The linguist and the grammarian

Present them both with a grammatical error and you’ll get two different reactions. The grammarian will say “That’s incorrect.” The linguist will say “That’s interesting!” because typically the linguist is interested in almost anything a native speaker says because it may provide a window into the processes or knowledge or brain structures that produced that utterance. 

I suffer from both impulses. I studied linguistics but work in the publishing field, which is ruled by the iron hand of copyeditors wielding the Chicago (or AP) Manual of Style.

So when I hear people say, for example…

  • Bake potato, can goods, and ice coffee


  • Can I come with?


  • The garden needs weeded and the lawn needs mowed

…I suffer unbearable internal tension. Part of me thinks language evolves over time and this is a natural process. The other part of me winces and reaches for a red pen.


9 thoughts on “The linguist and the grammarian

  1. Hi Derek. I got a laugh out of your post, because I suffer from the same pangs of indecision. As a novelist I have to mesh the two impulses, letting my characters speak in their own voices despite the “incorrectness”.

    I fought for a long time about the word “snuck”. The traditional form, of course, is sneaked, but snuck has snowballed, and now I read it all the time in all kinds of publications. I finally gave up the fight, conceding that English is alive and changing and that’s not a bad thing, so I need to just shut up about it and let people say snuck if they want. I make my kids say sneaked, though.

  2. Do’h! Premature posting!

    Here they are:

    – “Get me a scissor.” (I envision handing someone a single scissor blade)
    – “Isn’t he cunning.” (This is almost always an elderly New Englander referring to a cute baby.)
    – “So don’t I.” (Yes, this is just wrong.)
    – “Not for nothing, but…” (This is particularly SE Mass. or Rhode Island… where you eat a grinder with a coffee milk.)

  3. Actually pronounced “cunnin”……..I use it every time I see a baby and I swear I’m not elderly–and I have way too much English training for it to be appropriate.

  4. Matt (and “me”) – nice. Cunnin’/g I haven’t heard before. The others are all too familiar. I try to temper my criticism with an awareness that I mush most of my vowels into Southern schwas. Pobody’s nerfect.

    Sherri – excellent. Thanks for occasionally snucking by. :)

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