Help desk

Here’s a question a friend just asked re: the following–

I live with my father in the summer, when I’m on vacation from school.

Why does that comma make sense?

The handbook rule (speaking of main and subordinate clauses) is that we use commas  when the subordinate clause introduces the main clause, but not when the subordinate clause follows the main clause:

I wake up early because I like to walk the dogs before I go to work.

Because I like to walk the dogs before I go to work, I wake up early.

The “I live with my father” sentence seems to break that rule, but it ‘sounds right,’ so the question is why is that.

Why does the comma after summer sound right?

My guess is that “when I’m on vacation from school” is functioning as a kind of nonrestrictive modifier–a parenthetical–but I’m no linguist … so we will await word from Katharine, who is.

UPDATE: Katharine says it’s nonrestrictive!

It’s a lot of fun having a friend who’s a linguist.

A diminishing infection of casual speech by edited prose?

A colleague of mine once told me a story about the lingering effects of a psycholinguistics experiment on a college campus. Incentivized by the sticks and carrots of their department, the subjects of the experiment, naturally, were mostly undergraduate psychology majors. These subjects were induced, through subtle, ingenious prompting, to use passive voice constructions: to favor sentences like “I was induced by the clever prompts” over “The clever prompts induced me.”

Long after the experiment ended, its subjects continued–apparently subconsciously—to favor passive voice. Their habits spread like a contagious meme throughout the rest of the campus—and on into incoming classes. Years later, even after all the subjects had graduated, a higher-than-average use of passive voice could still be observed on this particular campus. Or so the story goes.

Apocryphal though it may be, it exemplifies a real phenomenon. Language, as a communicative system, also functions as a communicative disease. Before you can say “Jack Robinson” (does anyone say that anymore?), everyone is saying “impactful” or “yeah no” or “bad optics.”

Sources for these memes range from sitcoms to stand-up comedy to sports talk to management-speak to psycho-babble to political punditry. A smaller influence, but still significant, is written language. Though much of written language is more formal and complex than oral language, the vocabulary and language patterns we encounter in reading still potentially prime our word choices and phrasings in speech.

So what happens when reading habits change? What happens when your average person spends less and less time immersed in sophisticated, literary prose, thereby soaking in an ever narrower range of vocabulary and syntax? What happens when people spend less time reading carefully edited texts, where there are fewer mistakes in grammar and word choice than what is inevitable in spontaneous speech? Might this have an aggregate effect on oral language—on what all of us are collectively hearing and uttering and immersed in as listeners and speakers? Might the result be an impoverishing of vocabulary, a simplification of syntax, and a proliferation of linguistic errors in our everyday conversations–even among those of us who still spend significant time engaging with sophisticated texts?

It’s true that errors and simplifications have been around forever, but I wonder if they’re more common now than back when sophisticated, carefully edited texts reached more people. I wonder this when I see preposition disagreement and dangling modifiers and mangled phrases like “he beat me by a long shot” and “attribute hearing loss to language delays” everywhere.

I wonder this when I hear simpler words and word combinations replacing more complex ones: “reveal” for “revelation”; “fail” for “failure”; “push back” for “resistance,” “look-see” for “inspection,” and “nice to haves” for “desiderata.”

I wonder this when I hear “comparable” increasingly pronounced with the accent on the second syllable—compArable—making it more like the simpler verb form from which it derives, and evoking the way a beginning reader might read the word, especially if he has never heard it pronounced in what was once its standard pronunciation.

Again, errors and simplifications have been around forever, and these recent simplifications may simply be an innocuous continuation of a long-lived trend. After all, we’ve long had “move” for “movement,” “win” for “victory,” “find” for “discovery,” “dig” for “excavation,” and “talk” for “conversation.” But I’m wondering if what we’re hearing now is part of a bigger, more troubling trend: one that reflects the diminishing corrective influence on all of us of the kind of colorfully worded, precisely phrased, and carefully edited language that appears only in certain types of writing—and that depends for its survival on a critical mass of certain types of readers.

Katharine & Doug on how to ask a question in English

re: Linguistics on the fly and the do-operator

Here’s Katharine:

I love the Question Rule! I run through a gradual derivation of it with my education students so they can see how tricky it is to teach people with language delays and people learning English as a foreign language. Most people (however automatically they form grammatical sentences) have no idea how they do it!

The basic rule is purely formal (as opposed to semantic): when there’s an auxiliary or “be”, use that; otherwise use “do”.

Is that unusual?
Are you noticing anything unusual?
Have you noticed anything usual?
Had you noticed anything unusual at that point?
Will you report anything unusual?
Might you have noticed something unusual?

“Do”, like the fronted auxiliary verbs in the above sentences, is what carries the tense:
Did/do you see anything unusual?

And here’s Doug:

That would be what at least John McWhorter1refers to as the “meaningless do”, which is one of the features of English that makes it an odd language. His claim (or perhaps speculation?) is that it came into the language by contact with Celtic languages. And you’re right, it can be very hard for ESL students to learn idiomatically.

In most Germanic languages, a pattern like, “Eat we breakfast?” would be idiomatic, where in English the idiom, of course, is “Do we eat breakfast?”

1. Linguistics Prof at Columbia and brilliant lecturer on linguistics, including in the Great Courses series


One of the things I loved about working with Katharine on the textbook is that she always knows the answer to grammar question — not just knows the answer, which I usually know intuitively, but can explain the answer.

This sentence stumped me:

The F.B.I. also arrested two of Mr. Rahim’s associates, whom prosecutors say were involved in the plot.
From: One by One, ISIS Social Media Experts Are Killed as Result of F.B.I. Program

That “whom” sounded wrong.

Usually, when something sounds wrong to me, it is wrong. But then, when I read the sentence again, thinking about its grammar, I wasn’t sure.

Wasn’t that “whom” the direct object of “say“?

Whom” is the direct object form. Not “who.”

I’ll post Katharine’s explanation tomorrow. (Or make her do it!)

Teacher’s lament

I’m going to be working with a graduate level research class next week, and in the process of trying to track down papers on the relationship between writing and thinking, I’ve just come across a fabulous passage, quoted in Exploring Literacies Theory, Research and Practice by Helen de Silva Joyce and Susan Feez:

Bringing up the question of learning to read and write reminds us of the comment by the primary-school teacher who remarked, ‘It’s lucky we’re not responsible for teaching them to talk. If we were they’d never learn that either’. Nevertheless, a surprising number of people do become literate, mostly through being taught.
(Halliday 2009/1978: 178)

Halliday and Hasan are two of my favorites; our writing curriculum is strongly influenced by their work (which I have yet to read in full, I should add).

I don’t post this passage to malign teachers, by the way. Not remotely.

Being good at teaching isn’t enough. To teach well, teachers need a field-tested curriculum.

But instead of providing a proven curriculum, schools expect teachers to Google lessons and posters on Pinterest, or buy them from Teachers Pay Teachers.

I personally have spent what feels like years of my life Googling lessons, handouts, and worksheets, and in the end what I have is a massive heap of digital stuff (some of it fantastically helpful, to be sure) that doesn’t cohere and isn’t a curriculum.

Conlangers are a thing (part 1)

I’ve just discovered an entire category of people:


Conlangers make up languages for fun.

I had no idea!

I knew there was one conlanger on the planet: the guy who invented Dothraki.

I had no idea there were others, let alone multiple others.

Turns out there are so many others they have their own conlanger societies, listservs, wikis, software, and books.


And see:
Teaching freshman writing via conlanging (part 2)

This is why we need a linguist

Well, this is why I need a linguist.

I’ve just read Katharine’s “Can you spot the sentence fragment?” post.

For me, the first fragment is easy:

Though I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed.

That’s a fragment because “though” is a subordinator. Coming before “I did snap at friends…” it turns a complete sentence into a subordinate clause:

complete sentence I went home
subordinate clause (or fragment) although I went home
complete sentence I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed
subordinate clause (or fragment) though I did snap at friends, abruptly accessing huge depths of fury I wouldn’t have thought I possessed

But I’m having a big problem with the second fragment, which is that it “feels” like there are two other fragments in Katie’s post, not just one.

First fragment:

From this weekend’s New York Times Magazine

That’s obvious (no verb) — but, to me, this sounds like a fragment, too:

At which point you realize, say, that it doesn’t express one more advantage to Adderall, but rather that it brings up the first of three downsides.

I say “sounds like a fragment” because I write by ear — never learned formal grammar beyond 4th grade or thereabouts (and, no, learning grammar in Spanish class doesn’t help. Not really.) So my rule for complete versus incomplete is whether a string of words sounds complete or incomplete.

At which point you realize, say, that it doesn’t express one more advantage…” sounds incomplete to me, and the reason it sounds incomplete to me is that opening “at which point.”

But why?

Is “at which point” a subordinator, too?

And if it is, how do we know?

Katharine knows the answers to all these things.

It’s a very strange thing, trying to make unconscious knowledge conscious.

The minute you try, you lose your sense of conviction.

Always happens with spelling. If you really think about how to spell a word — consciously think about it — it slips away.

Try it.

Try consciously thinking about how to spell “Hoover v— cleaner” instead of just writing it down, on automatic pilot, the way we normally do.1

Now that I’ve thought about Katie’s at which point sentence, I’m completely mystified.

Very annoying.

1. OK, I admit: I can’t spell vacuum unconsciously, either, not with any reliability. But I really can’t spell it if I think about it.