A descriptivist fixes your grammar

524855_10151181369880952_52410627_nMocking signs like this is a common past-time of native English speakers with nothing better to do than not think about the beauty of English and how or why it changes over time.  I’ll admit, though, some errors can be pretty funny in our dialects.  Language is funny, sometimes.

For some reason, especially amongst those of us self-described as “English teachers”, some people feel a great desire to call out the bad “grammar” (more often than not, their problem is with spelling, but that’s just a linguist’s quibble).  They view themselves as the guardians of our magnificent, bastard tongue.  Self-styled language mavens, prescriptively swinging the hammer of their self-satisfied justice.  Their target being layman and descriptive linguist alike.

A common argument from the language mavens is that, according to a descriptive linguist, “anything goes“.  There is no such thing as “ungrammatical”, just minority dialects and other such poppycock.  Descriptivists of course disagree.  Every introductory Linguistics course will cover at some point the interesting distinction between sentences like:

colorless green ideas sleep furiously


furiously sleep ideas green colorless


colorful green trees swing peacefully

Clearly, the first sentence is grammatical, but semantically meaningless (or at least opaque).  The second is neither grammatically nor semantically meaningful and the third is a perfectly grammatical and semantically meaningful (though perhaps slightly metaphorical) sentence.  The descriptive linguist believes wholly in ungrammatical sentences, we just believe in a corpora-based account of what “grammatical” means.

Returning to the sign from the beginning.  I think it is worth figuring out what is ungrammatical about this English, why it is so and what would be the simplest correction.

We Ediya prides ourselves on selecting the best quality bean, Arabica beans, which is the result of the pure roasting system at the Ediya coffee lab.

Right out of the gate we’ve got a very interesting problem.  I want to note that whoever wrote this got a couple of things VERY correct.  One, ‘we’ and ‘ourselves’ coordinate perfectly.  It is reasonable (given the indication from the verb) that the reflexive pronoun would have been ‘itself’ or ‘themselves’.  Second ‘Ediya’ and ‘prides’ are conjugated perfectly.  Third person singular (or third person mass nouns) conjugate to ‘prides’.  Well done.

Of course, trying to fit both ‘we’ and ‘prides’ and ‘Ediya’ and ‘ourselves’ all into the subject position becomes something of a kerfuffle.  In trying to figure out where the writer went wrong, we should attempt to figure out what they were intending.  It seems to me that the clarifying noun, ‘Ediya’ is trying to be used in the sense of ‘We, at Ediya…”.  This isn’t a certainty however.  It is possible they could have been using it as a parenthetical: “We (Ediya)”.  With the way the verb is conjugated, (to Ediya) I think we can say that they were going for the prepositionally phrased aside “at ediya”.

Even so, ‘We, at Ediya’ still conjugates to ‘pride’ not ‘prides’.  This is confirmed, I think, by the presence of ‘ourselves’.  By including ‘ourselves’ the writer shows they intend ‘we’ to be the main subject-marker in the sentence.  What is the simplest change then?

We Ediya pride ourselves…

Notice I omitted ‘at’.  ‘At’ is dialectical, and not necessary for grammaticality (as the parenthetical example shows).  If we must quibble further, you can add the commas if you wish.  Spelling and punctuation truly are not my interest.  As for the rest of the sentence:

…on selecting the best quality bean, Arabica beans, which is the result of the pure roasting system at the Ediya coffee lab.

This sounds slightly odd in my dialect, but I see no grammatical error.  Semantically it might be odd, but it seems to me (and I am no semantist, by the way) that what is being said is that the selection of Arabica beans is the result of the “pure roasting system” (whatever that is), and that at Ediya, they are proud of this.  Strange, but grammatical.  More like “colorless green ideas sleep furiously” than “furiously sleep ideas green colorless”.

You will enjoy the best and the most aromatic coffee at Ediya.

All good here.

Coffee that the emperor of the continent would have taste.

The writer seemed to have tripped at the finish line.  In my opinion, this sentence is the one with the most difficulties (more so than the first, which only required one small change in conjugation).  Grammatically, we simply have a case of the wrong perfect participle on ‘taste’  –> ‘tasted’.  Semantically, this still makes for a strange sentence.  Part of the reason lies in the syntax-semantic interface, the writer has engaged the conditional ‘would’ along with the present perfect, indicating that at some point relative to the present, going back in time, the emperor of the continent would have tasted the coffee.

I suppose its fine to leave it like that, as far as semantics and syntax are concerned, but it is a strange thing to say, in essence, “If this coffee existed back in the times of the emperor, he would have tasted it!”  With no other information, that is the only reading I am able to pull out of it.  But, I am certain the writer meant to refer to the previous sentence which said, “you will enjoy the BEST and the MOST aromatic coffee.”  The writer isn’t trying to say the Emperor would have simply tasted the coffee, they want to say that the Emperor would have tasted it because it IS THE BEST.

How do we save this sentence then? We don’t, fool.   Simply repairing the perfect participle makes the sentence grammatical and that is sufficient, I don’t particularly like to impose my reading onto what the author intends.

In the end, how ungrammatical was the sign? Not very.

We Ediya pride(1) ourselves on selecting the best quality bean, Arabica beans, which is the result of the pure roasting system at the Ediya coffee lab.  You will enjoy the best and the most aromatic coffee at Ediya.  Coffee that the emperor of the continent would have tasted(2).

Sure, it’s semantically odd, but it’s also a very different dialect (Korean-English) from mine (Utah-English), so who am I to judge?  And I will note that even though I speak a separate dialect, I am more than capable of comprehending what this sign is trying to say to me, without resorting to a sort of “native speaker” arrogance that says, “ha! that sounds so weird.  Your English is so wrong!”

Certainly a stylist would have much more to say about it, the language mavens always do.

2 thoughts on “A descriptivist fixes your grammar

  1. A ‘past-time’ is what Geoffrey Pullum would call an ‘eggcorn’.

    I’m more than capable of understanding what the sign says, but it’s badly written English. Under different circumstances, it would develop into a pidgin or a creole, and then a standard language, as separate from English as Afrikaans is from Dutch – that’s what happened with Tok Pisin in Papua New Guinea and Krio in Sierra Leone. Radio Australia’s Tok Pisin service’s headline ‘Tupela i dai na planti i kisim bagarap long pairap long Boston’ may look like baby talk ‘Two-fella he die an plenty he kiss-him bugger-up long fire-up long Boston’ but it’s a fully-fledged language – something ‘Korean-English’ isn’t.

    Nothing would please me more than to see English break up into different languages the same way Latin did; it would create an incentive for native English speakers to learn other languages, instead of having a language which they don’t own any more.

    Native English speakers, American or British, need to get over this colonial guilt trip. Is it a symptom of so many of them being monoglot English speakers? I think it is. If Korean English, full of loan translations from Korean is good enough for Koreans, fine, but why should they go to the cost and hassle of hiring foreigners?


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