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.

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Names, Spelling, and Style

A couple of weeks ago, I had a conversation with Mededitor on Twitter about name spelling and style. It started with a tweet from Grammar Girl linking to an old post of hers on whether you need a comma before “Jr.” She notes that most style guides now leave out the commas. Mededitor opined that the owners of the names, not editors, should get to decide whether or not to use commas. In this follow-up post, Grammar Girl seems to come to the same conclusion:

However, Chicago also states that writers should make a reasonable effort to spell a name the way a person spells it himself or herself, and I presume that also applies to punctuation. In other words, you’re free to insist on the comma before “Jr.” in your own name.

I can see the appeal in this argument, but I have to disagree. As I argued on Twitter and in a comment on that second post, catering to authors’ preferences for commas around “Jr.” creates inconsistency in the text. And it wouldn’t just be authors themselves that we’d have to cater to; what about people mentioned or cited in the text? Should editors spend time tracking down every Jr. or III whose names appear in writing to ask whether they prefer to have their suffixes set off with commas?

Doing so could take enormous amounts of time, and in the end there’s no benefit to the reader (and possibly a detriment in the form of distracting inconsistency), only to some authors’ egos. Further, we’d have to create a style anyway and apply it to all those who had no preference or whose preferences could not be identified. Why pick an arbitrary style for some names and not others? Either the preference matters or it doesn’t. And if it doesn’t matter, that’s what a style choice is for: to save us from wasting our time making countless minor decisions.

But I have a further reason for not wishing to defer to authors’ preferences. As I argued in that same comment, punctuation is not the same thing as spelling. There’s one right way to spell my name: Jonathon Owen. If you write my name Jonathan Owens, you’ve spelled it wrong. There’s no principled reason for spelling it one way or another; that’s just the way it is. But punctuation marks aren’t really part of someone’s name; they’re merely stylistic elements between or around the parts of people’s names to separate them, abbreviate them, or join them.

Punctuation around or in names, however, is often principled, though the principles of punctuation are prone to change over time. “Jr.” was traditionally set off by commas not because the commas were officially part of anyone’s name, but because it was considered parenthetic. As punctuation has become more streamlined, the requirement to set off this particular parenthetic with commas has been dropped by most style guides. And to be blunt, I think the desire of some authors to hang on to the commas is driven mostly by a desire to stick with whatever style they grew up with. It’s not much different from some people’s resistance to switching to one space between sentences.

In the course of the conversation with Mededitor, another point came up: periods after middle initials that don’t stand for anything. Some people insist that you shouldn’t use a period in those cases, because the period signals that the letter is an abbreviation, but The Chicago Manual of Style recommends using a period in all cases regardless. Again, it’s difficult for editors and proofreaders to check and enforce proper punctuation after an initial, and the result is a style that looks inconsistent to the readers. And again, individuals’ preferences are not always clear. Even one of the most famous individuals with only a middle initial, Harry S. Truman, wrote his name inconsistently, as the Harry S. Truman Library points out.

Yes, it’s true that editors can add a list of names to their style sheets to save some time, but checking every single name with an initial against a style sheet—and then looking them up if they’re not on the sheet—still takes time. And what’s the result? Names that occasionally look like they’re simply missing a period after the initial, because the reader will generally have no idea that there’s a reason behind the omission. The result is an error in most readers’ eyes, except for those few in the know.

The fundamental problem with making exceptions to general rules is that readers often has no idea that there are principled reasons behind the exceptions. If they see an apparent inconsistency and can’t quickly figure out a reason for it, then they’ve been needlessly distracted. Does the supposed good done by catering to some individuals’ preference for commas or periods around their names outweigh the harm done by presenting readers the appearance of sloppiness?

I don’t think it does, and this is why I agree with Chicago. I think it’s best—both for editors and for readers—to pick a rule and stick with it.

Update: Mededitor posted a response here, and I want to respond and clarify some points I made here. In that post he says, “I argue for the traditional rule, namely: ‘Make a reasonable attempt to accommodate the conventions by which people spell their own names.'” I want to make it clear that I’m also arguing for the traditional rule. I’m not saying that editors should not worry about the spelling of names. I simply disagree that commas and periods should be considered spelling.

With the exception of apostrophes and hyphens, punctuation is a matter of style, not spelling. The comma in Salt Lake City, Utah is not part of the spelling of the place name; it simply separates the two elements of the name, just as the now-deprecated comma before “Jr.” separates it from the given and family names. Note that the commas disappear if you use one element by itself, and other commas can appear in other contexts, such as when a name is inverted: “Jonathon Owen” becomes “Owen, Jonathon” in an index. This comma is also not part of the spelling of my name; it’s just a piece of punctuation. It’s a style choice.

And those style choices vary and change over time. In the UK, it’s standard practice to omit periods from abbreviations. Thus I’d be Jonathon R Owen in British style. The period in American style is not an element of my middle name that appears when it’s shortened—it’s a style choice that communicates something about my name. But the important thing is that it’s a choice. You can’t choose how to spell my name (though plenty of people have told me that I spell it wrong). But you can choose how to punctuate it to fit a given style.

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It’s All Grammar—So What?

It’s a frequent complaint among linguists that laypeople use the term grammar in such a loose and unsystematic way that it’s more or less useless. They say that it’s overly broad, encompassing many different types of rules, and that it allows people to confuse things as different as syntax and spelling. They insist that spelling, punctuation, and ideas such as style or formality are not grammar at all, that grammar is really just the rules of syntax and morphology that define the language.

Arnold Zwicky, for instance, has complained that grammar as it’s typically used refers to nothing more than a “grab-bag of linguistic peeve-triggers”. I think this is an overly negative view; yes, there are a lot of people who peeve about grammar, but I think that most people, when they talk about grammar, are thinking about how to say things well or correctly.

Some people take linguists’ insistence on the narrower, more technical meaning of grammar as a sign of hypocrisy. After all, they say, with something of a smirk, shouldn’t we just accept the usage of the majority? If almost everyone uses grammar in a broad and vague way, shouldn’t we consider that usage standard? Linguists counter that this really is an important distinction, though I think it’s fair to say that they have a personal interest here; they teach grammar in the technical sense and are dismayed when people misunderstand what they do.

I’ve complained about this myself, but I’m starting to wonder whether it’s really something to worry about. (Of course, I’m probably doubly a hypocrite, what with all the shirts I sell with the word grammar on them.) After all, we see similar splits between technical and popular terminology in a lot of other fields, and they seem to get by just fine.

Take the terms fruit and vegetable, for instance. In popular use, fruits are generally sweeter, while vegetables are more savory or bitter. And while most people have probably heard the argument that tomatoes are actually fruits, not vegetables, they might not realize that squash, eggplants, peppers, peas, green beans, nuts, and grains are fruits too, at least by the botanical definition. And vegetable doesn’t even have a botanical definition—it’s just any part of a plant (other than fruits or seeds) that’s edible. It’s not a natural class at all.

In a bit of editorializing, the Oxford English Dictionary adds this note after its first definition of grammar:

As above defined, grammar is a body of statements of fact—a ‘science’; but a large portion of it may be viewed as consisting of rules for practice, and so as forming an ‘art’. The old-fashioned definition of grammar as ‘the art of speaking and writing a language correctly’ is from the modern point of view in one respect too narrow, because it applies only to a portion of this branch of study; in another respect, it is too wide, and was so even from the older point of view, because many questions of ‘correctness’ in language were recognized as outside the province of grammar: e.g. the use of a word in a wrong sense, or a bad pronunciation or spelling, would not have been called a grammatical mistake. At the same time, it was and is customary, on grounds of convenience, for books professedly treating of grammar to include more or less information on points not strictly belonging to the subject.

There are a few points here to consider. The definition of grammar has not been solely limited to syntax and morphology for many years. Once it started branching out into notions of correctness, it made sense to treat grammar, usage, spelling, and pronunciation together. From there it’s a short leap to calling the whole collection grammar, since there isn’t really another handy label. And since few people are taught much in the way of syntax and morphology unless they’re majoring in linguistics, it’s really no surprise that the loose sense of grammar predominates. I’ll admit, however, that it’s still a little exasperating to see lists of grammar rules that everyone gets wrong that are just spelling rules or, at best, misused words.

The root of the problem is that laypeople use words in ways that are useful and meaningful to them, and these ways don’t always jibe with scientific facts. It’s the same thing with grammar; laypeople use it to refer to language rules in general, especially the ones they’re most conscious of, which tend to be the ones that are the most highly regulated—usage, spelling, and style. Again, issues of syntax, morphology, semantics, usage, spelling, and style don’t constitute a natural class, but it’s handy to have a word that refers to the aspects of language that most people are conscious of and concerned with.

I think there still is a problem, though, and it’s that most people generally have a pretty poor understanding of things like syntax, morphology, and semantics. Grammar isn’t taught much in schools anymore, so many people graduate from high school and even college without much of an understanding of grammar beyond spelling and mechanics. I got out of high school without knowing anything more advanced than prepositional phrases. My first grammar class in college was a bit of a shock, because I’d never even learned about things like the passive voice or dependent clauses before that point, so I have some sympathy for those people who think that grammar is mostly just spelling and punctuation with a few minor points of usage or syntax thrown in.

So what’s the solution? Well, maybe I’m just biased, but I think it’s to teach more grammar. I know this is easier said than done, but I think it’s important for people to have an understanding of how language works. A lot of people are naturally interested in or curious about language, and I think we do those students a disservice if all we teach them is never to use infer for imply and to avoid the passive voice. Grammar isn’t just a set of rules telling you what not to do; it’s also a fascinatingly complex and mostly subconscious system that governs the singular human gift of language. Maybe we just need to accept the broader sense of grammar and start teaching people all of what it is.

Addendum: I just came across a blog post criticizing the word funner as bad grammar, and my first reaction was “That’s not grammar!” It’s always easier to preach than to practice, but my reaction has me reconsidering my laissez-faire attitude. While it seems handy to have a catch-all term for language errors, regardless of what type they are, it also seems handy—probably more so—to distinguish between violations of the regulative rules and constitutive rules of language. But this leaves us right where we started.

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