August 10, 2010

Correcting the grammar Nazis: "illogical comparisons"

An earlier post on the rise of too-literal grammar Nazis during the 18th C, and the concomitant decline of cognitively flexible speakers, gave me the idea to get back to my linguistics roots and correct these self-proclaimed guardians of language whenever I notice something.

The previous example was plural subjects taking a singular verb when construed as a collective, which fell out of usage from the 18th C. onward. If a present-day Shakespeare tried to use this construction, he'd be pilloried by the dictionary dorks and would therefore probably keep his mouth shut in the first place. It doesn't matter that the sense is entirely understood by the audience -- it's simply illogical to have a plural subject take a singular verb. (I've also noticed that they could take singular pronouns as well in a collective context.)

Anytime you hear someone accuse another of committing a speech crime because something-or-other is "illogical," you know you're dealing with a Mr. Spock Aspie who just doesn't get people, can't read between the lines, and needs everything spelled out. Which leads us to our next example, whose name I didn't know at first, but through some googling found this grammar tutor who uses the apparently standard term "illogical comparisons." Here is the example he gives:

1. Skateboarding in New York, unlike California, is usually hampered by busy streets and crowded sidewalks.

He even admits that the meaning is 100% clear. We don't pause for a second and say to ourselves, "Huh, I kinda see what they meant, but it still sounds off in some way." This is a totally acceptable sentence in English, then. Ah, but not for the Nazis. You see, the words involved in the comparison are "skateboarding in New York" and "California" -- the first is an activity, the second a state of the U.S. Thus, comparing the two would be IL...LO...GI...CAL.

What these geeks fail to appreciate is the role of elision in human speech. We elide all kinds of unnecessary junk in our speech because the other person -- assuming they aren't Dr. Spock -- can read between the lines and fill it in with no error whatsoever. Take this example:

2. The boy Hayley kissed began to blush.

If we must be totally obvious about what we mean, we really need to supply a relative pronoun connecting "the boy" and the modifier "Hayley kissed" --

3. The boy who(m) / that Hayley kissed began to blush.

Yet sentence 3 is just fine in its more stripped-down form as sentence 2. This silencing of unneeded words is exactly what's going on in the so-called illogical comparisons. Obviously the speaker is not thinking about a contrast between an activity like skateboarding and a state like California, and obviously no listener would infer that. The Nazis' correction is something like this:

4. Skateboarding in New York, unlike skateboarding in California...

But who the hell needs all that extra words in there? It would be fine with just:

5. Skateboarding in New York, unlike in California...

Aha, they don't specifically mention "skateboarding" in California -- and they don't have to. They know it, and we get it. Take it just one step further by eliding "in" and you get the original, which is perfectly fine.

I think autistics and Aspies must not have existed before the 18th C. -- that's when we start to leave agriculture behind and move to market economies, where a more flexible mind becomes something of a cost, given how hyper-specialized your role in society becomes. The Age of Reason and the birth of grammar Nazis both stem from this change in people's genetic make-up. I think there must have been some profoundly Aspie people who really jarred on hearing "illogical comparisons." By affiliating with each other or merely spreading their confusion to others, their influence came to dominate and rules were written down about making language use more logical.

Most people learning these silly rules today realize that they make no sense and accept them as one of those annoying things-you-must-learn to impress your social superiors and colleagues with your writing style. Though most adherents of such rules know them to be baseless, they won't point out that the emperor is wearing no clothes -- if they squint for just a moment... yes, there it is! -- fabric after all! Following dogma isn't always bad, but here it is as though a mass of dieters were following the prescriptions of some guru who was 200 lbs overweight, couldn't move at all, had dessicated skin, and labored even to breathe.

Why would anyone treat language laws as scripture if they came from someone who couldn't even understand the speech of a normal 10 year-old child without having every last little assumption made overt? If you need that many hints about what someone means, you're too clueless to be giving us advice on how to make our meaning clear.


  1. The human ability to easily read between the lines and discern the meaning of speech even when the sentences are not logically consistent by strict rules of grammar is fascinating, but there are rich veins of humor to be mined in the illogical bits as well. Think of the climactic showdown in Mary Poppins where the father pulls out the, "Wooden leg named Smith," joke.

  2. The irony is that Grammar Nazis in the 18th century claimed that they were bringing English to more closely mimic Latin. That is why, for example, they have that adage on not "splitting infinitives." In Latin, the suffix -re indicates that the verb is a present active infinitive. "Peccamus" means "we sin," "peccare" means "to sin." It is strictly not possible to split the infinitive, because it is one word.

    The irony, of which I speak, is that Latin is in many ways more "illogical" than English. Possessive pronouns are used less frequently in Latin, so, "Dog runs," often means, "My dog runs." The listener or reader is expected to read between the lines.

    I disagree, however, that Aspies emerged only during the time of the Enlightenment. My bet is that they have existed for far longer. I remember Razib noting that Greek and Latin authors seem to be more interested in abstractions than modern novelists, which is fairly Aspergery. The Scholastic theologians were infamous for bickering over senseless, irrelevant details. My bet, though, is that in premodern culture people with Aspergers were closer to people and were more closely integrated into their communities, and had social skills drilled into their skulls. Or the broader culture at large was more right-brain oriented, so the left-brained Aspies had little influence, whereas in modern times the left-brain's reasoning is given a higher premium, so such attempts as "logic" are placed everywhere.

  3. leave agriculture behind and move to market economies, where a more flexible mind becomes something of a cost
    Can we be reasonably sure of this? Seems the more structured and suffused society becomes with the human element (either humans themselves and human social constructions), the greater the need for flexibility. Especially with the specialization you speak of since flexibility allows us to find a common ground by which we may interact with those in other "specializations" with whom we must share our community.
    An agricultural economy, relying less on artificial human input, would hinder a flexible mind the most.

    BTW, the faulty form in number 2 irritates the hell out of me. That is the kind of thing I see way too often in this era of texting and IM'ing in which a written thought bears no resemblance to the intonations and pauses conveyed in a simple utterance. It strikes me as lazy and presumptuous of the writer to think everyone will instantly comprehend the meaning. If the writer is averse to dandyisms like "whom" why don't they just move the verb to the front?
    "The boy flushed when Haylee kissed him." Presto, and we didn't need any punctuation marks either!

  4. Do you think the extremely pro-drop nature of East Asian languages has any relation to this (i.e. they tend to throw a lot of grammar away when it's obvious from contrast, while European languages at least are relatively obligate)? Chinese in particular. Perhaps East Asians have less aspergery minds (probably particularly relative to South Asians and Arabic speakers and other such folk with lots of obligatory marking).


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