Tag Archives: grammar

The Language Instinct

I finished Steven Pinker’s The Language Instinct this afternoon and I thought it was terrific. I never thought I would find grammar and language so fascinating, but Pinker hooked me and I am eager to start the next book, Words and Rules: The Ingredients of Language.

The Language Instinct convinced me to ease up on some of my pet peeves with English grammar. The main thrust of the book is that our brains are wired for a universal grammar and much of the books goes into detail with examples and experiments that demonstrate this. Still, I was particularly impressed with the chapter called “The Language Mavens” where Pinker drew a distinction between “prescribed” grammar and something being grammatically correct outside prescription. He made a logical, reasonable argument and convinced me. By no means was he arguing that language should be a free-for-all; in fact, he argued the opposite: that it can’t be a free-for-all, even if we wanted it to be. But things like split infinitives and ending sentences with prepositions are all grammatically correct from a syntactical perspective. It is the evolution of English to conform more with Latin that makes them, to grammar school teachers, seem incorrect.

The book was published in 1994 and the edition I have has a P.S. section at the end where the author briefly brings it up to date based on research and discoveries that have taken place over the last 14 years. I found that section to be very useful and interesting.

I plan on starting Words and Rules this evening, but no before getting a little bit of writing done.

Math is easy, grammar is hard

I’m 135 pages into The Language Instinct and it is utterly fascinating. The general premise is that humans have an innate ability for language, an internally generated grammar that is entirely separate from words. And yet, while I find myself fascinated, I also find myself at the edge of comprehension. The chapter on syntax was interesting but extremely tough to get through. I claim that it was only my familiarity with computer language syntax that helped me out and got me over the hump. I really do think I understand the premise now, but it was a lot of work. Math is easy compared to this stuff.

But what’s been most fascinating is that this generalized grammar explains much of the “irregularity” in language (you all remember irregular verbs from Spanish, French, and of course, English).

I’m in the midst of a chapter that is now relating those irregularities in words (versus syntax) to common base-patterns. (For instance, drag-drug, dig-dug, are irregular, but based on the fact that in Proto-Indo-European, tense was changed by changing a vowel in the word; these words happen to have survived the evolution since.)

The chapter contains ton of amusing examples of word creation based on patterns, but the one that I thought was the funniest is apparently an old joke in the Boston area: It seems a woman who arrived at Logan airport hopped in a taxi and asked the taxi driver, “Can you take me someplace where I can get scrod?” The taxi driver replied, “Gee, that’s the first time I’ve heard it in the pluperfect subjunctive.”

Now, I know some of you think that this type of obscure reading of mine is prosaic. But later, I’ll give you an example of how my random reading of the history of biology and biochemistry helped me solve a computer-related mystery today that had been plaguing me for a week.

On cooking, commas, and Rachel Ray

Ken Jennings has some amusing things to say on the placement of commas on a Rachel Ray advertisement.

The very annoying Honda commercial

Honda has a commericial with “Mr. Opportunity”, a cartoon character that acts as the spokesperson for a line of it’s cars and SUVs. I don’t mind the cartoon guy. I don’t even mind the cars. What “drives” me to distraction is the copy. In fact, it is a single like of copy:

…and the very unique Honda Element…

I hope most people know why this is so annoying. But in case you don’t, let me provide you with a definition:

u-nique [yoo-neek] –adjective

  • existing as the only one or as the sole example; single; solitary in type or characteristics

So how can something be very unique? If something is one of a kind, it is unique, period. Something cannot be very unique and to say so is a common error in English grammar. How can we expect kids to pick up good grammar when they can’t even get it right on television commercials?