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  • Sandeep Prasanna

    Sandeep Prasanna 6:00 am on April 9, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: grammar, if i was, if i were, mood, , pop music, , subjunctive   

    If I were Justin Bieber… 

    If I was your boyfriend, never let you go
    Keep you on my arm girl, you’d never be alone
    I can be a gentleman, anything you want
    If I was your boyfriend, I’d never let you go, I’d never let you go

    Justin Bieber, “Boyfriend”

    Truly stirring.

    According to English grammarians, “If I was your boyfriend” should read “If I were your boyfriend.” Bieber is describing something that isn’t true — he isn’t the girl’s boyfriend — so he needs to use the subjunctive mood. Here is a lengthier description of the subjunctive. (Not all big pop stars get it wrong, though: Beyonce’s “If I Were a Boy” follows the rule correctly.)

    My problem with substituting “if I was” for “if I were” in songs is that it doesn’t cost anything to be grammatically correct — you end up with the same number of syllables and stresses. Why not follow the rule? Is there a social cost to using the subjunctive? Like, is it automatically less cool?

    There’s some evidence to suggest that the use of “if I was” is on the rise. Here’s the Ngram data for “if I was” (blue) versus “if I were” (red):

    When “if I was” occurs in the middle of a sentence, writers are almost as likely to use it versus “if I were.” But writers are less likely to use “if I was” if it occurs at the beginning of the sentence (second graph).

    The problem with this data is that “if I was” is occasionally grammatically correct, as in “If I was rude to you yesterday, I’m sorry.”

    So I tried narrowing the searches to eliminate correct instances of “if I was.”

    First, I thought of “if I was you” (blue) versus “if I were you” (red). But saying “if I were you” is pretty much idiomatic at this point. The data confirm that suspicion.

    Here is “I wish I was” (blue) versus “I wish I were” (red). They’re nearly convergent now. I thought that “I wish I were” was idiomatic, just like “if I were you,” but apparently that’s not the case.

    But maybe the subjunctive “was” isn’t really entirely encroaching on the territory of “were.” I compared the phrase “if I was your” to “if I were your,” thinking that a grammatically correct instance of “if I was your” was unlikely to occur. The difference is greater:

    Separating the correct instances of “if I was” from incorrect instances is a challenge. Does anyone have other/better ideas on how to eliminate grammatically correct instances of “if I was” to compare it to “if I were”?

    On a similar note, does anyone know of any studies that look at the loss of the subjunctive in English?

  • John Stokes

    John Stokes 6:15 pm on January 8, 2012 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: E.B. White, , grammar, , quote, , taxes, White   

    Advice from E.B. White (especially good for aspiring lawyers…) 

    “Some day I mean to have a fireside chat with my government, that we may come to know each other a little better, for it is by a better understanding of the other’s traits that a government and its citizens must fulfill their mutual destinies. In my chat I want particularly to take up the first sentence under Section G of Form 1040, which is called ‘Items exempt from tax’ and which starts this way:

     ’The following items are partially exempt from tax: (a) Amounts received (other than amounts paid by reason of the death of the insured and interest payments on such amounts and other than amounts received as annuities) under a life insurance or endowment contract, but if such amounts (when added to amounts received before the taxable year under such contract) exceed the aggregate premiums or consideration paid (whether or not paid during the taxable year) then the excess shall be included in gross income. . . .’

    I want to ask my government what it thinks would become of me and my family if I were to write like that. Three sets of parentheses in one sentence! I’d be on relief inside of a month.

    That sentence, above, was obviously written by a lawyer in one of his flights of rhetorical secrecy. There isn’t any thought or idea that can’t be expressed in a fairly simple declarative sentence, or in a series of fairly simple declarative sentences. The contents of Section G of Form 1040, I am perfectly sure, could be stated so that the average person could grasp it without suffering dizzy spells. I could state it plainly myself if I could get some lawyer to disentangle it for me first. I’ll make my government a proposition: for a five-dollar bill (and costs), I will state it plainly.”

    -E.B. White. “Fro-Joy.” One Man’s Meat.

  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 6:00 am on November 17, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: , email, , , , grammar, grammer b, , , , written language   

    The effects of txt 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    If you’ve ever transcribed a free-form conversation, you have probably been struck by how little of a spoken exchange is made up of true grammatical sentences. Listen to your conversations—we hardly ever talk “properly.” We interrupt each other, we lose our train of thought or we misconjugate verbs and get flustered.

    We’re not all careful speakers at all times: redundancies, mistakes and misinterpretations are as central to human language as descriptiveness and precision are.

    Despite this, our educational system—in fact, all of literate society in every language—demands that we write in grammatical sentences. We can’t write our academic essays in phrases and incomplete thoughts. Our literate culture requires completeness and grammaticality. Deviations from this sentence model are dismissed, at best, as art projects or, at worst, serious misunderstandings of grammar.

    Not everyone believes writing should be this way. Thirty years ago, a composition theorist named Winston Weathers proposed “Grammar B,” an alternate style providing, in his words, “options that do not yet exist but which would be beneficial if they did.” His Grammar B sought to convey information from author to reader in the same way it travels from speaker to listener. He promoted a written representation of human thought that mimicked the mechanisms of spoken language—with interruptions, redundancies and visual elements (in lieu of cues like intonation).

    Winston Weathers.

    It was a radical idea with several merits. In fact, for a writing project three years ago, I rewrote a sociology essay into Grammar B. The result was easier to read and understand than the “Grammar A” version. It was also more engaging and conversational.

    But it’s not a coincidence that Weathers’ book is out of print. Writing, especially academic writing, is driven by a cycle that rewards Grammar A and produces it too. I would never have actually submitted my Grammar B essay to my sociology professor and have expected a positive response.

    So if we write in Grammar A and speak and think in Grammar B, are we being cognitively torn apart? Are we being required to think in two different ways? To use language incongruously and inconsistently?

    Consider, at least, that spoken language dwarfs writing in our species’ timeline. We started speaking at least 200,000 years ago, around when Homo sapiens emerged. Written language, on the other hand, appeared no earlier than 10,000 years ago, and it wasn’t until about 200 years ago that mass literacy became common.

    Significant swaths of today’s world remain illiterate. All societies in the world are still based fundamentally on spoken language. In fact, all literate societies are both oral and written—and the conventional wisdom until recently was that a society can be completely oral, but it cannot be completely written.

    World rates of literacy. (Click to enlarge and for source information.)

    If our spoken language is different from our written language, what does it mean that the literate establishment requires such rigidity in writing? It’s obvious that I’m writing this post in Grammar A. I write all of my papers in Grammar A, and you probably do too. That’s considered normal. But when I speak in Grammar A, you think I am working hard to be a careful speaker: I am being formal, or I am delivering a speech.

    So we recognize the merits of Grammars A and B in different situations. But I’m no fool to think that academic writing will ever comprise Grammar B works. It’s a fun idea, but it’s not sensible for any mainstream academic or student to discard the established rules of grammar, even if Grammar B is clearer.


    I once wondered if the dichotomy between written and oral traditions would continue to grow until they had little to no relationship to one another: whether Grammar A’s rate of change would be so much slower than Grammar B’s that they eventually split.

    In my family’s first language, Kannada, a beautiful literary tradition spanning 15 centuries continues to flourish. But today’s formalized Kannada grammar and vocabulary has very little obvious relation to the spoken form—so much so that a Kannada-user like me, familiar only with speaking the language, can barely understand formal text.

    This phenomenon is called diglossia, and I wonder if English is headed toward it. To be sure, all literary languages have some spoken/written diglossia. When we have the luxury to be careful (like in writing), we are generally more grammatical. And written language usually changes more slowly than spoken language because of various forces—compare English spellings to pronunciations, for example.

    But forms of communication like short and ungrammatical text messages, or even longer, conversational emails, have thrown us a linguistic curveball.

    For the first time in our species’ history, we are constantly and continuously using written communication for real-time conversations. We IM, we text and we e-mail. Just 20 years ago, the only written communication reliably employed by most people was letter writing. Now, there are entire online communities whose primary, if not only, form of communication is through written language.

    What does this mean for the future of human communication? Will diglossia be thwarted? Or will there be an even greater divide between spoken (including instant, written messages) and formalized written English?

    Spoken language uses subtle cues like intonation, pausing and volume to deliver meaning. Written language lends itself to longer reflection and more careful word and phrasing selection. I’m not constructing the two in opposition to each other, although it is obvious which is more fundamental to our species.

    We have used spoken and written language mostly for different purposes, so they may have developed divergent characteristics for that reason. But as we communicate more and more through text, our use and understanding of language will change fundamentally—even if we never actually write our essays in Grammar B.

    (A version of this post appeared in The (Duke) Chronicle on September 23, 2010.)

  • The Diacritics

    The Diacritics 2:49 pm on September 18, 2011 Permalink | Reply
    Tags: AAVE, colloquial, descriptive linguistics, ebonics, , grammar, ,   

    Where you at, man? 

    (Posted by Sandeep)

    I have a sordid confession, grammar nerds. I use the phrase “Where you at?” on a regular basis.

    That Boost Mobile commercial just got to me. And then Jennifer Hudson came out with a song called “Where you at?” and I just couldn’t resist anymore. “Where you at?” is a phrase associated with African American Vernacular English (AAVE) but plenty of my non-African American friends use it. And then there’s me, too.

    So what’s with this phrase? From a prescriptive standpoint, there are just so many grammatical issues.

    First, there’s no verb (called a copula in this instance, since we need a form of the verb “be”). But let’s give speakers a little break. Maybe the “are” just got swallowed up in the “where.” When many speakers casually say the two words “where are,” the “are” usually gets contracted into the “where,” resulting in “where’re.” That’s a pretty hard word to pronounce, so it may get reduced to a simple “where” when we’re speaking. Also, in AAVE, the copula is generally omitted altogether, anyway.

    So, okay, there’s no verb — fine. We’ll allow it.

    But what about that pesky “at” at the end? The word “where” literally means “at what place,” so saying “Where you at?” effectively results in “At what place (are) you at?” Repetition is usually no good. There shouldn’t be two instances of “at” when they are used for the same purpose.

    There’s also a prescriptive argument that a preposition like “at” shouldn’t be used at the end of a sentence. I generally avoid subscribing to that view, especially when it creates awkward sentences. There might be a case for that argument here, though: If we place the “at” somewhere else in the sentence, we see that it doesn’t really belong in this sentence. “At where (are) you?”

    But maybe that “at” serves another purpose. I find “Where you at?” to be a more useful phrase than the standard “Where are you?” because it requests something deeper than a simple GPS location. I want to know where you are, what you’re doing, whom you’re with, and whether it’s fun. Can I come to where you’re at? Can I bring friends? Maybe the simple word “at” holds much more meaning than we give it credit for.

    I also like the phrase because it’s more casual and less creepy than an out-of-the-blue “Where are you?” — it has all the functionality of the “proper” phrase and none of the stalker undertones. Maybe that reason alone is enough to welcome the sentence into my regular speech.

    In addition, the social implications of the phrase — cool, hip, urban — probably play into my and others’ decision to use the phrase. You don’t want to be lame and use “Where are you?” when a more proper “Where you at?” would do the job in certain contexts.

    Sure, I probably won’t use it when I’m speaking to my elders or in a professional context, but I like using it with my friends and peers.

    And after all, for descriptive linguists, utility and popular usage is where it’s at.

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