Prescriptive linguists

Geoff Nathan geoffnathan at WAYNE.EDU
Fri Jan 25 11:22:25 UTC 2008

David Bowie wrote:
> It's actually a semi-long story with lots of background, but it
> culminated in me being told that i wasn't allowed to give any more
> native speaker judgments on English grammar in a syntax class, since I
> was clearly unable to give correct native speaker judgments properly.
> (There were lots of things that led up to it, but the straw that broke
> the camel's back was, IIRC, my acceptance of "for to" as a complementizer.)
> The kicker? It was a non-native speaker of English who put me under that
> ban.
Many years ago I was teaching intro. to generative syntax (back about
the Revised Extended Standard Theory time) and a fairly well-known
American Structuralist was sitting in on the class ("to keep up with the
field").  He announced that Chomsky was not actually a native speaker of
English, so his grammaticality judgments could not be taken seriously.
When I expressed some surprise at this statement, I was informed that
Chomsky had spent too much time in the immigrant community growing up,
and was therefore not exposed to the full range of American English
constructions.  I took this at the time as a kind of covert
antisemitism, and I still think I was right.
Somewhat later in the course Radford (the author of the textbook) used
the following ungrammatical sentence to illustrate what we now call
long-distance dependencies:

*Which car did you put Mary in the garage?

My structuralist friend used this as an example of what he was talking
about--for him this was perfectly grammatical.  Since I found it
incomprehensible I challenged him on it.  Turns out he could use ethical
datives in places I couldn't.  He was from a small town in Kentucky, FWIW.
I should have also pointed out that (to the best of my knowledge--I
haven't met him) Radford IS a native speaker.

Geoffrey S. Nathan <geoffnathan at>

Faculty Liaison, Computing and Information Technology,
and Associate Professor of English, Linguistics Program
Phone Numbers (313) 577-1259 or (313) 577-8621
Wayne State University
Detroit, MI, 48202

The American Dialect Society -

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