Recent days have got me wondering how questions of usage should be settled. Is this a well-established issue on the forum, so that I can just be directed to the record of that discussion? I sought but I did not find.

I think that a lot of the possible arguments would fall into four categories: (1) technical distinctions, the jargon of language, and language authorities, (2) quotations of good writers, (3) logical justifications (such as the avoidance of ambiguity), and (4) our own private sensibilites about how the language is usually used. I think that my own ear is usually my final arbiter. I don’t think that I would follow advice that sounded wrong to me, unless I was writing for a course that required MLA Handbook style, or a publication that followed the Chicago Manual of Style, or something like that.

But I notice that lots of other people, with reputations in the tens of thousands, spend their lives in the first category: technical distinctions, the jargon of language, and language authorities. They just write in what I should probably not term “grammatical mumbo jumbo.” They use lots of words for different parts of speech that I never heard about in School House Rock. And they don’t cite writers. To judge from Hank’s fabulous edit of my recent post, the omission of almost all citations makes a post much better.

Why is that? I hope I don’t hurt any feelings (or precipitate another analysis of hurt feelings), but the suggestions that grammaticality hinges on the mass/count and singular/plural distinctions on the noun, and the classing of words as adjectives or determiners, and whether they can be modified by adverbs or adjectives or not at all, whether rules for pre-modification of determiners were explored in classical grammars, all got me nowhere. How do you know that eloquent people really do what those rules suggest? How do you know that those rules are really helpful? Why should we follow those rules?

To me, this first category is the weakest, while quotations of good writers seem an almost unanswerable argument: just look. That’s why I usually try to cite good writers in my posts to the main forum. Their words illustrate well-crafted English.

So why am I so out-of-step with the dominant culture here, where sensibilities are obviously the opposite of my own?

  • 4
    My impression after four years of participation at this site is that the dominant culture is somewhat more tolerant of diversity and less insistent on conformity to a particular approach toward usage than your assessment suggests. Admittedly, I'm not inclined to accept your ear as my final arbiter—but I am quite willing to consider whether its dictates make sense when filtered through my own not-altogether-reliable eyes, ears, nose, and throat. And I do think that in the final analysis a man who can write well don't need to be justified.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 20:51
  • Schoolhouse Rock, as fun as it is, is very elementary, and based on Latin which has a fairly distinct grammar from English. So there's lots of room for analyzing English grammar and labeling those concepts with new vocabulary. Also quotations tend to use a bit of poetic license, and though, while not exactly wrong, don't necessarily work well as general rules.
    – Mitch
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 21:43
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    @Sven Yargs Is there a typo in your last sentence, or a joke so subtle that I don't get it?
    – ab2
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 22:16
  • @ab2: It's a corruption of a line from Wise Blood: "Nobody with a good car needs to be justified," Haze murmured. As a popular expression it's often rendered as "A man with a good car don't need to be justified." But if I'da looked it up first, I'da said it right.
    – Sven Yargs
    Commented Feb 2, 2017 at 23:49
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    The last grammar lesson I remember is diagramming in 6th grade. I remember English classes in high school and college, but no grammar lessons. I am glad we have linguists here, and I read their contributions with awe. How can something I take for granted be so complicated? (But one doesn't have to understand general relativity to be a rock climber.) I've probably never claimed my ear as an authority except in a comment, but I have sometimes written long-ish answers without cites. I'd never dare to write a grammar answer. You have to find your niche here.
    – ab2
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 0:09
  • If it were possible, I would agree with Sven Yargs that the dominant culture is less insistent on conformity than I think it is. But how is it that every time I turn around my answer on Obliviousness soars ever higher, while the article on Much (or Many) Fewer sits there unattended. That latter article is clearly much better. It's a more original contribution that does a better job of answering the question -- the OP even remarked on Obliviousness that it didn't really answer the question, while giving it some sort of prize anyhow. Every place I go on the Stack Exchange, I feel the same.
    – Chaim
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 0:55
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    Posts have to be seen to be voted on -- the "obliviousness" question has 4365 views, while the "much/many fewer" question has only 69 views. It's frustrating, but in general your most highly-voted answers will not be the same as the ones you think are the best. I think all users find this to be the case. Votes are a very imperfect indication of ranking.
    – herisson
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 1:12
  • Why did 4365 people view the one question and only 69 view the other?
    – Chaim
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 1:14
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    The question got on the "Hot Network Questions" list, which causes it to be advertised in the sidebar on other Stack Exchange sites. This happens much more often for word request questions than for other kinds of questions. Users who have enough rep on other Stack Exchange sites can upvote here even if they aren't normally active on this site due to the association bonus. The stated goal of Hot Network questions is basically to entertain programmers.
    – herisson
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 1:16
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    I agree that 62 upvotes for "oblivious" is ridiculous; all you can do is enjoy it and hope that something similar happens again. :)
    – ab2
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 2:19
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    Posting the "obvious" answer to a question that gets onto the HNQ is the quick way to the daily rep cap. :-)
    – Hellion
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 18:04

1 Answer 1


To me, the first category is the strongest: Scholarly citations from educated people, describing a grammatical feature that has been studied and confirmed to be the way that words get used.

Quotes from respected authors that confirm that usage, or that demonstrate how usage has shifted, are definitely helpful, but are not as convincing to me as as a technical explanation. Sure, the few well-respected authors being quoted have said things that way, but what about a few million other respected authors? I expect and believe that the scholarly studies have taken a LOT more data into account than a few cherry-picked quotes.

Logical justification is also useful for explaining how a grammatical feature came into being, but there's a lot of illogic in English, so we can't really rely on it too much.

Personal experience, while it is the most immediately available, is also the most subject to invalidation; "John, can you borrow me your screwdriver?" is apparently perfectly common in Minnesota when you're asking to use John's screwdriver, but not in most other parts of the country1, and there are huge differences between Indian English and American English. Not to mention that I have no idea of your education level or whether anybody else in your geographical area actually talks that way; maybe it's just you and your mother who think that sounds good.

Given that the site as a whole strives for objective answers to objectively-answerable questions (as much as possible where an inherently personal thing like language is concerned, anyway) giving the most weight to scholarly research, and the least to personal preference, seems reasonable and natural to me.

1 I live in Minnesota now and I hate hearing borrow used this way.

  • 1
    I wonder whether we're thinking of the same situation. It seems to me that if John posts a question about whether he should say "many fewer" (and not just whether people sometimes do), an answer purely in jargon (pre-modification of determiners,etc.) is asking John to have an unwarranted faith in your analysis. But showing him how good authors put it, or why another phrasing is clearer, is not asking for that faith. I don't think that cherry-picking is a strong objection: John might not want an invariable expression, just a good style.
    – Chaim
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 18:32
  • I definitely was thinking about answers in general, not only answers regarding usage.
    – Hellion
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 18:43
  • P.S. 1. "A few million respected authors"? Do you have that list there in your hand, Senator? 2. When I mentioned logic, I was thinking not of how grammatical features came into being, but the choice between current alternatives, as when Fowler recommends the preservation of the adjectives benign and malignant, and the abandonment of malign and benignant, so that we preserve opposites that are easy to distinguish in speech.
    – Chaim
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 18:47
  • Well, "respected" is such a nebulous term... Plenty of people respect J.K.Rowling, and some probably even claim to respect Stephanie Meyer. Regardless, perhaps millions is a bit of exaggeration. :-)
    – Hellion
    Commented Feb 3, 2017 at 18:51

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