Chad Perrin: SOB

2 May 2009

singular collectives and valid grammatical systems

Filed under: Cognition,Geek,Writing — apotheon @ 12:15
  • Premise: Rules should be applied consistently within a system.

    Explanation: Inconsistency in the application of rules results in both a lack of clarity for the observer and an inherently self-contradictory system — in short, it isn’t a valid system at all.

  • Premise: A sentence is a system.

    Explanation: Sentences are systems of words which, in relationship to one another according to rules of grammar, conveys the emergent property of meaning.

  • Premise: A paragraph is a system.

    Explanation: Paragraphs are systems of sentences which, in causal and elaborative relation to one another, give rise to greater detail and more ability to elaborate upon abstract concepts.

  • Premise: A document is a system.

    Explanation: Documents are systems of paragraphs which, in relation to one another as focus discoursive divisions of the document, mutually support the purpose of the document’s composition.

Given the rules of grammar, where referring to something in the past tense and in the present tense in two separate clauses without implying separate chronological contexts, one does not construct a valid system by composing a sentence that employs an inconsistent sequence of tenses. That is to say that “I will did that!” is an example of an invalid grammatical system, simply because the sequence of tenses (“I [future tense] [past tense] that!”) is inconsistent.

While it is easier to shift chronological context within a paragraph, and even easier within a complete document, so that a valid sequence of tenses can be observed without always using the same tense, there are still definite requirements for a valid sequence of tenses that can be violated.

Similarly, subject-verb agreement is a matter of consistently applying grammatical rules to construct a valid system. Such consistency is most often violated when someone fails to make the inflected forms of a noun and a verb match up for plurality. An example of a failure of subject-verb agreement would be a statement suck as the following:

The national budget is $3.5 trillion, which are a lot of dollars.

That should say is, not are. This is because “$3.5 trillion” is a measurement, which is a (collective) singular noun. By the same token, one says “three hundred miles is a long distance to walk,” rather than “are a long way to walk”.

Now consider the case of a company or band, or some other organization. A radical descriptivist interpretation of subject-verb agreement suggests that this is a reasonable use of the language:

Exxon Mobil Corporation aren’t very popular any longer, thanks to the 1989 oil spill.

The use of “aren’t” here implies that “Exxon Mobil Corporation” is a plural noun. Let’s try making it a more generic reference:

The corporation aren’t very popular any longer, thanks to the 1989 oil spill.

Okay, that might sound a little clumsier, and raise arguments that I’ve changed the subject from one type of noun to another. Let’s use the second type of noun, though, in a formulation that is often used in this manner by the aforementioned radical descriptivists:

The band aren’t going to the after-party for their own CD release.

Consider, however, that the same organization could be referred to using a less particular particle:

A band aren’t going to the after-party for their own CD release.

That sounds like a load of grammatical hash. It doesn’t work. It’s clumsy and obviously wrong. Even those radical descriptivists would probably agree. Let’s examine two adjacent sentences that could appear in a paragraph, though:

A band made an announcement. They aren’t going to the after-party for their own CD release.

In this example, a band (treated as singular) is referred to in the first sentence, and a pronoun for the band (treated as plural) is referred to in the second sentence. These radical descriptivists probably don’t see any problem with this, but other, similar grammatical disagreements within a single paragraph would drive many of them up the wall. Somehow, to such radical descriptivists, the rules are inviolably set in stone, except that when “everybody does it” it suddenly becomes okay.

Given the progression from sentence as grammatical system, through paragraph as system of sentences, to document as system of paragraphs, consistent application of the rules of grammar is necessary to construct a valid system. This should, in principle, apply not only to the actual manifestations of grammatical rules within the system, but the potential uses of rules. Because there are cases where a collective singular noun such as “Exxon Mobil Corporation” or “Motörhead” must be referred to using singular pronouns and verbs, plural pronouns and verbs used in the same way are less correct — because they imply an inconsistency in the application of rules within the system.

The real fun, of course, comes when the radical descriptivists’ position on something like this — the position that a valid system is not a requirement for “good” grammar — becomes the normative position. Particularly in certain regions, such as England (ironically the home of people who use phrases like “the Queen’s English” and other look-down-the-nose descriptors to imply nobody else does English correctly), the use of a collective singular noun with verbs and pronouns implying plurality is popularly regarded as perfectly acceptable.

That doesn’t make it correct, though. No number of Google hits, no equivocations by descriptivist linguists, and no amount of hand waving will change the fact that a system constructed via inconsistent application of rules is an invalid system.

12 Comments

  1. I don’t disagree, but how do you determine what the rules are to start with? Clearly the Anglos are using a different set from us Yanks. Somehow they established these grammar rules as the “correct” ones, and thus they were adopted over time, or the descriptive rules of the language form the basis for their prescriptive rules, which would suggest that the grammar has evolved over decades or more of common usage.

    And does this apply to spelling as well? Because the rest of the English-speaking world definitely does not agree with us on the application of certain spelling rules . . .

    Comment by Brian Martinez — 4 May 2009 @ 12:13

  2. I’m not a 100% rabid prescriptivist, of course. If I was, I’d refuse to use any natural language, which would pretty much limit me to talking to people who know languages like Esperanto or Toki Pona. Significant changes of not just accepted, but “deemed correct” usage are fine by me, but they should follow systematic rules. Thus, I very strongly advocate for correct usage according to a prescriptivist approach where possible, in cases where the prescriptive rule actually makes logical sense. I’ll also agree with, or support, changes in the language that are underway when those make logical sense, for the sake of clarifying or otherwise improving communication. For instance, I’d totally support using “it” as the singular neuter pronoun for people, rather than using “he” or “he/she” or the grammatically repulsive “they”. I’d rather stick with “he/she” than use “they” for a singular neuter pronoun, for clarity’s sake.

    And does this apply to spelling as well? Because the rest of the English-speaking world definitely does not agree with us on the application of certain spelling rules . . .

    We’re basically dealing with differences of dialect, in that case — because American English is definitely deeply-seated enough, and established well enough, that these things simply cannot be swept away with a pronouncement that they’re “wrong”. Clarity of communication isn’t really lost by having two different spellings of colo(u)r in various regions, anyway.

    Comment by apotheon — 4 May 2009 @ 11:38

  3. Humans are invalid systems.

    Comment by Sterling Camden — 4 May 2009 @ 04:43

  4. Har har.

    Comment by apotheon — 4 May 2009 @ 07:26

  5. (Sorry, double post from attempting to cancel to correct my example. I thought I stopped it in time but didn’t actually. Could you delete the first version?)

    I’ll start out by saying that when it comes to English writing style I’m a prescriptivist, but when it comes to linguistics I’m a descriptivist. (Yes, those are hard to reconcile.)

    My understanding of linguistics is partly informed by a particular professor I had who proposed a radical biological-causal model of language. Essentially, language is a means of manipulating the biological processes of receptive organisms. (I’m not a physical reductivist, ironically, which is even harder to reconcile, but my whack ontological stance would be a major tangent.) Very generally, I make an utterance in order to manipulate the brain/mental processes of those in earshot, with the hope that it has an influence on their behaviour.

    So, the example:

    A band made an announcement. They aren’t going to the after-party for their own CD release.

    makes perfect linguistic sense to me. As meaning-processing organisms we bring an enormous mass of context to our processing of utterances and their written equivalents. The break between “A band made an announcement” and “They aren’t going to the after-party…” is a flag that there is a room for context shift. The understanding of a band as a collection of individuals informs the interpretation. It’s somewhat awkward, because there is a priority conflict between the layers of our linguistic-interpretation machinery where the pragmatics are overruling the strict syntactic considerations. Consider how awkward it would be to say:

    A band made an announcement. It isn’t going to the after-party for its own CD release.

    The pragmatics break down somehow. Possibly, the concept of “a band” isn’t integral of itself enough to support the idea that it has the volition implied by the second sentence. Possibly it’s something else that we detect as “wrong”.

    And that’s all to say that human language is an invalid system… so long as the only things analysed are the spoken and written artefacts. The whole bio-linguistic system is valid I suspect—mostly on the assumption that base physics is valid—but god help us if we’re going to attempt to map that.

    Comment by d7 — 7 May 2009 @ 02:58

  6. Very generally, I make an utterance in order to manipulate the brain/mental processes of those in earshot, with the hope that it has an influence on their behaviour.

    Ugh. I loathe behaviorism (the psych term, naturally), in part because of the ethical implications, but also in part because it has been used as an excuse to intellectually deny the self-evident Cogito, ergo sum. What you describe is basically the marriage of behavioral psychology theory with neuroscience to produce an explanation for linguistic phenomena, as far as I’ve been able to determine thus far.

    So, the example:

    A band made an announcement. They aren’t going to the after-party for their own CD release.

    makes perfect linguistic sense to me.

    It makes sense to me, too. The problem is that it might make different sense to the speaker than to the listener. Is the “They” in the second sentence a reference to someone not indicated directly in this two-sentence excerpt from a larger conversation? It sure seems like it is, since “band” is the singular form of the noun under discussion.

    The understanding of a band as a collection of individuals informs the interpretation.

    Not all bands are, in fact, made up of more than one individual, by the way. VNV Nation, for instance, or Information Society circa 1997 — each of them is or was a band of one. In fact, the phrase “one-man band” is a generally recognizable colloquialism, implying a real-world precedent for a “band” that isn’t a “they”. By the same token, a company may consist of only one person, but people are still willing to use “they” for it on two assumptions: that it consists of more than one person, and that it’s “okay” to use “they” to refer to a singular form of a noun. I guess some people might not assume that it consists of more than one person, but then such people are instead assuming that “they” is a good word to use as a neuter personal pronoun for a single individual, which is also problematic.

    Actually, in some respects, it very much is referring to something other than the band. It’s referring to the band’s members, which implies a shift of context of the sort that gives rise to problems like subject-verb disagreement. I guess both this and subject-verb disagreement are symptomatic of a larger, underlying problem: unsignaled shifts of context.

    If you write a Master’s or Doctorate thesis inspired by my identification of unsignaled shifts of context as a sort of supercategory of linguistic inconsistencies, I expect you to credit me by name somewhere.

    Consider how awkward it would be to say:

    A band made an announcement. It isn’t going to the after-party for its own CD release.

    Why is that awkward? It doesn’t seem awkward at all to me. Does it perhaps seem awkward to you only because you’re used to the alternative, regardless of consistency with which grammatical rules are applied?

    Comment by apotheon — 7 May 2009 @ 03:17

  7. > Ugh. I loathe behaviorism (the psych term, naturally), in part because of the ethical implications, but also in part because it has been used as an excuse to intellectually deny the self-evident Cogito, ergo sum. What you describe is basically the marriage of behavioral psychology theory with neuroscience to produce an explanation for linguistic phenomena, as far as I’ve been able to determine thus far.

    I hate behaviourism with a passion and Skinner makes me spit (sometimes literally). My problem with behaviourism was that it denied the relevance of the inner life, the existence of which (even if only in some ontologically-odd form) is undeniable by anyone arguing honestly. Also, they oversimplified animal behaviour as something mechanical with a ridiculously coarse granularity.

    I do think we operate mechanically (assume I don’t deny free will or mind for the moment, but the explanation of why they’re compatible is complicated and something I haven’t been able to put down on paper to my satisfaction yet), but we’re mechanical at a ridiculously fine-grained level. Possibly that level is down around where Planck plays, so really I’m just asserting that we obey the laws of physics.

    > It makes sense to me, too. The problem is that it might make different sense to the speaker than to the listener. Is the “They” in the second sentence a reference to someone not indicated directly in this two-sentence excerpt from a larger conversation? It sure seems like it is, since “band” is the singular form of the noun under discussion.

    You’re familiar with the branch of linguistics known as pragmatics? If not, that question is a good example of pragmatic processing: the verb and noun are in the wrong positions to make the sentence meet the syntactic requirements for a proper question, but it’s perfectly understandable because of shared context.

    So, yes, the “they” in the second sentence could refer to someone not directly referenced so far (i.e., in the previous sentence), but pragmatically we know that such a major referent shift requires an intervening sentence to establish this alternative context, or it being obvious from the context of the surrounding text. You and I share enough context, in my estimation, that it is safe to leave that as a reference that you have enough linguistic competence to resolve quickly. It takes more referential interference to cause communication problems.

    If the listener had an impoverished context and I knew that, I would expect that that sentence would not be received by the listener correctly. I’d have to abandon loose reference and use “The band members” instead. Even then, a sufficiently-impoverished context wouldn’t be able to make sense of that, say, if it lacked the conceptual connection between bands, individuals, and membership. That’s the kind of impoverished context we expect when dealing with software interpreters.

    Consider that there must be something that helps people resolve that reference quickly, since it does communicate unambiguously (unless there are competing referents for the position occupied by “they”) to the listener. That something is part of the communicative system, however you slice it, just because we use it to communicate. Any linguistic analysis that leaves out that layer of something is going to conclude that natural language is an invalid system.

    Consider how awkward it would be to say:
    A band made an announcement. It isn’t going to the after-party for its own CD release.
    Why is that awkward? It doesn’t seem awkward at all to me. Does it perhaps seem awkward to you only because you’re used to the alternative, regardless of consistency with which grammatical rules are applied?

    It’s awkward because it violates my concept of a band. There are some verb phrases that can be applied without seeming awkward, mostly those in which it makes sense to refer to a band as a unit. Other verb phrases make more sense only when referring to the band members individually. Those verb phrases, like “It isn’t going to its own CD release” make it seem like a hydra.

    The idea of a band being composed of member(s) is so tightly integrated into the band concept (for me? is this another degree thing?) that there is a free dereference from “band” to “band members” when that’s unambiguous. It’s like the convenience provided by some high-level programming languages where “print [object]” will automatically print the result of object.tostring() instead of the raw memory address of object.

    Comment by d7 — 7 May 2009 @ 03:52

  8. I hate behaviourism with a passion and Skinner makes me spit (sometimes literally).

    I don’t just think Skinner was wrong on a fundamental level — I think he could be described as “evil”. The ethical implications of Skinnerian behaviorism appeared to be exactly what he wanted from his psychological theories, justifying all kinds of horrifying suggestions about how people should do things that couldn’t be countenanced under a moral or ethical theory consistent with a belief in the existence of free will.

    I do think we operate mechanically (assume I don’t deny free will or mind for the moment, but the explanation of why they’re compatible is complicated and something I haven’t been able to put down on paper to my satisfaction yet), but we’re mechanical at a ridiculously fine-grained level. Possibly that level is down around where Planck plays, so really I’m just asserting that we obey the laws of physics.

    I’m of the opinion that we’re going to need a significant paradigm shift in physics before it can begin to explain free will satisfactorily. Oh, sure, there are plenty of ideas for how what free will is observed to look like from the outside can be explained away, involving things like quantum perturbation and so on, but that doesn’t really strike to the heart of the matter of (as you put it) “some ontologically-odd form” of experience.

    In other words, physics within any currently debated paradigm with which I’m aware can attempt to explain phenomena, but doesn’t appear to be able to explain experience itself.

    the verb and noun are in the wrong positions to make the sentence meet the syntactic requirements for a proper question, but it’s perfectly understandable because of shared context.

    That’s why, if a character voiced that question in a piece of fiction I was writing, I’d punctuate it differently:

    You’re familiar with the branch of linguistics known as pragmatics . . . ?

    Something is missing to make a complete, syntactically correct sentence. As such, I insert elipsis points to indicate the elision. The same could work with a sentence starting with “and”:

    . . . and he walked away.

    Meanwhile, I object to starting a sentence with “And”:

    And he walked away.

    It’s basically the same principle at work.

    pragmatically we know that such a major referent shift requires an intervening sentence to establish this alternative context, or it being obvious from the context of the surrounding text.

    Pragmatically, we also know that the singular form of a noun is coupled with singular pronouns and inflected forms of verbs that are designed to be paired with the singular form of a noun in the first place. Thus, pragmatically, I might look at the two sentences (the second of which starts with “They”) and conclude that I’m missing context — not that the word “they” refers to the “band”.

    I’d have to abandon loose reference and use “The band members” instead.

    That’s my take on what should be done, if you really want to resort to “they”.

    Even then, a sufficiently-impoverished context wouldn’t be able to make sense of that, say, if it lacked the conceptual connection between bands, individuals, and membership.

    At that point, the context you’re talking about is sharing a common language, which takes things well beyond the scope of this discussion.

    Consider that there must be something that helps people resolve that reference quickly, since it does communicate unambiguously (unless there are competing referents for the position occupied by “they”) to the listener.

    It doesn’t communicate unambiguously. It communicates through assumption, predicated upon experience — which can at times lead one astray. The ambiguity still exists, even if the listener doesn’t notice. Consider, for instance, what happens if you say the same thing and really do mean some other party by the word “they”. The listener might assume you mean the band, and would thus experience the same sense of certainty, of unambiguous understanding, but would be wrong.

    That something is part of the communicative system, however you slice it, just because we use it to communicate.

    Perhaps — but that “something” is a bit of heuristics that is there to account for, and deal with, buggy input, and can itself give rise to bugs when the input doesn’t contain the bugs it expects.

    There are some verb phrases that can be applied without seeming awkward, mostly those in which it makes sense to refer to a band as a unit. Other verb phrases make more sense only when referring to the band members individually. Those verb phrases, like “It isn’t going to its own CD release” make it seem like a hydra.

    Maybe you should stick with “Its members”, then.

    The idea of a band being composed of member(s) is so tightly integrated into the band concept (for me? is this another degree thing?)

    I think it’s a result of social indoctrination that is very common, but not really logically implicative of the idea that “band” is plural.

    It’s like the convenience provided by some high-level programming languages where “print [object]” will automatically print the result of object.tostring() instead of the raw memory address of object.

    Y’know, there are people who consider that “wrong” behavior for a programming language, because it violates the expectations of a valid system — and I’m not entirely inclined to disagree.

    Comment by apotheon — 7 May 2009 @ 04:35

  9. > Pragmatically, we also know that the singular form of a noun is coupled with singular pronouns and inflected forms of verbs that are designed to be paired with the singular form of a noun in the first place. Thus, pragmatically, I might look at the two sentences (the second of which starts with “They”) and conclude that I’m missing context — not that the word “they” refers to the “band”.

    That could be chalked up to your extensive knowledge of syntax, however. The average English-speaker can recognise malformed sentences without knowledge of why, due to the way linguistic competence operates.

    I think we might be on very different pages, though. There’s some very interesting research into the semantic and pragmatic layers right now, and I only barely scratched the surface back when I actually had time to study linguistics deeply. It’s far more regular and regulated than I think you’re giving it credit.

    But yes, when writing formally, prescriptive syntax rules. Even there, though, I find it illuminating to look at the history of certain rules (such as never starting a sentence with “but” or “and”), and noting how they were deliberately introduced to differentiate the upper class: They basically started talking and writing “wrong” in specific ways in order to create by fiat a prestigious version of English.

    Comment by d7 — 7 May 2009 @ 07:24

  10. That could be chalked up to your extensive knowledge of syntax, however.

    That reads like you’re saying that being more knowledgeable about the language makes me wrong about it. I know that’s not likely to be your intent, but I don’t see what alternative meaning there is in this statement.

    There’s some very interesting research into the semantic and pragmatic layers right now, and I only barely scratched the surface back when I actually had time to study linguistics deeply. It’s far more regular and regulated than I think you’re giving it credit.

    I’m not exactly an expert in these fields of study, so I’ll have to take your word for it.

    Even there, though, I find it illuminating to look at the history of certain rules (such as never starting a sentence with “but” or “and”), and noting how they were deliberately introduced to differentiate the upper class: They basically started talking and writing “wrong” in specific ways in order to create by fiat a prestigious version of English.

    That strikes me as a “history written by the winners” presentation of how things worked, considering that the descriptivists hold the popular high ground these days. I’d say, rather, that rules like “never start a sentence with ‘but’ or ‘and'” were introduced to regularize the language, to make its usage more consistent — to, in effect, do exactly what I was doing with my above explanation of how using plural pronouns with singular collective nouns introduces invalidating inconsistencies into grammatical systems.

    Comment by apotheon — 8 May 2009 @ 01:20

  11. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Robert_Lowth

    > > That could be chalked up to your extensive knowledge of syntax, however.

    > That reads like you’re saying that being more knowledgeable about the language makes me wrong about it. I know that’s not likely to be your intent, but I don’t see what alternative meaning there is in this statement.

    I find that when I know one subject deeply I tend to over-apply it, especially if my knowledge of closely-related subjects is slim. I tend to frame a system in the terms I know well, which sometimes simply misses relevant features of the actual system—a kind of map-is-not-the-land error that skews my analysis. So, not necessarily wrong, but maybe less inclined to look outside of syntax to inform the analysis. The point I raised about biology is just that our syntax necessarily developed to serve our communicative needs as a social organism, so looking at what how we use (or don’t use) correct syntax as a tool to an end is useful.

    > > There’s some very interesting research into the semantic and pragmatic layers right now, and I only barely scratched the surface back when I actually had time to study linguistics deeply. It’s far more regular and regulated than I think you’re giving it credit.

    > I’m not exactly an expert in these fields of study, so I’ll have to take your word for it.

    I wish I could point to some, but it’s been too long. If you have the chance to go looking, it might narrow down the search to look specifically for works on how we distinguish “obviously” wrong syntax (like “At the dog fence.”) from “wrong but okay” syntax (like “Going to the movies; you coming?”). They’re still trying to figure it out last I looked.

    > > Even there, though, I find it illuminating to look at the history of certain rules (such as never starting a sentence with “but” or “and”), and noting how they were deliberately introduced to differentiate the upper class: They basically started talking and writing “wrong” in specific ways in order to create by fiat a prestigious version of English.

    > That strikes me as a “history written by the winners” presentation of how things worked, considering that the descriptivists hold the popular high ground these days. I’d say, rather, that rules like “never start a sentence with ‘but’ or ‘and'” were introduced to regularize the language, to make its usage more consistent — to, in effect, do exactly what I was doing with my above explanation of how using plural pronouns with singular collective nouns introduces invalidating inconsistencies into grammatical systems.

    The most well-known of these was Bishop Robert Lowth, who wrote a grammar text that included the (in)famous rule to never end a sentence with a preposition. Not only did he not say “never”, only suggest that it sounded better, but he based this on the asserting that English should follow the rules of Latin. Being of totally different linguistic families, that was far from sensible. Nevertheless, those looking to make themselves the bearers of “better” English took it up and spread his rules as gospel.

    Sentence-initial conjuctions like “and” and “but” were common and stylistically acceptable until more recently that Bishop Lowth, but I can’t find a reference for that. Just like it used to be common for a question or exclamation mark to be used within a sentence (like “O! great God of Man.”), but that isn’t correct usage anymore, the usage of “and”, “but”, and the like have changed recently. Mostly, unsurprisingly, due to the development of syntax and logic.

    I should dig up my notes on why “but” is actually not a logical conjunction in English. The examples are mind-breaking for someone like me who has both linguistic and logical training. “Or” is also not a logical connective in English, but that one is less mind boggling:

    Q: “Would you like ice cream or cake?” A: “Yes.”

    … is an example of how “or” treated as logical OR doesn’t work in English.

    Comment by d7 — 8 May 2009 @ 09:55

  12. Before I add my opinion I’d like to say that I really enjoyed reading this blog.

    I think that you have to make a distinction between the contexts of the speech. In speaking English we all understand that “the band” is a collective unit of separate individuals, simply because the noun band, by definition means “: a group of persons, animals, or things”. Though this is not correct grammar, contextually it is comprehensible and it works. Why criticize?

    -Matt

    Comment by Professional Writing — 12 May 2009 @ 04:05

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