Is “its” on it’s way out?

Here’s another candidate for a rule that will be gone in 20 years: the distinction between “its” and “it’s.” Everywhere, even in published material, the latter seems to be displacing the former.

And what with basal ganglia and contagious speech patterns, we’re probably all subconsciously learning to favor “it’s”. The more often we favor it (it’s), the more often we favor it.

One could even make a grammatical case for this displacement–one that doesn’t invoke the French! Possessive nouns get the apostrophe (“the cat’s pajamas”), so why not possessive pronouns*?


*In fact, we already have one pronoun that does get an apostrophe: “one”, as in “one should mind one’s ps and qs.”

Who is doing the labeling?

Dangler.jpg

In the most obvious grammatical interpretation of this headline, it’s the parent who’s doing the labeling: we don’t get to the teachers until we’re inside the prepositional phrase the end of the sentence (“of his teachers”).

But in the most obvious semantic interpretation–which emerges once we take in the whole sentence–the credit for class-clown labeling shifts from the mother to the teachers.

In general, we want the most obvious grammatical and semantic interpretations to coincide. And so they might have, had the headline read, say, “Labeling my child as ‘class clown,’ his teachers showed their true colors.” Or “Hearing my child being publicly shamed changed my view of his teachers.”

What’s fun about the original–besides the fact that it snuck into a headline–is that the initial grammatical interpretation (mother as labeler) almost works. Indeed, if you really want to, you can probably come up with a context that actually does work for you. Perhaps conceptualizing her son as a class clown somehow helps the mother understand some of the otherwise inexplicable ways in which his teachers were treating him.

Now that I think about it, that may have been my initial take on what the commentary was about. Perhaps it was the bizarre parenting insights that it seemed to promise that got me to read beyond its headline.

Grabby headlines–maybe it was all on purpose!

Of white bears (and black ones)

As Catherine has quoted J.S. Mill as saying,

The structure of every sentence is a lesson in logic.

And, I would add, much of the logic of a sentence comes from its grammar.

But grammar brings us more than logic; it opens up worlds of possibility. Were it not for the various tense-marking and mood-marking verb endings and auxiliary verbs, for example, we’d mostly–whether we’re conversing, reading, writing, or even thinking–be stuck in the here and now.

Mr. Shandy (senior), in a disquisition on auxiliary verbs that concludes the 5th volume of Laurence Stern’s Tristram Shandy, puts it nicely:

Now the use of the Auxiliaries is, at
once to set the soul a going by herself
upon the materials as they are brought
her; and by the versability of this great
engine, round which they are twisted,
to open new tracks of enquiry, and make
every idea engender millions.

The verbs auxiliary we are concerned
in here, continued my father, are, am;
was; have; had; do; did; make; made; suf-
fer; shall; should; will; would; can; could;
owe; ought; used  or is wont. — And these
varied with tenses, present, past, future, and
conjugated with the verb see, — or with
these questions added to them, — Is it?
Was it? Will it be? Would it be? May
it be? Might it be? And these again
put negatively, Is it not? Was it not?
Ought it not? — Or affirmatively, — It is;
It was; It ought to be. Or chronologi-
cally, — Has it been always? Lately?
How long ago? — Or hypothetically, — If
it was; If it was not? What would
follow? —- If the French should beat
the English? If the Sun go out of the
Zodiac?

Now, by the right use and application
of these, continued my father, in which a
child’s memory should be exercised,
there is no one idea can enter his brain
how barren soever, but a magazine of
conceptions and conclusions may be
drawn forth from it.

— Didst thou ever see a white bear?
cried my father, turning his head round to
Trim, who stood at the back of his chair:

— No, an’ please your honour, replied the
corporal.

— But thou could’st discourse
about one, Trim, said my father, in
case of need?

— How is it possible, brother, quoth my uncle
Toby, if the corporal never saw one?

— ‘Tis the fact I want; replied my father,
and the possibility of it, is as follows.

A WHITE BEAR! Very well. Have I ever seen
one? Might I ever have seen one? Am I ever
to see one? Ought I ever to have seen one?
Or can I ever see one?

Would I had seen a white bear? (for
how can I imagine it?)

If I should see a white bear, what
should I say? If I should never see a
white bear, what then?

If I never have, can, must or shall
see a white bear alive ; have I ever seen
the skin of one? Did Iever see one
painted? — described? Have I never
dreamed of one?

Did my father, mother, uncle, aunt,
brothers or sisters, ever see a white bear?

What would they give? How would
they behave? How would the white
bear have behaved? Is he wild?
Tame? Terrible Rough? Smooth?

— Is the white bear worth seeing? —

— Is there no sin in it? —

Is it better than a BLACK ONE?

END of the FIFTH VOLUME.

Reflections on about and around

Catherine’s spending Bastille Day getting back to the US; I’ll be spending it visiting Gettysburg. One of our traveling companions has equipped us with copies of Michael Shaara’s Pulitzer Prize winning The Killer Angels: The Classic Novel of the Civil War. I finished it yesterday, and am now primed as can be for the theater of war and the dramatis personae: from Cemetery Ridge to Little Round Top; from Pickett to Chamberlain.

The book was a quick read, but was not without its distractions. The primary culprit was a preposition. Writing in the early 1970s, author Michael Shaara appears to be emulating the style of the previous century. Accordingly, the various generals and captains would “think on” the situation, “brood on” the best course of action, and “worry on” what would happen next. Oh, what a contemplative age that was! Nowadays, tellingly, we no longer think on things, let alone brood on them or worry on them. Would that that were otherwise!

But with a moment’s linguistic experimentation, I realized that there’s no obvious difference between thinking on things and thinking about them. What’s shifted, instead, are prepositions. In the arena of cognitive verbs, “about” has defeated “on.”

More recently, though, it’s “about” that’s under attack. For decades, fewer and fewer of us have looked about the fields and seen dandelions all about us; instead, we look around them and see dandelions all around us. But now the conquest of “about” by “around” has advanced from the spatial to the conversational arena. Today’s Americans are gradually ceasing to have conversations about things, or to examine issues about important topics; instead, we’re having more and more conversations around things: in particular, conversations around issues around particular topics.

So stay tuned: we may at some point now longer think about anything at all, but, instead, think only around things.

gasstationwithoutpumps on the two learning systems and grammar

Succinct and on the money:

Big chunks of grammar are rule-based learning, at least at the level of what distinguishes academic writing from casual conversation. The rules are articulated in grammar handbooks and can be consciously applied.

Grammar at the level of what sentences one can use in casual conversation is much more “information integration”, as it takes skilled linguists substantial effort to express the grammatical constraints in rules, and fairly complicated rule systems are needed for even crude approximations to grammaticality

That’s exactly right.

The principles Katharine and I teach in our curriculum can be learned–quickly learned–via rule-based learning:

  • End focus: put the most important information in the sentence last 
  • Known-new contract: start with information the reader already knows, proceed to new information he or she doesn’t know (or hasn’t heard you say yet)
  • Cohesive topic chains: many if not most of your sentences in a paragraph should have the same or closely-related grammatical subject (I think the most effective percentage in a fairly long paragraph is around 75%)

And see:
The most important research on learning I’ve read

The most important research on learning I’ve read

Someone has posted it on line, so here it is !

Deferred Feedback Sharply Dissociates Implicit and Explicit Category Learning
J. David Smith, Joseph Boomer, Alexandria C. Zakrzewski, Jessica L. Roeder, Barbara A. Church, and F. Gregory Ashby  Psychological Science 2014, Vol. 25(2) 447-457

I’ve been mulling this article since the summer of 2014, when it was published. It’s life altering.

Unfortunately, if you’re not in the field, reading the study isn’t easy. The press release is intelligible but brief. 

For the moment, the thing to know is that this study probably proves, finally, that we have two separate and distinct learning systems inside our brains.

Psychologists and cognitive scientists have been talking about “dual systems” and “dual systems theory” forever, but no one had nailed it down. Now they have.

The two systems are separate and distinct in the sense that if you turn one system “off” the other still learns. They’re “dissociable.” 

And: the 2 systems learn differently.

“Deferred feedback” looks at category-learning, but as far as I can tell these two systems learn everything, including physical skills. 
~

Compare and contrast

The chart below is correct (I believe), but it says nothing about the relationship between the two learning systems–which no one seems to understand yet. 

So, while I’ve put “vocabulary” under explicit learning, I’m fairly sure vocabulary can also be picked up via implicit learning. 

And given what I’ve seen in the L2 literature about grammar learning, it seems clear that some explicit learning helps with grammar, too–at least, with the kind of grammar you use in formal writing, as well as with learning the grammar of a second language.

Obviously, no one learns the conversational grammar of his or her native language at school. 

In short, the two systems seem both to compete and to support each other in some way no one has worked out.
~

Information-integration learning Rule-based learning 
“Life” learning “School” learning
Unconscious Conscious
Implicit learning: you can’t necessarily put what you’ve learned in words (& if you can, words come to you later) Explicit learning: you can put what you’ve learned in words
Intuition, everyday categories (good versus bad, dog versus cat), social rules, habit Formal concepts, theories, disciplines, etc.
Grammar Vocabulary
Learns relatively slowly Learns quickly
Can’t learn “offline” (learning stops after a “lesson” is over) Can learn “offline” (learning continues after a lesson is over)
Must have immediate feedback – students must know whether their answer was right or wrong after each answer or no learning occurs Can learn with delayed feedback – students can get their tests back days later and still learn from their mistakes)
Can learn several things at the same time (e.g.: can learn the orientation and the width of a stimulus) Can learn just one thing at a time (can learn the orientation or the width of a stimulus, but not both at the same time)

~
From the abstract:

Deferred reinforcement qualitatively eliminated implicit, information-integration category learning. It left intact explicit, rule-based category learning.

Teaching formal grammar is teaching vocabulary

Doug left this link to a post on the difficulty of searching Google when you don’t know what the thing you’re looking for is called:

What do you do when you want to look something up but you don’t know what it’s called? Sometimes you can just type what you know into a search engine and it will sort things out for you. I just typed “part of the car that covers the engine” and I got:

Part of the car that covers the engine pixelcity2_hood

[snip]

Sadly, things are not always this easy. Right now I know what I want to make but I don’t know what to search for. I know what it looks like and how it behaves, but not how it’s created or what you call it. In fact, I can even draw a picture of it. It looks kind of like a stained glass window.

Where college writing is concerned, not knowing the search term is a chronic problem.

It’s a problem because nobody teaches formal grammar any more. When I say “any more,” I mean not since the 1950s, pretty much.

My students have usually heard of “subject,” “predicate,” “noun,” “verb,” and “sentence,” but that’s about it.

So nobody can look anything up. Not on Google, not in a handbook. Especially not a handbook, which, unlike Google, doesn’t try to guess what your question is. 

Here’s an example.

In my first semester of teaching, I think it was, I wanted to know which was correct (in formal writing):

Do you mind my sitting here?

or

Do you mind me sitting here?

I was pretty sure “my” was right, but only because in years gone by I had always said and written “my.” But that was then. In recent years, I had started saying and writing “me,” so I wasn’t sure. (I take the fact that my usage had changed to mean that the rule was changing.)

I had no idea how to look up the answer.

I did know what the word “possessive” meant in the context of grammar, but I didn’t know what a word that ended in “ing” was called.

So I didn’t know to search forpossessives in front of gerunds.”

I eventually figured it out, but it would have been a lot easier if someone had just told me what a gerund was when I was 10.

Vocabulary is a good thing.

People should teach it.
~

Postscript

I’ve just skimmed Paul Brians’ page on gerunds and pronouns. I like this:

This is a subtle point, and hard to explain without using the sort of technical language I usually try to avoid; but if you can learn how to precede gerunds with possessive pronouns, your writing will definitely improve in the eyes of many readers.

It’s not wrong to write “do you mind me sitting here?”

But it does sound different from “do you mind my sitting here,” and it makes a different impression.

That matters.

When you teach writing, part of what you’re doing is giving students the means to control the impression they make.