Gordon P. Hemsley

Linguist by day. Web developer by night.

Archive for February, 2011

My thoughts on Standard English

Posted by Gordon P. Hemsley on February 27, 2011

This post began as a comment on Facebook in response to Clark Whelton’s What Happens in Vagueness Stays in Vagueness and a follow-up to Language Log’s rebuttal, The curious specificity of speechwriters. But it quickly evolved into something that begins to express my feelings about the whole issue of Standard English and how it is taught in (U.S.) schools.

I was discussing these two articles with one of my former English teachers. While conceding that there is no set year (neither the 1985 that Whelton claims nor the 1977 that happens to come up in the LL research) for which the “decline” in writing began, he argued that the decline was indeed upon us. In particular, he claimed that “the idea of the decline in precise, informative, and effectively communicated language is well-founded”. I agreed, but only by reiterating what Mark Liberman wrote on LL:

In fact, the narratives of real children are typically full of detail. The use of appropriate summarizing abstractions develops later, as I understand it; and the ability to speak …at length without saying anything concrete at all is mastered fully only by mature politicians and their speechwriters.

I was claiming that language use is more detailed when we’re children, and it gets more and more simplified as we grow older, as body language and other supra-linguistic cues come into play.

My former English teacher sees the supposed increase of speaking (and writing) without saying anything as being “exacerbated by the gradual infusion of more and more text/IM language into our daily discourse”.

These are the points I brought up in response:

(1) With the advent of the Internet, young people are writing more every day than they used to. Writing has become an integral part of all facets of life, not just the “educated” parts. The difference is, Standard English is not always used online. Because it is not required to be. There are no grades for your writing online. There is nothing stopping you from just pounding the keyboard with your fist and publishing “cfgghjkhgfdjhyhendhxcb” for all the world to see. But that leads to my second point:

(2) Life has become less and less formal over the years. Equality and civil rights have improved, and there is less reason to worry about oppression for who you are or what you say. Thus, the distinction between spoken English and written English, which was once starkly contrasting, has been greatly diminished. People write what they speak, the way they speak. There is no longer any artificial restriction on the process, no translation necessary.

(3) And then there’s the education system. The way English and writing is taught in schools (and I’m not by any means singling any particular teacher out), it’s as if these arbitrary rules are still the only thing out there. The five-paragraph essay, for example. Or the idea that you somehow have to use big words and long sentences to get your point across. Not ending a sentence with a preposition. The list goes on. These are all things that are taught in school, implicitly or explicitly, as if they are the be-all, end-all way to write. Thus, the idea of Standard English that a student has in their head by the time they reach high school and college is so completely skewed from what good writing is that it all becomes incoherent.

So time should not be spent blaming students for their poor writing. It should be spent reforming the system, one step at a time, to eliminate the inconsistencies, dispel the myths, and create better writers. And it should do so by working with the reality that students experience outside of school, not against it, as if school was some alternate dimension where all the rules are different. (This, incidentally, was also the argument behind the ill-fated “Ebonics” debate way-back-when. Teach students in the language and life they already know, and they’ll be better able to see—and take advantage of—the connection between that life and what you’re trying to teach them.)

Then maybe we can knock off all this complaining about bad writing and get back to actually producing something worth reading for a change.

Note: This post was more or less complete by the evening of February 27, but I didn’t get around to publishing it until March 6.

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You may not read this post about cake and ice cream

Posted by Gordon P. Hemsley on February 15, 2011

Let me start by saying that I’ve had it up to here with logic. I learned it just fine during Math A back in 9th grade, and the “Discrete Mathematics for Computer Science” course (a requirement for my ill-fated computational linguistics minor) I took last year was plenty refresher. Now I’m taking two logic courses this semester, and I’m relearning the same thing—twice! Well, actually, one of them is supposed to be Semantics and Pragmatics, but it’s pretty much all been logic up until this point. We don’t actually have a Semantics textbook; we’re using Logic in Linguistics. But I’m also taking Modern Logic (PHIL 109), at the insistence of my “advisor”. And that’s where my story starts.

Unfortunately, perhaps, this Modern Logic course is a philosophy course, rather than a linguistics or computer science course. That means it’s run out of the philosophy department and, in my case, taught by a philosophy grad student. This particular grad student has rubbed me the wrong way since the first day of class, as he puts on an air of “I know everything and you’re all idiots”. (Unless, of course, he’s saying something about philosophy or philosophers; then you’re expected to know what he’s talking about. Which I don’t.) But there are at least a couple of students in the class (besides me) that have brains that function just fine and who are able to understand and discuss the subject matter we are learning. And the discussion does come up—though it doesn’t last.

And that leads me to my story. Today, we had a quiz in class. Once the quiz ended, we went over it as a group. The first question on the quiz had you create, basically, this:

  1. You have cake or ice cream for dessert.
  2. If you have cake for dessert, you may not have ice cream.
  3. You do not have ice cream.
  4. You have cake.

The second question had you translate that into formal notation. With P = “You have cake for dessert” and Q = “You have ice cream for dessert”, it comes out like this:

  1. P∨Q
  2. P→¬Q
  3. ¬Q
  4. P

All of this is fine and dandy, and I wasn’t arguing with it. (It was, after all, what I put on my quiz.) However, when the instructor wrote the English version of (2) on the board, he wrote “cannot” instead of “may not”. I don’t remember who commented on the difference, but I raised my hand and stated that it would have been better (i.e. less ambiguous) if “cannot” had been written on the quiz instead of “may not”, because “may not” has the possibility of being interpreted in two different ways. One is the way he intended, specifically ¬Q. But the other is one that would have made (2) essentially equivalent to (1). That is, because of “may”, there would have still remained the possibility of having ice cream for dessert, even if you had cake for dessert. Formally, there would be a possibility, however remote, to translate English (2) into P→(Q∨¬Q).

He didn’t particularly care for this assertion. This surprised me, as I was taking it for granted—the reason I raised my hand was to point it out and suggest that “cannot” was the better option; I didn’t expect him to disagree that the possibility existed. But he did. And he was quite firm about it. He wasn’t at all open to the possibility that I could be right. He didn’t even consider it, except to try to explain to me how I was wrong.

But I knew I was right. I’ve had plenty of experience in this area. In addition to my pet peeve of people writing “can not” when they mean “cannot” (they don’t mean the same thing!), words such as MAY, SHOULD, and MUST are important in the world of Internet standards. Most standards out there today, including those by the W3C, start off by saying that they intend to use such words as defined by RFC 2119 (BCP 14). Here’s what it says for the definition of MAY:

MAY   This word, or the adjective "OPTIONAL", mean that an item is
truly optional.  One vendor may choose to include the item because a
particular marketplace requires it or because the vendor feels that
it enhances the product while another vendor may omit the same item.
An implementation which does not include a particular option MUST be
prepared to interoperate with another implementation which does
include the option, though perhaps with reduced functionality. In the
same vein an implementation which does include a particular option
MUST be prepared to interoperate with another implementation which
does not include the option (except, of course, for the feature the
option provides.)

Thus, the word “may” indicates that something is optional. In the case of “may not have ice cream”, it means that, according to the standard, it is optional for you to not have ice cream. When combined with the common meaning of “may not” that forbids, you have two possible options: [ [ may ] [ not have ice cream ] ] or [ [ may not ] [ have ice cream] ]. The former means that there is a possibility that you will have ice cream (and also that you will not have ice cream); the latter means you are forbidden from having ice cream.

To combine this issue with the “cannot” vs. “can not” one, you have these four options:

  1. You can have ice cream.
  2. You cannot have ice cream.
  3. You can not have ice cream.
  4. You cannot not have ice cream.

Of these, sentence (1) means you are allowed to (or have the ability to) have ice cream; (2) means you are not allowed to (or do not have the ability to) have ice cream. Sentence (3) is letting you know that no one is forcing you to have ice cream; sentence (4) tells you the exact opposite (or someone is trying to express that they really want you to have ice cream). Thus, sentence (2) here corresponds with the colloquial usage of “may not” that forbids (¬Q); sentence (3) corresponds with the other possibility I suggested ((Q∨¬Q)).

My raising of this matter caused quite a twitter on Twitter among my colleagues, and Twitoaster has attempted to keep track of it for you here. As my tweeps have noted, this is an issue of both prosody and scope.

This type of ambiguity and confusion has gotten other people in trouble before, too. Take a look at Ben Zimmer’s On Language column about the issue, as well as some corresponding Language Log articles here and here.

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