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. Boy Derek, you really live in the wrong part of the world! Here are some more interesting New Englandisms I’ve been thinking about. Never mind pronunciation:

  3. 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.)

  4. 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.

  5. 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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