December 30, 2013

A plan for reviving the study of grammar.

Over at Language Log, here (recommending The Penn Treebank) and here:
A basic understanding of how language works should be part of what every educated person knows....

[A]t least in the U.S., my suggestion would be to turn away from English departments, and pursue a plan based on an alliance of linguists with people in computer science, psychology, statistics, medicine, law, sociology, business, etc., who increasingly see linguistic analysis (e.g. in the form of "text mining" or "text analytics") as an interesting object of study in itself, and as a means to enable research on other (applied or fundamental) topics. This alliance — which eventually might even include some people from Digital Humanities — is a plausible basis for college-level courses in "grammar" as practical text analysis.
There are more links in that passage than the one that I copied, by the way. That one just jumped out at me. There's no link, however, on "Digital Humanities," which puzzled me, so I googled and found a number of things, including — in The Chronicle of Higher Education — "Stop Calling It 'Digital Humanities'" and an easy-to-absorb Wikipedia article. Excerpt:

Many conventional humanities scholars dismiss digital humanities as "whimsical." The literary theorist Stanley Fish claims that the digital humanities pursue a revolutionary agenda and thereby undermine the conventional standards of "pre-eminence, authority and disciplinary power."
That links to a column Fish wrote a couple years ago that began:
This is a blog. There, I’ve said it. I have been resisting saying it — I have always referred to this space as a “column” — not only because “blog” is an ugly word (as are clog, smog and slog), but because blogs are provisional, ephemeral, interactive, communal, available to challenge, interruption and interpolation, and not meant to last; whereas in a professional life now going into its 50th year I have been building arguments that are intended to be decisive, comprehensive, monumental, definitive and, most important, all mine.
Hey, remember when every article about blogging had to begin with wheelspinning about the word "blog"? It's ugly, you know? Frankly, Fish's long column doesn't seem bloggy at all, so I question his claim and why he wants to make it.

Funny thing about blogging, it provokes people to insist that they are out or — when the climate changes — in. Myself, I am in, so in that I've lost the knack of being out. For example, I know it's New Year's Eve Eve today, but I can't look back on the year that's ending or ahead to the year that's itching to take over, because I'm always in the day, or really, more accurately, the moment.  And the moment for this post is past. Time to swim forth into the cruel, crawling foam of time.

45 comments:

betamax3000 said...

The Ghost of the Gatsby Project says:

“So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the cruel, crawling foam of time."

betamax3000 said...

The Ghost of the Gatsby Project says:

"The Old Year was wide open and ripped at the corners as though she had choked a little in giving up the cruel, crawling foam of time she had stored so long."

betamax3000 said...

The Ghost of the Gatsby Project says:

"For Daisy was young and her artificial world was redolent of orchids and pleasant, cheerful snobbery and orchestras which set the rhythm of the year, summing up the sadness and suggestiveness of life in the cruel, crawling foam of time."

betamax3000 said...

The Ghost of the Gatsby Project says:

"A tray of cocktails floated at us through the cruel, crawling foam of time, and we sat down at a table with the two girls in yellow and three men, each one introduced to us as Mr. Mumble."

betamax3000 said...

The Ghost of the Gatsby Project says:

"There is no confusion like the confusion of a simple mind, and as we drove away Tom was feeling the hot whips of the cruel, crawling foam of time."

betamax3000 said...

Sorry. I'll Stop Now.

surfed said...

Grammar? Laugh my ass off. I had a 15 year old student last year who called me over and asked:

LeCharles - "Mr. Surfed, what be this curly line and and a dot?"

Me - "That's called a question mark LeCharles."

And after you bring back punctuation how about bringing back dictionaries to our Lanuage Arts classrooms. They were banned from them a year ago buy our district.

surfed said...

I'm tired of deleting and reposting - I can not type this morning. Sheesh. "By" not "buy". Embarrassing.

Hagar said...

I hate grammar.

Hagar said...

It is a killer of language.

Tank said...

About seven years ago, at a big name NY University, my daughter's roommate asked her to proofread a paper she had written. When my daughter noted that there was no verb in one of the sentences, her roommate said, "What's a verb."

Trashhauler said...

Grammar is probably racist.

David said...

The problem is that we are all descriptivists now, accepting that the only test of language is how it is used by people and literally recoiling in horror at the idea that there is any correct meaning or grammar to be enforced.

The descriptivist position is, of course, logically unassailable. Too bad it makes it impossible to communicate. As Popper said, "U can't, Speeksew, =/= 2 b misunderstood."

LuAnn Zieman said...

I was a junior high English teacher for 20 years. I enjoyed teaching. I must admit teaching literature was my first love, but grammar wasn't so bad either. One of my favorite books is "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" by Lynne Truss. The topic? Punctuation. A former now adult student called me while visiting parents in our town and let me know how much she still enjoyed grammar--an enjoyment she learned in my classroom. Unbelievably, she also read Truss's book. I must have had strange students, eh?

Richard Dolan said...

Grammar is not racist, but it is Catholic. Anyone who had nuns in grammar school (the name says it all) will understand.

Matthew Sablan said...

Soon, people will understand why adjective order matters!

LuAnn Zieman said...

Grammar is only racist if one chooses to view it that way. After retiring from teaching, I became a literacy volunteer. One of my volunteer stints was as a tutor at the Oxford Federal Prison Camp. I tutored a youngish Milwaukee prisoner, who needed to improve his reading. He was practicing phonetic pronunciation when we came to the word "ask." An "aha!" moment for him. We both concluded that the inner city pronunciation evolved from switching the last two letters around. Well, it was as good a theory as any.

YoungHegelian said...

Years ago when I was consulting down at FTC, I was working with a divorced, 30s-ish black woman who had as one of her main concerns in life getting her then primary school aged son a good education. She was sending her son to son to a private, non-Catholic school in DC.

Since it was a common topic of conversation, one day I asked her how the school taught grammar, and she said they taught the kids Latin. By learning the Latin cases & declensions it also imparted the basics of grammar to the kids.

Does this work? Who knows. It sounds like a good idea to me. "Arma virumque cano" for all the kiddies!

Broomhandle said...

I was initially taught grammar by crazed Polish nuns in a suburb of Chicago. Considering it was in their second language, they taught it very well.

Mitch H. said...

The problem with prescriptivists, David, is that they tend to be insufferable pedants. I used to get into swirling, beer-fueled arguments with one guy who insisted there was no such thing as a synonym, and that even the most interchangeable of words had some slight, pennyfarthing connotative distinction between them.

I was watching the fifth season of the Wire this morning, the season about the Baltimore Sun and an old silverback editor came down on a fresh new reporter for having used "evacuate" to describe the removal of residents from a burning building. I couldn't for the life of me come up with a better way to describe the act, and at least one grammar blog took issue with the scene.

Grammar is a status weapon. Pretending otherwise just disarms the victims of the charade. Likewise, allowing minorities to marinate in crimes against a common language like "Ebonics" and "Spanglish" is a verbal imposition of ghettoization. Language, grammar, and syntax are bullshit, but bullshit matters, keeps some folk down, builds some folk up.

Kirk Parker said...

Althouse,

"December 30, 2013 ... For example, I know it's New Year's Eve Eve today..."

Might be time to come up for air.

Kirk Parker said...

Young H.,

Not quite. After all, we don't have lots of that stuff that Latin does.

But what teaching a cognitive approach to a foreign language does is bring the concept of a grammatical description into explicit view, which you can then direct back onto the native language.

Kirk Parker said...

Mitch H.,

"The problem with prescriptivists, David, is that they tend to be insufferable pedants. I used to get into swirling, beer-fueled arguments with one guy who insisted there was no such thing as a synonym, and that even the most interchangeable of words had some slight, pennyfarthing connotative distinction between them."

To paraphrase the thing that's often said about marketing expenses: it's easy to agree with your interlocutor's claim that's there's always at least a tiny distinction--it's a pretty intuitive argument, after all. Where it fails is when you respond, "OK, then describe the difference!"

Dr Weevil said...

Kirk: read the sentence again. It's not "New Year's Eve" today, it's "New Year's Eve Eve". Just a little AA joke.

jimbino said...

I have little use for the Descriptivists over at Language Log.

I am fluent in several languages and if I were to take an interest in learning another, the last person I'd hire to teach me would be a Descriptivist. Better a grammar nazi.

Descriptivists are folks who's standards regarding food, friendship, love, sex and language are determined by googling or n-gramming.

jimbino said...

Don't like who's for whose? Check it out: n-gram thinks its cool. Its for it's, to.

Kirk Parker said...

Oh, crap! I swear that second "Eve" wasn't there when I first read the page! I swear!!!

(And no, I haven't had the first drink of the day, either.)

Kirk Parker said...

(That *does* explain why, as I carefully checked all 19 preceding comments, that nobody else had "caught" it.)

Kirk Parker said...

jimbino,

I have no use for Prescriptivists, anywhere, because the sad reality is that there is no authority there. The only possible actual authority is just the sort of vague, shifting "language community" that is the heart and soul of Descriptivist work.

Except, perhaps, for the French with their miserable Academie, but then I have no use for them on other grounds, most of the time...

jimbino said...

Kirk,

There is no authority for sex, food, friendship or love. Do you develop standards for these by googling as the Descriptivists do?

Would you rather learn a foreign language from a Descriptivist or a Prescriptivist? How about math?

Ann Althouse said...

""December 30, 2013 ... For example, I know it's New Year's Eve Eve today…" Might be time to come up for air."

Read it again and think longer.

Anglelyne said...

Kirk Parker: Except, perhaps, for the French with their miserable Academie, but then I have no use for them on other grounds, most of the time...

No use for the French, or no use for the Académie? If the former, you, sir, are a barbarian.

Bruce Hayden said...

Since it was a common topic of conversation, one day I asked her how the school taught grammar, and she said they taught the kids Latin. By learning the Latin cases & declensions it also imparted the basics of grammar to the kids.

Does this work? Who knows.


Yes - my understanding is that a century or so ago, there was a movement to regularize and formalize English grammar, and invariably pretty much every contributor was literate in Latin (and many in Greek). The result is that English grammar does follow the Latin to a great extent. But, probably because English does not have cases like Latin does (except for pronouns), English text does not end up nearly as complex as some Latin text does. I have some not so fond memories of translating Latin with clauses within clauses. Caesar is easy. Very straight forward syntax. Horace, or even Virgil, are not.

One thing that has been helpful for me with a decent Latin background is understanding verbs. In English, what we have are "helping verbs". But, in reality, what the helping verbs do is provide a mechanism for different tenses. Latin has a bunch of them, describing actions in different modes, etc. So, you can have present pluperfect, future perfect, past subjunctive, etc. All pretty much translate to English using "helping verbs". One of the interesting things to me is the distinction between transitive and intransitive verbs, with the former taking a direct object (objective case), and the latter taking a predicate nominative (most obvious intransitive verb being the "to be" family (English: be, am, are, is, was, were, been; Latin: sum, iri, fui, futuris)).

The SATs have changed a lot since I took them, but probably the biggest factor that allowed me to score in the top 1% verbally was 3 1/2 years of Latin. (Ultimately ended up with 4 years of HS Latin and 2 years in college).

Bruce Hayden said...

Yes, English grammar is racist. It is one of the fastest ways to identify whether or not someone is educated. And, in this country, that means whether or not someone sounds and reads as if they were white middle class. That isn't going to change any time soon, with most of the wealth in this country, and most of the top management slots being controlled by people who speak and write English decently well by established standards. You can ignore this, if you want to limit yourself, or your children, to a lower class existence.

Kirk Parker said...

Althouse,

"Read it again and think longer. "

Yeah, you missed my grovelling retraction. :-)

jimbino,

"Would you rather learn a foreign language from a Descriptivist or a Prescriptivist?"

Neither. I'd rather learn it from someone who's good at teaching it. Dun.


"How about math??"

The fact that you'd try to bamboozle my into conflating math with human spoken/written language says volumes about you... not of it good.

"Do you develop standards for these by googling as the Descriptivists do?"

This merely shows that you haven't the slightest idea what Real Working Linguists do... which doesn't surprise me all that much, though I do wonder at your apparant ease at revealing that to one and all.

Kirk Parker said...

Althouse,

"Read it again and think longer. "

I think you missed my grovelling retraction. :-)

Kirk Parker said...

Bruce,

"The result is that English grammar does follow the Latin to a great extent"

You're missing the point. No grammar of a language should "follow" that of another language, distant or near; it should "follow" what that language actually does.

English-grammar-after-the-pattern-of-Latin has given us such foolish nonsense as "you can't split infinitives", "you mustn't end a sentence with a preposition", and other completely non-English garbage up with which I shall not put! :-)

Kirk Parker said...

Anglelyne,

I do make an exception for the French when they engage in maritime "out-of-doors" political activity, when they help the House of Saud (damn their immortal souls) repel the (even-worse) nutcases who overran the Grand Mosque, and when they help maintain some semblance of order in their former possessions in Africa.

Beyond that, what's to like? Two-Buck Chuck is every bit as good as vin ordinaire, our best wines are every bit as good as their best (and no, I'm NOT related to the wine critic of the same surname)... other than that, what's to like?

jimbino said...

You win Kirk.

I googled your "apparant ease" and it turns out that it carries the same meaning as the "apparent ease" the Prescriptivists recommend.

Hey, it does double duty: it conveys the meaning while indicating that you are an idiot.

Ann Althouse said...

Sorry, Kirk, I respond to things as I encounter them in the thread.

Michael K said...

"Grammar is not racist, but it is Catholic. Anyone who had nuns in grammar school (the name says it all) will understand."

I have fond memories of diagramming sentences in 6th grade. People who can't diagram sentences don't understand grammar.

I sent my son, a lefty, a full set of McGuffey Readers for his three year old daughter. I wonder if they will ever use them ?

Anglelyne said...

Kirk Parker: Beyond that, what's to like? Two-Buck Chuck is every bit as good as vin ordinaire, our best wines are every bit as good as their best

What is it with frog-bashers and that stupid vin ordinaire trope?

Hey, at least it's now "as good as", rather than the "much better than" regularly trotted out in my younger days by the neighborhood Gallo-by-the-Gallon œnophile political savants. (Now, that probably did have some truth to it, when great-grandpa was swilling his way through his study-abroad program. But no, as a matter of fact, Two-Buck Chuck is not as good as the inexpensive local stuff that can be found on the shelves of modern French supermarkets.) As for finer wines, whatever - which are better is a matter of taste.

Other than that, yeah, you're right. What have the French every contributed to civilization? I don't doubt you draw a blank when thinking of French contributions to any field of endeavor.

John Lynch said...

This is a very old debate. Linguists are still mad that English departments have been ignoring them for the last 50 years.

Kirk Parker said...

Anglelyne,

Oh dear, I'm afraid I touched a nerve. Sorry, next time I'll put in visible <tongue-in-cheek> tags.

But seriously: I was completely dead serious when I expressed admiration for the way the French can see past whatever-their-version of PC is, and act in their own (or sometimes, with the siege of Mecca, the whole world's) interest and (as in the S of M) do it behind-the-scenes and not care who gets the credit. And of course whatever further-off historical stuff they credit for, they get credit for.

I just got on a roll because (as a former working linguist) I consider the Académie Française just about the silliest and most pretentious endeavor in the realm of language the world has ever known.

But sorry--sincerely--if I thereby stepped on some toes that didn't deserve to be stepped on.

Kirk Parker said...

"...I consider the Académie Française just about the silliest and most pretentious endeavor in the realm of language the world has ever known...."

Oh good grief, what am I thinking? Second most pretentious thing; Professor Chomsky of course takes first place.