Debunking Grammar Myths

This week we're joined by a special guest blogger. Patricia T. O'Conner, a former editor at The New York Times Book Review, is the author of the national best-seller Woe Is I: The Grammarphobe's Guide to Better English in Plain English, as well as other books about language. She is a regular monthly guest on public radio station WNYC in New York. Learn more at her website, grammarphobia.com. Make her feel welcome!

When I think about the rules of grammar I sometimes recall the story—and it's a true one—about a lecture given in the 1950s by an eminent British philosopher of language. He remarked that in some languages two negatives make a positive, but in no language do two positives make a negative. A voice from the back of the room piped up, "Yeah, yeah."

Don't we all sometimes feel like that voice from the back of the room? When some grammatical purist insists, for example, that the subject has to go before the verb, aren't we tempted to reply, "Sez you!"?

English is not so much a human invention as it is a force of nature, one that endures and flourishes despite our best attempts to ruin it. And believe it or not, the real principles of English grammar—the ones that promote clarity and sense—weren't invented by despots but have emerged from the nature of the language itself. And they actually make sense!

So when you think about the rules of grammar, try to think like that guy in the back of the room, and never be afraid to challenge what seems silly or useless. Because what seems silly or useless probably isn't a real rule at all. It's probably a misconception that grammarians have tried for years to correct. There are dozens of ersatz "rules" of English grammar. Let's start with Public Enemy Number 1.

Myth #1: Don't Split an Infinitive.

"Split" all you want, because this old superstition has never been legit. Writers of English have been doing it since the 1300s.

Where did the notion come from? We can blame Henry Alford, a 19th-century Latinist and Dean of Canterbury, for trying to criminalize the split infinitive. (Latin, by the way, is a recurring theme in the mythology of English grammar.) In 1864, Alford published a very popular grammar book, A Plea for the Queen's English, in which he declared that to was part of the infinitive and that the parts were inseparable. (False on both counts.) He was probably influenced by the fact that the infinitive, the simplest form of a verb, is one word in Latin and thus can't be split. So, for example, you shouldn't put an adverb, like boldly, in the middle of the infinitive phrase to go—as in to boldly go. (Tell that to Gene Roddenberry!)

Grammarians began challenging Alford almost immediately. By the early 20th century, the most respected authorities on English (the linguist Otto Jespersen, the lexicographer Henry Fowler, the grammarian George O. Curme, and others) were vigorously debunking the split-infinitive myth, and explaining that "splitting" is not only acceptable but often preferable. Besides, you can't really split an infinitive, since to is just a prepositional marker and not part of the infinitive itself. In fact, sometimes it's not needed at all. In sentences like "She helped him to write," or "Jack helped me to move," the to could easily be dropped.

But against all reason, this notorious myth of English grammar lives on—in the public imagination if nowhere else.

This wasn't the first time that the forces of Latinism had tried to graft Latin models of sentence structure onto English, a Germanic language. Read on.

Myth #2: Don't End a Sentence With a Preposition.

An 18th-century Anglican bishop named Robert Lowth wrote the first popular grammar book to claim that a preposition didn't belong at the end of a sentence (as in, What was this guy up to?). Others before him had made the same claim, notably the poet John Dryden.

This affectation, like the one about not "splitting" infinitives, proved popular with Latin-educated schoolmasters, probably because Latin sentences don't end in prepositions. But the pedants were forgetting one small detail: English isn't a Latinate language, it's Germanic. And in Germanic languages, sentences routinely end in prepositions. Great English literature from Chaucer to Milton to Shakespeare to the King James version of the Bible is stuffed with these "terminal prepositions."

Probably the word "preposition," from the Latin for "position before," suggested to pedagogues that a preposition must never come last. Be that as it may, Curme and Jespersen recognized the final preposition as natural and instinctive, and Fowler went further: "The legitimacy of the prepositional ending in literary English must be uncompromisingly maintained," he wrote. Amen!

Myth #3: And Don't Start a Sentence with a Conjunction.

We've all heard this one too, right? Does it make sense? No. And here's why.

Conjunctions like and and but and or have been used to start English sentences since as far back as the 10th century. This feels natural because it is natural.

Over the years, some English teachers have enforced the notion that conjunctions should be used only to join elements within a sentence, not to join one sentence with another. But there's never been any evidence for this belief. Modern grammarians have insisted for years that conjunctions are properly used to join words, phrases, clauses or sentences.

And don't let anyone tell you otherwise.

Myth #4: None Is Always Singular.

This is nonesense. Though none can be singular, it's much more likely to be plural, as Fowler and many others have pointed out. Why? Because we commonly use it to make a negative statement about all of the members of a class.

See which one sounds more reasonable to you: "None of the dogs bites" (singular), or "None of the dogs bite" (plural). See what I mean? Anyone who prefers the first sentence was probably taught (mistakenly) that none is derived etymologically from "not one" and always means "not one." But authorities including the Oxford English Dictionary trace the origins of none to the Old English word nan (or nane), a pronoun that meant "not any of a number of things" and was commonly plural. It also appears in some Old English texts to mean "no people," with the singular form expressed as "no one."

Consequently, in most cases none is plural and takes a plural verb, as in "None of the windows are broken."

None is singular only when it means "none of it"—that is, "no amount." ("None of the glass is cracked.") If you really do mean "not one," it's better to say "not one."

Myth #5: Whose Can Only Refer to People.

One last hobgoblin. A great many educated people insist that we shouldn't use the word whose to refer to an inanimate object. True believers would never say, "Don't buy a car whose engine is shot." They'd insist on "Don't buy a car the engine of which is shot." Please. This is not only a silly rule—it's a damned awkward one.

This prohibition is a bigger lemon than the car. If you don't believe it, check Fowler. The inanimate "whose," he said, has history, common sense and convenience on its side. And the Oxford English Dictionary says that whose has been used for centuries as the genitive (or possessive) form of what as well as who.

The lesson here? The sillier rules of English grammar aren't genuine rules at all, just misconceptions. When in doubt, go ahead and doubt! A little research may show that while English is a peculiar language, it's not as peculiar as all that. If you'd like to know more about grammar myths, take a look at this page from my website.

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Zach Hyman, HBO
10 Bizarre Sesame Street Fan Theories
Zach Hyman, HBO
Zach Hyman, HBO

Sesame Street has been on the air for almost 50 years, but there’s still so much we don’t know about this beloved children’s show. What kind of bird is Big Bird? What’s the deal with Mr. Noodle? And how do you actually get to Sesame Street? Fans have filled in these gaps with frequently amusing—and sometimes bizarre—theories about how the cheerful neighborhood ticks. Read them at your own risk, because they’ll probably ruin the Count for you.

1. THE THEME SONG CONTAINS SECRET INSTRUCTIONS.

According to a Reddit theory, the Sesame Street theme song isn’t just catchy—it’s code. The lyrics spell out how to get to Sesame Street quite literally, giving listeners clues on how to access this fantasy land. It must be a sunny day (as the repeated line goes), you must bring a broom (“sweeping the clouds away”), and you have to give Oscar the Grouch the password (“everything’s a-ok”) to gain entrance. Make sure to memorize all the steps before you attempt.

2. SESAME STREET IS A REHAB CENTER FOR MONSTERS.

Sesame Street is populated with the stuff of nightmares. There’s a gigantic bird, a mean green guy who hides in the trash, and an actual vampire. These things should be scary, and some fans contend that they used to be. But then the creatures moved to Sesame Street, a rehabilitation area for formerly frightening monsters. In this community, monsters can’t roam outside the perimeters (“neighborhood”) as they recover. They must learn to educate children instead of eating them—and find a more harmless snack to fuel their hunger. Hence Cookie Monster’s fixation with baked goods.

3. BIG BIRD IS AN EXTINCT MOA.

Big Bird is a rare breed. He’s eight feet tall and while he can’t really fly, he can rollerskate. So what kind of bird is he? Big Bird’s species has been a matter of contention since Sesame Street began: Big Bird insists he’s a lark, while Oscar thinks he’s more of a homing pigeon. But there’s convincing evidence that Big Bird is an extinct moa. The moa were 10 species of flightless birds who lived in New Zealand. They had long necks and stout torsos, and reached up to 12 feet in height. Scientists claim they died off hundreds of years ago, but could one be living on Sesame Street? It makes sense, especially considering his best friend looks a lot like a woolly mammoth.

4. OSCAR’S TRASH CAN IS A TARDIS.

Oscar’s home doesn’t seem very big. But as The Adventures of Elmo in Grouchland revealed, his trash can holds much more than moldy banana peels. The Grouch has chandeliers and even an interdimensional portal down there! There’s only one logical explanation for this outrageously spacious trash can: It’s a Doctor Who-style TARDIS.

5. IT’S ALL A RIFF ON PLATO.

Dust off your copy of The Republic, because this is about to get philosophical. Plato has a famous allegory about a cave, one that explains enlightenment through actual sunlight. He describes a prisoner who steps out of the cave and into the sun, realizing his entire understanding of the world is wrong. When he returns to the cave to educate his fellow prisoners, they don’t believe him, because the information is too overwhelming and contradictory to what they know. The lesson is that education is a gradual learning process, one where pupils must move through the cave themselves, putting pieces together along the way. And what better guide is there than a merry kids’ show?

According to one Reddit theory, Sesame Street builds on Plato’s teachings by presenting a utopia where all kinds of creatures live together in harmony. There’s no racism or suffocating gender roles, just another sunny (see what they did there?) day in the neighborhood. Sesame Street shows the audience what an enlightened society looks like through simple songs and silly jokes, spoon-feeding Plato’s “cave dwellers” knowledge at an early age.

6. MR. NOODLE IS IN HELL.

Can a grown man really enjoy taking orders from a squeaky red puppet? And why does Mr. Noodle live outside a window in Elmo’s house anyway? According to this hilariously bleak theory, no, Mr. Noodle does not like dancing for Elmo, but he has to, because he’s in hell. Think about it: He’s seemingly trapped in a surreal place where he can’t talk, but he has to do whatever a fuzzy monster named Elmo says. Definitely sounds like hell.

7. ELMO IS ANIMAL’S SON.

Okay, so remember when Animal chases a shrieking woman out of the college auditorium in The Muppets Take Manhattan? (If you don't, see above.) One fan thinks Animal had a fling with this lady, which produced Elmo. While the two might have similar coloring, this theory completely ignores Elmo’s dad Louie, who appears in many Sesame Street episodes. But maybe Animal is a distant cousin.

8. COOKIE MONSTER HAS AN EATING DISORDER.

Cookie Monster loves to cram chocolate chip treats into his mouth. But as eagle-eyed viewers have observed, he doesn’t really eat the cookies so much as chew them into messy crumbs that fly in every direction. This could indicate Cookie Monster has a chewing and spitting eating disorder, meaning he doesn’t actually consume food—he just chews and spits it out. There’s a more detailed (and dark) diagnosis of Cookie Monster’s symptoms here.

9. THE COUNT EATS CHILDREN.

Can a vampire really get his kicks from counting to five? One of the craziest Sesame Street fan theories posits that the Count lures kids to their death with his number games. That’s why the cast of children on Sesame Street changes so frequently—the Count eats them all after teaching them to add. The adult cast, meanwhile, stays pretty much the same, implying the grown-ups are either under a vampiric spell or looking the other way as the Count does his thing.

10. THE COUNT IS ALSO A PIMP.

Alright, this is just a Dave Chappelle joke. But the Count does have a cape.

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A New App Interprets Sign Language for the Amazon Echo
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iStock

The convenience of the Amazon Echo smart speaker only goes so far. Without any sort of visual interface, the voice-activated home assistant isn't very useful for deaf people—Alexa only understands three languages, none of which are American Sign Language. But Fast Company reports that one programmer has invented an ingenious system that allows the Echo to communicate visually.

Abhishek Singh's new artificial intelligence app acts as an interpreter between deaf people and Alexa. For it to work, users must sign at a web cam that's connected to a computer. The app translates the ASL signs from the webcam into text and reads it aloud for Alexa to hear. When Alexa talks back, the app generates a text version of the response for the user to read.

Singh had to teach his system ASL himself by signing various words at his web cam repeatedly. Working within the machine-learning platform Tensorflow, the AI program eventually collected enough data to recognize the meaning of certain gestures automatically.

While Amazon does have two smart home devices with screens—the Echo Show and Echo Spot—for now, Singh's app is one of the best options out there for signers using voice assistants that don't have visual components. He plans to make the code open-source and share his full methodology in order to make it accessible to as many people as possible.

Watch his demo in the video below.

[h/t Fast Company]

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