February 11, 2006

Whatever is not prohibited is permitted -- not!

Last week Tommy Grano, laboring on a Stanford honors thesis on case in English pronouns, came across an entertaining exchange on alt.video.tape-trading (6/14/04-6/16/04):
  • Poster 1 writes "against Brian and I";
  • Poster 2 explains (in effect) that the same rules govern case choice for coordinated NPs as for single NPs, so "I" is just wrong -- only "me" is grammatically correct here;
  • Poster 1 maintains that "against Brian and I" is the grammatically correct version, claiming (in effect) that the rules for coordinated NPs and single NPs are slightly different, defends "I" by citing a check run through MS Word XP (presumably, a grammar check in which MS Word did not flag "against Brian and I"), and adds the further defense that Abraham Lincoln and Mark Twain used "I" this way;
  • Poster 2 replies scornfully that Poster 1 is completely wrong, as are the grammar check, the person who set up that grammar check, Lincoln and Twain (if they used "I" this way -- Twain certainly did; I don't know about Lincoln), and the "many, many PROFESSIONAL WRITERS" who "every day" use "I" this way ("There's barely an hour going by that you won't hear it.").
Some of this is fascinating, but old news.  What's startling is the appeal to the Microsoft Word grammar checker as an arbiter of correctness.  That's silly enough on its own, but what's REALLY silly is the covert assumption that if the grammar checker doesn't flag it it's ok, disregarding the fact that there are lots of things (like producing word salad) that grammar checkers don't even try to warn you against, the fact that there are lots of things (like determining when an NP is a subject, when it's a direct object, and when it's an object of a preposition) that grammar checkers can't do easily, and the fact that neither the Libertarian Maxim covertly appealed to by Poster 1 -- WHATEVER IS NOT EXPLICITLY FORBIDDEN IS PERMITTED -- nor the parallel Authoritarian Maxim -- WHATEVER IS NOT EXPLICITLY PERMITTED IS FORBIDDEN -- is a good guide to the use of grammar checkers, usage manuals, and other resources of linguistic prescription.

First, the exchange from step 2 on.  (Poster 1 goes under the handle "The Slayer @ 25", Poster 2 "c a", by the way.)

Poster 2: You said "those who would join forces against Brian and I".  Separately, it would be join forces against Brian and join forces against ME, NOT join forces against I.  The use of I and me does not change because another name is added.  If you are truly a student, there should be a teacher somewhere about that you can ask about this.  You will find out that I am right.  Also, MORE gramatically [sic] correct is not right either.  MORE doesn't fit there because it is either right or nor [sic] right.  One is not MORE right than the other, one is just wrong.  Like you.

Poster 1: Oh--"I" feel so sorry for your students.  "against Brian and I" is the gramatically [sic] correct version, sorry about that.  You're right, you shouldn'thave [sic] gotten involved if you had nothing valid to contribute.  Need I repeat the check that I just ran through Microsoft Office XP (specifically MS Word XP) before I made this post?  The rules of proper grammar do change slightly if you're running a combination sentence instead of seperate [sic] objects.  You're right about the seperation [sic] being "Brian and Me" but the rules of proper American/English Grammar  ("I" don't know where Crazy Cat Lady is from, nor do "I" particularily [sic] care) would state that the proper form is "Brian and I".  Just look up some of Lincoln's (Abraham) old written, forever archived speeches if you don't believe me.  And don't forget Samuel Clemens [sic] Classic Essays under the name "Mark Twain".

Poster 2: Don't feel sorry for his students.  He has taught them the right way.  Brian and ME is correct.  You are 100%, completely and thoroughly wrong.  And so is any grammar check you did.  Whatever PERSON set up that grammar check is wrong (and it WAS a person).  If Lincoln and Twain used I and me in this way, THEY were wrong.  Many, many PROFESSIONAL WRITERS are wrong every day, as evidenced by all the movies, television, books and magazines which use the word I when they should use the word me.  There's barely an hour going by that you won't hear it.

Some of this is fascinating, but old news, for example, Poster 1's (flawed) belief that nominative case for pronouns in coordination is prescriptively correct, even especially formal and polite (see Angermeyer & Singler's 2003 article in Language Variation and Change), both posters' (correct) observations that nominative coordinate objects are widely attested, and Poster 2's (flawed) belief that examples lie thick on the ground all around us, which is an instance of the Frequency Illusion.  It's also possible that Poster 2 believes that in general, not just in this case, there's only one right way to do things; certainly Poster 2 denies any validity for the nominative pronoun as an alternative to the accusative.

New to me, however, is Poster 1's touching faith in the Microsoft Word grammar checker.  Poster 1 expected that if there was something wrong with "against Brian and I", MS Word would have flagged it.  (By the way, my version of Word -- Word X for the Mac -- doesn't flag nominative coordinate object pronouns, either.  I tried using the grammar checker on files that were jam-packed with the things, and it flagged not a one of them, not even the classic "between you and I".)

But of course a grammar checker doesn't check text against an actual grammar; it merely checks for certain types of violations, essentially just those on a (relatively short) list of problems in grammar, usage, and style.  The Word grammar checker on my Mac fails to find anything wrong with some of the (nonstandard) constructions that have been of special interest to me: WH-that ("I don't know how many people that were at the party") and GoToGo ("She's going to San Francisco and talk on firewalls"), for example.  I have files with dozens of examples of these, and they all pass through the grammar checker unscathed.

It's not just the things that haven't come to the attention of the Microsoft staff that get missed; the grammar checker doesn't catch some things that the Microsoft Manual of Style for Technical Publications warns against -- subordinator (as opposed to adverbial) once, as in "Once you save the file, exit from the program", for example.  (I know, you're asking, what's wrong with the subordinator once?  The short answer is: nothing, but somebody on the Microsoft technical writing staff thought there was.  I'll get to this topic on another day.)

It also doesn't check for things that take a lot of parsing and so are genuinely hard to check for.  It doesn't seem to catch any of the classic types of dangling modifiers, for example, even the ones that are laughably bad.  It doesn't catch any of the "government by the nearest" examples that have occasionally come to our attention here at Language Log Plaza: "She had never and was never going to wear it"; "I expect the simplified characters will or are becoming standard there"; etc.

Now, checking for case of pronouns in coordination requires determining, first, when coordination is inside a NP (you don't want to parse things like "Kim saw him and he saw Kim" as containing a NP "him and he"); then, what the boundaries of the coordinate NP are; and, finally what the syntactic function (in particular, subject, direct object, or object of a preposition) of the coordinate NP is.  These are hard tasks to automate, and there's every evidence that the Word grammar checker doesn't even attempt them, but instead looks for configurations that are much easier to find:
  • On a sampling of 42 instances of finite clauses with non-coordinate "me" as subject ("... the fact that me (a Brit) was her boyfriend..."; "I know that me for one am always looking at the negative"; "... but me for one is glad I found the place"; "Yeah, me too am very disappointed" -- yes, these are actually attested) unearthed by Grano on 2/10/06, the grammar checker detected not a single one of the anomalous subject forms, and flagged only two of the 42 as having a problem with subject-verb agreement: "Heya party people, the holiday season is upon us and me for one am excited" (perhaps the checker took "us and me" to be a phrase, in which case a plural verb would be called for) and "Me for one is a true party girl" (the only example with "me for one" in sentence-initial position and with the verb "is"; the checker doesn't flag "Me for one am...").
  • When I fed the checker 20 examples of "agreement with the nearest" examples ("the challenges each of them still face"; "the population of ocean fish and other marine species have suffered major declines"), it flagged only five of them.  I don't at the moment understand how it managed to catch these five.
  • When I fed the checker the first 50 examples from a large collection of "double is" and other "extra is" examples, it flagged one of them ("The only thing is, is I got the power to see the future") as a possible subject-verb agreement violation, I don't know why; flagged a few examples of "was, was" and "is, is" as possibly having an unnecessary or misplaced punctuation mark; and flagged a few others (with "The point is, is that..." and "The truth is, is that...") as possibly having a comma between subject and verb.  But most of the 50 made it through the grammar checker unmarked for errors involving the subject of a clause.
(The checker did catch every occurrence of is is that had no intervening comma, marking these as "repeated word" errors.  Unfortunately, it also flags perfectly grammatical occurrences of is is, as in "What the problem is is that we have to leave".  The checker is obviously literally searching for (certain) repeated words -- it doesn't flag that that, but does flag this this, so it's not totally simple-minded -- rather than determining syntactic structures.)

But suppose we had a much much better grammar checker than this one, a grammar checker that actually did some parsing (correctly) and would catch nominative coordinate object pronouns and accusative coordinate subject pronouns ("me and him escaped") and the astonishing me-subject examples above.  We still wouldn't be justified in letting the Libertarian Maxim (or the Authoritarian Maxim, for that matter) guide us.  Any grammar checker is going to be based on some list of things to flag and some list of things to let pass, and meanwhile users of the language will come up with things that the compilers of these lists never contemplated -- some of them dubious, some of them fine, some of them up for discussion.  Anybody who studies variation, especially innovative, informal, spoken, and/or nonstandard variants, comes across new things (new to them, anyway) all the time.  (Yesterday's surprise for me was the "me too am..." and "me too is..." examples.  The day before it was the re-shaped idiom "taint with the same brush".  Let's see how today goes.)

A few words about the maxims.  There are situations where one of them is appropriate and situations where the other is, as well as situations (like grammar checking) where neither is a good guide. 

Public prohibitions generally assume the Libertarian Maxim.  If the sign says No Bicycles On Sidewalk (and nothing more), you are normally entitled to assume that scooters, rollerblades, skateboards, and so on are permitted on the sidewalk.  (Cars are barred from the sidewalk by a higher-level prohibition, made explicit in the traffic laws.) 

On the other hand, recursive definitions of sets work by the Authoritarian Maxim:  some entities are stipulated as being in the set; if certain entities are in the set, then others (related in a regular way to these) are as well; and NOTHING ELSE IS IN THE SET.  What is not expressly permitted is not allowed.

The two maxims are often contrasted with one another.  Here, for example, is Jeffrey Phillips on the Working Smarter site:

If not forbidden, it's permitted

I want to write today about taking the initiative and creating a culture that encourages risk taking and innovation.  Too often in our corporate bureaucracies, those who step up and take initiative with new ideas or new products are shunted aside.  It can be truly difficult to innovative and to change corporate processes if the culture and management team don't support innovation and change.

My father was a Marine, so maybe I'm biased, but there's a long running joke about how Marines see the world and how soldiers see the world.  Marines are taught that they must be prepared to improvise.  One of their core maxims is: "That which is not forbidden is permitted".  It's often been said that the Army mantra is:  "That which is not permitted is forbidden".

Meanwhile, various sites about computer systems caution that everything not explicitly permitted is forbidden; they're implicitly offering recursive definitions.  The xmlcoverpages site says, however,  that "Everything that is not forbidden is permitted in XML 1.1 names."

What you find on the web is mostly recent stuff.  But I was sure that I'd heard the Authoritarian Maxim from way back.  A trip to a dictionary of quotations eventually led me to back to Schiller, Wallensteins Lager (1798), Act 1, Scene 6, where the First Hunter explains: "Was nicht verboten ist, ist erlaubt" (original German courtesy of the Gutenberg Project).  That's 208 years ago, which is good enough for me at the moment.  Possibly Schiller got it from some earlier writer; certainly the IDEA is likely to be ancient.  In any case, Schiller was something of a phrase-maker, so maybe this compact formulation is original with him.

(Note perfectly grammatical occurrence of ist ist in Schiller's German formulation.)

[Update, 2/17/02: Jonathan Breit has written with a quote that does indeed push things back way before Schiller: Tertullian (the early Church Father), De Corona Militis, Chapter 2: "Sed quod non prohibetur ultro permissum est." -- Immo ['to the contrary'] prohibetur quod non ultro est permissum.  Apparently, Tertullian is entertaining an objection based on the Libertarian Maxim, and countering with an argument based on the Authoritarian Maxim.]

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Posted by Arnold Zwicky at February 11, 2006 01:41 PM