Common errors about language


My intention is to introduce a series of entries here regarding the basics of fl teaching with a checklist of typical notions held by fl teachers which distort their presentation of language. The list derives from comments over the years of listening and reading.

Principle #1 Languages change.

Change is a sign of corruption and degeneration, leading to loss of subtlety and nuance, the loss of the subjunctive in English being a good example.

Resistance to change marks the human mind. A wonderful example was the teacher taking a class I was in on the history of Russian. As the professor presented variations over time in the verb morphology, she expressed disgust and exclaimed, “But I worked so hard to learn those endings and now you are telling me they are different!” or something por el estilo. Here was someone who had studied two languages, Russian and Spanish, well enough to teach them but had no concept that language always changes over time. This concept is key to understanding a number of the other items on this checklist.

Principle #2 Some languages are better than others. This applies also to varieties within a particular language. What does ‘better than others’ mean? That will be addressed in the checklist below. While languages vary considerably in their complexity, a fact well-illustrated in John McWhorter’s many popularly-written books, all languages express the contents of the cultures they bear (or do the cultures bear them?). Those of us who know several languages can point to nice grammatical devices available to the speakers of one language that do not exist in another, but it is never anything starkly crucial and the language to which the one is being compared also has features lacking in the first one.

Principle #3 “Bristling morphology” (John McWhorter’s term) is the mark of superior languages. This derives from the ascendency of the classical languages, Greek and Latin, that have morphology a bit more complex than that of the modern European languages, some of which are descended from Latin. Therefore, the supposed loss of some morphological elements is seen as an impoverishment. We often hear lamentations over the loss of the subjunctive in English with no nod given to its replacement in function by the modal auxiliaries and other means of expressing the same notion. There also is seldom recognition of the fact that morphology can sometimes outrun itself and be quite unmotivated; I’m thinking of certain uses of the subjunctive in Latin that do not express anything not conveyed by the indicative.

If we define morphology the way linguists do and do not use “endings” as the essence of morphology, many languages can be found which use a morphological device beyond its original meaning-bearing purpose. Again, McWhorter, in books like “What Language Is” gives many examples of such devices extended beyond their purpose as speakers overuse the item. Note the first pages of the Federalist Papers where ‘if clauses’ used the subjunctive routinely in the English of that period where now we would use only the indicative with no benefit lost in terms of either meaning or nuance, e.g. ‘if he write this down…..’ vs ‘If he writes this down….’

Principle #4 Another mark of superiority is standardization. A language used over a broad swath of speakers will inevitably find variations introduced, thus increasing the chance of misunderstandings. For that reason, a language can smooth out those differences by becoming standardized. This is required, for instance, in a bureaucracy, a legal system, a military unit, wherever face-to-face communication has been replaced by social and geographic distance. If I can find the example, I’ll put it here, of the British military officer using the word “quite” over a radio communication with an American officer and the differences between the two Englishes resulted in a defeat when the American assumed the British unit was alright when in fact it was being overrun. Someone, I think John McWhorter, mentioned a scholar who has written four papers on the word “quite” without yet exhausting all the possibilities of nuance in the word.

Where standardization, or more precisely, the values attached to standardization, can result in a distortion of the presentation of language is when the standard is taken as a natural and even God-given phenomenon that is the gold standard, with any deviation from it seen as an uncalled-for and unacceptable error.

Principle #5 And yet another mark of superiority is the possession by the language of a literary corpus. No need is there to look very far for an understanding of how this idea could come about: even historians have declared a people cannot have a history without written records. We know that is not true regarding history but still sometimes refer disparagingly to languages without a literary output as mere “dialects”. Therefore, Europeans speak languages but Africans speak dialects. Over time, anthropologists and other scholars have found a rich tradition that can only be classified as literary among pre-literate peoples, so-called oral literature. Obviously, the word “literature” itself presumes “letters” being used but modern understandings do admit of unwritten artistic expression.

Both a literary output and the need for a standard means of communication are sine-qua-nons (plural?) of a modern national language but that makes neither a defining characteristic of a language. The standard itself is one dialect – and often an amalgam of several dialects – chosen to be the vehicle of public and national expression. The rise of nation states is a relatively new phenomenon, so we are still exploring the rationales and policies of language as they relate to the nation state. Nationalism almost inherently designates a particular variety of language as the heart of the nation, repressing variant forms or dialects. A literature usually, but not always, wants to reach a broad audience and must therefore smooth out grammatical forms and vocabulary usage that might “turn off” some readers. The rise of mass publications like newspapers and magazines accelerate this development. So the standardization process and the flowering of a literature go hand-in-hand with nationalism to create a national standard that can then become a repressive force among the varieties of language found in a society.

The teacher’s job is then to display the accepted standard to the fl student and introduce the student to the literature of the language, not necessarily of a particular nation, in a way that promotes the student’s acquisition of the language. There is indeed use for varieties of a language in various contexts like family and community, the stage, and in literature itself. These varieties, usually in the form of dialects, then come back on the standard language to enrich it. Current American English is constantly being enriched by usages of Black English. A recent massive immigration of Spanish-speakers has introduced a kind of Spanish-accented English that is being spoken by non-Spanish speakers as they associate with Hispanic students in school. Some of this might stick. I read in a history of English written in the 1950s that Spanish had introduced the word “enchilada” into the language but it was doubtful another word knocking to come in, “quesadilla”, would ever gain admission 🙂 So who knows how Spanish may influence American English?

In a word, the fl teacher should avoid giving the impression that there is some inherent superiority in the standard literary language even as that is the variety most likely taught. Non-prestige varieties of American English such as Appalachian, Black English, rural usages, etc. have gained much more acceptance in the U.S. setting than in other countries, even in England itself. It is the nature of American society which drives this greater openness to varieties. For Spanish teachers, the choice of national language – Cuban, Mexican, Peninsular, Argentine, and so forth can be forestalled only so long as students are presented with literature from various nations As long as variety is embraced as spice and enrichment, there should be no problem in mixing it up a bit.

(One other approach not suited to this country is seen in countries like Germany where regional varieties are accorded status and publishing houses and even some standardization are supported by the central government. Norway goes so far as to print school textbooks in 2 varieties and districts choose which one they want.)


Principle #6 Languages are formed socially from the top down. The idea is attractive because we see literary production by the elites and public figures using the standard are often among the elite. The truth reveals itself when detailed studies of language change are done and we see just the opposite. One of the most notable students of the bottom up phenomenon is William Labov. He found there were vector personalities in neighborhoods; factors such as defended neighborhoods, i.e. big city ethnic neighborhoods being encroached on by Blacks migrating from the South and exaggerating speech differences.

Interestingly, features associated in one era with upper class speech switch and become markers of lower class speech. An example is the so-called ‘dropping the g’ in the ending -ing. At one time in England, putting the -g on the ending was considered a mark of ‘rusticity’, i.e. substandard. Dropping the -r is now considered substandard in America but when FDR did it, no one would consider that patrician substandard in his speech. Watching old movies gives us the preferred stage accent of the time and old radio recordings are available. In order to understand this, you really have to read in the history of English (or any other language) and a bibliography is found elsewhere on this blog ( and

And no, highfalutin is never pronounced *highfaluting.

Principle #7 Speech that deviates from the standard can be corrected by ridicule and humiliation. One teacher who ridiculed the speech of his students in a fl teacher forum got upset with me when I proposed that his attitude was having a deleterious effect on his students. He proclaimed that he never expressed those attitudes in class. It is important in every teacher-student interaction for the teacher to know that attitudes communicate themselves. You don’t need to spell it out. It comes out in many ways, from tone of voice to body language, from what is not said and from what examples are used, and so on.

The answer to how to avoid conveying an injurious effect is to educate yourself so you realize you are ridiculing something that does not deserve ridicule. Go back to the bibliographies offered in #6 above and read how absurd many of the “proper grammar” principles are. Many of the demonstrations are very clever but many require little reflection to see the absurdity, e.g. “This is she” on answering the phone becomes, “Oh, this is I” pointing to oneself in a photo. Or perhaps, “There’s I.” The misunderstanding about predicate nominatives goes back to the off-base reliance on Latin as a guide to English.

Principle #8 Latin and Greek, the classical languages, provide the model of the perfect language, the perfect grammar. A good deal of the common understanding of English grammar and grammar in general comes out of the extensive study and use of Latin for over a millennium in England. That was backed up by a massive cultural reliance on Latin on the Continent from which England borrowed much of its culture. That would have been all well and good if Latin and English had been kept separate. But as is customary with a high prestige language like Latin, the English borrowed a lot from Latin, esp vocabulary. This has occasioned some problems in spelling e.g. debt from Latin debitum when debitum has become dette in French from where English borrowed ‘dette’ but later put the b in on the reasoning that if it came from debitum then we should stick the b in there. That sounds silly but just try spelling debt without the b and see what Ms. Grundy does to you.

The bibliography on the history of English deals with the structure and growth of English over the centuries. The one on Prescriptivism deals with the forces distorting the understanding of English structure based not only on Latin but on the drive in the 17th century for regularizing and rule making. After so many centuries of such distortion (note the names Loth and Murray), there is flaming resistance to any questioning of the canon of proper English. The slightest acquaintance with the books in the bibliographies will reveal the nonsense contained in the canon.

Which brings us to linguistics.  One wag said, “I’m so glad I learned English before the linguists got ahold of it”, expressing Principle #9, that linguistic science has no appreciation of proper and polite speech nor artistic writing. They study the utterances of unlettered people and enshrine them as Vox Populi. As usual, these elitists twist the notion of studying ALL varieties of English with elevating uneducated speech to the level of literary writing.

Science always runs into this problem with conservatives: they want the canon respected, the tradition respected, and upstarts need not apply. The fact that the linguist studying the speech of a group of Native Americans in South America may also be working on a novel written in literary English goes right over their heads. They assume that anyone capable of writing literary English would not associate with Native Americans.

In the European tradition, Latin dominated the world of literate people with the vernaculars considered beneath notice. As late as the 1600s Samuel Pepys would converse with his brother and others in Latin when necessary, although by that time the vernaculars were coming into acceptance. As early as the 13th century, Danti used the vernacular to write his masterpiece though using Latin for other works. Now other civilizations had similar conditions: Sanskrit and Persian in India, for instance. Disentangling a modern language from deep roots can be fraught with resistance; Modern Greek is one such example, with Peter Mackridge laying out the course of the birth of Modern Standard Greek, Demotiki, in his Language and National Identity in Greece, 1766-1976. That’s right, not until 1976 could Greeks do business in their spoken language. Only artistic works were produced in popular Greek or Demotiki. The strangle hold of the classical language is shown by the fact that Greek is the only language that when we say ‘Greek’ it’s taken to mean the ancient form and to label the currently spoken language you have to say Modern Greek.

A brief history of the study of language is necessary here. While earlier philosophical works on language often hit the mark when trying to explicate how language works, the foundations of modern linguistics are usually considered to be in the early 19th century when scholars followed a British judge in India who noted the similarities among* the 3 classical languages: Latin, Greek and Sanskrit. It began to dawn on scholars that those three and many others may have had a common source. The race was on to establish relationships among many languages across the Eurasian continent, linking languages as widely separated as Hindi and Irish and as different from each other as English and Armenian. The scholarship involved has yet to be appreciated by most educated people b/c they do not understand what those relationships entail. In fact, one of the sad side-effects of the “proper grammar” school of thought is that the understanding of grammar is woefully inadequate, so a proper evaluation cannot take place.

As the twentieth century opened, colonized people’s languages were being studied and the languages of the recently defeated Native Americans were being investigated. It was found that these languages had intricate structures very different from the Latin/Greek/Sanskrit languages known as the Indo-European languages. These languages forced linguists to reevaluate their Latin-based (or better, Indo-European-based) approach to language as a general concept. That was a milestone b/c you may recall that languages outside the European sphere were regarded as savage gibberish. But as missionaries and anthropologists and esp Bible translators struggled with these languages, some of them became linguists, Eugene Nida being an outstanding example.

By the 1950s, linguists were encroaching on the fields of logic, philosophy, mathematics, and computer science or cybernetics. Eventually linguists like George Lakoff and Steven Pinker operated under the title of cognitive scientist, i.e people who study how we think. Because language is the medium we think in, their work in linguistics led naturally to cognitive science.

My own take on the resistance to linguistics on the part of the literati and other elitists is that #1 they don’t understand linguistic science and #2 what they do learn of it undercuts their claims to superiority founded in their use of the formal standard written language, leading to my next topic:

Principle #10 All speakers of a language should aspire to speak the formal written language despite its being for formal occasions and expressed only in writing. Illogical, wouldn’t you say? But put yourself in the shoes of an English teacher confronted with a classroom of students speaking what a linguist would call Standard English, but the teacher’s goal is to get the students to formal written English, suitable for publication.

The first features he notes are grammatical issues like “he don’t” for “he doesn’t”. Faced with a plethora of such deviations (many of which she uses herself in informal situations), she decides to get to the rules. Now grammar handbooks for schools have lots of rules, so the teacher picks those he thinks demonstrate mastery of formal written English such as the shall/will distinction. Like so many rules I label shibboleths, these are meant to separate the sheep from the goats. The avoidance of these grammar shibboleths is an easy target for the teacher….. he thinks. Just mark them in red when they occur.

What the teacher runs into are….. boy! lots! First, a good many teachers exude a kind of snobbery, making fun of non-standard usage. Since the students’ families talk the way the students talk, there’s an underlying class bias there. As stated above, the attitude also impacts** students, causing many to finally give up trying to master this arcane swamp of usages, just like they give up learning French when the forest of irregular conjugations covering the board makes absolutely no sense to them.

But another obstacle comes up: the deeper level of the teacher’s problem with the language is syntax. When reading student papers, student writing, the teacher is often overwhelmed with incoherent sentences that wander all over the place. As soon as the teacher tries to explain what the “mistakes” are, she discovers she has no way of explaining it, it just looks/sounds wrong to her. So he goes back to the shibboleths.

Tempting as it is to say the teacher has no resources for understanding this language phenomenon, it is not true to say that. Linguists have devised curriculum to develop students’ ability to write in formal written English. The trouble is that the culture of the school militates against using linguistic materials b/c they don’t support the punitive approach to English, the idea that there is one magical master template for the language. Linguists recognize variation and variety and that is a no-no in the world of teaching. Rigidity is a fair word to characterize that world. Teachers who try to use linguistic materials are accused of watering down the curriculum, not maintaining standards, etc. (Do I sound like I speak from experience?)

The prime barrier to moving students to write standard formal written English is the teacher’s lack of knowledge of syntax, the way sentences are put together. That’s understandable b/c it’s a very complex topic, but without some knowledge, it is impossible to analyze sentences in a way so as to enable students to rebuild them along standard formal written English guidelines.

Notice, BTW, that few teachers work on pronunciation b/c the teachers themselves use the pronunciation their students use.

Notice, BTW, also that we have so far talked only in terms of students speaking some regional form of Standard English, as I did when I entered school. My wife, OTOH, spoke a deep form of Black English. Our paths to Standard Formal Written English were quite different.

Principle # 11 French, German and Spanish are THE foreign languages. While many languages are taught in American schools, the holy triumvirate for decades has been French, German and Spanish as the Classical Languages lost their place in the firmament. Recently American Sign Language and Chinese/Mandarin have moved up a bit but not long before, Japanese was up and coming but no more. Italian exists where there is an Italian-American population to demand it. Once you move beyond these and get into Russian, Arabic, Portuguese, etc. you have what are called the LCTLs, the less commonly taught languages. This is at the high school level, of course. Universities often have pretty diverse programs depending on special funding, esp from the government. Languages rise and fall depending on the international situation. Thus, Mandarin is probably safe for the foreseeable future.

However, the effect of the holy triumvirate has been to marginalize non-Romance and non-Germanic language varieties, leaving many with the impression “gender” means sex, that there are only three genders, that all languages are replete with irregular forms (if they aren’t, they lack the “bristling morphology” of the superior languages). The holy triumvirate is typically taught in two year units, introductory and advanced, with those two being collapsed into two years in college. From grammar study in college the first two years, you go directly to literature in the language with students struggling with the advanced vocabulary of literary works while having little feel for the grammar. Majors sometimes gain some ability in the language just by having to read so much.

Now a lot of this has changed in the last few decades. However, the old cohort coming out of the traditional college programs and being thrust right into the classroom with little ability in the language resorts to grammar instruction just for survival. While I put forth the caveat that a lot of this has changed, I would remind you that my granddaughter is taking Spanish now and it is a nightmare of traditional teaching. The teacher is possibly LDS who has spent two years on a mission in a Spanish-speaking country, giving him some control over the language. Nevertheless, her particular teacher follows the procedures misnamed ‘traditional’. (somewhere here I have an entry which explains why this is not traditional).

The reason two years of one of the holy triumvirate languages were considered sufficient is b/c when they were instituted at the high school level at the turn of the last century, all high school students had already had as much as seven years of Latin and often a couple of Greek (Classical) and since the modern European languages were believed to be inferior to the Classical Languages, it was thought that two years after all that language study should be enough to “master” the modern tongues.

A correspondent of mine in Iran just sent me a recording of him speaking English. It seemed almost accent free. I am asking him how languages are taught there.

#12 Language myths and hoaxes are just fun and repeating them to students does no harm b/c no one really knows why our or any other language is the way it is. First of all, I hope I have demonstrated here that we do know a lot about how languages are, or, as John McWhorter titled his book, What Language Is. So to unnecessarily confuse learners with myths, hoaxes, and howlers retards the public’s understanding of language.

But what is the harm in it? My favorite example, examined by many fine authors including the above-mentioned John McWhorter in several popularly written books, is the Ebonics Controversy. The features of Black English were openly mocked by editorial writers, headline writers, and cartoonists. Any number of excellent books have been written on the subject and if you harbor calumnies like the Oakland School Board wanted to teach Black English, that they believed speaking Black English was genetically transmitted, that they wanted teachers to learn and speak Black English, and all the other dumb things ignorant people invented, read a book. From my POV, a good deal of the gross caricatures heaped on the Oakland School Board (many of whom were concerned about Cambodian refugee children learning Black English instead of something resembling the Standard due to being raised in predominantly Black Oakland – plus some of the board members were not Black) were due to racism; now people were free to unleash their racist diatribes without fear of being called out b/c, after all, didn’t Maya Angelou and Jesse Jackson condemn the Board?

Another harmful hoax is the Sapir-Whorf Hypothesis. It resembles Nikola Tesla in that every generation of inquisitive young people latch on to this in part b/c it seems to be a way of telling the establishment, “We know more than you do and you are trying to hide the truth.” Its fascination is undeniable. Benjamin Lee Whorf was an insurance inspector, thus making him almost a folk hero to those rebelling against academic pretensions, who noticed how the way the language worked shaped the way people saw things. Now this was mightily exaggerated, although to this day there are competent linguists examining that possibility. Whorf, with the support of one of the 20th century’s greatest linguists, Edward Sapir, examined the language of the Hopi people here in Arizona. Indeed, the grammar of Hopi diverges dramatically from that of English. But Whorf went on to posit that this shaped the world view of the Hopis in ways different from the world views of speakers of other languages. He went so far as to reverse predict (priordict?) that had the British spoken Hopi instead of English, we would have had Einsteinian physics before Newtonian. Peaked your interest? So you see how it can snare youngsters looking for something new and different.

Now to the harm of it. It lends itself greatly to racist interpretations of culture. The Hopis were incapable of producing industrial culture b/c of their language. We use the word racist as a derogatory word, an insult, but the notion that people behave the way they do because of the genetic pool they come from has a long if tarnished history. But to come back to Ebonics, you could see in the attacks on “Ebonics” an attack on Black people in the sense of, “They talk the way they do b/c they are born to it and there is no use trying to educate them b/c it is inbred and accounts for their inability to rise past slavery.” See what I mean?

Principle #13 Culture and language are inextricably mixed. Closely related to #12 above, this relationship is taken for granted. While it may have existed prior to the rise of nationalism, the belief that each “people” has a sacred language that expresses uniquely not only their culture but them. How can an Italian express love but in Italian? Well, millions of Italian-Americans like myself do quite well in English (just ask my wife if she’s not mad at me). America is the best example of the nonsensicalness of that idea. It is dear to the heart of many ethnic groups and foreign language teachers trying to convince their students that French will open the world of culture to them as English cannot and German will open the world of science to them as English cannot. John DeMado remarked that if German is the language of science, what language do Mexican scientists speak?

No doubt each language has its own genius. I am currently reading the first Harry Potter in English, Spanish, Russian, French, Latin, Italian, Urdu, Dutch, Norwegian and Greek (Modern I guess I have to say). See these entries:  and

One book, They Have a Word For It, looks at words in various languages that have connotations and nuances well nigh impossible to convey with any word in another language. Some times that gets silly as when I got excited about the Russian word duplo. A duplo is that hole in a tree where owls and other animals sit. I thought, “Wow!” English just has to say hole in a tree but Russian has a word for it. Just to be sure, I looked it up and the English was ‘tree hollow’. Duh. Then there was the time in my Russian class when I said the word ‘perednyaya’ referred to a vestibule sort of room where people removed their snowy, muddy clothes; no word for that in English, when one kid from Wisconsin piped up with, “You mean like a mud room?” Oh well.

But there are cultural traits that have a name and Ruth Benedict’s book on Japanese culture, The Sword and the Chrysanthemum, introduced ‘on’ and ‘giri’. We have ‘grit’. And so on. Fascinating but having more to do with culture than with language. The only harm possible from giving examples of concept words unique to a language is that too much of the ‘they’re so different’, ‘East is East and West is West’ can be overemphasized. For instance, ‘grit’ is becoming a politically loaded term, replacing ‘pull yourself up by your own bootstraps’ as a way of avoiding community responsibility. It’s like the slogan “personal responsibility”, a trope used by Republicans to emphasize the supposed gap between liberals and conservatives in the areas of morals and values. We often forget that east is east and west is west is followed in Kipling’s poem by, “But there is neither East nor West, Border, nor Breed, nor Birth,
When two strong men stand face to face, though they come from the ends of the earth. Kipling here was contradicting the racial rationale for imperialism.

And we cannot leave this without citing the 4, or is it 40, or is it 400 Eskimo words for ‘snow’. A whole book was written debunking that myth. Just as I had forgotten tree hollow, others had forgotten slush, loose pack, etc., known at least to skiers or anyone working/playing a lot in snow.


 *Note my use of ‘among’ with the 3 languages. That is one of those absurd grammar rules based on etymology: ‘between’ derives from the word ‘two’, therefore it cannot be used with more than two. Nonsense, but my own knowledge of standard written English moves me to observe that baseless rule. So what?
** Note that many prescriptivists condemn turning a noun, impact, into a verb, to impact. Of course, this has been done thousands of time in the history of English. In fact, in Greek I just noticed on reading Harry Potter that a room was ’empty’, adeia, and Hagrid ’emptied’, adeiaze, his pockets. So should both English and Greek abandon ‘to empty’ and ‘adeiaze’?

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