Arrant Pedantry

By

It’s just a joke. But no, seriously.

I know I just barely posted about the rhetoric of prescriptivism, but it’s still on my mind, especially after the recent post by David Bentley Hart and the responses by response by John E. McIntyre (here and here) and Robert Lane Greene. I know things are just settling down, but my intent here is not to throw more fuel on the fire, but to draw attention to what I believe is a problematic trend in the rhetoric of prescriptivism. Hart claims that his piece is just some light-hearted humor, but as McIntyre, Greene, and others have complained, it doesn’t really feel like humor.

That is, while it is clear that Hart doesn’t really believe that the acceptance of solecisms leads to the acceptance of cannibalism, it seems that he really does believe that solecisms are a serious problem. Indeed, Hart says, “Nothing less than the future of civilization itself is at issue—honestly—and I am merely doing my part to stave off the advent of an age of barbarism.” If it’s all a joke, as he says, then this statement is somewhat less than honest. And as at least one person says in the comments, Hart’s style is close to self-parody. (As an intellectual exercise, just try to imagine what a real parody would look like.) Perhaps I’m just being thick, but I can only see two reasons for such a style: first, it’s a genuine parody designed to show just how ridiculous the peevers are, or second, it’s a cover for genuine peeving.

I’ve seen this same phenomenon at work in the writings of Lynne Truss, Martha Brockenbrough, and others. They make some ridiculously over-the-top statements about the degenerate state of language today, they get called on it, and then they or their supporters put up the unassailable defense: It’s just a joke, see? Geez, lighten up! Also, you’re kind of a dimwit for not getting it.

That is, not only is it a perfect defense for real peeving, but it’s a booby-trap for anyone who dares to criticize the peever—by refusing to play the game, they put themselves firmly in the out group, while the peeve-fest typically continues unabated. But as Arnold Zwicky once noted, the “dead-serious advocacy of what [they take] to be the standard rules of English . . . makes the just-kidding defense of the enterprise ring hollow.” But I think it does more than just that: I think it undermines the credibility of prescriptivism in general. Joking or not, the rhetoric is polarizing and admits of no criticism. It reinforces the notion that “Discussion is not part of the agenda of the prescriptive grammarian.”[1] It makes me dislike prescriptivism in general, even though I actually agree with several of Hart’s points of usage.

As I said above, the point of this post was not to reignite a dying debate between Hart and his critics, but to draw attention to what I think is a serious problem surrounding the whole issue. In other words, I may not be worried about the state of the language, but I certainly am worried about the state of the language debate.

  1. [1] James Milroy, “The Consequences of Standardisation in Descriptive Linguistics,” in Standard English: The Widening Debate, ed. Tony Bex and Richard J. Watts (New York: Routledge, 1999), 21.

By

Reflections on National Grammar Day

I know I’m a week late to the party, but I’ve been thinking a lot about National Grammar Day and want to blog about it anyway. Please forgive me for my untimeliness.

First off, I should say for those who don’t know me that I work as a copy editor. I clearly understand the value of using Standard American English when it is called for, and I know its rules and conventions quite well. I’m also a student of linguistics, and I find language fascinating. I understand the desire to celebrate language and to promote its good use, but unfortunately it appears that National Grammar Day does neither.

If you go to National Grammar Day’s web site and click on “About SPOGG” at the top of the page, you find this:

The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar is for pen-toters appalled by wanton displays of Bad English. . . . SPOGG is for people who crave good, clean English — sentences cast well and punctuated correctly. It’s about clarity.

I can get behind those last two sentences (noting, of course, this description seems to exclude spoken English), but the first obviously flies in the face of the society’s name—is it trying to promote “good” (read “standard”) grammar, or simply ridicule what it deems to be displays of bad English? Well, if you read the SPOGG Blog, it appears to be the latter. None of the posts on the front page seem to deal with clarity; in each case it seems quite clear what the author intended, so obviously SPOGG is not about clarity after all.

In fact, what I gather from this post in particular is that SPOGG is more about the social value of using Standard English than it is about anything else. The message here is quite clear: using nonstandard English is like having spinach in your teeth. It’s like wearing a speedo on the bus. SPOGG isn’t about good, clean English or about clarity. It’s only about mocking those who violate a set of taboos. By following the rules, you signal to others that you belong to a certain group, one whose members care about linguistic manners in the same way that some people care about not putting their elbows on the table while they eat.

And that’s perfectly fine with me. If you delight in fussy little rules about spelling and punctuation, that’s your choice. But I think it’s important to distinguish between the rules that are truly important and the guidelines and conventions that are more flexible and optional. John McIntyre made this point quite well in his post today on his blog, You Don’t Say.

Unfortunately, I find that SPOGG’s founder, Martha Brockenbrough, quite frequently fails to make this distinction. She also shows an appalling lack of knowledge on issues like how language changes, what linguists do, and, to top it all off, what grammar actually is. Of course, she falls back on the “Geez, can’t you take a joke?” defense, which doesn’t really seem to fly, as Arnold Zwicky and others have already noted.

As I said at the start, I can appreciate the desire to celebrate grammar. I just wish National Grammar Day actually did that.

By

Grammar quiz

From time to time, websites such as MSN and Yahoo challenge their readers to quizzes on grammar, spelling, and punctuation. These quizzes are often written more to stump than to educate, so the questions are worded in confusing ways, and the answers are masked in vagueness to the point where even those who know the answer get the question wrong.

A recent grammar quiz was so chock full of errors that I, being on the nitpicky side of things myself, felt a need to address. Let’s look at the directions first, followed by each question individually.

Directions

Judge the quality of the writing in the questions below. Look for wordiness, misplaced modifiers, passive constructions, incorrect word choice, and problems with parallelism and punctuation. Potential errors are underlined.

Considering this is a grammar quiz, I take issue with the first sentence. Grammar comprises morphology and syntax, neither of which has much to do with the quality of a person’s writing. I’ve known plenty of people who have good syntax whose writing leaves much to be desired.

The second sentence of the directions gives a laundry list of potential errors: “wordiness, misplaced modifiers, passive constructions, incorrect word choice, and problems with parallelism and punctuation.” Some of these issues are related to grammar, namely misplaced modifiers, passive constructions, and problems with parallelism. Wordiness, incorrect word choice, and punctuation have nothing to do with grammar and should have been left out of this quiz. But perhaps I shouldn’t be so picky; after all, grammar has come to be used as an umbrella term for everything an editor or red-pen-happy teacher might change or judge about our use of language.

Question 1

As the gamekeeper at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry (a), enjoying the great outdoors (b) was easy for Hagrid (c) and his magical creatures.
a) The error is here.
b) The error is here.
c) The error is here.
d) The sentence is correct.

The answer to this one is easy. Since the subject of the main clause is enjoying, it should be the noun that the first phrase modifies. But enjoying is not the gamekeeper of Hogwarts; Hagrid is. Therefore, we have a misplaced modifier. Easy enough.

But what’s up with the sentence in the first place? “Enjoying the great outdoors was easy for Hagrid and his magical creatures?” Have you heard anyone talk like that before? I mean, really. Enjoying reading is easy for me. Talk about wordiness (which, as I recall, is one of the things we’re supposed to be looking for). It’s obvious the awkward sentence was concocted just so it could have a misplaced modifier.

Question 2

The reason she’s (a) sleeping is because (b) she’s tired (c).

Note: In the future, I won’t include the options with the question since they are identical to the ones in question 1.

The answer to this question is b. The reasoning, according to grammar police, is that it’s redundant to use “the reason is” with “because,” since they define because as “for the reason that.” The correct wording would be, “The reason is . . . that. . . . ” (There are convoluted, ultimately groundless grammatical arguments against the phrase as well, which I’ll spare you for the sake of keeping this post as brief as possible.)

I, on the other hand, firmly believe that there is nothing wrong with the construction. It’s only redundant insomuch as you define because in precisely that way. But if you look at Merriam Webster’s second definition of because, you’ll see that it can also mean “the fact that.” Also note that this exact construction is used as an example.

One good way to tell whether a usage rule is worth anything is to see whether the alternative is more awkward than the “bad” usage. For instance, the admonition against ending sentences with prepositions often results in horrid workarounds that are harder to understand than the original, preposition-ending version would have been. In this case, I’d wager that if you tried to change “because” to “that” in your speech whenever you use “the reason is,” you’d find it surprisingly awkward and difficult to do. This is another example of pedants frowning on a natural, comfortable way of wording a sentence just because it makes them feel smart to have “noticed” the “error.”

Question 3

The three-piece suit (a) was taken to the dry cleaner (b) by the maid, (c) but picked up by the butler.

This question has several problems. The error in section b is “was taken,” which is a passive construction. Never mind that passive voice isn’t necessarily wrong or that it’s nearly impossible to tell whether it’s appropriate or not out of context. Brockenbrough warned us in her directions that we should look for passive voice, so it’s fair game in this question. But the bigger problem is that “[was] picked up by the butler” is also passive, so c is an equally acceptable answer. Too bad the quiz only allows you to pick one.

Finally, the comma before “but picked up” is unnecessary. Commas are needed before conjunctions only when the conjunctions link two complete sentences. “Picked up by the butler” is a verb phrase, not a sentence, so the comma should have been left out.

Question 4

I’m a (a) cowboy (b), on a steel horse I ride (c).

Are you stumped by this one? So was I. The obvious error is the comma, which should be a semicolon. But it’s not underlined. That makes “cowboy” and “on a steel horse I ride” equal contenstants, since they surround the error. I picked the latter, since, I figured, if it had a conjunction of some kind in it, the comma would be all right. I should have picked the former, I guess because it’s closer to the comma. Maybe it was just a typo, and the comma should have been included in the underlining for “cowboy.” It’s a pretty sloppy typo for a quiz that compares itself to the SAT, though.

Question 5

They’re (a) dream house burned (b) to the ground last week (c).

This is a good question. I’ve seen some pretty intelligent people mix up there, they’re, and their. (The answer is a, by the way.)

Question 6

Rarely is (a) the question asked, (b) “Is our children (c) learning?”

Did anyone actually miss this one? If you’re like most people, “Is our children” sounds positively alien to your ears, as well it should. Many actual grammatical errors sound like this one. Believe it or not, you know English grammar pretty well. You know that children are, not is, for instance, without looking it up or second-guessing yourself. You’d probably know just as well that “Our is children learning?” is bad grammar. My biggest beef with this question is that it seems too easy to belong on this test.

Beyond that, “Rarely is the question asked” is a passive construction. If you’re supposed to correct the passive in question 3, why not in this question as well?

Question 7

The general consensus (a) is that elephants mourn (b) their dead (c).

If you want to be really picky, you’ll notice that a consensus is already general, so the word general is redundant. It’s like talking about a big elephant. At the same time, I don’t personally mind if people say “general consensus” (or “big elephant,” for that matter) for many of the same reasons I don’t have a problem with “the reason is because.” There’s a shade of difference, at least for me, between consensus and general consensus. After all, a consensus among experts isn’t the same as a general consensus. Sometimes it’s important to distinguish that a particular elephant is the big one; sometimes it isn’t. It’s impossible to say out of context whether something that appears redundant actually is.

Question 8

Look besides (a) the television; (b) the phone book is there (c).

I have the same problem with this that I had with question 6. No native English speaker would ever make this mistake. As such, it’s a pointless, unchallenging question.

Question 9

The professor taught John and I (a) the difference between (b) right and wrong (c).

This is the best question in the whole quiz, in my opinion. It’s tricky because everyone’s been taught that you’re supposed to say “John and I,” not “John and me.” Right? But take John out of the sentence. Suddenly it becomes clear that “The professor taught I” is wrong. Sometimes it’s right to say “John and me,” and this is one of those times.

I’m so thrilled that she included this question that I won’t nitpick the fact that I hope most people learn the difference between right and wrong before they get to college.

Question 10

Known by some as “terrible lizards,” carnivorous dinosaurs ate meat, laid eggs, and tore the flesh of their prey with sharp claws and teeth.

Did you catch that pesky passive again? “Known by some” is apparently less appalling to Brockenbrough than “was taken by the maid” because the answer to this question is that there’s nothing wrong with it. Not that I have a problem with the passive, of course, but let’s be consistent at least.

And if you’re going to frown on apparent redundancies like “the reason is because” and “general consensus,” then surely you’ll take issue with “carnivorous dinosaurs ate meat.” Also, the sentence seems to imply that only carnivorous dinosaurs laid eggs and were known as terrible lizards, when both of these facts apply to all dinosaurs. Finally, tearing the flesh of prey is something that all carnivores do, so it is doubly redundant. Here’s a perfect example of a sentence with decent grammar yet much to be desired in the quality of the writing.

The moral of the story, dear readers, is that you shouldn’t trust everything you read on the internet. We’re all pretty self-conscious that our use of English will make us sound dumb to some grammarian who might be listening in, but here’s a secret: sometimes it’s the grammarians who make mistakes. There, doesn’t that make you feel better about the time your third-grade teacher wrote all over your report with red pen?

%d bloggers like this: