Psycho Babble

This Column Needs Edited

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By Jessica Love

September 1, 2011


 

With unstable funding and transient advisers and last-minute Craigslist apartments, graduate students are all too vulnerable to the drudgery that is moving. Clothes need to be packed, boxes need to be hauled, and that tobacco stain leftover from an old roommate’s tin-foiled-together hookah needs to be scrubbed. Or, as I recently directed my boyfriend, David, one caffeinated morning, “Let’s get to it! The clothes need packed, the boxes need hauled, and that stain needs scrubbed!”

If you are from some parts of the country—mostly places like Pennsylvania and Ohio—you’re wondering what this column is about. You’d say this too, if you found yourself confronted with these three unenviable tasks. If you’re from Florida or New York or pretty much anywhere else, though, you can’t imagine that sentence coming out of your mouth. This column needs edited, you think, except, of course, not in those words. The clothes need packed just doesn’t feel right. The clothes need packing, sure, and the clothes need to be packed, naturally. But the clothes need packed? Really?

Even the grammatically disinclined among us, the vast majority who could never define a past-participle or a gerund, can say when past participles or gerunds are being used ungrammatically. Or, as Joan Bresnan, a Stanford linguist, has argued, when they’re not being used the way we’re used to hearing them used. In fact, Bresnan has dabbled with the idea that grammaticality itself is amorphous and personal, dependent on one’s own linguistic experience. Think of grammaticality as your very own carnival game, much like the one where, if you strike the hammer hard enough, a bell rings. The first time you hear an unusual grammatical construction—the clothes need packed, for instance—the bell rings, loud and clear. But the more you encounter it, the less likely it is to strike you as odd. One day, having worn you down entirely, the construction doesn’t sound strange at all. It sounds completely normal. It slips into your own conversations. It becomes a part of your grammar. (Note: there is a limit to this line of reasoning. As Ivan Sag, another Stanford linguist, once pointed out, no matter how many times you come across “teh,” it is still a typo.)

The more we learn about language processing, the more the evidence seems to favor an account of grammaticality based on probability, the specifics of which further columns will address. But for now, on a personal note, it’s been fun to watch those around me—David, a Floridian, included—gradually adopt the need + past participle construction as their own. Although it’s not an unexpected development, it’s still a cool one. After all, those mental bells that clang with each anomaly are powerful—all metaphor aside, they produce identifiable electrical peaks in the brain. Even knowing everything I do about my own idiosyncratic dialect hasn’t stopped me from cringing when I hear my grandmother use a want + past participle construction (as in, The cat probably wants fed) or—just the thought makes me flinch—a like + past participle construction (as in, That orange cat likes petted). Ick!

Jessica Love recently received a Ph.D. in cognitive psychology and is currently a science writer and editor at Northwestern University.

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