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Lolly, Lolly, Lolly

Your Humble Blogger enjoyed Geoffrey Pullum’s Language Log note called Box Spaghetti Straight, in which he notes that “Box is a noun, spaghetti is a noun, straight is an adjective. Together they form an adjective phrase.” I love noun modifiers, particularly strings of them: I try, whenever possible, to refer to the little screws that go into the wall to attach the brackets that hold the rod from which hangs the curtain that encircles the shower as the shower curtain rod bracket screws, although if I’m really trying I can usually comment on either the shower curtain rod bracket screw threads or the shower curtain rod bracket screw heads. But even without stretching, the brackets themselves are properly referred to with the three modifying nouns, which properly identify the things.

But the point, I’m afraid, is not about the shower curtains, or the bracket screws, but about the names for words, and more generally about technical language. You see, Mr. Pullum gets cranky about traditional grammars, which essentially define ‘adjective’ as ‘a word that modifies a noun’, and which therefore would demand that there is somehow a separate definition of ‘box’ as an adjective (meaning, in this case, something like, um, let’s see, it modifies spaghetti, so, um, ‘unprepared, as if still in a box’). Only, as he points out, as an adjective, ‘box’ is missing its proper adjectival forms, for instance, ‘boxer’ or ‘boxest’. This is scarcely dispositive, as perfectly good adjectives such as circular, premium, and plastic lack those forms. Still, he’s quite right that it is obvious that box is not an adjective. And, furthermore, he’s quite right that people who study this sort of thing need to have names for words that specify what the words are and how they are acting. So when Mr. Pullum says “The constituent that comes before a head in a phrase to qualify its meaning has the function modifier”, he’s providing a useful service of its kind. That doesn’t mean that my Gentle Readers need to use his terms, unless they happen to be studying or writing about language.

You see, I’m a big believer in the difference between technical language and non-technical language. There are good reasons to demand that, for instance, someone counting the percentage of words E.B. White uses that are adverbs should know what adverbs are and whether the word ‘spaghetti’ is an adverb in the case where it modifies the adjective ‘straight’. The recipient of that information should also, presumably, know what adverbs are or are not, at least for the purposes of that discussion. Each field should have good solid technical definitions; I’ve been trying to think of a good example, but sadly my rattled brain isn’t coming up with any. I suppose it’s like knowing which fruits are drupes; most of us don’t care, but most of us aren’t botanists. If a botanist refers to drupes, he’d better damn well be sure he knows whether an avocado is a drupe or not.

The problem, though, with those words as they apply to the particular study of grammarians, is that we all talk about language all the time. We can’t help it. And I don’t just mean Jon Stewart claiming that ‘terror’ isn’t a noun, or a journalist accidentally calling ‘humbug’ and ‘claptrap’ adjectives (he meant pejoratives, evidently, a slip of the whatsit), or even the same journalist claiming that ‘drivel’ isn’t a verb. Those are silly errors, common enough and annoying enough, but easily recognized as errors by the people who made them, made through speed and sloppiness. And, after all, how often do my Gentle Readers use the words ‘adverb’ and ‘adjective’ in a day? No, parents of Schoolhouse Rock addicts may be excused from answering; the question was rhetorical.

Where was I? Oh, yes, the deeper problem is that most of us have so little practice in reading critically, we lose the use of many of the tools for critical reading. In particular, it’s difficult to look at a piece of writing and understand why it works, or how it could work better, if we don’t have the vocabulary to talk about it with other people. We have, sadly, learned to avoid the passive voice; if we don’t beat our word processors into submission, they nag us about it. We may learn to recognize the passive voice, either with or without the assistance of Bill Gates. But we don’t learn how to break that rule effectively. That takes not only practice (which we don’t get) but analysis (for which we haven’t the vocabulary)(for). Attention must be paid to such a problem as this. Or must it?

It doesn’t actually matter if we don’t call anything an adverb; we can still modify verbs and adjectives, and indicate manner, place, time, condition, reason, comparison, and contrast, all absolutely free. The word ‘adverb’ is a tool that is useful only in that it helps us talk about the words that modify words (other than nouns, of course). Using that word carefully is certainly a good idea, but it presupposes that we already are using words carefully. The problem, then, is not that we use the word ‘adverb’ loosely and inaccurately; if we used that one term ever so nicely and all the actual adverbs all harum-scarum, nothing would be gained.

Thank you,


a person who can't determine if an argument is truthfully supported isn't going to care about the technical description of the grammar - will care more about whether the language is written in a "trustworthy" manner. class comfort trumps prestige grammar.

I'm not sure ... a person who can't tell what the words are supposed to mean or how they are supposed to relate isn't going to care about whether the argument is truthfully supported. I'm not saying that careful language is necessarily grammatical (I'm not even sure I know how to define 'grammatical'), but that careless language is bound to be ambiguous and annoying.
I suppose that long before I decide if a piece of writing is truthful, I notice if it's sloppily written. My own comfort with ponderously formal not to say antiquated English means that my judgment of 'sloppy' will be different from someone else's, but in general, I don't think it's too much to extrapolate that the more effort a reader has to put in to figuring out what the writer is trying to say, the less likely the reader is to be persuaded (either to action or to a change in attitude or mood), barring some other aspect of the writing (or the relationship) overwhelming the sloppiness.

Complex precision can make a piece of writing difficult for unskilled readers to understand as sloppiness can.

maybe we better distinguish between sloppy and colloquial. or not.

ga. there are towering logical structures in front of me. slogans, blurbs, write-ups, comments, articles, essays, studies, stories, histories... scripts...

teaching written grammar is definitely a good way to introduce people to critical thinking, or maybe to just generally organize a brain full of pictures and feelings and such - BTW i'm using "critical thinking" as "being able to discover the purposes, methods, and alternatives of a given action, thing or situation"

i'm just not sure that grammar has to come first - not sure what would come first.


late 2002, fox news runs an interview with tom ridge, talking about the alert color getting changed. the caption, for the course of the interview, reads "showdown with saddam."

something more than technical knowledge of language is needed to read that right - right being, "tom ridge isn't talking about saddam hussein, or anything to do with saddam hussein."

(oh and i thought the jon stewart comment was that you can't make war on a noun - or was that somebody else)

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