Help me figure out if this sentence is grammatically correct.
November 27, 2018 5:01 PM   Subscribe

So I was on Goodreads looking for books to read when I came across The Language Hoax by John H. McWhorter. One of the negative reviews mentioned that the author wasn't a great writer because of sentences like this: "However, what they demonstrate is cultural traits that language reflects, like Thai words for you, not linguistic traits magically shaping the culture." I can see why he pointed this out, but is this really wrong? I think it's fine as it is, but now that I've looked at the sentence for a long time, I am confused.

I should point out that my comprehension of is/are is a bit off these days because my husband is a Swedish speaker and tends to mix up these two words. Swedish doesn't distinguish between is and are; they have one word: är (an EH-r sound). And if you hear something wrong for a while, it starts sounding right haha.
posted by dostoevskygirl to Writing & Language (27 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
It reads fine to me.
posted by eirias at 5:06 PM on November 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

Ok, thanks for confirming what I felt.
posted by dostoevskygirl at 5:08 PM on November 27, 2018

It's wrong. Boiling it down, the core of the sentence is:

"what they demonstrate is cultural traits"

"cultural traits" are plural and not a collective noun.

So it should be:

"what they demonstrate are cultural traits."
posted by cgs06 at 5:19 PM on November 27, 2018 [18 favorites]

Agree. I'd also further edit it to say, "..what they demonstrate are the cultural traits which language reflects..."
posted by mono blanco at 5:24 PM on November 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

Meh. It’s fine. “What they demonstrate is [that] cultural traits...” is the core of it; they just moved the “that” around a bit.

And really what you have to ask yourself is: are you a prescriptivist or descriptivist when it comes to grammar and usage? Because you and me and plenty of others understand the meaning here just fine. And if you want to consider this in terms of prescribed rules, whose? It’s a bit colorful and loose, sure, but that’s a long way from “wrong” in my book.

Then again I’m a determined descriptivist and a hater of arbitrary language policing, which is usually used to oppress the unwashed masses; YMMV.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:25 PM on November 27, 2018 [15 favorites]

Regardless of whether the sentence is grammatically correct or not, it could be the reviewer was commenting on clarity and readability. That sentence does not scan well, out of context, and "not a great writer" is ambiguous.
posted by Rinku at 5:26 PM on November 27, 2018 [30 favorites]

I'm not a prescriptivist - quite the opposite - but I found that a bit hard to parse. As in, I just had to rewrite it three times to work out what he might be saying. This might just be a lack of context; for example, I don't know who "they" are, or who "you" might be. But a lot of it is not knowing which bits belong to whom.

It seems to be:

- there are two kinds of traits - cultural traits, and linguistic traits
- language reflects cultural traits
- linguistic traits don't shape culture
- some unnamed group of people demonstrate the former, not the latter
- Thai words are an example of language that reflects some unnamed person's culture

Am I close?
posted by some little punk in a rocket at 5:32 PM on November 27, 2018

With a "that" interpolated before "cultural traits," the sentence no longer parses.

I would say that it's somewhat common for "is" to follow "what" in this construction even if the predicate noun is plural, so much so that it would probably pass unnoticed in less formal writing. Ultimately, I might copy-edit it, but I wouldn't call it out as particularly egregious bad writing.
posted by praemunire at 5:33 PM on November 27, 2018 [3 favorites]

I think it's meant to be read as "Thai words for 'you'", like whatever their equivalents to du and Sie are. (And "they" is probably some set of examples.)
posted by praemunire at 5:34 PM on November 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

Also, the book itself is a somewhat informal "ranty" sort of essay (I highly recommend it!!!!!!!!!!!).

I think it was quite clear/good writing, but it's less academic than the reviewer you saw may have been expecting.
posted by twoplussix at 5:35 PM on November 27, 2018

It's not the worst sentence I've ever read, but it's awkwardly constructed. I don't like the "shaping" in the final clause, although I'm not sure why -- maybe the lack of parallelism?

"However, [example] demonstrates that language reflects cultural traits, not that culture is magically shaped by linguistic happenstance."

(Yes, I know that's passive voice at the end, but I think the point of the sentence is the opposition of language -> culture vs culture -> language, right?)
posted by basalganglia at 5:40 PM on November 27, 2018 [2 favorites]


Thank you for coming to my TED talk.

posted by praemunire at 5:46 PM on November 27, 2018 [22 favorites]

I realize on re-reading I was also putting a strategic ‘but’ in there. Or maybe it requires an elided ‘that’ in addition. And yes if pressed I’d admit the sentence is clumsy, but not really exceptional in the realm of pop nonfiction.

Maybe I am too charitable. And yes the passive voice is perfectly cromulent, as are many phrasings that defy easy translation into Latin, or diagramming of the sort many of us were taught in school.
posted by SaltySalticid at 5:52 PM on November 27, 2018

Imma descriptivist. And I sez that "However, what they demonstrate is cultural traits that language reflects, like Thai words for you, not linguistic traits magically shaping the culture," is an ass-ugly sentence. It's got a weird pronoun serving as subject, it's got a subject/verb scuffle, it's a run-on, and it's got a weird clause plooped in the middle. If I'm parsing it correctly, the passage can be rewritten as something like:

What [they] demonstrate is how language reflects cultural traits, and not how linguistic traits magically shape a culture. Consider the example of the Thai words for 'you.'
posted by mr. remy at 5:59 PM on November 27, 2018 [28 favorites]

Because the noun and the verb did not agree, and because it is a run-on sentence with a dangling dependent clause, I had to re-read the sentence several times before I could understand the meaning. I wouldn't say he was a bad writer based on one bad sentence. I would say he could be helped by a good editor and/or beta reader.
posted by muddgirl at 6:05 PM on November 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

That sentence is both ungrammatical and also very awkward. I would rewrite it as:

"However, what they demonstrate are cultural traits reflected by language, such as Thai words for 'you'—not linguistic traits magically shaping the culture."

That is grammatical and I happen to find it much flowier and less confusing to read. The last clause is still a bit of an eyeroller to me but I'm not sure what to do with it—I think its tone is obnoxiously dismissive but I guess if lazy snark is what he was going for then it's fine, if uninspired.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 6:11 PM on November 27, 2018 [2 favorites]

That's a TERRIBLE sentence, but one bad sentence does not a bad book make.
posted by Countess Sandwich at 6:35 PM on November 27, 2018 [5 favorites]

Better as

"They demonstrate not linguistic traits magically shaping the culture, but cultural traits reflected by language, such as Thai words for 'you'."

(assuming that in context it's clear how Thai words for "you" reflect cultural traits).
posted by nicwolff at 8:55 PM on November 27, 2018

I agree that it’s not the clearest sentence ever put to paper. But in general, he’s pretty lax on grammar rules. I would not be asking John McWhorter for a copyedit. I’d be asking him if my concept was sound. That sentence seems like something someone would say, not what I expect someone to write, when they have the time to proof and edit.
posted by greermahoney at 9:48 PM on November 27, 2018 [1 favorite]

"What they demonstrate is cultural traits" is a pseudo-cleft. Descriptively, when the phrase in a pseudo-cleft is plural, some speakers prefer is and others are. There's logic on both sides, depending on whether you see the verb as agreeing with cultural traits (plural) or with what they demonstrate (not strictly marked for number but most readily taken as singular). Here's a relevant Stack Exchange discussion.

(Agree with praemunire that there's no implied "that" before "cultural traits"; that would be a totally different construction.)
posted by hoist with his own pet aardvark at 10:00 PM on November 27, 2018 [6 favorites]

This sentence is woefully unclear at first glance, especially when read out of context. To me this is plain bad writing just because it takes too long to figure out. The author is taking a relatively straightforward concept and garbling it either because they don't know how to write clearly or don't care to bother, and that's before getting into whether the grammar is technically correct or not.
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 2:46 AM on November 28, 2018 [1 favorite]

It's grammatically OK (what hoist... said about pseudo-clefts), but that doesn't mean that it's a sentence that should have made it into a published book. It makes the reader work too hard to figure out what's going on; there's nothing about the subject matter that needs to be expressed in such complex writing.
posted by altolinguistic at 5:59 AM on November 28, 2018

Well, to chime in on the abuse of the descriptivism/prescriptivism debate: Descriptivism doesn't mean the absence of standards or styles, only the admission that those standards and styles are arbitrary and socially constructed. Bad writing doesn't violate fundamental rules of language or logic, but it can violate norms in ways that are confusing to a reader expecting those norms. If you're writing for a newspaper, readers will expect newspaper's style. If you're writing for Oxford University Press, readers will expect Oxford University Press style. If you're sitting around the Thanksgiving dinner table with your family, you'll use the verbal norms and accent of your family language, which will only be Oxford University Press standard if your family is extremely weird and probably dysfunctional.

If it crossed my desk, I'd probably edit it for reasons other people described. But I wouldn't single that out as a "gotcha" because editors are not perfect and it's not a high priority.
posted by GenderNullPointerException at 6:45 AM on November 28, 2018

I agree that I would suggest edits to the sentence were it to appear in one of my student's papers or presentations. However, the pseudo-cleft issue is important and why it can be understood to be grammatically correct. One way of parsing the sentence, I think, is: "However, [the phenomenon] they demonstrate is [the result of] cultural traits that language reflects, like Thai words for you, not linguistic traits magically shaping the culture." Even with that reading, there is still a lack of parallelism that makes it hard to understand. I imagine that if one was reading the sentence within a longer passage, it might scan more easily.
posted by Slothrop at 8:58 AM on November 28, 2018

That’s a hard sentence to read. I agree with the criticism of the writer. There are a lot of ways to make it more readable.
posted by SLC Mom at 3:55 PM on November 28, 2018

I am a bit surprised at how many people are willing to parse his sentence out of context when it clearly refers to other text and declare ANYTHING ABOUT IT AT ALL.

Since McWorter is the only podcaster I currently worship using animal sacrifice, I just bought the kindle book. A significant issue is immediately obvious: the word “you” in the sentence is italicized, as an earlier commenter speculated (actually, they guessed quotes, but potato/potahto). Also, it is the second of two linked sentences. It makes complete sense to me in context.

As I’ve aged, I’ve gotten more dissatisfied with copy editors. If you’re only making corrections so other editors can get the fine nuance of your big swingin’-meat copy editorial power, fuggidaboudit. As an exercise, maybe the prescriptivist commenters can correct that last sentence....
posted by Gilgamesh's Chauffeur at 5:06 PM on November 28, 2018

Chauffer, I agree with you that this sentence would make (more) sense if read as a continuation of the topic at hand. I do not agree that I (and others) should refrain from comment simply because we have not read it in context.

No matter how interesting the topic, all it takes is a sample of writing such as this to turn me off the writer and what they have to say. That may be my loss, but the writing market and people's attention spans being what they are, it becomes much more more of a loss to the writer.

This single sentence suffices to tell me that the rest are likely to be equally convoluted. Based on this sample, would you be happy spending your hard-earned time decoding even one more contorted sentence, whether in context or not, knowing they could be written much more accessibly?
posted by Armed Only With Hubris at 7:23 PM on November 28, 2018

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