Living by Whose Rules? How ‘User Error’ Propels Language Forward

The brown, quick fox?

Not long ago, a BBC culture editor tweeted about English rules “we know but don’t know we know” citing a book by language writer, Mark Forsyth, called The Elements of Eloquence. What caught everyone’s attention was Forsyth’s observation that “Adjectives in English absolutely have to be in this order: opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose Noun.” 

When the tweet about that quirky rule went viral, Forsyth rode the wave with a blog post of his own, in which he doubled down, noting that “if you mess with that word order in the slightest you’ll sound like a maniac. 

Forsyth makes the assertion that every speaker of English would automatically assemble this improbably long stream of adjectives in the following way: “a lovely little old rectangular green French silver whittling knife”. Actually, his go-for-broke example overstates (and in some ways obscures) the premise by packing in so many words that its relevance to ordinary speech becomes hard to hear. 

But we do naturally tend to order adjectives in certain ways. The preferred sequence charts a natural path from the “subjective” (observer) perspective to the “objective” view shared with others. We’re more likely to say the “quick brown fox” than the “brown quick fox” and more likely to say “the pretty little French girl” than “the French little pretty girl” or “the little French pretty girl” — without ever being specifically taught that any one sequence is “correct.” They are, in fact, all grammatically correct. Some sequences are simply more “natural” to our ear, more comfortable to say and to hear, or more deeply reflective of how we organize and perceive the world. That’s because even though we generate each fresh utterance in the moment, we grow up absorbing certain preferential word patterns and sequences that subconsciously shape how we say things. 

We all speak statistics

So is Forsyth wrong? No, not exactly — but not entirely right either. Forsyth is merely playing the odds when he talks about adjective order. And by overplaying one anecdote, he obscures the larger plot. Hidden rules like these are not curious exceptions to principles of conscious language production. Rather, the “rules we know, but don’t know we know” constitute the basis for all language.   Much of the common usage we call rules is actually just a set of statistical probabilities.  And the variance around those probabilities fuels language evolution.

The Nike rule of language acquisition: ‘Just do it’

Although most of us receive some formal education in the rules of grammar (not necessarily with long-lasting or useful effect), we all learn to speak our mother tongue fluently without ever being able to articulate a single rule. Listening to my two-year-old grandson learn to speak both German and English — which involves not just acquiring two sets of vocabulary, but also ordering words differently in each language — I am very much reminded that our brain is hard-wired to acquire language patterns. Only later do we ever come to recognize any of them as rules

Many of those rules, like preferences for certain cadences or sound patterns, are never overtly discernible to a native speaker. The “not-knowing-we-know” is the essence of language fluency. As a rule-following adult, I am very diligent about applying rules when I try to speak German, but the process is painfully slow, and sentences are often wrong, no matter how much time I take. When you have to think about the rules, it means you can’t apply them so easily. Knowing and doing are not the same things.

Making it up as we go

But the true genius of language is that, while it can be codified as a set of rules, those rules are always evolving and breaking down, even if the changes don’t necessarily progress toward some clear destination. New words or expressions are quite easy to spot and are, in fact, emerging much more rapidly because the internet is a fuel-rod of language change. On the other hand, grammar evolves much more slowly. It’s the foundational structure that supports comprehension. Words are merely décor. When we say, “the dog bit the man”, all English speakers understand that it’s the man who needs a bandage. Subject-verb-object. That’s by no means the universal way of organizing a sentence, but until we learn a foreign language, we tend to assume it is.

Even the rules of grammar change, if given enough time. The English spoken a few hundred years before Shakespeare had not merely two genders but three — masculine, feminine, and neuter — with a complex gender-sensitive grammatical structure woven densely around them. What’s extraordinary is how much deep structural change had to occur in English grammar as it migrated doggedly away from its two formative languages (Germanic and French), with no one consciously promulgating new rules, no authorities formally agreeing to shed critical structure. 

Nothing is more democratic than language. Over the course of centuries, everyone at all levels of society had to have been a full participant in the process by which English was so radically transformed.

Here’s another example, smaller in scale, closer in time. Today, the contraction “ain’t” signals a lack of higher education in most parts of the US, but in Regency England, it was a respectable colloquialism among upper-class speakers, just a slurring of am and not. Its fall from common to ‘’non-standard” usage probably owes to the way Dickens put it into the mouths of seedy underclass characters. Webster’s decision to treat ain’t permissively in its Third International Dictionary (1961) caused something of a ruckus because it seemed to breach the Maginot line between a stance on usage that’s considered “prescriptive” — rules we are supposed to follow — vs purely “descriptive” — the way people actually speak (or write). In truth, that line has never held indefinitely under the steady assault of change.

The loss of subjectivity – and can 'him' and ‘me’ break the rules?

Evolution in grammar is generally slow — and hard for speakers themselves to detect — but sometimes it can be spotted in the act. Take what appears to be the surprising marginalization of the subjective case in English: the “I, she, he, we” posse of pronouns who get things done in the world, English grammar’s go-getters. We are taught that he or I is always the subject of a sentence, but it’s now quite common for people to say things like, “him and I (or him and me) are having dinner together.” Not long ago this usage (like ain't) was associated with lack of formal education, but now it is increasingly common across all speaker subgroups and situations. Mass culture is sweeping away formalisms, breaking down grammatical rules as quickly as social walls. The implication is that at some point in the future, none of us will rely on pronouns to distinguish between the actor and the acted upon. And, arguably, so long as we don’t change the way we order our sentences, we will all understand that when “him kissed her”, he was the one to take the initiative.

The self-righteous among us should keep in mind that English has long allowed “you” to function as either the subject or object of a sentence. Speakers of Middle English started slurring “ye” (of “hear ye, hear ye” fame) somewhere around the 12th century. The resulting merger between you and ye was fully completed by the early 17th.

Things have been quiet on that front for three hundred years. So what accounts for this sudden turn of grammatical events? Whenever things happen quickly, it’s always safe to blame the digital world. The explosive speed and volume of communication are bound to accelerate language change.

But why should him and me prevail over he and I, the way you prevailed over ye? Well, perhaps the loss of the subjective case is a signal of personal disempowerment.  It's a terrifying world out there — shedding the subjective case may be a way of cutting everyone down to size.  Maybe a diminished sense of efficacy is reducing us to objects in the grammar of life rather than agents of autonomous will.  

The “public I” can no longer shield the “private me” from the intrusions of the web and social media. When “I” leave the stage, “me” will be left to do everything, in grammar and in life.

The Game of Language

So rules, schmules. I love them, I tend to live by them, and I almost always write by them, but I also recognize this: that with anything complex, there is a lot of user error — and over time, user error becomes usage. If you love language, you really have to embrace that “unruly” thing about it too — even if the rule-breaking feels like a steep descent to hell for those of us who make a fetish of grammar. People have been whining about it since — no kidding — the Ancient Greeks.

Language is a game, and as in any game, there are rules and skilled users of the rules. But language is a unique game in which all users get to change the rules as they play, whether artfully or accidentally. And those language rules (the ones we know and the ones we don’t know we know) are really patterns of use in context. Context requires continual adjustment to advance the higher cause of communication.

The other day, I asked my husband to please grab me my black silk long dressy sweater. I had broken Forsyth’s inviolate rule for ordering adjectives, but that seemed the best way to focus his attention on the relevant options.

If he thought I was a “maniac”, he never let on.

Last month's SmartMouth outing questioned the contemporary search for cultural affiliation in a DNA test kit. This new installment addresses another way in which the natural order of things has been upended: the curious indignity of being rated as an Uber passenger in a world that declares itself dedicated to serving the customer.

Cutting-edged and dual-edged

This is not exactly a screed about Uber, although few companies deserve it more. And it’s not a rant about Uber drivers, who – like Uber passengers – are mostly fine.

For starters, it’s about the wounds to my self-esteem opened by mediocre Uber ratings. But more broadly -- if we take Uber’s system of mutual ratings as a harbinger of things to come -- it’s about how the vaunted concept of customer-centricity may already be spinning off its axis into a parallel universe.

To live the modern life, you need a keen sense of irony. Here’s another dose. In an age of relentless “customer experience” monitoring, we’re already at risk of getting spanked by businesses for our performance as consumers -- with the very same rating yardsticks that used to be exclusively in our hands.

Wait. I thought the shoe was on my foot. I thought that I was king.

How that delusion unraveled is a story that begins on a cold street corner in Brooklyn. I had ordered an Uber by entering a specific pickup address, but even so, it turned out that the driver had been dispatched by the app to someplace 10 blocks away. I can’t get him to change his destination just by asking (because the Uber interface is not hospitable to any sort of human improvisation) and I’m now fumbling for a new ride in a hurry because the driver is no longer accepting my calls. My son, who is coming with me, looks over at my phone and laughs, “Wow, your passenger rating is only 4.58. That’s pretty bad.”

“Is it?” I ask. I had always assumed that a lot of drivers, like a lot of survey respondents, don’t use the top of the scale. And I’d never really noticed or thought about my Uber rating. There really are so many ways to fail at life.

Painful Introspection

So, then I start to wonder why I am not a five-star Uber passenger. I always show up, I don’t cancel, and I am never, ever late. (Only Uber drivers can say that about me.) I don’t even open my app until I reach the door of my building, even though that means Im always the one waiting. And I tip. Almost always.

I admit there have been a few instances – typically in the canyons of Lower Manhattan where GPS doesn’t work so well – when the driver and I couldn’t rendez-vous or hear one another on our cell phones. Sometimes, it’s been hard to spot my ride: a Honda Pilot isn’t always easy to distinguish from a Toyota Highlander on a dark, rainy street. And, well, maybe once or twice I cancelled when the driver seemed to be spinning on my phone like a wounded bug for 5 minutes and then somehow got to be much farther away. That’s never encouraging.

But all in all, these incidents represent a small numerator over a large denominator of Uber rides. And most of them actually have something to do with the app interface, which Uber drivers themselves acknowledge has some shortcomings. Why take it out on me?

So, then I think, well is there something else about me? I am always friendly, I never ask them to turn off terrible music, and I always thank them. Have there been, perhaps, judgments made about the quality of my conversations with someone else in the back seat? Might some drivers have downgraded me for sounding like a nag with my own family members?

I feel the beginning of an existential crisis coming on. Being a customer, a good one, is a basic identity for me. But being rated at that thing I do – consuming -- upends the natural order of things.

Life may be overrated

My day job involves a lot of customer experience modeling – forklifting ratings like “net promoter scores” and using the data to understand what matters to customers and how we can better serve them. Never has there been a moment in our culture when the minds of customers were so deeply plumbed for insight on the smallest sources of dissatisfaction. Whether consumers feel that the service they experience today is any better than it was a decade ago is debatable, perhaps along generational lines. But certainly, all of us would agree that our satisfaction is rated extensively. The internet has made of ratings and customer feedback the lingua franca through which we think and feel and communicate about our Experience.

Turning the tables

So then, what’s the big deal, why should I wince at being rated by Uber drivers? There is a digital dossier, many thousands of data points thick, on each of us. And while some of the data is meant to give us a “better customer experience,” most of it is meant to slice and dice us for consumption by the businesses that serve us.

I’ve never complained about having a credit rating, yet that rating -- not Uber’s judgment of my performance as a passenger – is what really defines my consumer destiny. And there’s no evident violation of privacy by Uber. Yet. So, grow up and get a grip, you might well say. Uber ratings are just a galling turn of the tables on customers who have chosen unregulated transportation and need to live by a new kind of social contract to be served. Just be grateful, I tell myself, that there are websites to help rehabilitate Uber passengers with failing grades.

(And for the record, I can always get an Uber, things haven’t sunk that low.)

Looking into the dark mirror

My mother taught me to be a gracious customer because, at one time, being a customer was an extension of being a person. That is still true, I think, but in digital environments, most transactions are impersonal and soulless. They don’t need to be gracious, only fast and easy, which means, for the most part, automated.

Uber, on the other hand, sits at the curious corner of automation and personal transaction. At that intersection, there is me and there is the person who comes to pick me up, and until Uber is really driverless, we must always meet face to face. What stings is not the injustice of being judged by another person but the “Black Mirror” math of it and the multiplier effect of cumulative judgments that are used to locate me on a broad digital grid. The ratings are not there to serve me, they are there to train me. To make me a compliant, efficient consuming member of the hive. In an economy where people and customers will be bidding for the right to serve and be served, we’d better shape up or lose out. That’s why Uber thoughtfully reassures me that it’s now easier to see my customer ratings on the updated app.

There’s probably nothing at all odd about that to younger generations growing into adult “consumer-ship” today. They are quite likely to see ratings as a form of social and commercial reciprocity, in which, fair’s fair, we rate each other to grease the wheels of commerce. But we need to be less sanguine. If we’re not careful, things will evolve toward something like China’s dystopian social credit system, in which financial ratings are integrated with social data to define each person’s civic worth. In a way, Uber may be a first and last opportunity to be rated based on personal interactions as a customer. From here on in, it’s algorithms all the way down.

There are, in the end, two ways to interpret the word, “customer-centric”. I am reminded of my favorite Twilight Zone episode of the 60’s. In that iconic sci-fi story, space aliens arrive with the intent of bringing Utopia to us earthlings. The bible-like volume they carry everywhere is titled, portentously, “To Serve Man.” In the end, it turns out to be a cookbook.

I am also reminded of the following. The concept of Facebook began a long time ago with ratings of freshman coed photos. Zuckerberg’s initial stroke of genius was to modernize a humiliating old Ivy college tradition by taking it online and branding it. Social media and customer fitness ratings share a common DNA and, perhaps, similar epigenetic expression. Community-building is kin to classification.

Postscript: As of today, my Uber rating has risen to 4.62. I must be doing something better.

23andMe -- or Who? How DNA Testing Challenges Cultural Identity

One of the few truly non-digital innovations to enter the lives of consumers in the past few years is DNA testing, a technology that has expanded the voyage of self-discovery from the depth of our genes to the vast migration patterns of our distant ancestors.  Like advertising generally, the ads for those products are a cultural mirror of powerful yearnings.  If you watch TV, you’ve probably seen some.  One 23andMe ad takes a captivating young woman, whose luminous face gleams with racial variety, from East Asia to the Middle East to West Africa to Scandinavia, where she meets all the cultural components of “100% Nicole”.  That’s as good an excuse as any for what looks like a pretty terrific trip around the world.  In an interesting contrast, Kyle, who had always thought of himself as German, is inspired by a tour of his Scottish DNA, courtesy of, to “trade his Lederhosen for a kilt” when walking down the aisle. That seems like profound self-reinvention, not genetic destiny.

There are societies that make a fastidious practice of locating and documenting all members on the genealogical tree – many of the world’s tribal cultures, for instance, as well as European aristocracies.  Though sharply divergent in many respects, those they have in common a means of equipping people with a personal identity rooted in a clear historical context.  Cultures that don’t provide that snug social fit, like our contemporary Western societies, leave us all with haunting questions about who we are, where we came from, and how we’re connected to others.  The allure of, even prior to the introduction of its DNA testing business, was an expression of that powerful longing.  Now that we can reach so deeply into our genetic past, we are more interested in our distant forebears than in our posterity.

Genealogy used to be one of those slightly eccentric hobbies, available only to people from families with the luxury of baptismal records and “town hall” records – elusive for people like the Jews who lived on the run and on the margins of the larger social infrastructure. I’ve always craved a family history that could be traced farther back than the untrustworthy anecdotes of a few generations, and envied those with longer stories to tell.  But the appeal of the distant past is clearly universal.  None of us can help but marvel at how, against odds, we managed to get here, since so many other threads in the infinitely dense web of human origins have been cut forever.  Dead ends everywhere, quite literally. Exploring our ancestry won’t answer the profound existential question that asks why some of us get to be born (and who else does not) but a sightline to our ancestry makes us feel less alone and somehow less accidental.  Those people who are holding the ladder for us as we climb or descend into the future give us a sense of inevitability about the right to be here and the reason.  Inventing a history from the data in our DNA soothes us by directing our gaze toward the door we were destined to enter rather than pointing us toward the exit

But DNA, while it may be destiny of a certain sort, is not culture.  Culture is something we acquire from those around us, not from others who came centuries before.   At a time when we are looking hard at what it means to accept people (hospitably or not) from another culture, it is interesting that the advent of DNA testing is encouraging us to think of our genes as the carriers of our culture, bestowing traditions – headgear or holidays -- like entitlements we can reclaim just because our DNA tells us we are 67% something, 33% something else.  Kyle has little more claim on his kilt than I, a Jewish woman of Eastern European origins, have on a sari, even though I’d like to wear one sometime for the sheer fun of draping myself in another culture.  Whatever Kyle’s genes say, his kilt is borrowed.  And even if he has not a drop of German blood in him, he comes honestly by his Lederhosen.  They were a gift to him from others who aimed to shape him with that gift, whatever misconceptions may have manufactured it. That gift of instruction is what culture really is.  DNA testing is just another origin myth.  It may be scientifically valid but from a cultural perspective, it is inauthentic.

Talking the talk

Language is ever restless and dynamic, even without the accelerating effects of technology. A major vector of change in the last few decades has been business jargon. It is paradoxical to think of jargon as an instrument of broad language change because jargon has traditionally been a mechanism of social exclusion. It separates group members from outsiders and gives rookies a confidence-building secret handshake. But in an era that offers big digital windows on every corner of world, the language of small subgroups can quickly become the language of all.

Business jargon is much derided, and anyone who knows me personally might expect me to pile on. Not today, however. Better to conserve energy (and reader good will) for moments when I truly need to be an arch word-snob. Instead, I’m going to argue here that some of the neologisms introduced by Business – and mocked by guardians of the English language – reflect an urge to enhance semantic nuance, not suppress it. In other words, I’m going to fly the flag for business jargon.

(At some later date, when I talk about PowerPoint icons and cartoons, I will make the opposite case.)

The why’s of the ‘ize’

The syllable of the hour is “ize”, a commonplace, Greek-derived suffix that means to render or transform. A propos, to “ize” something is to transform a noun, sometimes an adjective, into a verb:  revolutionize, actualize, maximize, demonize, etc. At last count, there were over 700 words in English ending in “ize” (including jargonize) and the list keeps growing because everyone who speaks English understands the principle for constructing them.