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Because I say so!

© Photodisc / Getty Images / Barton StablerA few weeks ago, Britain’s Daily Telegraph ran a “Good grammar test”, and the first question was:

Which of these sentences is grammatically correct?
1. Do you see who I see?
2. Do you see whom I see?

We were supposed to say that whom is correct here – so I fell at the first hurdle. But whereas my “incorrect” answer was merely based on corpus evidence, the person who set the test is in a more fortunate position. His name is Nevile Gwynne, the author of a book described as “The Ultimate Introduction to Grammar”. And according to the back cover of his book, “Mr Gwynne is never wrong”.

Gwynne’s Grammar goes after all the familiar targets: split infinitives are wrong, saying different to instead of different from is wrong, what he calls the “modern” use of hopefully is wrong. All the usual suspects, and some less familiar ones too. Like this one: don’t use the verb claim to mean “declare” or “maintain”, as in The charity claims that areas of the Amazon basin are being poisoned by toxic chemicals.

A founding principle of the Macmillan Dictionary Blog is that we don’t make statements about words without considering the evidence for how they are used in real communicative situations. So let’s test some of Gwynne’s assertions against the corpus. He insists (p.131) that claim can only correctly be used to mean “lay claim to” (which corresponds to sense 2 in the Macmillan Dictionary entry). But the data shows that around 80% of all instances of claim, from a wide range of text-types, invoke the meaning which Gwynne condemns (sense 1). The figures for hopefully are even more conclusive: it almost always means “it is to be hoped that” (sense 1), and its use as a manner adverb (‘Do you like it?’ I asked hopefully) is extremely rare. The use of whom – and the clear signs of its gradual decline – have been discussed already by both Stan and me, and the only thing to add is that there is no evidence for people using a structure like the “correct” one in Gwynne’s quiz.

Another old favourite is the use of they with a singular antecedent (If anyone wants a ticket, they should contact the theatre directly). This is described by Gwynne as “abominable”, and clearly seen as another modern aberration. But this usage has been around for centuries: Catherine Soanes, in an excellent post on the subject, mentions several well-known writers (from the 18th century onwards) who use they or their in this way, and she even has an example from as far back as 1535.

So we’re left with a problem. If the data shows that an overwhelming majority of speakers and writers fail to conform to Gwynne’s rules, there are only two possible explanations: either these speakers and writers are all wrong (or “illiterate”, as Gwynne describes people who use the incorrect preposition after words like different), or Gwynne’s rules are not fit for purpose. As with any other kind of evidence, we have to be careful not to draw hasty concusions from a small sample. But when a specific usage is widespread (or even dominant) in a corpus of billions of words from numerous different types of text, it is irrational to describe it as “wrong”.

And that’s the trouble with this book. It starts from the premise that everything in language is either right or wrong, when in reality there are often “many right ways“. Language is a social activity, and as such, it is governed not by hard and fast rules but by conventions to which members of a speech community generally conform. Two hundred years ago it may have been normal to say “To whom does this belong?” but today this sounds ridiculous. The norms have changed – that’s how language works. Samuel Johnson understood this, and for the founders of the OED, it was a basic principle that the dictionary would report the evidence of language in use, not pick and choose which words or usages it approved of.

It’s tempting to dismiss Gwynne as a harmless eccentric. The problem is that – while no professional linguist would take any of his ideas seriously – large numbers of ordinary people seem to be taken in by them. Gwynne has appeared on several BBC programmes, whose presenters treat him as an omniscient guide to contemporary usage. This is worrying. For an alternative point of view, how about this:

“There are different perspectives on grammar … and my sense is that if enough people use a word, or change how words are used in a context or alter how sentences are structured – then it’ll become the norm”.

The author of this perceptive remark is none other than the footballer Joey Barton, writing in his blog. He goes on to ask “Who sets the rules for grammar? Who is it that’s in charge?”. Clue: not people like Nevile Gwynne with his snobbish prejudices and silly made-up rules. Unlike Mr Gwynne, Joey Barton was not educated at Eton and Oxford, and does not set himself up as an expert on grammar. But it’s clear from their output that Barton has a far better understanding of how language works.

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Michael Rundell


  • It’d be interesting to compare Gwynne’s absurd dictums (or dicta, as he’d probably insist) with a corpus of spontaneous speech by him. Or maybe he doesn’t speak spontaneously, because he always has to stop before he opens his mouth and figure out the proper Gwynnesque way to say what he wants to say?

  • As Geoffrey Pullum has said on Language Log more than once, grammar is one subject in which anyone can claim expertise and almost no one will check your credentials.

  • While we may be “casual” in the norms of everyday speech and use language forms that are genuinely accepted, we must be careful. The most important reason is to be precise and clear to convey the meaning intended. The word peruse, for example means to read carefully. The incorrect meaning “to skim,” is now so widely used, it is included in many dictionaries. If I ask my students to peruse a certain essay for homework, they may skim it and probably will not be prepared for the class discussion or quiz. Once we drop the standards, we are headed for chaos. Our speech and writing should reflect respect for the language. We should assume that those to whom we speak or write respect it as well. To do otherwise indicates sloppiness, and whether right or not, many of our listeners draw conclusions about us by our manner of speech and grammar. One might also argue that careful grammar simply sounds better. “If anyone wants a ticket, he or she should contact the theater directly,” simply sounds better than “If anyone wants a ticket, they should contact the theater directly,” even if it does take a little more effort to write or say it. Actually it could be more simply worded: ” Anyone desiring a ticket should contact the theater directly.”

  • Interesting that a very similar argument (“how dare dictionaries put the wrong meaning of ‘literally’ in!”) is currently bouncing about the Twittersphere.

  • Thanks for your observations, Snow. You are right of course that the first requirement in any interaction is that we make our meaning clear. Extensive analysis of corpus data suggests that genuine ambiguity is extremely rare.The question of whether ‘correct grammar simply sounds better’ is a more complex one: it depends on how we define ‘correct’, and you will have seen from my post that Mr Gwynne and I have very different ideas about that!. But here’s a test case. Imagine that you see an unknown umbrella lying around in your classroom: a likely comment might be: “Oh, someone has left their umbrella behind. I wonder who it belongs to”. To me, this seems unexceptionable (and certainly natural), but it violates no fewer than three of Mr Gywnne’s rules: the someone/their combination; ending a sentence with a preposition (to); and using ‘who’ rather than ‘whom’. An alternative might therefore be: “Someone has left his or her umbrella. I wonder to whom it belongs”. Different people will have different responses, but to me this is not so much correct as hypercorrect and completely unnatural. People do, as you say, “draw conclusions about us by our manner of speech”. And in this case my conclusion would be that the speaker was being unnecessarily fussy. But of course, it’s a personal matter.

  • Just because a lot of uneducated people use a word or phrase wrong doesn’t make it correct, or even ok. Sure, it’s ok in the sense that in many people’s lives, communicating in an uneducated, sloppy or disrespectful way doesn’t necessarily impact them negatively.

    But for people who want to be seen as mature, respectful adults, who maybe want to grow and learn and progress in their lives, maintaining relationships with people who are inspiring and interesting, well then, just lazily following linguistic pop culture within a society that’s increasingly all about short term, instant, gratification, may not be the best basis of what’s “right” or “wrong”.

    I certainly wouldn’t suggest that all of Mr. Gwynne’s opinions of word usage are gold, but the point that a language in fact DOES have rights and wrongs, or at least betters and not as goods, is completely valid.

    We shouldn’t dumb down the language to accommodate the lowest common denominator — even when that denominator represents the majority of the population. This is called cultural degradation.

  • Allen: .I was following your argument and had some sympathy with it, until I got to the last part. You say that, as users of language, we shouldn’t simply “accommodate the lowest common denominator”, and I wouldn’t disagree. But we part company when you continue: “even when that denominator represents the majority of the population”. I’m not sure if that even makes sense. The corpus evidence that underpins our decisions as lexicographers comes from a diverse range of sources, which include serious newpapers and journals, literary fiction, and academic textbooks. When we observe that a particular usage is widespread across a range of text-types, the inference must be that it has become a norm (and it would be irrational for us to ignore this). The use of ‘they’ and ‘their’ when referring back to a singular subject is a case in point: it was not uncommon even in the 18th and 19th centuries, but in the 21st it is clearly the norm.I don’t see this as “lazily following linguistic pop culture”, Since the days of Dr. Johnson and James Murray, lexicographers have never seen it as their job to ignore or suppress the evidence of widespread usage.

  • Hi Michael, thanks for commenting on my post. I largely agree with you. In my reference to “people” I was more referring to, literally, people in the street. Kids who use the language in a trendy way either because of a lack of education, or because of the normal way that kids define their culture, their fight against those that came before. And although some of this will make it’s way into the general language, much of it is just a chopped up version of English. Using this language in fact becomes a mark of being of a certain cultural strata, of being “cool”–intentionally making the language different as to exclude “outsiders”, which would include most adults and certainly anyone with an academic background.

    This is the language I was referring to in my overly critical, roundabout sorta way.

  • re: snow’s comment – ”One might also argue that careful grammar simply sounds better. “If anyone wants a ticket, he or she should contact the theater directly,” simply sounds better than “If anyone wants a ticket, they should contact the theater directly,” – this is purely subjective. For me ‘they’ sounds much more natural, especially if the pronoun has to be repeated several times – “If anyone needs their expenses allowance increased, could they contact their line manager as soon as possible” – that would be a bit top heavy with ‘he or she’.

    I teach foreigners English, and singular they is seen as absolutely standard after anyone etc.

  • It seems to me more fruitful and revealing to ask ‘What is best?”, rather than ‘What is correct?’

  • I am tempted to buy a copy of this book.
    The rules of good grammar are like the rules of good manners. Objectively, both may be entirely arbitrary and unnecessary, but nevertheless it is a good idea to try to stick to them.

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