Grammer and the Internet

Saw this on Facebook today and it brought a collection of things to mind. In light of Weird Al’s recent “Word Crimes” video, I thought I’d share them, in no particular order.


OzyMillie - Revenge of the Language Oriented

That's The Way I Roll




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Of course, things can get complicated the deeper down the rabbit hole you go:




Strongest Compulsion Editing

Lastly, before you get your knickers in a twist, I know how to spell “grammar.” I’m just employing the conventional wisdom expressed above to increase my exposure for this post. I’ll be curious to see how many people don’t read this far and take me to task for misspelling it in the title.


The Old Wolf has spoken.


A shout-out to Weird Al Yankovic – Word Crimes

I make misteaks when I’m writing. But I try not to make big ones, and I do my best to correct them when they occasionally crop up.

ten artist chirtmas list 5

These gigantic erasers have been around since I was a kid in the 50s; fortunately I have never needed one that big. Whilst typing, I can’t ever seem to spell “friend” right the first time; it’s just a quirk, I suppose.

That said, I am always gobsmacked when I see people confusing loose and lose, or their/there/they’re, or its/it’s. Maddening. I tend to be a descriptive linguist rather than a proscriptive one, knowing that languages flow like the mighty Mississippi river over time, and that usage is king – but there’s a difference between colloquialisms and ignorantisms (that last is a neologism.)

Now comes Weird Al, with his second music video in a stream of 8, released one each day. I’ve always loved his work, and this one immediately rose to the top of my favorites list because of the subject matter, near and dear to the heart of a linguist.

I’ll let Al speak for himself.

And now the Old Wolf has done spoke.

Because usage.

Grammar is like the pirate’s code. As Captain Barbossa said, “The Code is more what you’d call guidelines than actual rules.”

Living grammarians and prescriptivists and editors just had an apoplectic fit; the dead ones are now spinning in their graves with such vigor that if you could hook up an armature to each one, you could power New York City for free.

As a career linguist, I have the right to say that, but note that saying so doesn’t make me right. It’s just my opinion. Spend enough time studying various models of language and you come away with the feeling that some things *”just not allowed are” unless *”Yoda you happen to be.” No, there’s a place for everything and everything must be in its place. On the other hand, spend enough time studying historical linguistics and the mechanism of language change, or watch the transformation of Vulgar Latin into the family of Romance Languages, and you learn something else: usage trumps Strunk and White every time.

Now, having had a traditional preparatory education, I struggled through multiple years of Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition,  learned to execrate Reed-Kellogg diagrams, and spent most of my time drawing things like this in my notebook:


And, I learned how to use English properly. A couple of language and linguistics degrees later, I still support the need for correct grammar as a means of facilitating communication and avoiding chaos, and while I cringe just as forcefully as the next person when seeing a grocer’s apostrophe or a confusing of “lose” and “loose,” I am much less committed to the concept that everything has to be just so, best beloved.

Linguistic patterns are pretty well established by the time we become adults, and it takes a powerful force to make us change our way of speaking or writing, or at the very least, a conscious effort – but the former is difficult to come by, and the latter implies awareness of that which is correct and that which is incorrect, and the prices and benefits of making certain linguistic choices.

I don’t, like, you know, change how I talk or write with, you know, like, every new fad. *gag* That said, there’s one little bit of popular speech that I have latched on to as a very useful and concise way of expressing a much more complicated concept, and that’s the use of a noun as the object of the subordinating conjunction because, where typically one expects an entire clause.


Because Japan.

The picture and sentence (it is a sentence, despite the lack of anything remotely resembling a subject, verb, or predicate) suffice to convey a significant amount of information in a very compact manner. To translate this into traditional grammar, one would have to say something like:

“This picture of people bathing in a giant pool of wine is very unusual, but since the picture is taken in Japan, where many things are so different that foreigners have no hope of understanding the rhyme or reason behind certain cultural phenomena, everything is just as it should be, and you should not expect anything else.”

In a previous post about escalators, you will find this picture:


I could have just as easily captioned it “Because America,” the meaning being “You will only find escalators being used to reach a fitness center in America because people are so fat and lazy that they miss the entire concept and holy hqiz isn’t that ironic.”

Just how long this particular linguistic quirk will last remains to be seen. I have no illusions that it will be mainstreamed (that verb didn’t exist 20 years ago, by the way), but the whole point is that you never know what’s going to become popular or accepted down the road. In the meantime it’s swell, and I’ll probably use it until people start looking at me as though I had grown a third eye.

Because usage.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

PS: Atlantic has a similar article which is worth reading as well. Because corroboration.

The cat the rat the dog the cow… wait, what?

Over at Mental Floss, I found some of the oddest sentences that are perfectly grammatical and yet which don’t compile [1] properly.

One of the most famous is,

“Buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo buffalo buffalo Buffalo buffalo.”

A visual explanation of this monstrosity is the most effective:


You can also visit Wikipedia for a detailed linguistic deconstruction; like Columbus’ egg (an appropriate simile for today) [2], it’s easy when you see what they’re doing.

However, only slightly less well known is this one: Never go in against a Sicilian sorry, I meant

“The rat the cat the dog worried killed ate the malt.”

This is an example of nested relative clauses. The structure is easy to follow when only few are used:

The rat ate the malt. The cat killed the rat. These become, “The rat (that) the cat killed ate the malt.”

Add in “The dog worried the cat” and you get “The rat (that) the cat (that) the dog worried killed ate the malt.” Since the subordinating conjunction “that” is optional in such clauses, the resulting sentence begins to become incomprehensible as the nestings are more and more difficult to follow.

The human mind is a wondrous machine, capable of prodigious feats of memory, calculation, and creativity, but it can only perceive so much at a single glance. In the case of determining how many items are within a field of vision, this skill is called subitizing, and the current human limit seems to be between five and seven.

Quick, how many dots?


Three. No challenge, right?  Now try this one. Quick, no counting!


The answer is “24,” but you didn’t know that without counting, unless you happen to be one of those few people, either autistic or supergenius, who has somehow bypassed the normal human ability.

But let me show you the same number like this:


And while you can’t subitize the dots, you can immediately calculate how many there are based on your encyclopedic knowledge of the universe and a bit of simple math.

In the same way, the human mind is able to understand and generate language, but there are limits to how much complexity can be comprehended, even if all grammatical rules are followed. Thus taking our example to its logical conclusion, “The House that Jack Built” becomes:

This is the malt the rat the cat the dog the cow3 the maiden4 the manthe priest6 the cock7 the farmer8 kept waked married kissed milked tossed worried killed ate, that lay in the house that Jack built.

It’s interesting from a scholarly standpoint, but nowhere near as fun to recite while bouncing your grandchild on your knee.

Remember, time flies like an arrow, and fruit flies like a banana.

The Old Wolf has spoken.

[1] This is computational linguist slang for “I don’t get it.”

[2] I am 1/2 Italian by descent. As such, Columbus Day has long been a great celebration, especially in New York where I grew up. Sadly, in much the same way as we now know that brontosaurus is now an apatosaur, and that Pluto is no longer a planet but a Trans-Neptunian Object, we now know that Columbus is not the national hero he has been made out to be; October 14th would better be renamed “Genocide Day.” Yes, he played a significant rôle in the development of this nation, but the human toll that was left behind in his wake is staggering. A couple of things you might be interested in reading are at The Thunder Mountain MonumentThe Oatmeal, and Lies My Teacher Told Me.

[3] with the crumpled horn
[4] all forlorn
[5] all tattered and torn
[6] all shaven and shorn
[7] that crowed in the morn
[8] sowing his corn