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24 June 2012


Russ Steele


For the record I always appreciate your gentle nudging emails when I make a grammatical error. English comp was not one of my strong subjects, but do try to learn from my mistakes. Unfortunately some mistakes are from just quick and dirty lazy writing. With your help I will try harder.

billy T

Hey, I resemble them remarks.

George Rebane

That reminds me billyT; had a battery commander once who got out of his range on syntax when recounting something unkind that he had overheard. In a fit of some agitation he said to me 'You know George, I represent that remark!' As his loyal exec, I responded, 'Yes sir.'

Ryan Mount

These are usage issues George, not grammar ones for the most part. Usage is the mechanics of writing and speaking. Grammar is the rhetoric of writing and speaking. This is a subtle and important distinction, however there is not clear line between these two and they often blur into each other. That is to say, usage is more particular, grammar is about larger chunks of writing and speech. Usage errors tend to be more finite and grammatical errors tend to have more ambiguity.

For example, misuse of an apostrophe is a generally a usage issue which typically does not distract the reader from the "meaning."
The use of the passive voice is usually, but not always a grammatical error. For example, the passive voice is used in the Declaration of Independence.

With usage errors in particular, a reader can "back fill" the what the writer/speaker intended. Often complaints about usage errors are due to the fact that the reader has to work harder to make sense of the writing. Grammatical "errors" (deliberate or not) tend to be a bit more diabolical and harder to decode.

And regarding the comma after a list of items? That's the most often question I am asked. (the dog, the cat and the french homosexual cyclist.) The conventional wisdom post 1970s is to use *less* punctuation if possible and construct sentences with consistency which reflects American English's penchant towards minimalism.


George, being the (favorite) son of an english teacher I used to notice poor grammar, not so much anymore. As long as the meaning is clear I don't focus on what is 'proper.' In each of your examples I understood the meaning (regardless of misplaced apostrophes, etc).

With texting on the rise grammar is further doomed.

Ryan Mount

The symptoms of poor usage and grammar are due to hastiness and impulse for the most part. Certainly there is also lack of decorum as well, which in my opinion is driven by insta-gratification culture. And ultimately this is all emblematic of our lack of empathy for one another.

George Rebane

RyanM 747am and MIKEYMCD 829am - Yes indeed, by all means keep the meaning clear. Languages consist of a lexicon of symbols, some of which come from an alphabet that are composed into ordered strings (words), each having a semantic or meaning. Such words are further grouped into a syntax that is sanely assembled according to structural rules known as grammar.

'Proper' is not the point I and other seekers of clear communication wish to make in such posts. That you as an individual can ferret out what you believe to be the meaning is largely irrelevant. The objective is to use language to communicate in a fashion that *all* members literate in a language will derive the narrowest semantic possible from a written message. Else the message gives rise to error (societal friction), or has to be accompanied by addenda (perhaps through other media), thereby reducing the information carrying capacity of the language.

Ideographic languages like Chinese are prone to large semantic variability in their writings, and often require confirmation from the author to resolve ambiguities. English, because of the attitudes you and other educated practitioners evince, is rapidly becoming such a language. For confirmation one need only listen to the speech or read the tortured writings of our high school and most baccalaureate graduates. (BTW, I just finished judging NUHS senior projects that included a written 'essay'. Not a pretty sight.)

Ryan Mount

English is largely a Teutonic and Proto-Germanic language which means we follow reasonably strict grammars. It's not Latinate as some people think. That said, one of the greatest features of our native tongue is its (I so wanted to type "it's") ability to accommodate and in some cases appropriate other dialects and languages. For example, a great deal of our culinary vocabulary was introduced into English following the Norman invasion. Damn French.

Along with the colonial efforts of both Britain and the United States in the past 200 years or so, the popularity of the English language, despite its irregularities, is in large part because it is a welcoming language for the reasons I cited above. English takes the relative, prescriptive modularity of German, for example, and takes it to the next level.

Post-modern and activist linguists take that notion and attempt to "pigeonfy" [as in Pigeon English] American English to elevate dialects like Ebonics into the mainstream. Calling Ebonics a dialect is very generous, IMO.

George Rebane

RyanM 1123am - Good points. I have long been a futile promoter of Loglan (q.v.) and here

It seems that the growing power of AI algorithmics and faster hardware is making such great strides in language understanding that the pressure for creating a new culture-independent language for humans is becoming moot. Latin served and died, Esperanto went nowhere, and now Loglan is all but unknown.

Ryan Mount

Constructed languages have the staying power and reach of Klingon. Also, you AI folks' hero is Turing. Mine is Wittgenstein. I will still take my Shakespeare in good old early English, thank you.

One of the more interesting things about English is that it does not have a future tense. We can only imply future "tense" with the use of--wait for it--German modals like will(auf Deutsch, wollen).

Or as my Linguistics Professor was fond of saying, "there's no future in English."

Douglas Keachie

Via the Norman Invasion, we have a ton of vocabulary derived from Latin.

"The Norman and French conquest of England was the invasion and conquest of England by an army of Normans and French led by Duke William II of Normandy. William, who defeated King Harold II of England on 14 October 1066 at the Battle of Hastings, was crowned as king on Christmas Day 1066. He then consolidated his control over England and settled many of his followers in England, introducing a number of governmental and societal changes to medieval England."

Except of Yoda, most English speakers do not Latin word order follow.

Ryan Mount

We should all be thankful the French brought some culinary sense to England, even if it was in Romance idiom.

George Rebane

RyanM 1212pm - The love of ancient forms of a language is a delightful, albeit here irrelevant, topic. I too love the language of Shakespeare, and even struggled to appreciate Schiller's 'Wilhelm Tell' and its old German dialogues.

Yes, many languages don't have a future tense, including the Finno-Ugric of which Estonian is one - besides contextual derivation of future, the Estonian uses 'saab olema' which is best translated into 'will become'. And then there are languages that only have the present tense, and cultures that have an extremely constrained concept of time.

Coming full circle to this post's topic, there appears to be a very close correlation between the language of a culture and the state of its knowledge base, technology, literature, ... . Sapir-Whorf seems to hold in its assertion that you can only think functional thoughts that are supported by your language (hence the importance of adding mathematics to your kit of languages).

Douglas Keachie

Lighten up, you'll use less fuel:


George Rebane

DougK 952pm - there is already a lot of light fare out there. For those who can handle it, RR attempts to balance things out. But comic relief is always welcome here as an interlude, but not as the main event.

Douglas Keachie

"The past, the present, and the future walked into a bar. It was tense."

I thought it might be enlightening for some to see that some with IQ's above the primordial ooze do inhabit Facebook.

Ryan Mount


First off....Colorless green ideas sleep furiously. It's syntactically correct in every way, but meaningless for everyone absent our most furious stoners.

Regarding linguistic determinism, or as you assert "functional thoughts," I do find this topic quite fascinating. Do we think before we have language to construct the thoughts? Does thought follow language. The formalists, particular the AI types say yes: there can be no thought without a formal language. This is essentially what Chomsky argued (and demonstrated) to some extent in his Syntactic Structures. What he argued, which might be a departure here, is that our grammars are built into our DNA (he said our minds), and that language and more importantly its structure(formalism), is an expression of that as much as our big toe or the color of our eyes. For politicos out there, Chomsky's linguistic writings have been called fascist which I've always found interesting because his political activism is decidedly anarcho-syndicalist.

I might suggest, to balance out this tendency towards formalism, that you pick up a copy of Lev Vygotsky's Thought and Language. It's essentially the guidebook for constructivism. However it's not the garden variety constructivist thought one gets, say, in our public schools, which is watered-down, lazy an desperately(shamefully, IMO) incomplete.


or the Wikipedia Aricle is a brief, yet satisfactory introduction:


Exit rhetorical questions once we address Vygotsky's "Zone of Proximal Development": What exactly does the moment of discovery look like for AI? Screw AI, how do your formalize that into an equation or a routine? What is learning exactly? What is Invention? (both in the classical/rhetorical sense and in a modern context).

If you want to know why I think we will never be able to formalize (formalist thought) computer science and mathematics in such a way that surpasses our humanity, I point to Vygotsky.

More light and barely adequate reading:


Douglas Keachie

Added it to wish list at Amazon, Ryan climbs two more notches upwards, and what can we learn from Koko?

Michael Anderson

A May 14 article in the New Yorker is certainly pertinent to this discussion: http://www.newyorker.com/arts/critics/books/2012/05/14/120514crbo_books_acocella?currentPage=all

George Rebane

Re Vygotsky's approach (although his work is forever under the cloud of what politically correct Soviet science allowed) - Speaking has thus developed along two lines, the line of social communication and the line of inner speech, by which the child mediates and regulates their activity through their thoughts. The thoughts, in turn, are mediated by the semiotics (the meaningful signs) of inner speech. This is not to say that thinking cannot take place without language, but rather that it is mediated by it and thus develops to a much higher level of sophistication. Just as the birthday cake as a sign provides much deeper meaning than its physical properties allow, inner speech as a sign provides much deeper meaning than the lower psychological functions would otherwise allow.

Inner speech is not comparable in form to external speech. External speech is the process of turning thought into words. Inner speech is the opposite; it is the conversion of speech into inward thought. Inner speech, for example, contains predicates only. Subjects are superfluous. Words are also used much more economically. One word in inner speech may be so replete with sense to the individual that it would take many words to express it in external speech.

As far as it goes, Princeton's Julian Jaynes concurred with Vygotsky. Overall, the above interpretation and Sapir-Whorf go a long way to explain the power that language expansion provides in the various annals of technology. There we technologists have few inhibitions against instantly coining new terms to describe the new things that we discover and wish to communicate to peers. They in turn adopt those expansions and build upon them, thereby legitimizing such extensions.

Fields not so facile with the extension and precise/formal use of language cripple themselves in their rate and quality of development. This process, especially in proper usage, extends to the expression and communication of ideas in more everyday and mundane areas.

Ryan Mount

The most important part of the above quote is the term "mediate." The process of growth, learning and evolution is Invention.

The Soviet element/influence in Vygotsky's writings have been thoroughly vetted and accounted for, BTW.

Inner speech can take a phrase like "colorless green ideas sleep furiously," according to Chomsky at least, and make sense of it. However the utterance of it reveals its absurdity.

If we asked WATSON about "colorless green ideas sleep furiously," it would tell us all about Chomsky, semiotics, Vygotsky perhaps, the 874 dreadful post-modern poems written that include that phrase. You get the point.

Have you folks ever read Henry Reed's poem Judging Distances? He tries to examine this objectification of our language (why not include a poet here in the discussion?):


His conclusion, whether you agree with it or not, is that the formalization of our language brings us to war and destruction.

Douglas Keachie

I much prefer informal peace talks.

billy T

Very informative posts. As one who struggles with the right words to convey a more precise meaning, I find the post enlightening. English words have evolved in such a way that the original words used, say 500 years ago have taken on a different meaning. The word sympathy now means empathy. Quite a change. From feeling what another is feeling to now meaning to feel sorry for someone. The word conversation used to mean conduct. Back then they judged you by your conduct, not merely what came out of your mouth. Its all tied together. Even the simple word antediluvian once meant "before the flood", now means very old. Sometimes looking up a word in my old turn of the last century dictionary may relate to the reader my intentions, but may also confuse the reader with today's meaning. Do like the original meaning of vanity. It meant emptiness. Which may explain why an ancient writer cried out Vanity, vanity, all things are vanity. My ancient dictionary lists "dood" as the wire like hair on the underside of an elephant. Cannot find that word (African origin) anywhere today, even on the web. So, when I hear someone say "dude", I cannot help put smile within myself. Have a good one, dudes.

billy T

Correction to above ramblings. The word sympathy used to mean empathy, not the other way around as I wrote. Changes things greatly when reading Old English texts.

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