July 10, 2004

It's all grammar

To PITS, People In The Street, "grammar" embraces pretty much everything having to do with language, spoken or written, so long as it's regulated in some way: syntax, morphology, word choice, pronunciation, politeness, discourse organization, clarity and effectiveness, spelling, punctuation, capitalization, bibliographic style, whatever. I offer yet another example of this broad usage, from a recent letter to the New York Times -- it's about commas in dates -- and then pause to ask what PITS should do. Sure, linguists find the broad usage deeply annoying, because it lumps together such disparate things, some of them of much less consequence than others. But do we have something better to offer?

Here's the letter (in full), from Betsy Wade of New York, dated July 8, 2004, and appearing in the Times the next day (p. A18 in the edition I get out here on the Left Coast):

Cornerstone Grammar

To the Editor:

Re "A 9/11 Cornerstone, Chiseled With a New York Accent," by David W. Dunlap (Blocks column, July 8):

The section of the 9/11 cornerstone inscription depicted in the accompanying photograph clearly shows that the grammatically necessary comma after "2001" ("on September 11, 2001") is absent.

As a longtime editor, I hope that the artisans will be able to correct this omission in the handsome Gotham typeface.


Now, this is a mind-numbingly inconsequential issue. Nothing would be lost or confused if we wrote, printed, or chiseled "September 11 2001", and, indeed, the other order of month and day normally appears without a comma: "11 September 2001". In the case of the serial comma, vs. its absence, or the quote-punc order (periods and commas outside right quotation marks unless they were in the material being quoted), vs. the punc-quote order, there are actual issues of informational accuracy, as Geoff Pullum laid out in his article "Punctuation and Human Freedom", in The Great Eskimo Vocabulary Hoax. (You will note that, following the practice that Bernard Bloch established for the Linguistic Society of America's journal Language, I'm a quote-punc kind of guy. Also that I'm a serial comma user.)

People sometimes tell me that the comma in "September 11, 2001" represents the suspensive intonation that characterizes, among other things, appositives and parentheticals. But "11 September 2001" has the same intonation after "September" and doesn't get a comma. And anyway everybody knows that intonation is only a very rough guide to where commas should appear in written English.

The only function of the comma in "September 11, 2001" is as a reinforcement of the visual space between one numeral, "11", and another, "2001". That's helpful, I suppose, but it's scarcely necessary. We cope perfectly well with things like "There are 11 2001 models of the Mammoth Modulator, one for every pocketbook", where an intervening comma is absolutely barred.

[Department of Corrections, 7/25/04: Steve at languagehat points out in e-mail that I misread the clear meaning of Ms. Wade's letter; it's not the comma between "11" and "2001" that's at issue -- that one is on the cornerstone -- but one following "2001". As Steve puts it: "In other words, she feels that 'To honor and remember those who lost their lives on September 11, 2001 and as a tribute to the enduring spirit of freedom' requires a comma to separate the grammatically distinct parts of the clause ('to honor and remember... and as a tribute'); you may or may not agree, but calling it 'grammar' is not as obviously ludicrous as in your version." Well, it's still punctuation, not grammar, I say, but I agree that the point is slightly more consequential, since the alternative punctuations convey subtly different views about the purpose(s) of the cornerstone: without the comma, the two purposes are presented as equally significant, while with the comma, the first is presented as primary and the second as subsidiary. In any case, the comma isn't necessary, grammatically or otherwise. End of digression.

But to get back to "grammar": What should Betsy Wade have written, instead of "grammatically necessary"? "Orthographically necessary", I guess. Would her readers have understood that? Probably not. She would have done fine with the wordier "the comma that written English requires after..." But it's likely that neither of these possibilities occurred to her, because for PITS the written language is the real language. So she had to reach for something that referred to the language system as a whole and to norms, and that word seems to be "grammar"; why, AHD4 records just this usage, in definition 3a for "grammar": "A normative or prescriptive set of rules setting forth the current standard of usage..." (Grappling with a similar problem, reported on here, New York Times Magazine writer Barry Bearak fixed on "syntax" as a way of referring to nonstandard pronunciation.)

Notice that no distinction is made here between grammar and usage. PITS are deeply unclear about this distinction, and the fact that most manuals treat both grammar and usage between the same two covers, and tend to elevate usage advice to the status of rules of grammar, doesn't make the distinction any clearer to PITS. In fact, linguists diverge on this point: Fritz Newmeyer's presidential address to the LSA in 2002 (published in Language in 2003) proclaimed that "Grammar is Grammar and Usage is Usage", but Joan Bybee's presidential address to the LSA in 2005 will maintain just the opposite: "Grammar is Usage and Usage is Grammar".

Still, it's hard for a linguist not to feel that the profession has failed to get across the idea that the conventions for punctuating written English have a different status from, and much less significance than, say, SVO as the default word order for the language, or, for that matter, the injunction to avoid pernicious ambiguities in pronominal reference.

Well, we've fallen down on other fronts as well. For example, we haven't done well in getting PITS to think of the word "linguist" as ambiguous, referring either to someone with a practical interest in language (in learning languages, teaching them, interpreting, or translating), or to someone with an analytical interest in language.

Or are these just lost causes?

zwicky at-sign csli period stanford period edu

Posted by Arnold Zwicky at July 10, 2004 03:14 PM