Tuesday, October 12

grammar poll

One of my favorite articles of all time is finally online: David Foster Wallace's essay on grammar and usage from Harper's. (Note: the long mishmash of phrases at the beginning was the "art" for the article; the actual body starts a bit below, and is written normally, in so far as that can be said of DFW and his twisting, jumping style.)

The article centers on prescriptivist versus descriptivist views of language, or said plainly, the idea that language has important rules that are often broken versus the idea that everyone innately speaks their native language well and in deciding how to use language, we should look more to what people actually say.

I use Google to poll texts sometimes and see which way of saying something is more popular. Not that popular equals good, but it gives me a quick way of figuring out whether I'm making a common error or saying something in the wrong way. Is it "one and the same" or "one in the same"? That kind of thing. Googling it conjures up a quick poll of usage: 504K vs. 69K: and is the winner.

But typing in the loser in these contests will usually bring up the rules of the prescriptivists, so you can see what they have to say. There's far too many people with extra time on their hands, and they post grammar rants online for all to see. Plus, looking at the writing of the people who use "one in the same" and phrases like that, you can see what kind of writers they are and whether they're the kind of people with whom you want to keep company, or who you'd like to keep company with, depending on your bent.

Google has a lot of linguists working there to make their system work in all different languages. When I went on a tour of the company, I asked one of them whether Google and the internet have changed linguistics at all, since there's easy access to a wide range of unedited material online. The linguist I asked said no. Maybe this is too basic for linguists to bother with. But I think Googling could affect what we think of as proper grammar and how we check our usage.


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