4 Unofficial Rules Native English Speakers Don't Realize They Know

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iStock

The BBC’s Matthew Anderson tweeted about a rule that “English speakers know, but don’t know we know.” It was a screen grab of a passage from Mark Forsyth’s The Elements of Eloquence explaining that the reason “great green dragons” sounds better than “green great dragons” is that we unconsciously follow a rule that stipulates that the order of adjectives in English goes opinion-size-age-shape-color-origin-material-purpose. Size comes before color, so no “green great dragons.”

People reacted to the tweet with amazement, astonishment, and thousands of retweets. It can be shocking to realize that we are able to follow rules that no one ever taught us explicitly. But that’s what most of language is: Not the little things that textbooks tell us we’re getting wrong, but the solid ones we always get right. Non-native speakers, however, might get them wrong, and that gives us a good opportunity to get a peek at the rules we don’t otherwise notice.

1. WHY “MY BROTHER’S CAR” AND NOT “THE CAR OF MY BROTHER”

There are two main ways to express possession in English, one with possession marked on the possessor (my brother’s car) and one with an “of” phrase (the car of my brother). Teachers and usage guides don’t usually give rules telling you why “the car of my brother” sounds bad but “the door of my house” sounds fine, because no one thinks to say “the car of my brother” in the first place. But why not? After all, languages like Spanish and French use this kind of construction (el coche de mi hermano, la voiture de mon frère). Why does “my brother’s car” sound so much better than “the car of my brother,” but “my house’s door” sounds the same or worse than “the door of my house”?

We don’t know it, but we make these phrases with reference to something called the animacy hierarchy. The hierarchy in this case is basically a scale in decreasing order of humanness going from human to animal to inanimate objects. The higher in animacy the possessor is, the worse the “of” phrase type of construction sounds. So,

"my brother's car" sounds better than "the car of my brother"

"my parakeet's cage" sounds a bit better than "the cage of my parakeet"

"my house's door" sounds the same or worse than "the door of my house"

Of course, there are considerations like conversational context and rhetorical effect that result in exceptions to this rule, but it does account for a lot of the difference in the relative acceptability of these two syntactic choices. For example, “city hall” can be conceived of as an inanimate building ("the steps of city hall") or a collection of people ("city hall’s announcement").

2. WHY ABSO-FREAKIN’-LUTELY AND NOT ABSOLUTE-FREAKIN’-LY

There’s a way to emphasize a word in English that involves inserting an expletive into the middle of the word—but not just anywhere in the middle. While abso-freakin’-lutely sounds right, ab-freakin’-solutely and absolute-freakin’-ly sound terrible. There is a rule at work here, having to do with the syllable structure of the word. Essentially, you find the syllable with the most emphasis inside the word and put the swear word before it. Kalama-freakin’-ZOO. Im-bloody-PORtant, la-freakin’-SAgna.

Things get tricky when the only stress is on the first syllable (YESter-freakin’-day? Ele-bloody-phant?) or when there are other, more separable boundaries in the word like un- or re- (un-freakin’-beLIEVable and re-freakin’-poSSESSED, are better than unbe-freakin’-LIEVable and repo-freakin’-SSESSED), but these exceptions can be categorized and explained. The important thing is that there’s a rule, and we already know how to apply it, even if we can’t state it.

3. WHY “WHAT DID YOU SAY THAT HE ATE?” AND NOT “WHAT DID YOU MUMBLE THAT HE ATE?”

In English, when we ask a who/what/where/when/why question, there is usually a slot in the sentence where the answer would fit if it were not a question. For “What did you eat?” the corresponding sentence is “I ate __ [potatoes/an apple/my breakfast…].” For “Where did they go?” the corresponding sentence is “They went __ [to the beach/to lunch/downstairs…].”

Linguists talk about these types of questions in terms of movement; it’s as if the 'wh' word has moved from the non-question sentence slot to the beginning of the sentence. Wh-movement can also happen out of phrases a long way from the beginning of the sentence. “What did you say that the beginning of the movie reminded you of?” corresponds to “You said that the beginning of the movie reminded you of __ [moving day/the weather report/ancient Greece…].”

But there are many cases where you can’t do this kind of movement. For example, for these complex, long distance cases, the main verb of the sentence must belong to a specific class of verbs linguists call bridge verbs. Say is a bridge verb (“What did you say that he ate _____?”) but verbs that include the manner in which something was said (mumble, shout, whisper, sob) are not. So “What did you mumble that he ate ___?” sounds terrible. We don’t make those kinds of sentences because we know the rule, even if we don’t know there is a rule.

4. WHY “I CHEERED UP MY FRIEND” AND NOT “I CHEERED UP HER”

English has a group of verbs known as phrasal verbs that give language learners a major headache. These are verbs made of multiple words that together give a different meaning than you would expect by simple combination. For example blow up is a phrasal verb because it means “explode” not “blow in an upward direction.” You just have to learn what these mean. They are verbs like call off (cancel), go over (review), and put down (insult). There are hundreds of them.

Phrasal verbs do not all work according to the same rules. Some do not allow an object to come between the parts of the verb: You can say “Don't pick on your sister” but not “Don't pick your sister on.” But other phrasal verbs can be separated: You can say “Let’s call off the meeting” or “Let’s call the meeting off.” Native speakers know which ones are separable and which are not without ever looking at a rule book. Non-native speakers have to learn the difference through painstaking experience.

But that’s not all. Even the separable verbs have a restriction on them that native speakers never explicitly learn about. Cheer up is separable. You can say “I cheered my friend up” or “I cheered up my friend.”  But if you want to substitute my friend with a pronoun, it must be placed between the parts of the verb. You cannot say “I cheered up her” only “I cheered her up.” For the inseparable verbs, pronouns are no problem: "Don't pick on her."

In the rest of English grammar you can substitute a pronoun anywhere you have a noun phrase. Not in this case. But you already knew that, even if you didn't know you knew that.

9 Grammatically Correct Gifts for Language Lovers on National Punctuation Day

Uncommon Goods
Uncommon Goods

Have a friend or relative who's quick to correct your typos? Does your significant other get a thrill from showing you how to really use a semicolon? Give them a gift that celebrates their love of (grammatically correct) language.

1. The Elements of Style Illustrated; $15

Elements of Style Illustrated Book.
Penguin Random House

William Strunk Jr. and E. B. White's extensive—and sometimes snarky—guide to grammar was published in 1920, but it's still considered a go-to for writing purists who are wary of change. The bookshelf staple, with a foreword by Roger Angell and updated with 57 colorful illustrations by Maira Kalman, is sure to offer up hours of education (which is entertainment to the language lover in your life).

Find It: Amazon

2. Pencils; $9

Best Grammar Gifts
Fresh Prints of CT

Mixing up their and they're is a simple mistake that we're all guilty of, but these pencils will remind you to take an extra moment while writing to make sure you're getting the basics right.

Find It: Amazon

3. Punctuation Bookends; $25


JHP

These punctuation-themed bookends are ideal for keeping your reading material in order; they’re heavy enough to do the job but not big enough to overshadow your collection. Or you can just use them as paperweights or simple home decorations.

Find It: Amazon

4. Cheese & Crackers Serving Board; $48

Uncommon Goods Ampersand Cheese Board
Uncommon Goods

Bring your love of punctuation to your next wine and cheese party with this maple wood serving board that arranges your finger food in the shape of an ampersand.

Find it: Uncommon Goods

5. Punctuation Poster; $36

Punctuation and Grammar Gifts.
FolioCreations

Everyone knows about the question mark and the semicolon, but what about the interrobang? This simple poster from FolioCreations, available in three different sizes and 60 different colors, celebrates the punctuation that really helps writers get their point across. It's printed on satin luster paper with ChromaLife 100 inks, creating a long-lasting piece of artwork.

Find It: Etsy

6. Shady Characters; $14

Shady Characters Book
W. W. Norton & Company

Keith Houston's book offers up a thorough look at the history of the written word. Readers can learn about the rich stories behind punctuation marks, including tales that cover everything from Ancient Roman graffiti to George W. Bush.

Find It: Amazon

7. Ampersand Marquee; $16

Grammar Gifts
Darice/Amazon

The ampersand is a divisive punctuation mark in writing, but it's widely loved in design; the attractive logogram can be found everywhere from wedding invitations to tattoos. This metal light stands at almost 10 inches, making it a nice statement piece in any home.

Find It: Amazon

8. Pop Culture Parts of Speech; $29

Grammar is even more accessible with the help of beloved pop culture characters. ET, Robocop, Holly Golightly, Walter White, and more all come together to help teach tricky grammar terms. The poster is broken down into seven basic parts: nouns, verbs, adjectives, pronouns, adverbs, prepositions, and conjunctions.

Find It: Pop Chart Lab

9. Owl Shirt; $15

Best Grammar Gifts
Bookworm Basics

Do you have a friend who's always correcting everyone with a stern "whom"? With the help of two owls, this shirt pokes light fun at two counterparts to the oft-neglected word. The lightweight, cotton shirt comes in a classic white with sizes for men, women, and children.

Find It: Amazon

Mental Floss has affiliate relationships with certain retailers and may receive a small percentage of any sale. But we only get commission on items you buy and don’t return, so we’re only happy if you’re happy. Thanks for helping us pay the bills!

It’s Official: Merriam-Webster Has Added They to Its Online Dictionary as a Nonbinary Pronoun

psphotograph/iStock via Getty Images
psphotograph/iStock via Getty Images

Two and a half years after the Associated Press announced it would recognize they as a singular pronoun, America’s oldest dictionary is following suit. The Guardian reports that Merriam-Webster has officially added they into its online dictionary as a grammatically correct nonbinary pronoun.

Merriam-Webster notes in a blog post that people have been using they as a singular pronoun since the 1300s, and quoted an 1881 letter in which Emily Dickinson refers to a person of unknown gender with the pronouns they, theirs, and even themself. The post also mentions that using you as a singular pronoun wasn’t always considered grammatically correct, either: it was born out of necessity, gained popularity in casual conversation, and eventually became formally accepted as a singular pronoun.

Merriam-Webster does acknowledge that this new application of they differs from how the general public has most commonly used it in previous centuries. In the past, the singular they has referred to “a person whose gender isn’t known or isn’t important in the context.” For example, you would probably say “Tell each person that they are responsible for cleaning up their own trash,” rather than “Tell each person that he or she is responsible for cleaning up his or her own trash.” Now, however, we use they to describe a person who simply doesn't identify as either male or female.

It’s a much more direct use of the pronoun, and it’s this definition that Merriam-Webster is adding to the existing dictionary entry for the word they: “used to refer to a single person whose gender identity is nonbinary.”

And with that, “Don’t use they as a singular pronoun” has become nothing more than bad writing advice, much like “Don’t split infinitives” and these other grammar myths.

[h/t The Guardian]

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