English Language & Linguistics
Linguistics Challenges: Grammar Quiz
What, if anything, is wrong with the following sentences?
- 10 items or less.
- To boldly go where no one has gone before.
- Potato’s special offer!
- The data is consistent with the prediction.
- John has decided who to meet with.
In short, from a linguist’s perspective, nothing is wrong with the sentences: they are all fine!
You may have suggested some problems with these sentences, along the following lines.
- 10 items or less – should be ‘10 items or fewer’, because items are countable. Fewer is used to describe countable objects, whereas less is used for non-
countable things (compare fewer items but less milk).
- To boldly go where no one has gone before – considered ‘bad’ because it splits an infinitive verb ‘to go’ by inserting boldly.
- Potato’s special offer – uses the green grocer’s apostrophe; the plural of potato should be potatoes.
- The data is consistent with the prediction – data is from Latin and is a plural form. The singular is datum. So, the wrong form of the verb ‘to be’ is used: it should be ‘The data are consistent…’.
- John has decided who to meet with – ends the sentence on a preposition. Bishop Lowth condemned this in the eighteenth century, on the basis of rules of Latin.
If you identified some or all of these ‘problems’, then you’re probably wondering now why this answer began by saying that from a linguist’s perspective these are all fine. Well, consider this. Is any of the sentences unclear, or unnatural sounding? Stop and think about this question for a minute, before you read on.
You’ll probably agree that these are the kinds of expression you hear all the time (so much so, in fact, that you might not even have considered some of them to be ‘wrong’ in any way). Linguistics is not concerned with prescribing how language ought to be used; linguists don’t try to write rules that tell people what they should and shouldn’t do with language, which would be a prescriptive approach. Instead, linguists try to understand, describe and explain how language is really used by speakers; they take a descriptive approach.
One common argument people put forward when they first encounter the idea of linguists taking a descriptive approach is that not prescribing rules for ‘correct’ language is leading to a decline in standards. It’s resulting in people ‘not speaking properly anymore’. But an important point is that language is continuously changing and evolving. English in Shakespearean times was very different from even standard English today, but we don’t think of today’s standard English as being poorer than Shakespearean English. Linguists don’t see language change as a change in standards.
(A special note is in order on example (3) above. This is slightly different from the other examples, because the issue with it has to do with conventions about the way language is represented on the page in writing, rather than about the use of language per se (because the apostrophe is a punctuation mark and does have conventions describing where it should appear). If the intention of example (3) is to announce that potatoes are on special offer, then the apostrophe is misplaced according to convention. However, this sign remains fine on a different reading, albeit a rather strange one: a situation where the special offer belongs to a potato!)