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

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

makeshift pix of fox and dog.png

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.

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