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Podcast > Wednesday, 7 November 2012 01:21:02 EST

Dumbass Podcast 14: Gramatically Yours

Keywords: argumentation, epistemology, grammar


How to disagree agreeably, and what's the truth about grammar rules?

Timeline
End Of Segment 1 (On Disagreeing Agreeably): 16:43
End Of Segment 2 (Grammar Rules): 49:23

Links/Topics Mentioned In The Show
The Why You're Wrong Podcast
Episode 8 of the Invisible Sky Monster Podcast
The Skeprechauns Podcast
The Warning Radio Podcast
Code Monkey by Jonathan Coulton
Bad Grammar Examples
Aren't I vs Am I Not
The Dumbass Media Empire Website
A Skeptics Guide to Conspiracy Podcast
The Canadian Dialogues Podcast
C-Webb's Sunday School Podcast
The Worlds of Impodibilities Podcast
Buy Chess Wars the Audiobook for $4.99
Chris White's Ancient Aliens Debunked Documentary/Website
Jason Colavito's Blog
The Young Australian Skeptics/Pseudoscientists Podcast
The Skeptical Blog Anthology
The Straight A Conspiracy: A Student's Secret Guide to Ending the Stress of High School and Totally Ruling the World
Theme Music By Jonathan Coulton
Other Music By Danosongs.com

Enjoy the show!  Here's the transcript:

Welcome to episode 14 of The Dumbasses Guide to Knowledge.  Yes, it is I, your friendly neighbourhood Dumbass bringing you critical analysis of popular claims.  Howíve you guys been?

Letís get right into things.  I want to start off with two comments I received that I think deserve my attention right off the bat.  First is an email from somebody named Damon:

 

I understand you probably could not care less, but I thought I would give you feedback that you can discard at your will. 
 
I tried out your podcast after seeing it on the list of 10 podcasts to feed your brain.  I'm sure you have some good content for those patient enough to wait for it, but that wasn't me.  Once you rambled on at the expense of someone who criticized you for rambling on, I lost interest and won't be back.
 
Good luck.

What do you know?  Turns out I just donít learn!  Once again it looks like Iíll be rambling on because of the fact that Iíve been accused of rambling on.  Well, okay, accused is the wrong word there, it implies that thereís some doubt.  Itís more accurate to say that Iíve been tried and convicted!  Iím a rambler!

What confuses me, though, is why Damon felt the need to write in and tell me that he didnít care for my podcast.  Iíve personally listened to plenty of podcasts that I just didnít care for, even really popular ones that everybody else seems to like.  Iíve never felt the need to write to those podcasters and explain to them why I didnít care for their work.  What purpose would that serve?

Seriously, Iíve been going over Damonís message in my mind and I justÖ wait a minuteÖ doth the gentleman perhaps protest too much?

Ö.. Damon, youíre listening to me right now, arenít you?  You secretly love the show, but youíre ashamed to admit it Ė isnít that right? No, donít turn off your player, I see you reaching for that button! Listen Damon, I know you must be very confused and embarrassed right now.  I wish I could tell you that liking the show is nothing to be ashamed of, but weíve both heard it so thereís no point in lying.

But I can tell you this Damon, it gets easier.  Youíll soon learn that having a dirty little secret like this adds spice to your life.  Oh for the first little while youíll feel guilty every time you give in to your urges and listen to me, but that will fade.  Everybody has their little secrets.  Just give it time, everythingís going to be alright!

Anyway, next I want to read to you one of my favourite iTunes reviews.  A listener named Gil Meza gave me a five star review, saying:

On episode 9

Absolutely wonderful Gil!  Short and to the point!  Itís not really a review, more of a status update.  I love it!  Gil, I hope you enjoyed the story of the Psychic Detective!

This idea of writing a review thatís not really a review is awesome!  In fact, I love it so much that Iím announcing a new contest! Iím abandoning the fake paranormal picture thing, that didnít go anywhere.  I think people are more interested in doing things that donít require them to get off their seats, so hereís what I want you to do:

Write me a 5 star iTunes review thatís not really a review!  You donít even have to say anything related to the show at all, it can be a complete non sequitur! Tell me about an itch you have in an embarrassing place, rant about why you hate cool ranch Doritos, or tell me a long, rambling tale about the time you caught the ferry to Shelbyville to get a new heel for your shoe.

The one I like best wins a prize, so be creative!

Now let me tell you about my main theme for todayís episode.  Iíve actually gotten emails from a few different people suggesting that I do a show on this issue, and some ideas have been knocking around in my head so Iím going to go for it.  Iím talking about the art of communication and disagreeing with people.  Whatís fair game and when does it go too far. 

Now I want to be clear that Iím not pretending to have all the answers here.  In science communication is an aggressive style better? I donít know.  But I have a number of thoughts on how we should compose ourselves so that we at least conduct our arguments with integrity.

Iíve seen several people remark on how calmly and coolly I deal with my critics. I realize that pointing this out sounds like Iím bragging, but actually I donít really think that thereís anything special about my approach.  I think that people see the kinds of abuse I get regarding Ancient Aliens and perhaps they expect me to be more upset about it. 

So let me explain how I see the situation when somebody calls me an effing idiot or a tool bag blogger (both actual insults delivered at me).  The thing is that I try to focus on the substance of the conversation.  Everything else is a distraction, and the fact is that insults donít really have much substance to them.

When Iím called a tool bag blogger, what does that actually mean?  Well, we already know that Iím a blogger, so thatís just an accurate descriptor.  But what about the tool bag part?  Iím obviously not literally a bag that is meant for the containment of various tools.  So what does it actually mean to call me a tool bag, or an idiot, or a moron, or even a dumbass?  I actually love it when people try to insult me by calling me a dumbass.  It really clearly demonstrates their utter lack of imagination.

But what does it mean?  Not much.  Is there any measurable criteria for classifying a person as a tool bag or an idiot?  No.  These insults arenít statements of objective reality.  They represent somebodyís personal feelings about me. Thatís it.  These insults basically carry the same meaning and weight to them as a person walking up to me and saying ďI donít like youĒ

Of course itís true that Iíd rather people liked me, but Iím not heartbroken if a complete stranger decides that Iím more worthy of dislike instead.  I donít *need* everybody to like me, so if it turns out that you donít, my response is ďOkay thenÖ would you like to talk about something thatís actually relevant?Ē

And thatís why I donít use any insults myself, even in response to the people who insult me.  I try to poke a little bit of fun at the things they say whenever I can just for entertainment value, but I always try to make sure that I donít say anything mean spirited. My goal is to attack ideas, not the people who profess them.  And to be perfectly honest, I donít hold any hard feelings towards these people.  Theyíre actually giving me great material for my podcast, so Iím really grateful.

Another reason why I think I handle critics the way I do is because I trust you guys, my audience.  I used to get into arguments on web forums all the time.   I WAS that guy in the XKCD comic who canít go to bed yet because somebodyís wrong on the Internet. But that tends to get very frustrating, and I realized that I was putting a lot of time, effort, and research into what essentially amounted to private conversations.

Now I know that these threads are technically available to the public, but I began to notice that when two stubborn people, such as myself and whoever my opponent would happen to be, ever got into an argument in a thread, everybody else would unfailingly abandon that thread.  Not that I blame them, keeping up with some long back and forth argument in a forum thread can be kind of tedious.

I felt like I was having the same arguments over and over again and nobody really cared. Of course I appreciated the argument for its own merits, but I felt like I wanted to do more than just have private conversations.  Thatís why I started my blog and then this podcast.  I feel like this way Iím having these conversations for your benefit.  And I trust you guys to properly judge the merits of my point versus that of my opponent, and not only for my own sake either.  If I screw up and make a poor argument, I trust you guys to call me on it. 

I do my best to avoid quoting people out of context or in any other way misrepresenting their views because I want their arguments to be heard.  If I have to resort to distorting what people say in order to win the argument, then I donít deserve to win the argument. If I misrepresent somebodyís argument by accident, I would like to be called out on it so that I can correct myself.

This is the thing I really love about the skeptical community.  Itís populated by people who actually make an effort to understand logic and reasoning.  A few years back when I was just getting into skeptic communities something happened that really shocked me.  I was having a lengthy argument on a skeptic forum with somebody who was arguing his point tenaciously.  It had to do with statistics and confounding variables and I knew damn well that I was right, but I just wasnít getting through.

I figured it was a lost cause, but I decided to go all out with the most comprehensive post on the subject I could put together to try and convince him.  This, more than anything, should demonstrate what a stubborn dumbass I can be.  Why the hell should I take up so much of my time to debate just one random guy on the Internet?  Like I said, chances are nobody else is even paying attention! But I felt the need to try and argue my case one final time before giving up.  I put together quotes from professional statisticians, links to specific examples, and explained everything in as much detail as I could muster.

And you know what the guy said to me after I was done?  He said ďYou know what? I think youíre right.Ē

Needless to say, I was absolutely flabbergasted.  I said ďWhat? How theÖ. H-honey! Honey, get in here! S-somebody just admitted I was right on the Internet.  Are they allowed to do that? Yes Iím sure, have a look for yourself!  I know! I-is it a sign of the end times?Ö Iím scared too!Ē

Well, turns out it that everything was fine, itís just that skeptics are just a little more easily swayed by the facts.  Even though we can still be as stubborn as anybody else and weíre all still capable of putting our fingers in our ears and shouting ďlalala I canít hear you!Ē when confronted with uncomfortable information, we tend to reign ourselves in a little more.

And the thing is that itís really cool to have disagreements with people who have a little more respect for truth and accuracy.  I like being challenged to back up what I say.  Back in June I was invited for the second time to be a guest on the Warning Radio podcast.  They asked me some questions about my Invisible Sky Monster podcast, and one of their questions was what was my favourite episode.  What I told them was that it was episode 8, which you can find at pod8.invisibleskymonster.com.  In that episode I had on Jeff Ė AKA Infinite Monkey, and host of the Exposing Pseudoastronomy podcast Stuart Robbins.

The reason this episode is my favourite had little to do with how much I enjoyed talking to my guests, even though we had a wonderful conversation.  Itís my favourite because itís the episode where I got the most push back from my listeners.  Stuart and I had a little bit of a disagreement with Jeff during the course of the episode.  I wonít go into the details here because itís all about priorities and values and itís a very messy topic.  Anyway, afterwards I had several people write to me to tell me how much they disagreed with my point of view.  And thatís awesome!

Finn, who is Rebecca OíNealís co-host on the Skeprechauns podcast, even told me that she was gesticulating wildly in disagreement with me, making herself look like a crazy person walking down the street.  Thatís awesome! Finnís a pretty cool person, and you can hear her at theskeprechauns.com Ė they changed the domain since I last mentioned them.

There were several people who argued against me on this, and I had some very good conversations.  And the thing that I appreciate most is that I was actually forced to think about my arguments and refine them.  And to be clear, I *have* modified my position slightly.  I was forced to think through a number of considerations in the course of the arguments and I feel that has allowed me to refine my thoughts on the subject.  Thatís how things should work if youíre really engaged in a productive discussion.

I put in some extra arguments at the end of the episode, and due to a comment I got on that I started to worry whether Iíd gone too far.  So I contacted Jeff and asked him.  What he said to me was ďNo, you didnít go too far, but you *are* wrong!Ē, which to be clear is an awesome thing to say.  Jeff knows that because heís a class act. Even when I disagree with him, heís a pretty cool guy.  The phrase ďyou are wrongĒ is wonderful.  Itís a strong, firm way to respond to an opponent without being a dick about it.

Now sure you may say itís a little redundant.  After all, if you didnít think that the other person was wrong you wouldnít be arguing with them, would you? Of course if all you were doing was shouting back and forth ďYouíre wrongĒ, ďNo YOUíRE wrong!Ē, then that wouldnít be a conversation worth having.  So of course thatís only the start of the conversation, youíve got to then follow it up with an explanation of why you think theyíre wrong. Then you can have an interesting conversation.  But you have to start with the basic premise that the other person is wrong, and stating it out loud really centers the conversation.

Speaking of which, let me briefly plug a podcast called ďWhy Youíre WrongĒ, which for the reasons Iíve just demonstrated is an awesome podcast name.  Itís run by a couple of Canadians, Jesse and Tim. I just had Jesse on the most recent Invisible Sky Monster podcast, which you can find at pod11.invisibleskymonster.com.  Their website is whyyourewrongpodcast.com.

These guys know how awesome it is to be able to say to somebody ďyouíre wrong!Ē.   Of course if somebody says that to you, you donít have to agree with them.  But we should all force ourselves to accept the possibility that we could be wrong. When somebody tells you that youíre wrong, if your first impulse is to get defensive then try to suppress that. The attitude I try to take when somebody tells me Iím wrong is ďWell, if Iím wrong then it certainly wouldnít be the first time, and I hope it wonít be the last! But I actually think YOUíRE wrong about that, and let me tell you whyĒ

Iíve got a confession to share with you guys: Iím not omniscient.  I donít know everything that there is to know.  I can hear you gasping in surprise at the admission.  But itís true.  Iím not omniscient, and Iíve never known anybody who was omniscient.  I would love to know somebody whoís omniscient though, so if thereís any omniscient being listening to this, please contact me! Use my private email address Ė you know the one.

Anyway, the fact that Iím not omniscient means that I have to rely on imperfect information.  A lot of what I know comes from second, third, or even fourth hand sources.  None of us can verify all of the information weíre told throughout our lives.  A certain percentage of that information is bound to be dead wrong, but as thinking beings weíll all take that information and use it to form conclusions, which then can create even more wrongness.

Logically, I canít escape the conclusion that a certain percent of the things I think are true are actually wrong.  And thereís no way for me to know what that percent is.  So when somebody tells me that Iím wrong, I should take them seriously and consider whether theyíre actually doing me a favour by exposing one of these nuggets of falsehood in that unknown percent of my mind thatís filled with bad information.

Itís for this reason that when somebody else is wrong, I try not to hold it against them. Iíve disagreed with plenty of people, even other skeptical podcasters who I like and respect.  The fact that I think theyíre wrong about something doesnít sour everything they say for me, although it would be kind of funny if, in the political climate right now just before the US elections, we all just started running attack ads against other random podcasters for no real reason.

But I have seen people get really angry with podcasters whoíve said things that they disagree with, and even decide to unsubscribe because of it.  To an extent I understand their frustration.  It can be hard to listen to somebody, especially somebody you like, saying a bunch of things that you know to be wrong.  Kind of makes you want to gesticulate wildly on the street like a crazy person!

But I think we need to remind ourselves that being wrong is just a part of what it means to be human.  So I try not to get angry at people for being wrong.  Sloppy research and poor logic are much more important shortcomings, and being wrong for the right reasons is always better than being right for the wrong reasons.

Now, so far in the run of this podcast Iíve been mostly preaching to the choir.  I donít think that any of you doubt what I have to say about the Ghost Cavalry of World War One, or the story of Nightmare Island.  And I think Iíve managed to convince the vast majority of people who listen to me that Iím right about Ancient Aliens, the pushback I get generally comes from proponents who just skim my articles and call me names.

Donít get me wrong, preaching to the choir is great! Thatís why I do it, but this whole topic of conversation got me thinking that maybe I should start doing episodes where I disagree with other skeptical thinkers.  Iíve gotten into several of these kinds of disagreements in the past, and like I said, I really enjoy arguing with skeptics.   So starting with this episode Iím going to make an effort to once in a while cover a topic in which Iíve disagreed with other skeptical thinkers.

Now, of course Iím moving into more dangerous territory here.  Thereís a much greater chance that Iím wrong than when I talk about ghosts and aliens.  And if you think Iím wrong, feel free to let me know why you think so.  But try not to get too frustrated with me.  Remember, Iím just some dumbass with a podcast.

* Commercial * * Attack ad against C-Webb *

Letís get right into things.  What Iím going to talk about now is something that I find kind of silly to have an argument over, but itís an area where people tend to have very strong feelings and they get very upset if you disagree with them.  What Iím talking about is rules of grammar.

You see, most of us have been mislead into believing that the average, fluent speaker of the English language is constantly using it wrong: always dangling participles, and splitting infinitives.  As I hope to demonstrate to you today, these notions of quote-unquote proper grammar are basically pseudoscience.  And when I say that, Iím not just telling you my feelings about it.  Iím reporting to you the actual opinion of the scientists who study language: linguists.

These rules are what are known as prescriptive grammar, and the people who teach them are grammarians.  Prescriptive grammar is basically a set of arbitrary rules made up not from any actual study of how the English language works, but instead developed by people prescribing how they thought the language should work.

Now I should specify here that Iím not against anybody thinking about their speech in order to try to say things with as much clarity as possible.  I think weíve all had the experience of our mouths moving faster than our brains, causing us to start a sentence that quickly becomes very awkward for getting across what weíre trying to say.  But the fix for this is always just to slow down and think about how the words could be better arranged.  It doesnít require knowing a complex set of grammar rules.  If youíre fluent in the language, you should be able to rearrange the words in your head in a way that expresses your thoughts well enough for other people to understand what youíre saying.

Now to avoid any misunderstanding, let me point out that grammar is not the same thing as spelling or punctuation.  And itís also not the same thing as word confusion Ė for example, if you use the word Infer when you should have used Imply, thatís not a grammar issue.  Youíd be forgiven for thinking otherwise though, because if you google lists of common grammar mistakes, most of what youíll find will be spelling, punctuation, and word confusion mistakes. 

I have no problem with those rules.  Spelling and punctuation rules were created to make sense when writing.  They are artificially constructed rules for an artificial communication format.  Natural language, on the other hand, has rules that have evolved, and that are continuing to evolve.  Theyíre not created deliberately by some sort of language committee.  Many languages donít have a writing system, and have no need of spelling or punctuation.  All languages, however, have grammar.

I would also like to point out that English is actually a collection of dialects, as are all languages.  The dialect that Iím speaking right now is Standard English, which is the dialect Iíve spoken all my life. But thereís an unfortunate tendency for English speakers to view other dialects of English as somehow inferior, or degraded versions of the language. 

This is not the case with many other languages, where different dialects are accepted without prejudice alongside the standard dialect of the language.  But when it comes to English, we tend to view people who use dialects as somehow talking incorrectly.  So a lot of examples of quote-unquote bad grammar are actually perfectly grammatical constructions in the dialect in which theyíre spoken.  Theyíre just not accepted grammatical constructions in Standard English.

I do think that itís important that all English speakers are comfortable with Standard English, so I donít think itís wrong to explain that these are not standard English constructions.  But I do have a problem with labeling them as bad grammar, because it gives the impression that this is grammar done the improper way, whereas Standard English uses the only proper grammar.

And by the way, a dialect isnít just a form of the language thatís so divergent from the standard that youíd need subtitles in order to understand it.  Itís also the local varieties of English that are only minor divergences.  They have their own accents and constructions, but only once in a while do you have any difficulty understanding them.  Think of Joe Pesci from My Cousin Vinny.  Thatís a dialect.  All languages have them.  If English didnít, there would be something wrong with it.

I want to put in one more note before we get to examples because I donít want to build up a strawman argument.  I do realize that most grammarians these days are no longer picking on things like split infinitives.  These kinds of rules are still taught and believed by many people, but the official grammarian position has changed and Iíll give them credit in those cases.  So Iím going to limit myself to criticizing the standard grammar advice I find online that seems to represent the consensus opinion among grammarians.  If it turns out Iím mistaken about that on any of these points, I would appreciate the correction.

What brings this topic to mind as an area where I disagree with other skeptics is an argument I had a little over a year ago on a skepticsí mailing list.  Some of those who argued with me are probably listening right now.  Hey guys!  Try not to wave your arms around too much like crazy people in disagreement with me.  I know you want to yell at me because of how wrong I am right now, but thatís the point of doing this.  If it makes you too uncomfortable, thereís a timeline at pod14.dumbassguide.info so that you can fast forward to when this is over. Try to not be too angry with me.

Anyway, the discussion was about how English doesnít have a gender-neutral third person singular pronoun.  Somebody suggested that we start using one that he made up: Ze.  I think thatís a fine suggestion if your goal is to make yourself completely unintelligible to most people.  I pointed out that standard English actually *does* have a third person singular pronoun: they.  According to several people, however, this usage of ďtheyĒ is bad grammar.

This seems to be the position of most grammarians, so let me be clear on this.  If you believe that this is bad grammar, youíre wrong.  Singular They has been a common construct in Standard English for hundreds of years.  The fact is that in English, the pronoun ďtheyĒ is sometimes singular, just as the pronoun ďyouĒ is sometimes plural.  The only reason to deny this is because somebody arbitrarily wrote in a book somewhere that ďtheyĒ must always be plural.

Of course, people also used to complain that the word ďyouĒ shouldnít be used in the singular.  The singular form is ďthouĒ, the pronoun ďyouĒ should always be plural! Hereís a quote by one scholar from the 1600ís:

Is he not a Novice and unmannerly, and an Ideot and a Fool, that speaks You to one, which is not to be spoken to a Singular, but to many? O Vulgar Professors and Teachers, that speak Plural when they should SingularÖ Come you Priests and Professors, have you not learnt your Accidence?

Obviously, this guyís tirade seems silly to us today.  But you could argue that the difference between Thou and You was actually a useful distinction.  Turns out that sometimes even those can get worked out of the language.  Thatís just the way things go.  But singular ďtheyĒ is actually filling a gap thatís not currently filled by any other word, so unlike the case with ďYouĒ, thereís no ďThouĒ thatís being pushed out of the way here.

Singular ďtheyĒ is a common construction that confuses nobody.  Or so I thought, anyway.  When I said so I got pushback from somebody telling me that they *were* confused by it.  Now, if you listeners didnít find yourselves flummoxed by my last sentence, then you fundamentally agree with me that this is not some sort of stumbling block.  I suspect that this person was just unconsciously looking for reasons to be confused, but Iíll let you be the judge.  We used the following example:

Someone from the class left a wallet. They should come back to get it.

Sounds perfectly fine to me.  But apparently to some itís confusing:

Who should be coming back? Just the someone or the class in its entirety? Ö While you could guess it's just the someone, what if I want the entire class there. Maybe I'm afraid one random person from the class will come back and falsely claim it was his or her wallet, so I want the entire class there. It's a reasonable interpretation of that sentence.

I donít think thatís a reasonable interpretation, and if you gave that example to a hundred people I doubt even one of them would interpret it that way.  I donít think that even this person is really confused by singular they.  I think that you can convince yourself that youíre confused by something like this in order to hold on to your belief that this rule makes any sense.

Remember how I mentioned the Warning Radio podcast earlier? They have an ending theme to their show which starts out with the following lines:

Somebody told me that you were so stupid. But I didnít believe them.

There you go, singular they thrown in casually and nobodyís confused! Now you may protest that this is kind of a silly song, and therefore may not be the best representation of proper grammar.  But this really is an accurate depiction of standard English grammar.  This is just the way people speak, itís how English works.  There are some silly songs that actually do use incorrect grammar on purpose, but in these cases of genuinely incorrect grammar you can tell that no native speaker of the language would actually make these mistakes.  For example, listen to the opening lyrics of Jonathan Coultonís song ďCode MonkeyĒ:

Code monkey get up get coffee. Code monkey go to job.  Code monkey have boring meeting, with boring manager Rob.  Rob say code monkey very diligent, but his output stink.  His code not functional or elegant, what do code monkey think?

Obviously this isnít full, grammatically correct English.  This is some kind of Pidgin English that would be spoken by somebody whoís not completely comfortable with the language.  As native English speakers, which I assume most of you are, you can tell immediately that this is not correct grammar.  And if anything shows that proper grammar isnít necessarily about clarity itís this song.  The lyrics are absolutely clear, thereís no confusion whatsoever about exactly what Code Monkey is doing here.  Short and sweet too - Code Monkey get up get coffee Ė that gets the message across in six words.  What would that sound like translated into more grammatical Standard English?

Code Monkey woke up, and then he got himself some coffee. Thatís eleven words, almost double the word count and youíre not getting any extra information.  The reason that Standard English grammar uses these extra words is for flexibility.  A language has to be able to do more than narrate in the simple present tense.

So grammar is not really about clarity, and genuinely poor grammar is easily recognized by a native speaker regardless of how succinct and understandable it is.  But letís get back to Singular They.  What the grammarians will tell you is that singular They is absolutely wrong, and that the only proper thing to replace it with is ďhe or sheĒ.  It may be awkward they say, but itís either that or rewrite the sentence so that thereís no need for it.

So if you want to keep the same sentence structure, itís ďSomebody told me that you were so stupid, but I didnít believe him or her!ĒÖ well, that just sounds silly.  And sure, we could rewrite this line, but the question is why would we want to?  Thereís really no reason to do so, or to ever avoid using Singular They.  Why limit the ways of expressing yourself in English when thereís no reason to do so?

Like I said, Singular They has been a part of Standard English for hundreds of years.  What grounds can there possibly be for advocating against the use of such a well-integrated and useful construction? I think itís apparent that there are none.

Letís now move on from Singular They and take a look at some of the grammar advice being taught online.  I did a search for common examples of bad grammar, weeded out the sites that mostly talked about spelling and punctuation, and found a couple of good ones to use for this episode.  Let me go over a page that I found on yourdictionary.com entitled ďBad Grammar ExamplesĒ.  Apparently, the title is a little bit of a trick to see if youíre paying attention, because as they explain the title is, in fact, an example of a misplaced modifier. 

They donít explain what they mean by that, so let me take a stab at it.  The gist of it is that in the noun phrase ďBad Grammar ExamplesĒ, itís a little bit uncertain exactly whatís modifying what.  To get technical, since this noun phrase has two nouns, one of them is acting as a noun adjunct, or a noun that modifies another noun.  But which one? Depending on your choice, this phrase could be interpreted to describe either A: examples of grammar that are bad, or B: Sincere examples meant to teach good grammar, but they were done poorly.

I donít think itís much of an issue in this case because most people would assume that itís option A. But as a computer programmer Iím all for modifying your syntax to make your intentions as clear as possible.  The thing is that it doesnít take any specialized knowledge to do that here. If you just think it through and reorder the words in your head, as a native speaker youíll realize that you can change this to ďExamples of Bad GrammarĒ, and that will work perfectly.

To briefly get into the nitty gritty detail, clarifying this depends on specifying which noun the adjective ďbadĒ is modifying.  Is this bad grammar, or are these bad examples?  Once youíve figured that out, make it clear by moving the noun adjunct out of the way a little so that nobody confuses it for the main noun.  So if itís option A, you change it to ďExamples of Bad GrammarĒ.  If itís option B you change it to ďBad Examples of GrammarĒ.

Thatís a pretty long-winded way of explaining something that you were probably able to do easily in your head.  Take it as a good rule of thumb that you should proofread your writing for anything that could possibly be misinterpreted, and make changes that will clarify your intention.  But as useful as this advice may be, the phrase ďBad Grammar ExamplesĒ, is not a grammar error.  Itís a perfectly grammatical noun phrase, recognizable to any fluent English speaker. Itís just subject to possible misinterpretation.

But even if you fail to proofread, itís not all bad.  It could lead to hilarious results!  Let me read you a few real newspaper headlines that perhaps should have been given a second look:

-         Astronaut Welcomes Baby from Space

-         Man Seeking Help for Dog charged with DUI

-         Escaped Wallaby Caught using Huge Fishing Net

-         Write-in Voting Gets Woman Shot at School Board

-         Actor Sent to Jail for not Finishing Sentence

-         GOP aims to use terrorism to keep control of Hill

-         Navy Seals Responsible for getting Osama Bin Laden to be Honored at Museum

Okay, digression over.  Letís move on to the examples listed on this page, weíre told that these are typical examples of bad grammar. The first category is verb tense errors.  This involves inconsistent description of whether your action takes place in the past, present, or future.  Their first example of a typical error that somebody might make is:

I go to the store and I bought milk.

Ö. There you go.  How typical, right?  People are just making this kind of mistake all over the place!  Next example of a typical verb tense error:

I will eat fish for dinner and drank milk with my dinner.

Ö. Really?  These are examples of typical verb tense errors?  As far as I can tell this website is for native English speakers, not for people learning English as a second languageÖ. what native English speaker would actually say ďI will eat fish for dinner and drank milk with my dinner!Ē. 

The only thing I can think of is if youíre writing something perhaps you might edit part of a sentence after youíve written it and forget what tense you were using.  It would certainly never happen during a spoken conversation, at any rate.  But even if you did make this mistake in writing, you should be able to easily find and correct this mistake through proofreading.  Itís a pretty glaring mistake.  Get a friend to proofread as well, one of you should notice it.

Next category on the list is Subject/Verb agreement errors.  Subjects and their verbs need to match on whether theyíre singular or plural.  When they donít, this is an error.  First example:

Matt like fish

Ö Right.  And Code Monkey Get Up Get Coffee.  Iíve already pointed out that no native English speaker would ever make this kind of error.  *SIGH* - well, whatís the second example?

Anna and Mike is going skiing.

Yeah, and cookies is tasty! Who would ever make this kind of mistake unless theyíre doing it on purpose to be cute?

Next category is noun/pronoun errors.  If the pronoun doesnít agree with the noun itís replacing, then you get an error.  For example:

Anna and Pat are married and he has been married for 20 years.

So, apparently somebody meant to convey that Anna and Pat have been married for 20 years, but somehow they got ďthey haveĒ confused with ďhe hasĒ?  How does that happen, exactly?

This next example you should recognize from earlier:

Everyone forgot their notebook

They explain nicely that ďtheirĒ is plural while ďeveryoneĒ is singular.  Theyíre wrong.  As Iíve explained, in English ďtheirĒ is sometimes singular, and this is not an error.  Letís move on.

Next is the dreaded double negative!  You all know of it.  Example 1:

I don't want no pudding.

Example 2:

I can't hardly believe.

There is logic behind why this is supposed to be a grammatical error.  To take example 1: obviously if you donít want NO pudding, then that must mean that you actually want SOME pudding, right?

As a computer programmer, I can appreciate this logic.  But if natural language followed the same strict logic as a computer program, we wouldnít need computer programming languages. The fact is that avoiding double negatives isnít, and never has been a requirement for proper grammar.  If it were, you would expect other languages to avoid double negatives like the plague.  But they donít.  Take French for example.  The text book way to say ďI donít knowĒ in French is ďJe ne sais pasĒ.  

This is textbook French, you will not be corrected if you say it.  But itís a double negative.  Ne and Pas are both negative words.  Itís basically the equivalent of saying in English ďI donít know nothing!Ē.  This is considered to be perfectly grammatical French, and nobody thinks that thereís anything wrong with the French language because of it. If avoiding double negatives was actually a general, universal rule for good grammar, we would have to ask ourselves whatís wrong with the French language? 

Well, nothingís wrong with it.  Double negatives actually serve a useful purpose.  They add emphasis to the sentence. And letís be realistic, nobody has ever actually gotten confused and thought that the person who said ďI donít want no puddingĒ was actually asking for some pudding.

Unfortunately, however, this supposed rule of grammar has been hammered into English speakers for so long that we now tend to view the use of double negatives as tacky and low class. So we actually do have a reason to avoid using them.  Itís kind of a self fulfilling prophecyÖ. But itís not bad grammar.

Next class of error is the sentence fragment.  Thatís when your sentence doesnít express a complete thought.  Hereís an example:

Because I ate dinner.

Certainly I guess thatís a sentence fragment.  But if youíre asked the question ďwhy do you have gravy on your shirtĒ, thatís a perfectly acceptable answer.  But I canít think why somebody would just blurt out something like ďBecause I ate dinnerĒ out of the blue, without any explanation. There would have to be some context that clarifies whatís being talked about, and if thatís the case then I donít see what the problem is.

Second example:

Jumped high.

Once again, I canít think of why anybody would blurt out something like this out of nowhere.  Remember, these are supposed to be typical examples of bad grammar.  The only thing I can figure is that somebody might make a mistake like this if they were in the middle of writing a sentence, but then went back to edit something else, and forgot to finish their sentence when they got back.  But once again, it doesnít take knowledge of a bunch of grammar rules to fix this problem, it just takes proofreading and a reasonable command of the language.

The last example of bad grammar they use is the run on sentence.  This is more of a punctuation error though, so Iím not going to talk about it.

This list seems to me from my searches to be an accurate representation of what grammarians agree on as examples of bad grammar.  Most of my searches brought up lists of punctuation, spelling, and word confusion errors, which donít have anything to do with the grammar of a language. But let me read you one interesting entry I found on another website, grammarerrors.com concerning the distinction between ďArenít IĒ and ďAm I NotĒ:

The expression arenít I is often used in place of am I not, particularly in conversational speech.

Example 1 (incorrect usage): Iím going with you on vacation, arenít I?

Although the use of this phrase is widespread, it is atrocious English that could be considered equivalent to you is, a phrase which most educated people abhor (although for some reason, these same people have no qualms about saying arenít I). The correct form of the sentence in Example 1 is as follows:

Example 2 (correct usage): Iím going with you on vacation, am I not?

If you read this sentence aloud, it probably sounds awkward and formal, perhaps even a bit hoity-toity. However, it is correct English. If the phrase arenít I is converted from a question to a statement, I arenít, it becomes obvious that it is indeed grammatically incorrect.

Although this sounds logical, there is no legitimate rule of grammar that says that your use of the language must be incorrect if a word usage doesnít work when converted from a question to a statement. Like I said, if human language worked by pure and consistent logic, we wouldnít need computer-programming languages.

ďArenít IĒ is common usage in Standard English, therefore itís correct.  A few people in the comments section of this article said the same thing, and one person disagreed, saying that common usage isnít a good enough justification.  On the contrary.  Common usage is the ONLY thing that validates a word or phrase as part of the language.  Thatís how language works.

And by the way, the construction ďyou isĒ, is not an example of bad grammar.  Itís an example of dialect. Like I said earlier, dialects have grammar rules that are slightly different than the standard dialect, and this should be expected and embraced.  Itís just part of how a living language works.

But not everybody agrees that we should just accept that.  They will argue that even if language changes and dialect differences are natural, we should make some effort to reign them in at least to some extent.  I came across an interesting quote expressing this opinion in the comment section of a page discussing language topics.  Let me read it for you.

If we let the structure of the language devolve into chaos, we eventually lose the ability to communicate. Communication is essential to societal growth and stability. Furthermore, as our society becomes increasingly global, we must maintain the structure of the language to be understood by those who speak a different language. 

If we let the structure of the language devolve into chaos, we eventually lose the ability to communicate.  Think about that for a moment.  This person believes that if we donít at least make some attempt to reign in our language, it will devolve into chaos and communication will become impossible.  Wow, wouldnít that be something to see? 

Fortunately for us, however, this prediction of dire consequences if we become too slovenly with our language is something that, as far as we know, has never happened in the history of mankind.  Certainly there are language dialects that have *evolved* into completely new languages over a period of hundreds of years, but people never lost the ability to communicate with one another.

I agree that we need a common Standard English that people can learn as a second language and expect to be understood by native English speakers.  That doesnít mean that we should insist on some sort of control of the language.  The fact is that language change just doesnít happen that catastrophically.  If somebody learned English from a book written a hundred years ago, they would still be perfectly understood today.  Heck, weíre still even able to mostly understand the language of the King James Bible, which was completed in 1611. 

So thereís no reason to panic.  Weíre in no danger of devolving into chaos and losing the ability to communicate.  There is no need to avoid acknowledging changes in common usage for the sake of people learning English as a second language.  I once flipped through a book teaching English as a second language in the bookstore.  It told me that you should greet people with ďHow do you do!Ē Ė which I found kind of funny because itís a sentence that Iíve only ever heard used in very formal situations on old television shows and movies.  I think it would be okay to acknowledge to ESL students that this isnít currently a common greeting in Standard English.

Now Iím sure that a number of you will still disagree with me.  Well, maybe youíre right.  At least one commenter on the blog has recently told me that my grammar is terrible.  Perhaps Iím just making excuses for my own inadequacies here.  A user named Mauser commented on my article for the Ghost Cavalry of World War One.  He entitled his post ďDisappointing shallow analysis, horrendous typosĒ, and this is what he had to say:

Honestly, the number of typos in the "article" are insane between elementary school grammatical errors to misspellings. Small wonder why it's called a "Dumbasses Guide" as even the title is in want of an apostrophe.

First of all, let me point out that Mauser makes what a grammarian would call a grammar error right in his comment.  Specifically, he makes a noun/pronoun error.  You see, ďnumber of typosĒ is singular.  Even though the word ďtyposĒ is plural, what weíre talking about is a number, singular.  Therefore, according to grammarians the sentence should read ďthe number of typos in the article IS insaneĒ

Also, that first sentence is a run-on sentence.

Now, I looked through the article in question just now and wasnít able to find any obvious typos.  Nor did I notice any grammar errors.  Perhaps I split an infinitive somewhere.  Now Iím sure that if I took the time to scrutinize the article Iíd find a typo or two that I missed.  Itís happened before.  I look over my articles to make sure theyíre okay, but Iím not taking the time to go over them with a fine toothcomb or getting somebody else to help me proofread every single article. 

But I tend to make very few typos or misspellings, and Mauser never pointed out any specific typos in my article.  I also have to disagree with his contention that my analysis was shallow.  I thought I was able to dig up some pretty good information on this topic. You can be the judge of that for yourself, just listen to my fifth episode at pod5.dumbassguide.info

But letís talk about how my title is in want of an apostrophe. This was something that I actually agonized over a little before I created the blog.  I knew that I wanted this to be called The Dumbasses Guide To Knowledge, but I was uncertain about how to properly indicate possession when the word ends in a double S.  Apparently, there are different schools of thought on this, and people argue over proper form.  But there are two main options, the first is to just add an apostrophe to the end of Dumbass.  The other is to add an apostrophe-s.

Now I didnít take either of those options, and to be fair to Mauser, I probably made the wrong choice.  That just goes with the territory, I *am* a dumbass after all.  The reason I went in another direction was because I thought that both apostrophe options looked stupid with the word ďdumbassĒ. Especially the apostrophe-S, I didnít like the idea of having three Sís in a row.  I reasoned to my self that this blog wasnít just about me as a dumbass, itís also about the dumbass nature in all of us.  So I decided to go meet these two goals in the middle and pluralize the word without the apostrophe, so that the sound of the word is at least represented in writing.

Like I said, Iím fairly certain that this was the wrong choice.  Even at the time I figured as much, but I just said screw it, Iím just picking a spelling and sticking to it!  If it bothers you, you have my sincere apologies.

Itís about time to wrap up this segment, so let me just end by imploring you to listen to what the actual scientists have to say when thinking about this issue.  By that I mean the linguists, the people who actually study how language works.  Among linguists thereís no controversy regarding things like double negatives and other natural structures of language.  Itís all just a part of how the language works, and grammarians are wrong when they call it bad grammar.  If youíre looking for a good book on the subject, let me recommend ďWord on the Street: Debunking the myth of a pure standard EnglishĒ by John McWhorter, who is a professor of Linguistics at the University of California at Berkely.

But I will give grammarians a bit of a break here because thereís nothing wrong with encouraging clarity in language, and I have no problem with correcting spelling, punctuation, or word confusion.  My advice for good writing? Proofread.  If itís important, get somebody else to proofread it as well. If youíre a fluent English speaker, you shouldnít have a problem correcting any poorly worded sentence.

*Commercial* *Attack ad against Bryan Hineser*

Alright! a number of things have happened since I last spoke to you. First of all, there are a few new additions to my media empire! Allow me to welcome Mike Bohler into the fold with his new podcast A Skepticís Guide to Conspiracy! You can find his episodes at mikebohler.com or at dumbassmedia.info.  Take a listen, heís done a lot of research and put a lot of thought into his shows.  Mikeís a previous guest on The Invisible Sky Monster podcast, and he recently joined me for another episode, which will be coming out in the near future.  It might take a little bit because Mike had problems with his audio which makes it a little more difficult on me, but Iíll do my best to get it out there in a timely manner.  I think youíll enjoy it!

Also coming into the empire is a podcast called The Canadian Dialogues.  They havenít released any episodes yet but theyíve already started putting the word out that theyíre planning to release their first episode in January.  Iím looking forward to hearing it! They will be at canadiandialogues.dumbassmedia.info.  Iíve got a few more people that Iím helping to get prepared to release their first episode as well, so keep a watch on dumbassmedia.info.

If you want to start up a skeptical podcast and join the Dumbass Media Empire, send me an email at EMAIL and let me know.  Iím mostly looking to help people who donít have the knowledge and resources to set up a web page, RSS feed, and all that stuff. I can also get podcast artwork designed and point you in the direction of good resources.  If you know what youíre doing, all I have to offer you is free cross promotion, but Iím perfectly willing to do that.  And by the way, I want to make it clear that I donít plan to exercise any editorial control over your content.  You can say what you want to say, even if I disagree with you.  I might cut my ties with you if you do something extreme like advocate racism, but otherwise Iíll take no action.  I just ask that you put in a disclaimer saying that Iím not responsible for your content, and Iíll ask you to plug other podcasts in my media empire.

Also regarding my media empire, I was recently invited to be a guest for a roundtable discussion on C-Webbís Sunday School.  The topic was free speech, and I thought it went pretty well.  Check it out at atheistsocialworker.org.  You can also listen to the episode at dumbassmedia.info, and also now at cwebbssundayschool.com

And one more new podcast announcement: you guys have probably figured out by now that Iím a big fan of regular people doing really cool things and putting out entertaining and enjoyable content.  That goes for any form of media, not just podcasts.  Well, I have a friend, Robert Jones, who wrote a fantasy book called Chess Wars that he self published.  His main character is based heavily on his daughter so the story has a lot of heart.  I find that it reads a lot like a classic folk tale, mixed with elements of more modern epic fantasy.

Iíve been thinking for a while about doing more stuff related to science fiction and fantasy, so I asked Rob if heíd be interested in doing a podcast with me where we talked about this kind of thing, and particularly I wanted to have discussions about the art of writing good stories.  We call the podcast Worlds of Impodibilities, and you can find it at impodibilities.com.

You can also buy Robís book in audiobook format on the website.  I did the reading, so if you enjoy listening to me, as hard as I find that to believe, then you should at least enjoy the narration.  The book comes in DRM free MP3 files, and I encourage you to give it a listen.

Anyway, letís move on from talking about my empire.  Have you guys seen that new 3-hour YouTube documentary on Ancient Aliens! Itís long, but itís worth it.  The author of that video, Chris White, actually emailed me and told me that my episodes were a big help to him.  I recognized some of my arguments in there, as well as some of the Ancient Aliens clips Iíve used.  Good stuff!  He also mentioned my website on his blog, which I appreciate.

My only criticism is that I thought Chris went a little off the rails when he talked about Noahís Ark.  But remember what Iíve been saying in this episode, itís okay to disagree with people.  Other than that he did a fantastic job, and I very much enjoyed the film.  You can find it at ancientaliensdebunked.com, where heís also started up a podcast talking about Ancient Aliens. The full audio of the film is available as the first episode.

Apparently he had a whole team of researchers helping him on this project, and they did an amazing job.  Now, you may think that Iíd be feeling a little bit inadequate by the comparison at this point, and youíd be absolutely right on the money.  But more than that Iím excited that more people are taking an interest in this topic and deciding to do cool things like this.  And this enriches my own ability to talk about the topic as well, because Chris has given me new facts to consider and provided references on his website that Iím certain to want to consult.  And Iíve been doing a lot of extra research into Ancient Aliens topics on my own and Iíve got a number of things to add to these topics that I think Chris hasnít considered as well.  Iíll eventually put them together, and hopefully that will help anybody else whoís researching this topic.

Speaking of other people researching Ancient Aliens, let me give a shout out to Jason Colavito, whoís a prominent critic of the show on his blog at jasoncolavito.com.  He also has a few small videos on the topic and a number of books that heís written.  Chris White referred to Jason at several points during his film. I bought a copy of Jasonís critical companion to seasons 3 and 4 of Ancient Aliens and I very much enjoyed it. He doesnít do a point by point debunking like I do, which is smart because look at how much time Iíve spent bogged down by just one episode! But he does pick apart a lot of the pseudoscience and faulty logic of the show in a very entertaining way.

I would also like to thank the Young Australian Skeptics who produce the Pseudoscientists podcast at youngausskeptics.com.  They had a caption contest for their fiftieth episode, and I won one of the prizes.  I was a little surprised because the entry that won I thought was one of my weaker attempts, but just the other day I received my prize.  I got a copy of the Young Australian Skepticsí Skeptical Blog Anthology, a collection of the best skeptical blog posts on the Internet as voted for by the skeptical community.  I read it and enjoyed it very much.  Also part of my prize was a random pseudoscience book, the one I got was High Tech Holocaust by James Bellini.  Looks like itís going to be chock full of panic inducing nonsense, what fun!

And speaking of people doing cool things with self publishing, the other day I got an email from a woman named Katie OíBrien, who is the co-author of a book called ďThe Straight-A Conspiracy: A Student's Secret Guide to Ending the Stress of High School and Totally Ruling the WorldĒ.  She said that she was a fan of the podcast and wanted to send me a copy of her book.  Now, of course I know that sheís looking for free publicity, but I donít begrudge her for it. I just got the book and I will read it soon.  Just like with the Young Australian Skepticsí anthology, if you send me a free book that youíve self-published, I will read it.  Even though Iíve got a reading list taller than I am, your book will go right to the top of that list.  It looks like Iím not the target audience for the book, but I *am* interested in the education system so Iíll be very interested to read this.

What Iíve just realized, though, is that itís going to be kind of awkward if it turns out that I actually donít like the book.  It would feel kind of wrong to be too critical of something that I got for free.  Donít look a gift horse in the mouth and all that. Donít get me wrong, that wouldnít stop me.  I have no problem with awkwardness, as evidenced by my podcasting career.  But donít worry Katie, Iím sure Iíll enjoy the book. The rest of you can find out about the book on amazon or by going to thestraightaconspiracy.com

And if any of you want to give me a free book that you wrote, get in touch!  Colavito, I wouldnít say noÖ oh, and Goldacre, you donít really want me to wait until January when your new book comes out in Canada before I can get it, do you? Ö. I am absolutely shameless!

Anyway, that should wrap things up for this episode.  I hope I didnít ruffle too many feathers.  You can find the show notes and the transcript for this episode at pod14.dumbassguide.info.  My twitter alias is @DumbassMedia, follow me tweeple! You can send the show an email at EMAIL.  You can also use that email to send me donations on PayPal.  Remember, any donation to me also goes towards helping fledgling skeptical podcasts.  Check out Worlds of Impodibilities and Robís book at impodibilities.com.  My theme music is My Monkey by Jonathan Coulton, and Iíll see you next time on The Dumbasses Guide to Knowledge!



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