different from standard English.  This is one of the arguments for teaching African Americans in their own dialects and for treating their dialects as another language. (No, I don't share those arguments, but they've been made in open court.)

Yes, African American Vernacular English does use verbs differently from many, but not all other English dialects (if we're considering British rural dialects in the mix).  For instance, many AAVE speakers have a different meaning in

She good. ('she's good right now')
She be good. ('she's always good')

That is, AAVE has a durative be lacking in most other dialects of American English and they don't use the empty is if the meaning is not durative.  Standard English uses the empty is, but conveys the durative with always, all the time, constantly, unfailingly.

AAVE speakers also have

I been had those shoes.
I done sung in that choir.

Both of these indicate remote past.  It is true that white teachers may mistake these for errors, not realizing that they are part of a systematic difference in verb tense usage, but it is possible for people who don't have these auxiliaries to express the same thoughts.

I've had those shoes for a long time.
I used to sing in that choir a long time ago or I once sang in that choir (but I gave it up).

Humorous aside here. An African American friend commented to me that she never said "I done..." like that, and, as we were chatting about something entirely different, she said, "Oh, I done bought that."  We both immediately cracked up.  Nobody is aware of what they actually say, especially if they perceive it is disvalued. (Like people always say to me, I NEVER say, 'he goes' when I mean 'he said'" and later on, I hear them say "And then he goes...." meaning 'he said'.)

So, does our language imprison us?  We'd have to find a situation in which people in another language say something we can't paraphrase at all in our own language, and that has not yet been done.  I hear bilinguals say, "You can't say X in English." --when they've just said in English what it is you can't say. If you really can't say it in English or another language, then you can't say what it is you can't say.

 As for those intricate verb tenses in some Native American languages, the very fact that Anglos can be taught what they convey shows you can understand those tenses once you know what they mean.  If  Anglos couldn't be taught, then there is no way to know what it is the Native American is saying at all. So, how could anyone say that what the Native Americans are doing with their verbs is complex?  To know their verb tenses are complex, you have to be able to translate them into your own language.

So far, all that linguists have found is that the differences between languages are translation problems.  Whatever you can say in one language can be said in any language.  If the language doesn't have a word for a specific thing or concept, it can borrow it or make one up.  If its grammar differs, the problem is finding where in the other language that concept resides.  That is, if it's on a verb in one language and not another, look in adverbs.  If there are no adjectives in one language (and there are languages with no adjectives), look into the verbs.  Some languages treat adjectives as verbs or even nouns.  Fortunately, so far as we know now, all languages have nouns, verbs, adverbs, and conjunctions.

The Irony

The last couple of posts might have been a little much for some of you, although I hope some of you like the details.

To sum it all up, the original accents in American, North and South, with the exception of Pennsylvania, were r-dropping.  They were brought over by educated gentry from East Anglia, the Puritans who originally settled New England, and, in the South, by younger brothers from Royal families who spoke with South of England r-dropping accents.  The Puritans were mostly educated at Cambridge. The Royalty, at Oxford.  Both areas were r-dropping at the time.  Pennsylvania was settled by William Penn, a Quaker from the North of England, which was and is r-ful. He and his followers set the dialect for that region.  Later British settlers came from the lower classes, for the most part, and from the r-ful regions of England.

The irony of it all is that Eastern New England and the Coastal Southern accents brought here by many of the most educated and elite speakers in England set the dialects of those areas for centuries.  However, in the late 20th centuries, those very dialects have become disvalued and mocked.  Younger speakers there have all adopted r-ful accents.  Educated speakers are pretty much all r-ful in those regions if they are 75 or younger.  So, what were originally the less educated and the less prestigious dialects are now the least.

If you doubt the prestige of Eastern New England speech before 1960 or so, just listen to the actors playing genteel roles in movies of the 30's and 40's.  Listen to George Brent, Warren Williams, or John Barrymore.  I've had people ask me if those aren't British accents they're hearing. Oh, no. You'll recognize the difference between British and American if you watch British movies first.  Their vowels are different, although British actors like Leslie Howard, Vivian Leigh, and Laurence Olivier did star in American movies. One of the reason Vivian Leigh was chosen to portray Scarlett O'Hara was that her r-dropping accent allowed her to speak convincingly with a Southern Belle's accent.  Cary Grant, originally a lower class r-dropper from London, adopted more of an Eastern New England accent in his roles.  Joan Crawford originally a poor girl from Lubbock, Texas, spoke with a perfect upper class Eastern New England accent.  That's what voice coaches taught in those days.  My own father's accent was like John Barrymore's. He was born in a peasant's family in Ukraine, coming here when he was 11 in 1921.  He was upwardly mobile even then.