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I am not a grammar Nazi…No really!

Chris (you remember him from the hipster post, right?) gave me a clever way to start this blog post. And I totally forgot it. It was something to the effect of this post is about the survey I did not do for my blog. But it was actually funny when he said it.

So the story is that I’ve been going about administering a survey to various people for a class I’m taking. Quite a few times the people I was surveying asked if the survey was for this blog. The answer to which was no. And I was a little surprised that people were assuming I would do something like that for my blog. In general, I avoid putting that much effort into this thing. Anyway, it occurred to me that I could in fact post the results here. Moreover, it would be conveniently easy. And I like easy blog posts. Especially with finals around the corner.

Here’s the survey if you would like to take it:

1. The practice test will not ____________ your grade.

a) affect                      b) effect

2. Neither the students nor the teacher __________ averse to cheating.

a) were                       b) was

3. ___________ was the house sold to?

a) who                                    b) whom

4. _____________ they elect will be president.

a) whoever                b) whomever

5. If I __________ you, I would go to the game.

a) was                         b) were

6. After work, I like to _______ down and rest on the couch.

a) lie                           b) lay

7. I had just _________ down for a nap when the phone rang.

a) laid                         b) lain

8. She ________ her work out in front of her.

a) lay                          b) laid

9. He seems completely _____________ in going to the show tonight.

a) uninterested         b) disinterested

10. He laughs _____________ a hyena does.

a) like                         b) as

Answers: A, B, B, B, B, A, B, B, A, B

In the survey, I was looking to see if there were any particular areas that people struggled with. I was also looking to see if there was a difference between men and women. The results were about as I expected them. I did expect the women to do better, but realized in advance I would probably not be able to collect adequate amounts of data to prove anything. I thought (based on a statistics class I took in high school) that in order to achieve statistical significance I would have needed to survey many more people. Chris informed me that I would actually needed to have a longer survey with more usage items to prove women did consistently better. However, doing so would have made it much more difficult to find volunteers. And so the results stand where they are. Women did better, but not enough to prove anything.

These are a few of the things I heard quite a bit of as I was administering the survey:

“Lain? That’s a word?”

“But… this sentence is just wrong!” (About sentence #3, which ends with a preposition)

“Well that’s a dumb rule anyway.”

“Man, I thought I was good at grammar.”

“I will never correct anyone again.”

“Disinterested isn’t even a word, right?”

“Lie? But then it sounds like I’m telling a lie.”

“And that’s why I’m not an English major.”

Many people groaned. Many people gave a sort of humorless laugh when they looked at the first question. Many people expressed frustration. A few people argued with me. One person argued with me a lot.

And a lot of people seemed very concerned about how I would judge them. When I tell people that I study the English language, they often say something to the effect of, “Oh, well I guess I have to watch my grammar around you.” I promise though, I’m not into correcting people.

From a linguistic standpoint (and I do consider myself a linguist) there is no such thing as right or wrong. Good grammar vs. bad grammar is a game based on set of arbitrary rules created by some grumpy and overly opinionated dead guys from the 1700’s. True story. Now there is such a thing as conforming to a norm in order to communicate—especially since people do judge you based on your use of the language. That’s where editing and correction come in. Outside of that realm, I think anything that communicates works.

One reason not to be a grammar Nazi is that correcting other people leaves you open to correction. Most of the people who correct others have a limited scope of knowledge concerning grammar. They only know a few of the rules. But you can bet they’ll police the rules they do know to death. How many times have you been scolded for asking can you go to the bathroom as opposed to may you go to the bathroom. That’s a relatively easy rule, so many people know it and many people enforce it. How many times have you been called out for using who or whom incorrectly? Probably not much because only wackos like me actually know that rule.

Second, as I mentioned before the rules are pretty arbitrary. They change. A lot. Contractions used to be a big grammatical no-no. And I don’t just mean in academic writing. You’d never use them if you wanted to be taken seriously. Just like any educated person today avoids ain’t.

I think that maybe this post isn’t as interesting as I’d hoped it would be… oh well. I can’t be entertaining all the time. So I’ll sum up real quick. Constantly correcting others people’s grammar doesn’t do much besides make enemies. And almost always it will come back to bite you in the behind. Personally, I know that when I am corrected I watch the person who corrected me like a hawk, just waiting for them to make a mistake. And when they do make a mistake (and they always do eventually) I am at their throat with the full force of all 1232 pages of Merriam Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage. Obsessive? Maybe. But I really don’t like being corrected. And now end this less-interesting-than-desired post here with a fun picture I found and a few more results from my survey.

Question # Item tested Overall % Proficiency
1 Affect/effect 71.6 High
2 Subject/ verb agreement in correlative constructions 21.1 Low
3 Who/whom 57.9 Moderate
4 Who/whom 63.2 Moderate
5 Subjunctive 84.2 High
6 Lay/lie present tense 58.9 Moderate
7 Lay/lie participle 40 Low
8 Lay/lie past tense 73.7 High
9 Disinterested/ uninterested 74.7 High
10 Like/as 24.2 Low
Question# Correct answers: Women Incorrect answers: Women Percent correct: Women Correct answers: Men Incorrect answers: Men Percent correct: Men Difference

1.00

39.00

12.00

0.765

29.000

15.000

0.659

0.11

2.00

11.00

40.00

0.216

9.000

35.000

0.205

0.01

3.00

31.00

20.00

0.608

24.000

20.000

0.545

0.06

4.00

36.00

15.00

0.706

24.000

20.000

0.545

0.16

5.00

46.00

5.00

0.902

34.000

10.000

0.773

0.13

6.00

33.00

19.00

0.635

23.000

21.000

0.523

0.11

7.00

22.00

29.00

0.431

16.000

28.000

0.364

0.07

8.00

35.00

16.00

0.686

35.000

9.000

0.795

-0.11

9.00

39.00

11.00

0.780

32.000

12.000

0.727

0.05

10.00

9.00

42.00

0.176

14.000

30.000

0.318

-0.14

AVG

0.05

STDEV

0.10

Ok, I guess sometimes corrections can be funny.

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Dangling Modifiers Made Fun

I decided to throw the word fun in the title because the instant I put a grammar term up there I decreased the odds that people would actually read this by approximately 89.7% (which is a very statistical statistic). Some of you may have clicked this just because such a juxtaposition of the word fun with grammar concepts seems like an oxymoron. I’ll be the first to say that I find grammar somewhat interesting. I’ll also be the first to say that I’m incredibly biased on the matter because my chosen field of study is the English language.

But dangling modifiers are fun. Basically the idea behind them is that based on the placement of a descriptive phrase, you might not be able to tell which object the phrase is talking about. For example: She handed the rattle to the baby that was made of plastic. Is the rattle made of plastic? Or is the baby?

Or: Having been mutilated by the printer, the clerk threw the mangled cards away. Did the printer mutilate the cards or did it mutilate the clerk?

You get the idea. I’m not going to go into great detail on what exactly they are or how to fix them lest I become boring. If you’re DYING to read all about it I suggest this link. What I will do is illustrate some sentences with dangling modifiers for you. Prepare to be blown away by my mad art skills. That’s right. I have the Crayola 120 pack, and I’m not afraid to use it!

"The police arrested a six-foot-tall man with a mustache weighing 300 pounds." That is one heavy mustache! Probably made it hard to flee the crime scene.

You can see herds of elephants flying over Africa.

"An old cigarette advertisement showed a man on a horse smoking a cigarette." Poor horse is going to end up with lung cancer.

"Having rotted in the damp cellar, my brother was unable to sell any of the potatoes." Rotting in a cellar is a bad way to go. And it does seriously impede your potato selling ability.

"My sister left with her date wearing a pink dress and matching heels." I... do not even have a snarky comment for this one.

"She wore a colorful scarf over her shoulders, which she bought in Mexico." For those of you who can't understand the speech bubble either because it's too small or you can't read Spanish, the guy is saying, "Do you want to buy shoulders? They come with a free scarf!"

See, I told you it would be fun! You probably didn’t believe me. Anyway that’s pretty much all I have for this post. So from now on be careful not to dangle your modifiers!