Linguistics 001      Fall 2016     Homework 2     Due Mo 9/26

Write a short essay on some "rule of grammar" that you feel strongly about.

In the case of this particular assignment, do not hand in group work -- each student should write his or her own essay, though of course it is entirely appropriate for you to discuss the assignment among yourselves.

You can choose a case where you've been taught that the way you naturally speak or write is wrong, but you don't believe there is a problem, or even find that the allegedly correct form is strange or artificial. For example, some people feel this way about saying "it is I" rather than "it's me"

If you prefer, you can take the prescriptive side: specify a grammatical principle that you (believe that) you follow in your own speech and writing, and whose violation sounds wrong to you in the speech or writing of others. Some people feel this way about the conflation of imply and infer, or the use of real as an adverb ("that's a real bad idea"). Some people even feel this way about the use of can in this and the previous paragraph, to indicate permission rather than ability.

Whichever side you take, try to be precise both about the linguistic structure involved, about the facts of the case (historical and current patterns of usage), and about your feelings. In other words, be sure that your essay answers these three questions:

1. What exactly is the linguistic principle at issue?

2. How have writers and speakers historically behaved with respect to this issue? How do they behave now? Don't just give your impressions -- try to find out the facts.

2. If a usage annoys you -- whether it is prescriptively correct or incorrect -- is it genuinely mistaken, incoherent or degraded, or is it just different from what you expect, or perhaps associated with people that you don't like? On the other hand, if you prefer a usage that you have been told is wrong, do you feel guilty about it, like indulging in a bad habit? Or do you feel that you are justified in resisting an unreasonable rule?

We also strongly recommend that you take advantage of search engines like Google or Yahoo in order to provide both quantitative and qualitative evidence about what the current norms of usage really are. You can find examples of this sort of thing here, here, or here.

If you have trouble thinking of interesting cases, you can consult a prescriptive text for lists of putative rules to react to. An excellent on-line resource is Jack Lynch's Grammar and Style Notes. Dr. Lynch does not always side with the traditional prescriptions (as for instance in the case of split infinitives), and you too should feel free to take either side. For historical information about the use of particular words, the Oxford English Dictionary is the first place to look (note that this link may not work outside of Penn's network). Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage is unfortunately no longer available online from Google Books, but it offers a wealth of reliable scholarship about usage, both for individual words and for topical headings like dangling modifiers or clause-final prepositions. The paperback version of Merriam-Webster's Concise Dictionary of English Usage (not all that concise at 799 pages) is available relatively cheaply, and is well worth the price.

Q: How long is a "short essay"?

A: Pretend it's an op-ed piece for the DP, or a weblog post.

To be most effective, your essay should be both specific and general: you should give specific examples, and you should analyze accurately what general principles are involved.

If your native language is not English, you may address the differences between what you have been taught in English classes, and the way that you hear people around you talking. In this case, discuss how you feel about making the choice between classroom English and everyday English.

Alternatively, you may do the assignment with respect to a prescriptive rule in another language. In this case, however, you will have to give enough background information for us to be able to understand the issues, assuming that we do not know the language under discussion.

Update: xkcd for 9/18/2016 is relevant...

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