Arrant Pedantry

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Book Review: Perfect English Grammar

Disclosure: I received a free review PDF of this book from Callisto Media.

perfectenglishgrammar

Grant Barrett, cohost of the public radio program A Way with Words, recently published a book called Perfect English Grammar: The Indispensable Guide to Excellent Writing and Speaking. In it, Barrett sets out to help writers like himself who may not have gotten the best education in grammar or composition in school, ranging from middle-school students to “business professionals and community leaders who need a refresher on grammar points they last thought about decades ago.”

The book is designed as a reference book, something to be pulled out and consulted in those moments when you can’t remember the difference between a present perfect and a past perfect or between an initialism and a conjunction. The book is well organized, with chapters like “Verbs” broken down into topics like person, number, mood, linking verbs, and so on. The different topics are also very clearly marked, with bold colors and clear headings that make it easy to flip through in case you’d rather browse than use the table of contents or index.

Barrett starts with some general principles of writing like writing for your audience rather than yourself, avoiding using a thesaurus to learn fancy new words, and sticking to whichever style guide is appropriate in your field. He then moves on to the basics of composition, with a reminder to be aware of register and some good tips for getting started if you’re feeling stuck.

One weak spot in the chapter on composition was the section on paragraph and essay structure. Though Barrett says that paragraphs don’t have to be a certain length, he says that a paragraph should have a topic sentence, supporting sentences, and a conclusion sentence, and he explains that the classic five-paragraph essay has a similar structure. I’ve never been a fan of the five-paragraph essay as a way to teach composition. Perhaps it’s a necessary stepping-stone on the way to better composition, but to me it always felt more like a straitjacket, designed to keep students from hurting themselves and their teachers. But the chapter ends with some good advice on writing transitions, avoiding common mistakes, and having your work edited.

The later chapters on parts of speech, spelling and style, and sentence structure provide helpful introductions or refreshers to the topics, and I like that Barrett uses more current linguistic terminology. For example, he talks about verb tense and aspect rather than just tense (though I think the explanation of aspect could have been a little clearer), and he groups articles, possessives, quantifiers, and others under determiners. He also defends the passive voice, saying, “Both active and passive voices are essential to everyday writing and speaking. Broadside suggestions that you should avoid the passive voice are misguided and should be ignored.”

Though his treatment of various aspects of grammar is sometimes a little brief, he uses grammar mostly as a way to talk about frequent problem areas for novice writers, and this is where the book is most valuable. You have to have at least a basic understanding of what an independent clause is before you can identify a comma splice, and you have to be able to identify a subject and verb and be aware of some common tricky areas before you can identify a subject-verb agreement problem.

However, I found a few pieces of usage advice a little less helpful. For instance, Barrett advocates the singular they (which I was happy to see) but warns against sentential hopefully—even though it is, as he says, fully grammatical—because some people have been erroneously taught to dislike it. He also recommends following the rule requiring the strict placement of only, which Jan Freeman (among others) addressed here. In that column, published in 2009, Freeman asked for readers to send her examples of truly ambiguous onlys. I was apparently the first person to send her such an example, nearly five years after her column was published.

Most of the usage advice, though, is solid, and some of it is even quite refreshing, like this passage in which he addresses the usual advice about avoiding adverbs: “There is nothing whatsoever intrinsically wrong with adverbs. In fact, avoiding them leads to bland, forgettable writing. You can and should use adverbs.” My biggest complaint with the chapter on usage and style is simply that it is too short; there are many more usage items that a novice writer may need help with that aren’t covered here.

Despite these quibbles, I think the book is full of good advice that will be helpful to both novices and more experienced writers who may need a refresher on basic topics of grammar, usage, and style.

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It’s Not Wrong, but You Still Shouldn’t Do It

A couple of weeks ago, in my post “The Value of Prescriptivism,” I mentioned some strange reasoning that I wanted to talk about later—the idea that there are many usages that are not technically wrong, but you should still avoid them because other people think they’re wrong. I used the example of a Grammar Girl post on hopefully wherein she lays out the arguments in favor of disjunct hopefully and debunks some of the arguments against it—and then advises, “I still have to say, don’t do it.” She then adds, however, “I am hopeful that starting a sentence with hopefully will become more acceptable in the future.”

On the face of it, this seems like a pretty reasonable approach. Sometimes the considerations of the reader have to take precedence over the facts of usage. If the majority of your readers will object to your word choice, then it may be wise to pick a different word. But there’s a different way to look at this, which is that the misinformed opinions of a very small but very vocal subset of readers take precedence over the facts and the opinions of others. Arnold Zwicky wrote about this phenomenon a few years ago in a Language Log post titled “Crazies win”.

Addressing split infinitives and the equivocal advice to avoid them unless it’s better not to, Zwicky says that “in practice, [split infinitive as last resort] is scarcely an improvement over [no split infinitives] and in fact works to preserve the belief that split infinitives are tainted in some way.” He then adds that the “only intellectually justifiable advice” is to “say flatly that there’s nothing wrong with split infinitives and you should use them whenever they suit you”. I agree wholeheartedly, and I’ll explain why.

The problem with the it’s-not-wrong-but-don’t-do-it philosophy is that, while it feels like a moderate, open-minded, and more descriptivist approach in theory, it is virtually indistinguishable from the it’s-wrong-so-don’t-do-it philosophy in practice. You can cite all the linguistic evidence you want, but it’s still trumped by the fact that you’d rather avoid annoying that small subset of readers. It pays lip service to the idea of descriptivism informing your prescriptions, but the prescription is effectively the same. All you’ve changed is the justification for avoiding the usage.

Even more neutral and descriptive pieces like this New York Times “On Language” article on singular they ends with a wistful, “It’s a shame that grammarians ever took umbrage at the singular they,” adding, “Like it or not, the universal they isn’t universally accepted — yet. Its fate is now in the hands of the jury, the people who speak the language.” Even though the authors seem to be avoiding giving out advice, it’s still implicit in the conclusion. It’s great to inform readers about the history of usage debates, but what they’ll most likely come away with is the conclusion that it’s wrong—or at least tainted—so they shouldn’t use it.

The worst thing about this waffly kind of advice, I think, is that it lets usage commentators duck responsibility for influencing usage. They tell you all the reasons why it should be alright to use hopefully or split infinitives or singular they, but then they sigh and put them away in the linguistic hope chest, telling you that you can’t use them yet, but maybe someday. Well, when? If all the usage commentators are saying, “It’s not acceptable yet,” at what point are they going to decide that it suddenly is acceptable? If you always defer to the peevers and crazies, it will never be acceptable (unless they all happen to die off without transmitting their ideas to the next generation).

And furthermore, I’m not sure it’s a worthwhile endeavor to try to avoid offending or annoying anyone in your writing. It reminds me of Aesop’s fable of the man, the boy, and the donkey: people will always find something to criticize, so it’s impossible to behave (or write) in such a way as to always avoid criticism. As the old man at the end says, “Please all, and you will please none.” You can’t please everyone, so you have to make a choice: will you please the small but vocal peevers, or the more numerous reasonable people? If you believe there’s nothing technically wrong with hopefully or singular they, maybe you should stand by those beliefs instead of caving to the critics. And perhaps through your reasonable but firm advice and your own exemplary writing, you’ll help a few of those crazies come around.

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