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Monday, April 30, 2007

naturalness poll results

There has been a natural English survey in the margin of this blog for several months. It is time to take it down. The survey instructions were:
Check each of the following which sound so natural to you that you might say them yourself sometimes.
450 blog visitors responded. Here are the results:


I was surprised that the last test sentence received the most number (308) of votes since it uses a generic "he" which many English speakers no longer use. I suspect, but cannot prove without further testing, that visitors to this blog are linguistically more conservative than the general public. Linguistically conservative speakers tend to maintain for a longer period of time the speech patterns which they learned as a child. Many visitors to this blog learned to use the generic "he" rather than other generic English forms such as the singular "they."

There is an increasing number of English speakers who no longer use the objective form of pronouns after a preposition. That's what the first sentence was testing. 85 respondents answered that "for Ruth and I" sounded natural to them. As with the last sentence, this small percentage also demonstrates to me that many visitors to this blog retain conservative linguistic speech patterns for some syntactic constructions.

The very low results (7) for the second second sentence reflect the fact that no one has been taught to use "whom," the objective form of the relative pronoun "who," as the subject of a sentence. A higher number found sentence #3, with its more difficult syntax, natural. Prescriptive grammarians would say that the proper pronoun for #3 is "who" not "whom," since the relative pronoun is serving as the syntactic subject of the embedded sentence "(someone) hit you."

Interestingly, although the results for the last sentence show that visitors to this blog consider generic "he" to sound natural in some contexts, the results for the fourth sentence indicate that almost exactly 50% of respondents also find singular "they" to sound natural, at least when it has the indefinite pronoun "anyone" as its antecedent. It would be instructive to test for differences among speakers for if they would consider singular "they" more natural when "anyone" is its antecedent than when the indefinite pronoun "no one" of the last sentence is its antecedent.

55% of respondents felt that the fifth sentence, "Who did you hit?" is natural. That differs from what what prescriptive grammarians have taught, since "who" serves as the object of the verb "hit" and, therefor, requiring the objective form of this relative pronoun, "whom." But a large number of English speakers have lost that rule when the relative pronoun appears first in a sentence. For them when this relative pronoun occurs sentence-initially, it always takes the form "who." It is a new grammatical rule for English. Only 20% of respondents preferred the form objective form, "whom" (sentence #6), when this relative pronoun is sentence-initial with all other sentence elements and semantic relations remaining the same as in sentence #5.

A bit less than half (48%) of respondents felt that "Who mailed that book to Peter and me?" sounded natural. According to prescriptive grammarians, it is perfectly grammatical. Perhaps there was something else in the sentence, other than the question of "who" vs. "whom" which made the sentence not sound as natural as some of the other sentences. It may be that the greater length and complexity of this sentence created processing difficulties for many speakers, causing them to question its grammaticality or naturalness.

#8 is an example of a cleft sentence. People generally do not learn to compose cleft sentences until several years after their initial early childhood language years. Probably many speakers never utter cleft sentences. So #8 may have had a relatively low score because of its cleft sentence syntax. It also uses the subjective form of "who" when this relative pronoun is actually functioning as the object of its relative clause. So the results for #8 may reflect both problems for respondents. I do utter cleft sentences and I also have the newer rule which calls for use of "who" at the beginning of a sentence (or clause). So #8 sounds natural to me.

#9, "Whom did he speak about?" is perfectly grammatical, according to prescriptive grammarians. But because it uses the newer rule which drops the "who"/"whom" alternation at the beginning of a sentence only 25% of respondents felt that it sounded natural.

These results are interesting. I believe that they are directly relevant to what kind of English we should use in Bible translations for current English speakers. I would suggest that these results call for English Bible translators to continue to use objective forms of pronouns, such as "whom," "me," "him," "her," and "them" following prepositions and verbs of which they are objects. I believe that Bible versions today should, however, probably not use the objective form of pronouns when they occur at the beginning of sentence or clauses, regardless of whether they are syntactic subjects of objects.

With respect to use of generic "he" or singular "they" in new English versions, respondents to this poll demonstrate that they understand both forms and consider both forms natural in different contexts. My prediction is that the poll results would be more heavily in favor of singular "they" if this survey were conducted in a more neutral public environment such as a shopping center parking lot. Although use of singular "they" in the TNIV has caused great consternation to those Bible users who prefer generic "he," results of this poll as well as other polls and observations from current speech and writing show that singular "they" is widely understood and used today. It is not, apparently, as claimed by TNIV opponents, considered to be plural by those who use it. It is syntactically plural but sounds semantically singular, or at least semantically indefinite, which is not exactly singular or plural, to millions of English speakers today.

If you are curious how I voted, the following sentences in the poll sound so natural to me that I would write or say them myself: #4, 5, 7, 8. The last sentence, with its generic "he," used to sound natural to me but it no longer does. In some situations I still write it when I do not want to offend someone who strongly believes that "he" is the only correct generic pronoun to use in English.

This poll will now be moved to my webpage of other surveys and polls where other Internet visitors can answer it.

23 Comments:

At Mon Apr 30, 05:24:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

Dr. Platypus also awarded us the thinking blogger award!

 
At Mon Apr 30, 06:14:00 PM, Blogger anonymous said...

It is interesting that you draw these conclusions from this poll. One might equally well argue that it is commentary on the educational achievement, in grammar at least, of those who visit this blog, or of those who choose to spend precious minutes completing web surveys.

 
At Mon Apr 30, 07:36:00 PM, Blogger Jeremy Pierce said...

I think I have an argument against #1 even given a rejection of presciptivism. Those who say #1 are doing so because they are trying to follow a prescriptivist rule and failing. The rule they think they have to follow is that you say "Ruth and I" rather than "Ruth and me". This rule is given for subjects of sentences, but people wrongly apply it direct objects or objects of prepositions, thus trying to follow a prescriptivist rule that they didn't even get correct. Thus they have made an error at the very practice they were attempting to follow. It is thus wrong to say things like #1, at least for most people who do it.

 
At Mon Apr 30, 08:02:00 PM, Blogger Suzanne McCarthy said...

A bit less than half (48%) of respondents felt that "Who mailed that book to Peter and me?" sounded natural

And that could be because you and Peter live on two separate continents.

On Generic "he", it should be noted that it might sound more natural if you are, in fact, a "he" in the first place. This poll should have required people to state their sex when they voted. That would give a more valid result.

I would be interested in seeing the results parsed by gender. I personally cannot imagine ever using a generic "he" in spoken English, unless I was really talking about a guy thing, in which case it wouldn't really be generic, would it?

But this kind of poll may not give us the true picture.

Now this is the kind of poll I like to vote in.

 
At Mon Apr 30, 08:47:00 PM, Blogger Nathan Wells said...

It is interesting regarding the "he" vote. I use "he" all the time when speaking in groups. I also say "you guys"

Do people really use he/she or they all the time?

I never noticed it being such a taboo thing and at least this poll backs me up.

 
At Mon Apr 30, 08:54:00 PM, Blogger Damian said...

Wayne,

Interesting results... after I've processed them, I may say more. One comment for now. You say: "I believe that Bible versions today should, however, probably not use the objective form of pronouns when they occur at the beginning of sentence or clauses, regardless of whether they are syntactic subjects of objects."

I would suggest this only if you desire to drive 25% of the audience insane. I am quite sure, when the people who normally use subjective forms of pronouns instead of objective forms hear the reverse, they do not even flinch. BUT, those who use "correct" (?) grammar are driven slowly insane by people saying things like "Who did you tell?" aaaaargh!

Damian

 
At Mon Apr 30, 09:21:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Jeremy suggested:

Those who say #1 are doing so because they are trying to follow a prescriptivist rule and failing.

Yes, that's a reasonable suggestion, Jeremy. There might be a way to test for rule motivation, but I don't have the time to develop such a test and survey a random enough sample large enough for us to have confidence in the results.

In any case, if your suggestion is right, I think it's called hyper-correction.

 
At Mon Apr 30, 09:29:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Nathan asked:

Do people really use he/she or they all the time?

No, by no means. It depends on many factor, including which dialect and register of English is being used, location, whether or not the person was raised on prescriptive grammar, etc.

From previous polling and discussions we have concluded that singular "they" is used more widely in Australia and the U.K. than in the U.S. But I hear it often in the U.S., as well.

I hear "he or she" sometimes, especially in more formal speech where someone is trying to be politically correct.

There is much more field testing that needs to be done before we can get a clear picture of usage of generics in the various dialects of English.

This poll is by no means a clear and accurate picture of current usage of English generics. But the poll still shows interesting trends.

 
At Mon Apr 30, 09:44:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Anon. commented:

One might equally well argue that it is commentary on the educational achievement, in grammar at least, of those who visit this blog, or of those who choose to spend precious minutes completing web surveys.

Yes, that's another possibility. Having studied child language development some, I think, though, that the results have less to do with anything do to with formal education and more to do with where people actually learn language. Language professionals point out that most syntactic constructions are learned by a rather young childhood age. I forget right now what that age is but I know that some kind of mental solidification of language takes place approx. age 12. So most language patterns are learned long before then. I think they are learned by somewhere near age 6.

Of course, people learn more complex syntax as they get older. But subject-verb number agreement, subjective vs. objective forms of pronouns, generic pronouns, basic word order, and many other language patterns are learned by some time in middle childhood. Of course, what is learned depends on the child's environment. If a child is exposed to many sentences such as:

"Nobody don't do that no more"

that child will learn such syntactic patterns. Children might learn (or might not!) alternate patterns in school, but will return to what they learned from their caregivers and peers as soon as they leave the school building.

There are people who are motivated enough to learn school grammar and will use it in contexts where they feel it is appropriate, such as in certain workplaces.

There is definitely a role for schools to play in helping students learn alternate language patterns so that they can be more "successful" where more standard varieties of English are preferred.

So, yes, educational achievement plays a role in how people speak and write, but the language patterns of one's own speech community are a very powerful force. Some people learn to be bi-dialect or even multi-dialectal. Typically, they are able to function more comfortably in different social settings.

 
At Mon Apr 30, 10:45:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Damian lamented:

BUT, those who use "correct" (?) grammar are driven slowly insane by people saying things like "Who did you tell?" aaaaargh!

Yes, I feel your pain, but we must not forget about survival of the fittest!

Maybe language change occurs by means of such insanity.

Oh, it's too late and night and I am being silly!

I hope you don't mind a little silliness.

I do understand about how grating it is to hear certain language forms which we have been taught are wrong. For me, I confess that I find "for you and I" to be grating. Maybe it always will be, at least until I go insane!

:-)

 
At Mon Apr 30, 10:50:00 PM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

I want to assure everyone, as I have many times and in many places in the past, that I really do believe that there are standards of language usage which need to follow in Bible translation. We must not use language which the majority of speakers would consider "incorrect." But I also think we should not hold on to older forms so long that people get the idea that the God of the Bible is an old man with a beard who is out of touch with them, their concerns, and doesn't speak or understand their current language.

I do believe that Bibles should be translated for language groups which have some kind of social consensus on what is proper language usage. Then after so many years, there will need to be revisions to take care of language changes which occur, and about which there is a high level of consensus.

At each stage I think that the language of the Bible needs to sound good to a high majority of speakers of a language group.

 
At Tue May 01, 01:14:00 AM, Blogger exegete77 said...

My prediction is that the poll results would be more heavily in favor of singular "they" if this survey were conducted in a more neutral public environment such as a shopping center parking lot.

In my day job I work for a Fortune 50 company (50,000+ employees), and the average level of education is at least Master's degrees (mostly MBAs). Many of them in my department (including VPs) are young enough to be my children. In formal written communication the formality seems to require that "generic he" be avoided. However, in every oral briefing from CEO, CFO, CMO, down through VPs and Directors, when they speak, they use "generic he", regardless of whether the speaker is male or female.

At the church where I teach Bible class "generic he" is the standard. In fact, most would feel awkward trying to use "singular they".

My suspicion is that "generic he" is still very much natural for most people. It is only when the written document will be preserved that there is an almost artificial enforcement of avoiding "generic he".

So, now the question is, is the avoidance of "generic he" being forced into the culture? I realize that this might not be a popular question or position on this blog. But it seems that the general tendency is to make claims about "what most people do/use" without substantiation. Five hundred people visiting this blog does not seem to reflect the reality of the world (at least around me). Percentages based on that kind of participation reveals only what 500 people who have some interest in the topic consider to be "correct", nothing more and nothing less.

Maybe it is the late/early hour that is affecting me? LOL

 
At Tue May 01, 03:07:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

The last sentence is surely natural to anyone if uttered in the context of an all male group of students. And such groups do exist. So, although I don't think I did vote for it as natural, I think I ought to have done so, because the context of a mixed group was not specified.

 
At Tue May 01, 07:51:00 AM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

The question, "Which of these sound natural?" is different than the question, "Which of these follows the patterns of how you speak?" This is perhaps especially true when the poll is a written one, requiring the responders to consider the statements in the light of the rules they are used to finding in what they read, versus what they hear in the market.

People who do not carefully follow prescribed grammatical conventions in their own speech are still liable to think that things written with those conventions seem natural. But people who do carefully follow the conventions will often not think that it seems natural when they read something that breaks them.

I have a question for those of you who resist the idea of conforming language usage to prescribed conventions. I notice that you capitalize some words in your comments, such as the first word of every sentence. Why?

 
At Tue May 01, 08:42:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Eric concluded:

I have a question for those of you who resist the idea of conforming language usage to prescribed conventions.

Eric, I think you are making a wrong assumption. There is nothing in the poll or in my discussion of it that suggests that anyone is resisting conforming to prescribed conventions. On the contrary, people speak and write precisely according to social conventions. The question is the source of those conventions. I suggest that the conventions are not found in grammar books, but rather in society's use of language. There actually are prescriptions for language use. If there were not, there would be no syntax and we could not communicate with each other. There has to be language rules for people to be able to communicate with a language. The question is who determines what those rules are. Are the rules found in books or are they found in the brains of speakers/writers of a language who teach those rules to their infant children who grow up and teach the rules to their children, etc.

The poll demonstrated, I believe, that visitors to this blog follow prescribed conventions. There are *some* rules, however, which are changing for some speakers. Language change is a reality. Eventually prescribed conventions catch up with language usage when the language seesaw gets heavy enough on one side for a long enough period of time.

I notice that you capitalize some words in your comments, such as the first word of every sentence. Why?

Because of a prescribed social convention. English speakers have decided to follow this convention. Grammar books *accurately* record this convention and English grammar teachers accurately teach this convention to students. But the convention did not originate in any grammar books.

In the same friendly but honest spirit that you asked your final question, I would ask you:

Why don't you use the words "thee" and "thou" in your comments on this blog?

 
At Tue May 01, 08:50:00 AM, Blogger Wayne Leman said...

Eric, another thought on the same theme. The conventions which people follow differ depending on which dialect a person speaks. There is no single set of prescribed conventions for speakers of the English language.

You and I follow the convention of spelling the following words without the letter "u" but Peter Kirk, Suzanne McCarthy, and some others at this blog follow their prescribed convention which calls for that "u" to be included. The words are:

favour / favor
colour / color
humour / humor

Which convention is the "correct" one? Well, they both are. Both prescriptions are correct. This shows, I believe, that prescriptions for language usage vary depending on a number of factors.

Ebonics has prescriptions (conventions) for language use. You and I don't follow those prescriptions but those who speak Ebonics do.

 
At Tue May 01, 08:54:00 AM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

"Because of a prescribed social convention. English speakers have decided to follow this convention. Grammar books *accurately* record this convention and English grammar teachers accurately teach this convention to students. But the convention did not originate in any grammar books."

I'm glad to see that you at least recognize that capitalization is a prescribed convention. However, it is also important to recognize that it is not the result of some impersonal and mindless movement of society. The conventions of writing are all the results of human invention. The alphabet, the punctuation, the formal rules of style for differing kinds of documents, and the syntactical conventions that accommodate those forms are all conventions that have been invented and propounded as the result of conscious commitments on the parts of users of written English so as to have certain trans-societal norms of writing that do not depend on dialect. Naturally, the rules of written English can change to fit spoken English better. But my impression is that certain linguists in a battle against the boogey man of prescriptivism think it is a good thing to impel those changes along with their own prescriptions about why the thinking of the old grammarians must be eschewed.

In an earlier comment you noted that thee/thou/thy was removed from Bibles because people no longer spoke like that. That is certainly correct. But it is only in modern linguistic circles that the prescription that Bibles ought to follow the patterns of spoken English came about. Thee/thou/thy were already out of favor in spoken English in 1611, but they were used for the sake of accurate translation. The RV and ASV still used the same convention of distinguishing 2nd person singular and plural at the turn of the 20th century. It wasn't until the latter half of the 20th century that major English Bibles turned away from that convention that had not been used in spoken English for centuries. If that had not happened, not only would we all be using Bibles with thee/thou/thy, we wouldn't have any trouble reading them--we would learn the convention in school just like we learned the conventions of capitalization. And we would be better off for it.

 
At Tue May 01, 09:01:00 AM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

To answer your question, I was never taught to use thee/thou/thy. And since deliberate teaching of written language prescriptions is the most important way in which they are spread, the use of thee/thy/thou has been removed from modern written English usage. Moreover, even if those prescriptions were still in force, I am not sure that blog comments would be the literary form in which their use would be expected (of course that is all hypothetical at this point).

 
At Tue May 01, 12:46:00 PM, Blogger Tim said...

Shame that comments aren't threaded, I lost track a way back!

On the generic "he", I did not do the quiz, but what I would naturally SAY would be a generic "they", however, I understand the generic "he". (I was born over half a century ago!) So, especially as last question I might have ticked it without thinking... Lazy I know, but quiz respondents on blogs may well be like that ;-)

 
At Tue May 01, 02:44:00 PM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

It wasn't until the latter half of the 20th century that major English Bibles turned away from that convention [to use "thou" and "thee"].

Not quite, Eric. RSV, NT 1946, dropped "thou" except in reference to God. Moffatt already did the same in 1913.

 
At Tue May 01, 03:30:00 PM, Blogger Eric Rowe said...

OK, I was thinking the RSV was after 1950, guess I was off by a few years but you get the gist. I think calling Moffatt one of the major English translations is to use the word "major" somewhat generously.

 
At Wed May 02, 03:01:00 AM, Blogger Peter Kirk said...

Fair enough, Eric. I referred initially to RSV because that was the translation I intended to call "major". Moffatt is not "major", but is significant as a ground-breaker for the major translations of later in the 20th century, for breaking the stereotype that the Bible must be translated into obsolete English.

 
At Wed May 02, 11:47:00 AM, Blogger Kenny said...

Wow, there are a lot of comments here!

I just want to remark on number 9 (this might also apply to number 8, but 8 is a bit more complicated): I voted 9 unnatural. I can say either:
(1) Who did he speak about?
or
(2) About whom did he speak?
but not
(3) Whom did he speak about?

And (2) is higher register than (1) (I would be more likely to write (2) but say (1)). This is similar to a passage I've complained about here before from the HCSB: Isaiah 53:1 contains the phrase "who has the arm of the Lord been revealed to?" which I can't say I think because it mixes the colloquial and the literary registers (the passive constructio and the use of the word "revealed" are fairly high register).

I don't think (3) is problematic because its at the beginning of the sentence: the vernacular that I learned as a child (which I virtually never actually speak) doesn't even have the word 'whom!' Rather, it's because the same grammar teachers who taught me to use 'whom' for objective case taught me not to separate prepositions from their objects, and especially never to end sentences with prepositions. So (1) is vernacular and (2) follows prescriptive grammar, and I can accept either, but (3) contains one mistake with regard to my vernacular grammar (the use of 'whom') and a different mistake with regard to the prescriptive grammar I learned (ends a sentence with a preposition), and so I reject it either way.

 

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