Grammar Judgment II: Son of Grammar

Holy hell, the definition of "grammar" seems to get more people excited than I thought it would. I love you guys, seriously. In junior high my mom always told me that when I got out into the real world I would find more people like me, by which she very specifically meant "people who get completely agitated by issues of grammar and usage," and it really warms my heart that the existence of the internet has proved her right.

I'd like to clarify what was apparently a too-brief discussion of the difference between the adjectives "grammatical" and "ungrammatical," and why the existence of those two words precludes the existence of a particular type of qualified version of the noun "grammar." It is totally okay if you don't care about this and just skip on down to the comments in order to call me a fat bitch.

A friend (who wishes to remain anonymous due to the fact that I freaking schooled him when we were arguing this over google chat) went at the matter from the easiest point of entry: the analogy.

"Look," he said. "If you have a math test, and you get 30/100, it is fine to say 'poor math skills.' Even though the errors are not math, given that they're simply wrong: 2 + 7 = 10 is as much 'not math' as 'I is hungry' is 'not grammar.' When you say 'poor grammar' you mean that the person makes frequent grammar errors, and his overall language skill is poor."

Ah. Except that saying "poor math skills" is not analogous to saying "poor grammar." It is analogous to saying "poor grammar skills" - which is perfectly fine. In this case, "poor" and "grammar" are both modifying "skills," which is a noun that can take as many qualifying adjectives as you'd care to throw at it.

"Using grammar," on the other hand, is a lot like "being pregnant." Either there is a little parasitic clone chilling out in your uterus, or there is not. Either your verb agrees with your noun, or it does not. You can be happily pregnant. You can be exuberantly grammatical. But you can't have "partial pregnancy" the same way you can't have "poor grammar." For that matter, you also can't have "incorrect grammar," because grammar is – definitionally – correct.

But my friend kept pushing:
"I continue to think you are not just pedantic, but wrong. Using poor grammar strikes me as a perfectly acceptable way of saying 'makes many grammar errors.'" I unapologetically use this construction regularly."

As it happens, so do I (though I feel a little twinge whenever I do, so maybe it's not totally unapologetic usage). But that isn't the point. The point is that, despite its frequent use, it remains incorrect. Of course, odds are that it will probably evolve into correctness, but you know what? "Irregardless" is now an actual word in the dictionary. So the evolution of language doesn’t always go down the happy path towards sunshine. Saying something is correct merely because it is ubiquitous is the sort of thing that a blogger a bit more prone to straw-manning than I am might say leads us down a path towards genocide and Crocs as acceptable footwear and horribly ineffective democratically-chosen presidents. Oh wait.

"You are like the people who say SPLIT INFINITIVES ARE ALWAYS WRONG," said my friend, and I resisted the urge to quote the guy who inspired Dead Poets Society, and also the urge to point out that an infinitive, properly, is a single verb despite being two words, and splitting it is like saying "absofuckinglutely," and instead let him continue down his path.

"Your binary construction of 'grammatical' and 'ungrammatical' assumes that there are a fixed set of grammatical rules. That is not true; there are many rules that people disagree on."

He's right, of course. Issues of grammar, like issues of law or tennis or anything else for which there is a codified set of rules, are always up for dispute. But the existence of disputes doesn't render the entire system unsound, and doesn't disallow the possibility of saying of an action "that is illegal" the same way one says of a sentence "that is ungrammatical." I suppose it's worth noting at this point that my friend is a lawyer, so the point wasn't lost on him.

Beside being a lawyer, though, he is also a really smart guy. So he started from a new direction:

"Okay. If I say 'poor grammar,' you know what I'm talking about. If the concept of poor grammar exists, then there's no problem with the construction 'poor grammar,' right?"

Well, yes and no. Here we get into interesting Frege-trailblazed territory. (Fun fact: I used to have a t-shirt that said "Gottlob is my boyfriend." Then an actual boyfriend borrowed it, and broke up with me, so the status of my relationship with Gottlob is currently in question.)

If a concept exists, it can be given a name. Let's call the concept "poor grammar," which - regardless of its grammaticality - we all comprehend, "P."

"P" can be replaced with anything. "Thistle." "Uskvald the Hirsute." "Asdgsdds25sd." "Poor grammar." It's simply a name applied to a concept - a handle which, when said or written, immediately allows all of us to conjure its concept in our minds.

The problem with calling "P" "poor grammar" is that "grammar" is not a word devoid of connotation, and so using it in the name of another thing creates reference to its own meaning. And, going back to the pregnancy analogy, "poor grammar" is simply not a meaningful phrase. Not "not meaningful" in the sense of "incomprehensible"; rather, "not meaningful" in the sense of "a computer given the rules of English would be unable to parse this sentence successfully."

"Fine," said my friend. "Disregard that argument. I am suggesting that grammar is subjective and therefore that it is coherent to refer to 'poor grammar' in the same sense as it is coherent to refer to 'poor art'"

Well as it happens, I actually think there is a case to be made for "poor art" also being a meaningless concept. But that’s another issue for another time.

The final point of all this, I think, is that I was really making a quite trivial point. I don't believe anyone would contradict that a given sentence is either grammatical or ungrammatical. The extension of this notion that's getting everyone's undies in bunches is the truthful fact that given a binary situation, you can't express middle ground and allow the expression to remain binary.

You may now proceed with calling me a fat bitch. Thank you.


Harry said...

you are looking very titular today

Marcin said...


Quite apart from the fact that there can be more than one grammar, and that we can have a preference over the set of such grammars, your argument is a specious pile of poo, and ignores a whole branch of the usage of the words "good" and "bad." I feel an OED quote coming on...

"2. Incorrect, faulty. bad shot: a wrong guess.
1688 Lond. Gaz. No. 2309/4 He speaks but bad English. 1767 FORDYCE Serm. Yng. Wom. I. i. 25 They learn..to speak bad French. 1845 KINGLAKE Eothen viii. 137, I secretly smiled at this last prophecy as a ‘bad shot.’ 1849 MACAULAY Hist. Eng. II. 110 Some bad translations of Bossuet's works. Mod. slang, Oh! that's very bad form!

3. Law. Not valid."

- and -

" 2. a. Lacking or deficient in the proper or desired quality; of little excellence or worth; of a low or inferior standard or quality. "

One could go on, for example defending more robustly and expanding your interlocutor's arguments, but this proposition deserves little enough in the way of counter-argument.

Anonymous said...


nadarine said...

well, if the trainwreck gallery opening I saw on Saturday night is any basis for judgement, then "bad art" certainly exists. Or perhaps I should continue calling it "un-art".

helen said...

excellent counterexample, Nadarine!

Marcin, darling, old cabbage turns into sauerkraut, which is my preferred hot dog topping.

Marcin said...

Sauerkraut smells of old vinegar and cabbage.

Anonymous said...

Your friend has less than perfect grammar, himself.

"There IS a fixed set of rules," not "there are."

"There are many rules on which people disagree," not "that people disagree on."

"You know that about which I am talking," not "you know what I'm talking about."

Well. Maybe that last one I can let slide.

- An admiring anonymous grammarian

RW said...

On the other hand there's always alcohol.

Avitable said...

When someone says something like:

"Are you as hungry as I?"


"You should do the same thing we are."

there are assumed words (respectively, "am", and "doing") that don't need to be said to remain grammatically correct.

I think it's the same thing with "poor grammar". It's not actually "poor grammar". It's "poor grammar usage". The "usage" is assumed and dropped.

Tah dah! We're all right. Except marcin.

yo mama said...

perhaps we should just refer to it as 'po gramma'

Lauren said...

Most dictionaries define grammar first as "the study of..." language, sentences, syntax, and the like. You don't seem to be discussing poor or incorrect study of language, but rather poor or incorrect usage.

But the second common definition of grammar is something along the lines of "a system of rules that defines the grammatical structure of a language," as Merriam-Webster puts it. If grammar is the system of rules, then criticizing someone's grammar must mean criticizing that person's individual set of rules.

But that's not what we mean, is it? What we mean when we say someone has poor/incorrect grammar is that the person has broken (or, more commonly, frequently breaks) the rules of standard English grammar. So, it's not precise to say that Spot has poor grammar; rather, his writing poorly conforms to standard English rules. But it's not precise to say that Spot's grammar is incorrect either. If Spot has his own grammar, the worst we can say is that his grammar makes communication difficult or is internally inconsistent. If we're commenting on how Spot's writing conforms to English grammar, we still can't go further than to say that Spot's writing is incorrect as an example of English grammar.

Amy said...

I have noticed a new grammatical crime ... the use of 'whenever' in reference to one-time action (as opposed to that hard-and-fast rule that whenever refers to repeated actions.)
For example,

Crime: Whenever we were at the mall last week, we saw the Saw IV.

I dare say that this is a trend as I have heard 4 women (ages 18-25) use it. [Granted 3 of them are my husband's sisters.]

The sisters hail from Pittsburgh, but the fourth offender was just some HR woman giving the benefits presentation at my new job. She was polished, well spoken, but still managed to commit this crime.

So, Helen ... is this a youthful transformation of the English language? Pittsburghese? Something heinous that only I notice?

helen said...

Amy: I would guess that it's an elision of "Whenever [it was that] we were at the mall," which is - sadly for our mocking inclinations - perfectly correct.

As for putting "the" in front of article-less movie titles.. that's a whole 'nother crime.