Lately I seem to get into a lot of discussions about stuff that is "wrong" in a language and whether it's really wrong.

In my last discussion there was a native Japanese saying you can use "verb x" as both a transitive and an intransitive verb and I corrected him saying no, that's wrong, look into the dictionary.

Now he argued that because there are a lot of natives that use verb x as a transitive verb it is correct (implaying "languages evolves"). I also googled this issue and a lot of natives agree that it's used but wrong. Of course everyone believed the Japanese guy, because he's a native.

People argued that:

If the natives regularly and reliably say a thing, it's a part of the language, whether you like it or not, whether the dictionary agrees or not.


The "correct" usage of a language is defined by how the native speakers talk, not some arbitrary bullshit

But when I brought up Japanese and English examples like "you're vs. your" or "its vs it's" which natives use wrong all the time I just got downvoted and ignored. Another user also mentioned "alot" and "should of" but also got ignored.

So can someone comment on this issue? How does linguistics decide that is "wrong" grammar and what is "right" grammar?

  • 7
    Note that your examples of "you're" and "it's" are part of written English, which is a distinct system bolted onto the side of English. In spoken English, there is no rule of grammar distinguishing "its" from "it's", because they are indistinguishable.
    – Colin Fine
    Mar 8 '17 at 18:59

It's right if other people who speak your dialect (other people in your speech community) also say the same thing systematically. In the Japanese case, it's clear that the construction is correct in his dialect, since he's not alone in using that construction. What's wrong when it comes to spoken language is usually when you make mistakes likes slip of the tongue, e.g.:

(1) a. Spoonerism: You hissed all my mystery lectures. (Intended: You missed all my history lectures.)
b. One of the lecturers are very nice. (Intended: One of the lecturers is very nice.)

People utter stuff like (1), but they do so because of memory limitations or other cognitive quirks.

(There could also be other reasons why you make mistakes - perhaps you just imperfectly acquired then language when you grew up, so you say e.g. 'deers' when everyone else says 'deer' - but that is unlikely.)

When you say something that merely deviates from the standard variety of the language, as codified in the Japanese dictionary, it doesn't mean that you're wrong. It merely means that you're speaking something other than the standard variety. Sometimes, this can be because the dialect you speak is innovative - which implies language evolution - and other times, this can be because the standard variety is more innovative. For example, it is non-standard in modern Chinese to use the morpheme corresponding to the character 至 to indicate superlatives, but it was not in Old Chinese.

A good essay on these matters is this paper by Geoff Pullum, if you're interested in some further reading.

Cases like 'you're/your' and 'alot' are orthographic errors, not grammatical ones, and are quite different from the Japanese case. Of course, with orthography there are also standard and non-standard varieties and both can also change through time, but it's not as systematic as spoken language. Whether writing 'alot' is wrong is more of a matter of definition here, though I'd say that if you're writing something that should follow standard orthographic conventions but you do not follow them, then you're 'wrong'.

  • 1
    Thank you. So is it right to summarize that the Japanese example was not 'wrong' in the general sense but rather 'not standard' and the examples I gave in English are not related? One of the examples I gave in Japanese was 綺麗くない which should be 綺麗じゃない (if you are familiar with Japanese).
    – sollniss
    Mar 8 '17 at 15:12
  • Yep, that's right. :) I don't speak Japanese, unfortunately, so I can't comment on that particular example. Mar 8 '17 at 15:37
  • @sollniss How is 綺麗くない grammatical when it is a na-adjective? Only i-adjectives become -くない. Mar 14 '17 at 3:56
  • @Morphosyntax That was my point. It is not, even though it is widely used. My argument was: if "ゲームを遊ぶ" is correct because people use it, then "綺麗くない" should also be correct by the same logic. Correct (standard) would be "ケームで遊ぶ" and "綺麗じゃない."
    – sollniss
    Mar 14 '17 at 12:54
  • 1
    @HuyNgo If no-one else spoke like him, it's unlikely evolution will result, unless he becomes a celebrity and everyone starts talking like him. :P If we have a few people speaking like that, though, it could in principle spread of people find the new construction 'useful' enough. Apr 14 '17 at 16:17

I think it is important to look at the general tendency in which the language is evolving. If a language is loosing some distinctions, then there will be an important trend of speaking/writing without the distictions that are going archaic. There will be a counter-trend to keep them. And among such counter-trend, we will find hypercorrections, in which people will try to "keep" the distinction in contexts where the standard doesn't have it first place.

For instance, in Portuguese there is a general trend to lose verbal person desinences (except the singular first person and the plural third). There is also a tendency to change personal pronouns, especially the second person ones, and, more recently, and still less remarkably, the first person plural.

So, in a more concrete example, here is a Standard Portuguese sentence:

Nós estamos ficando velhos. (We are growing old.)

And this is like the same sentence will probably be rendered a few decades into the future:

A gente está ficando velho.

with the loss of the -mos desinence that marks the first person plural, and the change of the pronoun, from "nós" to "a gente".

Nowadays both sentences are already considered standard, though, a century ago, the second one would be considered wrong, or colloquial at best.

Now here is an intermediate sentence, in which the verbal ending is lost, but the pronoun remains unchanged:

Nós está ficando velho.

This sentence is quite unfortunate; it is too innovative for those who want to keep the standard, and too conservative for those who want it to change. Plus it poses a problem: "Nós" requires the predicative to go into the plural (nós... velhos). But the singular verb, "está", requires the predicative in the singular, so it is hard for speakers to decide whether it should be "nós está ficando velho" or "nós está ficando velhos". Probably due to such inconsistency, nowadays this sentence would be rejected as agrammatical by most speakers in both standard and colloquial registers. It can only be considered acceptable in the popular register - but then it has to get the verb changed, too: "nós tá ficando velho" (or "ficando véio").

And here is a "Piltdown fossil" of this evolutionary process, ie, a hypercorrection:

A gente estamos ficando velhos.

in which the dependent innovation (the pronoun change) is made, but not the innovation on which it depends (the verbal ending loss).

It is a common construction, but it has no future: the standard form of the language can accept the pronoun change, but not the incongruence between subject and verb; the popular register will avidly accept the pronoun change, but not the "sophisticated" verb flexion.

So here is a difference: if the language "evolves", then there are constructions that the standard register, that is most conservative, cannot accept, but become acceptable, or even the norm, in the more innovative registers, popular and colloquial (and will invade the literary register, too, since writers will feel the need to capture the gist of popular or colloquial speech to build their characters). But there are constructions that are misguided attempts to keep the formality of the standard, without really understanding the standard rules. Those can be quite widespread, but they represent neither the present nor the future of the language. In that sence, they are "wrong", not part of the evolution of the language.

Speaking of registers, it is necessary to notice that they have different grammatical requirements. What is acceptable in the popular register might be unnaceptable in the standard - but the converse is also true: some standard constructions are unnaceptable in popular register (I like to compare this to dress codes: you don't go to a night party dressed in a bath suit... but then you don't go to the beach in a tuxedo either).

When a construction is the standard norm, but becomes unacceptable in the colloquial or popular registers, it tends to go archaic. It will go archaic before it loses its social prestige. When a construction is the popular or colloquial norm, but is unacceptable in standard, its future depends on how much it represents a real trend of the language drift, or, on the contrary, how much it is a mere fad, destined to fade away. In any case, it will take more time to acquire prestige than to become widespread; when it acquires prestige, it will supercede the previous, now archaic, standard construction.

So, there are a few different things:

  1. Pure mistakes, such as involuntary elisions, spoonerisms, typos, lexical misuses, etc.

  2. Prestige mistakes - using popular constructions in formal contexts that require standard speech, or, conversely, standard constructions in contexts that demand popular speech.

  3. Hypercorrections, in which the speaker tries to produce a standard construction, but due to insufficient knowledge of standard grammar, misapplies them.

  4. Fads, usually slang terms, that become fashionable for a time, then become dated, rejected by most speakers, and finally go archaic, without ever acquiring standard status.

  5. True innovation - neologisms, acronyms, portmanteaus, foreign loans that "catch", popular constructions that constitute the "natural" drift of the language, etc.

It is difficult to distinguish those things, even in one's first language. In a second language, it becomes almost impossible (so, rule of thumb, when speaking/writing a second language, it is best to err in the conservative side).

Hope this helps.

Your Answer

By clicking “Post Your Answer”, you agree to our terms of service, privacy policy and cookie policy

Not the answer you're looking for? Browse other questions tagged or ask your own question.