It’s not grammar

Last year (I think), a friend fulminated on Facebook that an ABC newsreader had said something like “The robbers took money off the people”. She asked rhetorically “Where’s your grammar?”. I replied that there’s nothing grammatically wrong with saying off instead of from; it’s a matter of semantics (meaning) or usage.

The father of another friend died recently. The funeral was livestreamed, which I missed, but it’s still available to watch. My friend said that his father was insistent on grammar. Asking “Can I have a glass of wine?” would be answered by “I think you mean ‘May I have a glass of wine?’”. Again, there’s nothing grammatically wrong with Can I have.

Google Ngrams shows that take money from people is used far more commonly than take money off people (for all inflections of take), so my first friend may be worrying unnecessarily. In any case, her time might have been better spent sending an email to the ABC than posting on Facebook. On the other hand Can I have and May I have have a mixed history. According to Google Ngrams, Can I have was more common  until about 1900-1910, at which point it lost favour to May I have. The latter reached its peak about 1940-1950, then suddenly lost favour again, and was overtaken by Can I have about 1980. (The results vary with case sensitive, but the overall trends are clear.) The horse has bolted, and you can shut the barn door if you want to. The peak of May I have corresponds to my friend’s father’s school years, and the rebirth of Can I have corresponds with my friend’s school years.

Most comments about (other people’s) grammar are more often about meaning, usage, variety, formality/informality, spelling or punctuation. Speaker English native make rarely mistake grammatical.

Like it or not, when older (usually male) people (including me) say X is wrong, you should say x or Y, they are almost always on the wrong side of linguistic history.

I remember teaching a lesson about this during my first stay in South Korea. I said (to summarise) that according to formal English, can means ability and may means permission, while according to normal English, can means either ability or permission and may means permission. I’m sure my friend’s father wouldn’t have agreed with me.


19 thoughts on “It’s not grammar

  1. Colloquialisms don’t bother me and I would not raise a fuss about them. What is truly objectionable is grammatically incorrect usage from people who believe they are following the rules. Most notorious instance of this is the nearly universal “for he and I” stuff you see even in supposedly carefully vetted texts.

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      • Yes, I do remember the prior post and even commenting on it. It’s a long-running source of annoyance for I. 🙂

        Similar reasoning that should help determine “I” vs. “me” also applies to “who” vs. “whom,” where there is also frequent hypercorrection, as in “John Smith, whom they say is running” where “who” is correct. The hint here is to isolate and change the word order of the clause, replacing “who”/”whom” with a normal pronoun like “he”/”him,” and select accordingly. If someone isn’t sure of which word to use, they should just stick with “who”, which is always OK at least colloquially.

        On the topic of bad grammar in pop songs, possibly the most egregious instance is in CSNY’s “Teach Your Children,” where Graham Nash sings “The one they picks.” That’s not a mishearing; it was written that way in the Déjà Vu album liner notes. I don’t know if Nash (who is British) was trying to sound “American country”, but it was jarring.

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      • The first lyrics site I found has the line as:
        “And feed them on your dreams
        The one they pick’s the one you’ll know by”
        Note the apostrophe contracting ‘pick is’.


      • I honestly don’t remember if the lyrics printed with the original CSN&Y LP had the apostrophe. If they did, I might have just assumed they made an apostrophic error. But in any case, the line didn’t make sense to me at the time, and recasting it with the apostrophe clarifies it (though it still doesn’t make a lot of sense to me). I suppose I owe the musicians involved an apology.


      • The only slight sense I can make of ‘The one they pick’s the one you’ll know by’ is to add ‘them’ after ‘know’, but 1) that would be a very strange elision in the first place, and 2) it still doesn’t make that much sense: surely we don’t know our children by the dream they pick, but by all their dreams, words and actions. (I don’t have children myself, so I’m speaking generally.)


      • Regarding “the one they pick’s the one you’ll know by,” the elision of “them” (if so) is justifiable to conform to the meter of the tune. And you can make a case for knowing your child well by which dream they choose for themselves. Having a child myself, I can understand that. The song seems to hope for the parents and the children to understand one another better, not unlike Cat Stevens’ “Father and Son” and, more subliminally, the Beatles’ “She’s Leaving Home.”


      • My students loved learning colloquial speech and slang since it is more regularly used in informal speech and a good way to foster the love of language and immerse yourself in the culture.


      • The ESL textbooks I used generally didn’t include colloquial speech, and I generally didn’t introduce it unless it was really necessary.
        One student in South Korea said something highly colloquial and I asked “Where did you learn that?”. He said “The Simpsons!”. I said “Be careful saying what you hear on The Simpsons”.

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  2. And speaking of following English rules when teaching Koreans, it seems that Koreans tend to strictly follow the nominal English rule that says “g” before “e” or “i” is pronounced “j”, and so most Koreans pronounce even natively Asian words like “ginseng” and “gingko” with a “soft” g. Considering that the rule is far from absolute even in English…

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    • My wife unhesitatingly said jingseng, and when I asked said that she would say jingseng more than insam even when taking Korean. She hesitantly said jinkgo, and said she would say unhaeng in Korean.


      • It’s never pure and rarely simple …
        Huddleston and Pullum (Cambridge Grammar of the English Language) say “Preterite *was*, however, is very widely used instead of irrealis *were* in these constructions, especially in informal style”.
        Google Ngrams shows that “If I was” has been widely used for a long time (about half the usage of “If I were”), but shot up in usage from about 1980, especially from about 2000. At the same time, usage of “If I were” has also gone up, just not as much. (Of course the simple numbers on ngrams doesn’t show *how* those phrases are being used.)
        A very long answer on English Language and Usage Stack Exchange ( shows that there are four possibilities: real past, unreal past, real non-past and unreal non-past, and there are variations in each of those.
        I have spent most of the last 15 years talking more to English as a second language speakers than to native speakers, and I have found myself using “If I was” out of simplicity. Another issue for me is possible v impossible: “If I was prime minister of Australia ((just) possible)” v “If I were president of the USA (impossible)”. (Note also “If I were you”, because “If I was you” is completely impossible!)
        I haven’t noticed “If I would have”. I’ll research and think and get back to you.
        (During one ESL teaching course, the instructor flatly refused to accept “If I was” as an option, even waving aside Huddleston and Pullum’s A Student’s Introduction to English Grammar.)


    • I’ve seen the reverse error in some news articles. Can’t remember the exact item, but it was something along the lines of “Joe Smith asked John Jones if he were present at the scene.”

      Liked by 1 person

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