I like language. I came to it causally at first, and more formally of late.

I’ve always been amused by out-of-fashion terminology (I say “good lord” a lot) and like the feeling of choosing words a bit differently than others might.

Expressing things wrongly, or inserting ignorant-sounding bits, is fun. I regularly say “the rock and roll” or “the YouTube” because it’s funny and evokes an old-timey ignorance. (It also expresses a bit of humility: comparing what I know to what is knowable about music and the Internet, I am an old-timey ignoramus.)

If one uses programming languages long enough, and in great enough variety, one begins to evaluate them as means of expression, more than simply items in a toolbox. You try to understand the authors’ goals. Stricter vs more-forgiving grammars. Control vs simplicity. Prescription vs follow-your-bliss.

Which lead me to think more about how human languages develop. (Two books influence my thinking here: The Information and The Language Instinct.)

What they both enforce is that language develops organically and empirically. We conjugate verbs, not because we like rules, but because it offers a bit of redundancy (error correction) when we don’t hear the whole sentence. If we hear the verb, but miss the subject, we can fill in the blanks. It’s useful, and has endured.

What is not true about language is that it develops predictably. Language is not designed, it is adopted, much like tradition or protocol.

No one would deliberately choose our conjugations of “to be”. Heck, no one would decide that preceding a verb with the word “to” is the best way to mark an infinitive.

And so, when I see a person set out to “correct” another person’s usage or grammar, I see the correcter as making an assertion about tradition, not fact. And awareness of tradition (“this is _what we do_”) is a form of social signaling.

Knowing the difference between it’s and its is not logic, it’s memorization. More precisely, it signals that one is of a class of people that cares about such things.

There is no logical case for choosing “its” as a possessive. It’s simply what is done, not unlike arranging silverware.

Don’t get me wrong, I prefer good grammar! I am embarrassed by my mistakes, and annoyed those of others. I like good grammar in the same way I like good typography: it’s humane and organic.

But what grammar is not, is “correct”.

comments on the hacker news

Added: Noah Smith has a related riff about math