New study – Many English Speakers Cannot Understand Basic Grammar

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I’ll paste the entire content of the article, which can be found by clicking here. I will bold the points I find most interesting, followed by my comments below.

ScienceDaily (July 6, 2010) — Research into grammar by academics at Northumbria University suggests that a significant proportion of native English speakers are unable to understand some basic sentences.

The findings — which undermine the assumption that all speakers have a core ability to use grammatical cues — could have significant implications for education, communication and linguistic theory.

The research, conducted by Dr Ewa Dabrowska, showed that basic elements of core English grammar had not been mastered by some native speakers.

The project assumed that every adult native speaker of English would be able to understand the meaning of the sentence:

The soldier was hit by the sailor.”

Dr Dabrowska and research student James Street then tested a range of adults, some of whom were postgraduate students, and others who had left school at the age of 16. All participants were asked to identify the meaning of a number of simple active and passive sentences, as well as sentences which contained the universal qualifier “every.”

As the test progressed, the two groups performed very differently. A high proportion of those who had left school at 16 began to make mistakes. Some speakers were not able to perform any better than chance, scoring no better than if they had been guessing.

Dr Dabrowska comments: “These findings are ground breaking, because for decades the theoretical and educational consensus has been solid. Regardless of educational attainment or dialect we are all supposed to be equally good at grammar, in the sense of being able to use grammatical cues to understand the meaning of sentences.

“Of course some people are more literate, with a larger vocabulary and greater exposure to highly complex literary constructions. Nevertheless, at a fundamental level, everyone in a linguistic community is supposed to share the same core grammar, in the same way that given normal development we can all walk.”

The supposition that everyone in a linguistic community shares the same grammar is a central tenet of Noam Chomsky’s theory of universal grammar. The theory assumes that all children learn language equally well and that there must therefore be an underlying common structure to all languages that is somehow “hard-wired” into the brain.

Dr Dabrowska has examined other explanations for her findings, such as limitations to working memory, and even so-called “test wiseness,” but she concluded that these non-linguistic factors are irrelevant.

She also stressed that the findings have nothing to do with intelligence. Participants with low levels of educational attainment were given instruction following the tests, and they were able to learn the constructions very quickly. She speculates that this could be because their attention was not drawn to sentence construction by parents or teachers when they were children.

She adds: “Our results show that a proportion of people with low educational attainment make errors with understanding the passive, and it appears that this and other important areas of core grammar may not be fully mastered by some speakers, even by adulthood.

“These findings could have a number of implications. “If a significant proportion of the population does not understand passive sentences, then notices and other forms of written information may have to be rewritten and literacy strategies changed.

“What’s more, the existence of substantial individual differences in native language attainment is highly problematic for one of the most widely accepted arguments for an innate universal grammar: the assumed ‘fact’ that all native speakers of a language converge on essentially the same grammar. Our research shows that they don’t.”

Dr. Dabrowska presented her findings in a keynote lecture at the UK Cognitive Linguistics Association Conference on July 7.

When I first skimmed the study, I assumed that it was about people who were not born in English-speaking countries, and their issues with understanding grammar. To see that these comprehension difficulties were with native English speakers was pretty surprising to me. It always seemed logical to me (and apparently to the grammar and linguistic theorists as well), that while people may have different vocabularies and levels of grammar understanding, that if you were born and raised here you would have a basic understand of the general grammar rules.

The example cited in the study was “The soldier was hit by the sailor.” I erroneously assumed that this “basic” sentence would be understood universally by native English speakers. I thought that even the group that left school at 16 would have no problem with this sentence; there are no sneaky punctuation marks and no difficult words to comprehend. Apparently, the issue with comprehension was that it’s a passive sentence. This caught me completely by surprise.

Dr. Dabrowska noted that it was not an intelligence issue, and that once those with comprehension issues were taught the correct usages, they learned it quickly.

What is somewhat unsatisfactory is her speculation that this could be because their attention was not drawn to sentence construction by parents or teachers when they were children. I’m not sure that I have a better explanation, but just by hanging out with friends or coworkers or television one might limn enough about sentences to figure it out.

I guess we were all wrong.

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Pizza Ads – Three ads, and zero are correct – Menu Madness redux

Pizza Store

A pizza store recently opened around the corner from my apartment. I’m not going to name it by name, but I will say that the name of the establishment is translated as ‘two brothers’ in Italian. Sadly, the food is not kosher, but at least it looked pretty. Well, it looked pretty until I looked at the signs they put up to advertise their specials. See the above image.

I can almost understand if one sign has some sort of wording issue, but all three?! This is just painful. How many litters come in a soda? Isn’t littering bad?If the ads are this bad, I can only imagine the menu is a minefield of confusing food items and phrases.

Over two years ago, I posted about menus, and the editing thereof. You can see the original post here: Menu Madness.

The basic gist of the post was that I see a maddeningly large number of errors in menus in restaurants, and I would love to help with the editing beforehand, to help people come up with a presentable menu, one they can be proud of. I always believed that if the menu is poorly written, I probably don’t want to see the inside of the kitchen. Nicht gut.

My offer still stands. Feel free to spread the word.

Site of the Week: Criggo


I would imagine that all of my Facebook friends know that I love posting photos, comic strips, and any other sort of image that I find amusing. I found the site via a tweet from Grammar Girl, so you may credit her if you like the site.

As the heading of the site says, “Newspapers are going away. That’s too bad”. Newspapers are full of hilarious photos that don’t come out as intended, typos, and other chuckle-worthy errors, and Criggo is chock full of them.

Some examples:

If you aren’t slapping your thigh yet, or haven’t ‘hyuk’ed out loud, you either haven’t been reading these, or are post-lobotomy. (Apologies to anyone who has had a lobotomy.)

Endless fun can be found as this week’s site of the week: Criggo

Origins #9: The proof is in the pudding

Origins Category

This common expression means to fully test something you need to experience it yourself or that the true value or quality of something can only be judged when it’s put to use.

But what the blazes does pudding have to do with anything?

The original (read: full or correct) expression is “the proof of the pudding is in the eating”. Now it makes much more sense. You can talk about how amazing the pudding is all day, but until you actually eat it, it doesn’t mean much. This expression is actually very old. There is actually a report of it being used as far back as the 14th century.

What of the word ‘proof’ though? We currently use the word proof as ‘the evidence that demonstrates a truth’, but this seems odd here. A little interesting fact is that a common usage of the word ‘proof’ was to test something. This clears up our little issue. We still see this usage in a few cases, as with ‘the exception that proves the rule’, ‘proofread’, ‘proving ground’, etc.


‘People’ or ‘Persons’? What’s correct?

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I have always been under the impression that people was the plural of person. Hence, when two individuals are doing something, they are referred to as people. “Those two people look alike.”

And yet, periodically I see the word ‘persons’ appearing here and there. I (erroneously) thought that ‘persons’ was allowed based on some prescriptivist rule, and was just there to annoy people.

As it turns out, I’m wrong. I shall quote from Daily Writing Tips:

There is some confusion regarding the two terms, especially because their meaning and usage suffered a mutation along the centuries. Both derive from Latin, but from different words.

Person derives from persona, which refers to an individual. People, on the other hand, derives from populum, and it refers to a group of persons sharing a culture or social environment.

Person is a singular form, and its plural is persons. Over the time, however, many writers started to adopt people as the plural form of person, and nowadays it is widely accepted. Notice that legal and very formal texts still use persons as the plural form.

One distinction that was proposed was to use persons as long as there was a countable number of individuals (e.g., 67 persons left the school) and people when such a number was large and indefinite (e.g., the people left the stadium quickly). The rule did not catch on, though, and some writers still use people even when there is a definite or small number of individuals.

Finally, people can also be used in the plural form (e.g., the peoples of Asia) when it refers to the different cultural groups that live in a certain region.

OK, so not only have I been wrong, but I’ve been completely wrong. In some ways I’m very traditional in my English usage, and get annoyed when people misuse or distort the meaning of certain words and expressions. In this instance, what’s actually “right”, i.e. the original way, is to use persons, as people and person don’t even have the same root word. This is somewhat troubling to me.

The rule of when to use less versus fewer seems similar in that it depends on whether it’s “countable” or not.

It’s “widely accepted” to use ‘people’ for the plural of person. I get that. Isn’t it actually wrong though? I think we end up in the same debate I was having yesterday with unlike/dislike and how the English language evolves, and for something to be “wrong”, is completely relative.

I’m torn on this.