Arrant Pedantry

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12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Mistakes Makes

There are a lot of bad grammar posts in the world. These days, anyone with a blog and a bunch of pet peeves can crank out a click-bait listicle of supposed grammar errors. There’s just one problem—these articles are often full of mistakes of one sort or another themselves. Once you’ve read a few, you start noticing some patterns. Inspired by a recent post titled “Grammar Police: Twelve Mistakes Nearly Everyone Makes”, I decided to make a list of my own.

1. Confusing grammar with spelling, punctuation, and usage. Many people who write about grammar seem to think that grammar means “any sort of rule of language, especially writing”. But strictly speaking, grammar refers to the structural rules of language, namely morphology (basically the way words are formed from roots and affixes), phonology (the system of sounds in a language), and syntax (the way phrases and clauses are formed from words). Most complaints about grammar are really about punctuation, spelling (such as problems with you’re/your and other homophone confusion) or usage (which is often about semantics). This post, for instance, spends two of its twelve points on commas and a third on quotation marks.

2. Treating style choices as rules. This article says that you should always use an Oxford (or serial) comma (the comma before and or or in a list) and that quotation marks should always follow commas and periods, but the latter is true only in most American styles (linguists often put the commas and periods outside quotes, and so do many non-American styles), and the former is only true of some American styles. I may prefer serial commas, but I’m not going to insist that everyone who doesn’t use them is making a mistake. It’s simply a matter of style, and style varies from one publisher to the next.

3. Ignoring register. There’s a time and a place for following the rules, but the writers of these lists typically treat English as though it had only one register: formal writing. They ignore the fact that following the rules in the wrong setting often sounds stuffy and stilted. Formal written English is not the only legitimate form of the language, and the rules of formal written English don’t apply in all situations. Sure, it’s useful to know when to use who and whom, but it’s probably more useful to know that saying To whom did you give the book? in casual conversation will make you sound like a pompous twit.

4. Saying that a disliked word isn’t a word. You may hate irregardless (I do), but that doesn’t mean it’s not a word. If it has its own meaning and you can use it in a sentence, guess what—it’s a word. Flirgle, on the other hand, is not a word—it’s just a bunch of sounds that I strung together in word-like fashion. Irregardless and its ilk may not be appropriate for use in formal registers, and you certainly don’t have to like them, but as Stan Carey says, “‘Not a word’ is not an argument.”

5. Turning proposals into ironclad laws. This one happens more often than you think. A great many rules of grammar and usage started life as proposals that became codified as inviolable laws over the years. The popular that/which rule, which I’ve discussed at length before, began as a proposal—not “everyone gets this wrong” but “wouldn’t it be nice if we made a distinction here?” But nowadays people have forgotten that a century or so ago, this rule simply didn’t exist, and they say things like “This is one of the most common mistakes out there, and understandably so.” (Actually, no, you don’t understand why everyone gets this “wrong”, because you don’t realize that this rule is a relatively recent invention by usage commentators that some copy editors and others have decided to enforce.) It’s easy to criticize people for not following rules that you’ve made up.

6. Failing to discuss exceptions to rules. Invented usage rules often ignore the complexities of actual usage. Lists of rules such as these go a step further and often ignore the complexities of those rules. For example, even if you follow the that/which rule, you need to know that you can’t use that after a preposition or after the demonstrative pronoun that—you have to use a restrictive which. Likewise, the less/fewer rule is usually reduced to statements like “use fewer for things you can count”, which leads to ugly and unidiomatic constructions like “one fewer thing to worry about”. Affect and effect aren’t as simple as some people make them out to be, either; affect is usually a verb and effect a noun, but affect can also be a noun (with stress on the first syllable) referring to the outward manifestation of emotions, while effect can be a verb meaning to cause or to make happen. Sometimes dumbing down rules just makes them dumb.

7. Overestimating the frequency of errors. The writer of this list says that misuse of nauseous is “Undoubtedly the most common mistake I encounter.” This claim seems worth doubting to me; I can’t remember the last time I heard someone say “nauseous”. Even if you consider it a misuse, it’s got to rate pretty far down the list in terms of frequency. This is why linguists like to rely on data for testable claims—because people tend to fall prey to all kinds of cognitive biases such as the frequency illusion.

8. Believing that etymology is destiny. Words change meaning all the time—it’s just a natural and inevitable part of language. But some people get fixated on the original meanings of some words and believe that those are the only correct meanings. For example, they’ll say that you can only use decimate to mean “to destroy one in ten”. This may seem like a reasonable argument, but it quickly becomes untenable when you realize that almost every single word in the language has changed meaning at some point, and that’s just in the few thousand years in which language has been written or can be reconstructed. And sometimes a new meaning is more useful anyway (which is precisely why it displaced an old meaning). As Jan Freeman said, “We don’t especially need a term that means ‘kill one in 10.’”

9. Simply bungling the rules. If you’re going to chastise people for not following the rules, you should know those rules yourself and be able to explain them clearly. You may dislike singular they, for instance, but you should know that it’s not a case of subject-predicate disagreement, as the author of this list claims—it’s an issue of pronoun-antecedent agreement, which is not the same thing. This list says that “‘less’ is reserved for hypothetical quantities”, but this isn’t true either; it’s reserved for noncount nouns, singular count nouns, and plural count nouns that aren’t generally thought of as discrete entities. Use of less has nothing to do with being hypothetical. And this one says that punctuation always goes inside quotation marks. In most American styles, it’s only commas and periods that always go inside. Colons, semicolons, and dashes always go outside, and question marks and exclamation marks only go inside sometimes.

10. Saying that good grammar leads to good communication. Contrary to popular belief, bad grammar (even using the broad definition that includes usage, spelling, and punctuation) is not usually an impediment to communication. A sentence like Ain’t nobody got time for that is quite intelligible, even though it violates several rules of Standard English. The grammar and usage of nonstandard varieties of English are often radically different from Standard English, but different does not mean worse or less able to communicate. The biggest differences between Standard English and all its nonstandard varieties are that the former has been codified and that it is used in all registers, from casual conversation to formal writing. Many of the rules that these lists propagate are really more about signaling to the grammatical elite that you’re one of them—not that this is a bad thing, of course, but let’s not mistake it for something it’s not. In fact, claims about improving communication are often just a cover for the real purpose of these lists, which is . . .

11. Using grammar to put people down. This post sympathizes with someone who worries about being crucified by the grammar police and then says a few paragraphs later, “All hail the grammar police!” In other words, we like being able to crucify those who make mistakes. Then there are the put-downs about people’s education (“You’d think everyone learned this rule in fourth grade”) and more outright insults (“5 Grammar Mistakes that Make You Sound Like a Chimp”). After all, what’s the point in signaling that you’re one of the grammatical elite if you can’t take a few potshots at the ignorant masses?

12. Forgetting that correct usage ultimately comes from users. The disdain for the usage of common people is symptomatic of a larger problem: forgetting that correct usage ultimately comes from the people, not from editors, English teachers, or usage commentators. You’re certainly entitled to have your opinion about usage, but at some point you have to recognize that trying to fight the masses on a particular point of usage (especially if it’s a made-up rule) is like trying to fight the rising tide. Those who have invested in learning the rules naturally feel defensive of them and of the language in general, but you have no more right to the language than anyone else. You can be restrictive if you want and say that Standard English is based on the formal usage of educated writers, but any standard that is based on a set of rules that are simply invented and passed down is ultimately untenable.

And a bonus mistake:

13. Making mistakes themselves. It happens to the best of us. The act of making grammar or spelling mistakes in the course of pointing out someone else’s mistakes even has a name, Muphry’s law. This post probably has its fair share of typos. (If you spot one, feel free to point it out—politely!—in the comments.)

This post also appears on Huffington Post.

144 Responses to 12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Mistakes Makes

  1. Dawn Loewen says:

    Aside from the bit of overgeneralizing nastiness toward copy editors in #5, this is a fantastic post. I’m going to share it widely. Thanks, Jonathon!

  2. Thanks, Dawn. I’ve toned down the bit about copy editors.

  3. I think “grammar” is an example of a narrowly defined industry term that has had its definition expanded outside of the industry.

    The generalization doesn’t bother me if the intended audience isn’t industry folks, as with so many of these “X grammar mistakes” articles. When the intended audience is industry folks, however, the narrower definition should be used.

  4. Tom Freeman says:

    This is superb, Jonathon, well done!

    Reading number 7 made me think of another error: the recency illusion.

    It’s common to assume that some supposed error is relatively new, maybe the fault of the 1960s or the internet. But this is just a special case of that lazy brand of cultural conservatism that assumes bad things must be new. And it’s often mistaken. For instance: the emphatic, figurative use of ‘literally’ is over 300 years old, and the use of ‘infer’ where some would insist on ‘imply’ is nearly 500. Often, the disparaged usage is much older than the (made-up) rule against it.

  5. woodstockdc says:

    Regarding point number 3: While I agree that language is fluid based on context and what my seem stuffy in one context will be too informal in the other, there has be be a limit to how much language can flex. If you are no longer making yourself understood it seems to me you’ve crossed that line.

  6. Ian Preston says:

    Taking you up on your invitation in #13 and acknowledging my vulnerability to Muphry’s law as much as yours, doesn’t the Oxford comma come before rather than after the ‘and’?

  7. Mededitor says:

    This is a long-overdue addition to the conversation that is constantly begun when someone posts a list of grammar peeves to their Facebook page.

    Number 3, on register, is perhaps the most important observation of all. So much confusion about usage and style errors stems from a lack of awareness of register.

    David Marsh’s new book “For Who the Bell Tolls” should help to repair a lot of the damage done by well-meaning but seriously misguided types like Lynne Truss.

  8. Angelo Lopez says:

    Very well said on number 12!

    I have once asked in english.stackexchange.com forum the question of whether grammar dictates usage or usage dictates grammar. I agree with you that the usage should dictate how words are being constructed. However, most people will say that the question is chicken-and-egg. What do you think about it?

    PS.Written a post for my students regarding this article. Hope you could read it and tell me what you think.

  9. Jonathon, great post! But I find it interesting that you write, “But strictly speaking, ‘grammar’ refers to the structural rules of language, namely morphology, phonology, and syntax.” Yet even though, later in your otherwise very well-thought-out article, you agree that language and usage is constantly evolving, you seem set on a rather prescriptivist definition of what “grammar” is. If, over time, “grammar” has come to mean spelling, punctuation, syntax, usage, and the whole shebang to most users of the word, then maybe that should (or will) in fact be the new definition of “grammar.” Maybe we should let users ultimately define that word too.

  10. Lauren says:

    I’m not sure I agree with #10. I guess I’d say that while good grammar doesn’t necessarily lead to good communication, I do think that poor grammar can lead to poor communication. The example you gave, granted, would not impede communication. However, when people have unclear pronouns/referents in their papers, I find it very difficult to read and understand the content (I’m constantly trying to figure out the antecedents). The same is true for dangling modifiers and many other grammatical issues.

  11. Sherry says:

    I think Arlene makes a very good point.

  12. Thanks, Sherry. I didn’t perhaps state it very well (a couple of grammatical errors in there!), but I’m glad you saw my point.

  13. Jeff says:

    Sometimes, applying an Oxford comma is tantamount to following a rule as opposed to a style:

    “I hosted a party to which I invited two idiots, Bethany and Irene.”

    “I hosted a party to which I invited two idiots, Bathany, and Irene.”

    You might not agree with me, but Bethany and Irene beg to differ.

  14. Emma says:

    Jonathon, I don’t know you at all, but as both a linguist and editor myself (sometime conflicting ideals, I must admit) I much appreciate your concise summary of things that are wrong with grammaticality, correctness, and what language really is. Thanks for sharing it with the world!

  15. Marianne says:

    Thanks for this, I rather enjoyed it. As a self-identifying pedant (though I take it a lot less seriously than I used to, for some of the reasons you’ve pointed out and generally having mellowed) I’d only really add a point about people who go on about “grammar nazis” – it really pisses me off. How about don’t compare people who like thinking about language (even if it gets a bit annoying) to a genocidal political ideology; you have then overtaken the pedant in terms of asshattery.

    I also enjoy swearing; where can one fit that into the grammar/vocab debates? I assume all languages have it, but I could be wrong. I think it’s very useful, but someone commented on something a friend said the other day, suggesting her use of swearing made her argument somehow less valid. We told them to f*ck off.

  16. Adam Rutherford says:

    Dear Jonothon,

    I heartily endorse these 12. I am a BBC Radio 4 presenter, and a scientist, and rather interested in grammar. Earlier this year, I used the word ‘bacteria’ meaning a single cell. We had more complaints about this than, tragically, any other topic covered on this weekly flagship show. Many emails complained angrily about my ignorance, and some called for me to be sacked.
    But we used it as a jumping off point for discussing language evolution the next week (17 minutes in)
    http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b037vb44

    Alas, this only served to provoke more ire, some suggesting that this was merely my covering my mistaken tracks. It wasn’t an error, demonstrably so, as I have written about this very usage in a footnote in a book that mentions bacteria about a hundred times. Anyhoo, in my book, which is about genetics and the origin of life, I make many references to language evolution as a cromulent metaphor for genes and evolution. Heh.

    Cheers

    Adam

  17. Richard Laverick says:

    I had a fantastic English teacher who explained when asked about dialect (central Scotland secondary comp) that dialect was fine but slovenly incomprehensible speech wasn’t, that the use of language is to communicate, if the intended audience comprehends the message then the author has succeeded, regardless of how many rules are broken.

  18. Richard Laverick says:

    Adam I have always believed these pedants would spend time critiquing a message rather than read it, leading me to the idea of a pedant spending time criticising and correcting a message then being blown up by the missile the message was warning them of. Or I havent got a 1st in English from Oxford so bloody well leave my grammar alone.

  19. nina says:

    All good, but it would have been nice if you’d mentioned, in point 10, that “Ain’t no one got time for that” is actually a quotation of Sweet Brown (she spoke this sentence that caused the meme) and that this sentence is actually well-formed in AAVE (African American Vernacular English), a dialect in it’s own right.

  20. Call me a semi-pedant. I think homophone misuse is normally more about grammar than spelling, first. Etymology (as in “decimate,” which I know is the referent word, may not be destiny, but in “specialized” words, should be more of a guide than it is

  21. Renée Paule says:

    Excellent post. Wonderful. Love it.

    As long as the correct message is communicated, what does it matter if it arrives ‘first class’ or not?

  22. Jesse says:

    “irregardless” is not ‘not a word’ but it is a redundant term which renders itself moot.

    “irregardless” means “regard”

  23. Ivan Berger says:

    I wish I’d been able to share this with my former copy editor!

  24. Iain says:

    #12 is absolutely correct. In the absence of a widely-taught grammar and all its attendants, including syntax, spelling and punctuation, we have loss of clarity and precision. That undoubtedly leads to more creative ways to overcome mutual unintelligibility between speakers of an, allegedly, common language. However, it’s just possible that, if there were a light-handed reintroduction of ‘Grammar’ as a school subject, the same creativity might be put to more worthwhile use.

  25. Kel Pero says:

    An interesting article. As that dreaded creature, a copy-editor (and a development editor and proofreader and writer), I have to admit, however, that I often sigh heavily at lists like these.

    Why? Because in the work that people like me do, these well-intentioned pieces rather miss the point. I have had any number of people (usually people with a great deal of formal education, who can actually move easily and freely among language samples/dialects of different degrees of “correctness”) say airily to me that grammar, in the most expansive sense, “doesn’t matter,” and that if people are understood when they speak or write, that’s all that matters. Some actually act as though they were revealing something previously unknown and unthought-of in making such statements.

    Personally, I don’t know anyone in my line of work, or anywhere else, really, who disputes that principle, or who cares about how ancient/recent certain errors are, or who thinks that language use is unaffected by context. Trust me on this one: being relaxed about language usage isn’t actually a problem in Western culture today. What _is_ rather a problem is the fact that many people (often those without the range of experience or degree of formal education of those I mention above) cannot move with ease among different usage contexts, and don’t have the knowledge they need to engage many of the rules at which some people roll their eyes. Does this really matter? Yup. When you’re applying for a job, attempting to assert an opinion among strangers (for instance, in a letter to the editor or any internet equivalent), or making yourself heard and understood among people whose usual usage isn’t the same as yours, you’d better be able to wield all the weapons and instruments of “good” English (or whatever language you’re dealing with), or you may miss your chance and be dismissed as someone whose opinions don’t matter because s/he isn’t very good with (usually written) language. That tends to involve things like knowing that “irregardless” isn’t correct, even if people around you get the jist of what you’re saying when you use it.

    Is this fair? Probably not. But so much of life isn’t. In many, many cases, you’ve just got to knuckle down and do it in the way that is considered “right,” whether or not you feel that’s fair. (And if “right” means you’re writing for an English audience, you leave the punctuation outside the quotation marks; if you’re writing for an American audience, you leave them inside. We have style guides to determine “rightness” in different formal contexts. It’s not an actual dilemma.) Grammar does actually serve to clarify communication (the that/which thing can actually result in confusion if misused), as does punctuation–and that’s to say nothing of the sheer delights of using the “rules” to craft something elegant, articulate, and powerful. Following the rules may not be the only way to do that, but it’s a mighty effective one.

    Hey! I wrote my own tribute to pedantry! I think I’ll start a site by the same name as this one, and just change title a bit–say, “errant pedantry”! Fools! I’ll show them! I’ll show them all! *shakes fist in air in mad-scientist fashion*

    :-D

    Cheers, all, and thanks for this post, Jonathon.

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