That’s one of the most debated questions in terms of language, in my experience. It’s an important question because there is at least a general consensus that there is good language and bad language – acceptable and unacceptable language – and a common question because everyone seems to have an opinion on the subject, although they tend not to be exceptionally informed opinions. It’s also important because there are plenty of people – some who have knowledge of language and some who really don’t – who have decided at some point that they are the arbiters of what is good and true and what is not and dispense advice (often unsolicited) or make disparaging comments about language use, be it word usage, grammar, mechanics, or style.

I don’t consider myself an expert on language use by any means, but I think my interest in language is perhaps greater than the average layperson: I have studied writing theory, I have read grammar texts critically for personal edification, I regularly read blogs about language and try to keep up with what people are talking about regarding language, and I’m a certified English language teacher. I don’t claim that my advice on language is gospel, and I stress to my students that comments on written language especially are mostly tentative (even though I think it would be prudent for them to take my advice). Generally, I think I know what I’m talking about, but I’m open to correction from people who know more about the subject, primarily linguists.

This in mind, I’m pretty used to people making comments about language when they lack relevant training, like that old proscription against terminating prepositions. But I still confess that it puzzles me when I see people who are qualified in the area of the English language railing against things about which they really should know better.



As a part of my current degree program, I am currently enrolled in a class entitled “Applying Writing Theory” in which we study various rhetorical and writing theories, including some discussion of grammar specifically. Today, we covered the first two chapters of a book entitled “Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace,” the first on avoiding confusing language (which reminded me of the amusing saying, “Eschew obfuscation“) and the second on correctness. The latter got me thinking about two fairly different subjects: language and morality.


Bill Vallicella at Maverick Philosopher raised an interesting point a few days ago on a common point of grammar: double negatives. The very interesting point he makes is whether or not the word “no” in double negative constructions – his example is the Rolling Stones’ line “I can’t get no satisfaction” – is not truly signifying negation but rather an intensifier.

What he means is that “no” here is functioning differently than its literal usage. To support his case, Vallicella turns to a subset of adverbs called intensifiers – words that modify an adjective or adverb in order to intensify or emphasize the content. When we give our condolences to someone who is grieving by saying, “I am very sorry for your loss,” very functions as an intensifier. Vallicella contends (and I happen to agree) that there are some such adverbs which do not add to or change the content of the adjective or adverb they modify; he gives the example of saying something is “absolutely true,” which I find somewhat contentious*, but I can think of other examples which take the general principle: “absolutely perfect,” for instance. (“Perfect” is an absolute adjective here; we should always stray from saying that something is more perfect than something else or the most perfect such-and-such. Therefore, “absolutely” merely emphasizes the absolute nature of “perfect” but does not materially change the meaning.)