Editorial Errors and Standard Deviation—A social science proof of the universal validity of statistics—Dr. Georg Strudelfest SpecGram Vol CLXVII, No 3 Contents On the Quantum Nature of Linguistic Fame—A Reply to Slater—Cadwallader Colden

The Speculative Grammarian Survey of Grammar Writers—The Writing Process

Morris Swadesh III


For the past 42 months, Speculative Grammarian’s Office of Linguistic Documentation has conducted an extensive survey of linguists who have published descriptive grammars. Over 600 grammar writers responded to our extensive questionnaire, covering all areas of data-gathering, analysis, theory, and the processes of writing and publishing.

We share these results as a service to our beloved field of linguistics, which we know relies heavily on published grammars. After all, if you can’t trust your data, who can you trust?

Previously published in this series: Report 1: Phonology, Report 2: Data and Analysis

Report 3: The Writing Process

This final report in our series describes the process of writing, including organization and motivation, as reported by our respondents. Writing a descriptive grammar is a large undertaking, and one of the goals of our survey was to illuminate why people make such a commitment, and what choices they make as writers while they are carrying it out.


Our respondents had a nearly unanimous voice regarding why one would write a reference grammar. “It’s just way easier to write a synchronic description than to write a theoretical paper.” Virtually everyone who answered our survey said essentially the same thing.

Some added another, related motivation: “If you work on an undocumented language, nobody can tell if you make a mistake.” (Illustrations of this approach can be found in Report 1 and Report 2 of this series.)

In what we think is a corollary to this second motivation, we found that 81% of grammar writers deliberately put at least one mistake into the published version of their grammar. Most told us that this was so they could publish articles later on “correcting” their findings on the basis of further data. One explained this way: “if I’m going to go to the trouble to write an entire book, at least I want to lay the foundation for a bunch of journal articles later on. And if I put the mistakes in now, I already know what they are so I don’t have to spend a bunch of time looking for them (or coming up with entirely new projects) some day when I’m under the gun to satisfy the tenure committee.”

Writing and Organization

Most descriptive grammars are first written as dissertations. Of these descriptions, we found that 75% included at least one chapter or one major section purely to satisfy a dissertation director or other committee member, but which the grammar writer him- or herself felt was entirely unrelated to the actual facts of the language. One respondent wrote, “I wasn’t sure Professor X would let me graduate if I didn’t emphasize the framework she’s currently excited about.”

During the writing process, grammars go through various stages of drafting and editing. All of our respondents admitted that at least one major section of their published grammar was actually a first draft, based on preliminary observation of only a few examples of the phenomenon in question. In these cases, the writers had intended to go back and do a thorough analysis of more data, but had either forgotten (54% of respondents) or run out of time (46%). Most added, though, that they could not actually remember which sections belonged to this category, as they did not have a consistent system for keeping track of revisions.

Finally, we found that the majority of grammar writers had a strong sense of their potential audience when crafting their descriptions. One interesting example of this was in the area of “controversial” claims. Over half of the writers told us that they had included at least one controversial claim about the language, usually contradicting previous descriptions or, in the case of previously undescribed languages, contradicting popular theoretical assumptions, purely for the purpose of driving up readership of the published work. One author put it this way: “I made sure to include one or two things that would provoke a negative review by a specialist in the field, because I know more people will buy the book if that old curmudgeon criticizes it.”


This series of reports has presented the major findings of our survey, and we at Speculative Grammarian are proud to count these creative and successful grammar writers as our colleagues and even, in a few cases, as our friends. Truly they are a credit to our field, and we salute them.

Editorial Errors and Standard DeviationA social science proof of the universal validity of statisticsDr. Georg Strudelfest
On the Quantum Nature of Linguistic FameA Reply to SlaterCadwallader Colden
SpecGram Vol CLXVII, No 3 Contents