But Is It Right? The Perils of Parsing

I recently received an email from someone wanting to settle an argument with a teacher regarding the “correctness” of a sentence. Here’s the defendant:

The goal of this course is to assist the students master language skills

My correspondent thinks it’s erroneous. Read it a couple of times and see if you think it is “right” or “wrong.” Notice that I am giving free rein to the quotation marks because sometimes, when it comes to language, the edges are a little blurry and lovers of certainty become weak at the knees. And there’s also a big difference between being technically correct and pragmatically correct. I’m guessing that anyone who reads the sentence above can grasp its meaning. But if you’re a bit of a linguageek, is it “correct?”

I’m going to stick my neck out, go out on a limb, mix my metaphors, run this up the flagpole to see if anyone salutes, and say that it’s wrong. Not egregiously so, but wrong.

saluting the flag

Anyone saluting?

OK, let’s see if I can explain what I think might be happening. I suggest that in this instance, the word “assist” is being used as a synonym for “help” but that it is NOT a direct synonym. There are some folks who would argue that there are no synonyms in the first place, otherwise why would we want to invent new words for the same old thing? I’m not of that particular persuasion but I do think that there are occasions where we can see where what we might think a synonym is appropriate it turns out to be a little slippery.

Let’s start by replacing assist with help, and you get the almost identical sentence;

The goal of this course is to help the students master language skills.

This would be perfectly fine and sounds OK. In fact, it actually sounds better, to my ears, than the original. Yes, I know – subjectivity is one of the horses pulling the stagecoach to sterile Nihilism on the road to the Complete Rejection of Reality, but bear with me a while longer.

In this situation, the word help is functioning as a CAUSATIVE VERB, which is, unsurprisingly, one that causes something to happen. Assist is also a causative verb, but unlike help, it doesn’t mark causality with a to (with help, you usually help someone to do something) but with with, you assist with not assist to. In other words, we should be comparing help to and assist with not the bare help and assist.

I took a look at the always exciting Corpus of Contemporary American (corpus.byu.edu/coca) to find examples of assist with and assist to and found that there were 438 examples of the former in the 40 million word sample as opposed to 31 of assist to. When you then do a quick eyeball analysis of the assist to examples, you find most are using assist as a noun in phrase such as “he gave the assist to the other player” and NOT as the verb.[1]

So, to summarize, I suspect the underlying error is to try to use assist as a synonym for help but that it is, in actuality, not a direct synonym when it is used as a causative verb.

I wait to hear from my original emailer who is presumably on the way to the English teacher’s door, armed with a print out of my reply and a deep desire to be proven correct. And even if the teacher continues to proclaim the accuracy of the sentence, I can take some comfort in knowing that this sort of thing still matters to some people, and that when it comes to the finer points of arguing about language, there’s still no app for that.

[1] Colleagues outside the US may be unfamiliar with the use of the word assist as a noun in the sporting worlds of baseball, basketball, football (not soccer), and hockey. An assist is where one player touches the ball (or puck) in play that then leads to a team-mate scoring. There are even assist rate statistics for players – a sort-of measure of how helpful you are, or how “team spirited” you can be. Beware the sporting prima donnas with low assist scores; they are only in it for themselves!

3 responses to “But Is It Right? The Perils of Parsing

  1. My view would be that it is “the aim” of the course to … etc.
    Surely, the goal is that the students will know something, or be able to do something?

    • Yes, and I’m sure that 99% of the parents and students took it exactly that way. I guess what I find heartening is that at least one parent and child (and I don’t know how old the child is) were curious enough to think about the sentence and do some digging around to see if they could work out what it was that had them feel it was “wrong.” The writer of the email said she’s talked to some other people and consulted dictionaries, and that’s a journey I’d encourage anyone to make. Maybe this kid will go on to be a linguist 😉

  2. Yes, I guess my point is that there may well be an error with the verb ‘assist’, but there is also an error with the word ‘goal’. Indeed, for me the mix-up between ‘goal’ and ‘aim’ is more jarring than the ‘assist’ vs. ‘help’ problem!

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