Don't expect this post to make sense or any help from me

by Michael S. Kaplan, published on 2005/04/02 18:36 -08:00, original URI:

Back in March, Mark Lieberman made a suggestion:

We need a new term. Prescriptive grammar says "thou shalt not say (things that meet conditions) XYZ". Descriptive grammar says "love the vernacular, and say what you like". But what do we call it when you're taken grammatically aback by something you hear or read, and then try to figure out what the problem was?

This process is somewhat prescriptive, in that it starts with a perceived violation of internalized norms (what Geoff Pullum and Barbara Scholz call correctness conditions). But it's also rather descriptive, in that you try to understand the problem by means of a systematic investigation of relevant patterns of usage. So how about reactive grammar? Or more informally, WTF grammar?

Especially when I think about how often I get into conversations at work about whether people are being prescriptive or descriptive when they start correcting others, this category appeals to me a lot.

These are not like garden path sentences, since those actually are gramatically correct; they just lead you in a direction that is not actual place that the sentence is going. A good example? Something like "I convinced her children are noisy." These are ones that you can't even back up and fix in your mind, and you may indeed be saying WTF when you try to answer the question of whether some type of grammar is being followed.

Some of the sentences that eventually inspired the term:

(The one I stole from Eric Bakovic here for the title of this post!)

If you have an older Mac and upgraded the processor, don't expect it to work or support from Apple (from the same place).

Here, at last, was a word for the rug that quietly curls up so it can snag your toe, the sock gone AWOL from the dryer, the slippery piece of toast that always hits the floor jelly side down. (from Mark's article).

This is the car that's always been DIFFERENT and for 1968 it's differenter! (also from Mark's article) 

I nodded so hard I'm surprised my neck didn't snap and my head fall to the floor. (from More WTF coordinations)

This type of thing really does fascinate me, for reasons I cannot easily explain. I don't think it is a WTF concept issue, I'm just still figuring out where these "delusions of linguistic aptitude" are going to lead me....


This post brought to you by "Ħ" (U+0126, a.k.a. LATIN CAPITAL LETTER H WITH STROKE)

# Wayne Steele on Monday, April 04, 2005 3:01 PM:

I'm sure there's a name for this writing error, although its name escapes me.
I recall that James Kilpatrick once wrote a column on this very issue.
It is possible to embrace descriptivism and still be able to identify ungrammatical constructs: If it sounds ungrammatical to an expert in the language (which most educated native speakers qualify for), it probably is.
One may appeal to precedent to defend an apparently ungrammatical sentence, but that does not make anyone a prescriptionist.

# jgardner on Thursday, April 07, 2005 3:40 PM:

One of my friends said something like this the other day, so it was really funny to find this as a whole subject on the web with an acutal name.

His sentence was about an old woman:

"She can't talk and salivates."

we discussed that sentence for several days. And now we have a habit of placing "and salivates" at the end of sentences just to be funny.

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referenced by

2008/09/13 Where the boys aren't garden path sentences

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