November 18, 2013

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 (and, as a commenter notes, it’s perfectly grammatical in African American Vernacular 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.

Grammar, Prescriptivism, Usage 145 Replies to “12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Mistakes Makes”
Jonathon Owen
Jonathon Owen


145 thoughts on “12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Mistakes Makes

    Author’s gravatar

    I red the hole powst and thort it was grate.

    So easy to ‘pompost’ about things – did it myself once; still feel the blood rise now and then on encountering a learned ‘thou-shalt-not’ but think, hey-man chills-ville and all is well again.

    I guess it can be addictive, the rush of blood to the head that comes from putting a wrong to right and educating the great unwashed.

    Sigh….those where the days.

    I expect in some years to come ‘u’ will be correct and ‘you’ will be a great faux-pas; requiring weeks in a corrective institute where your thumbs will be greatly strengthened too.

    Author’s gravatar

    While I heartily agree with the thrust and specifics of your post, I found myself stumbling over the lack of use vs referent indicators (I do realize that it is difficult to stumble over something that isn’t there). Your discusussion of “less” and “fewer” is one example. I had to reread clauses and sentences because it wasn’t clear when encountering a word if I should switch meaning modes to understand your p I int.

    Author’s gravatar

    Great reminder that communicating clearly should be the ultimate goal of any writing. However, it is not difficult these days to separate oneself through clear thought and competent execution, and I do appreciate when I see it in others.

    Author’s gravatar

    Now at home instead of out in the world and discovered that my criticism (about use vs referent markers) doesn’t always apply. I was originally reading on a smartphone and the browser is apparently very stupid — er, very non-standards compliant. I find this very surprising as bold and italics should be the simple stuff, not whether Flash of DHTML is supported. With the rise in smartphone usage, are we at a point similar to when typewriters began to take over and underline and CAPS had to make do?

    Author’s gravatar

    Oh, Ms. Freeman is wrong, wrong, wrong on “decimate.” To misuse it fosters misunderstanding of Roman history. Besides, we have the perfectly good Latin terms “exterminate” and “obliterate” to express what most people wrongly express with “decimate.”

    Besides that, she’s also wrong on “brackish.” I would NEVER use that word for “muddy” or “admixtured” or something like that.

    And, if you want to rail on pedants, why didn’t you mention “gauntlet” being used for “gantlet,” an error I abhor?

    And, was “Murphy’s Law” deliberately misspelled?

    Oh, and thumbs up to Kel Pero and G Hewitt.

    Author’s gravatar

    This is a great article that addresses many of the issues I see on a daily basis. I think taking dialect into account is extremely important. We exist in a time where I think language is becoming more fluid than ever and the future of English has a lot of shaping to occur.

    Author’s gravatar

    Thanks for the props, SG. I definitely agree on “decimate” and “brackish,” although I can see how, especially with the former, the meaning has broadened in general usage; decimation carries a notion of devastation that I think has extended to encompass complete ruin. But “gantlet” and “gauntlet” have been variants of each other–with gauntlet largely winning out–for so long now that I’m not bothered by it. Interesting to know if people know the difference in the actual objects, though, when they’re using the terms “run the gauntlet (gantlet)” vs. “throw down the gauntlet.”

    Author’s gravatar

    Regarding #1, what kind of mistake is exhibited in #2? In “linguists often put the commas and quotes outside”, it seems “and quotes” should be “and periods”. If you’re going to harangue people about making mistakes, you should try to eliminate the ones you make yourself.

    Author’s gravatar

    Just got to #13. Hahahahah!

    Author’s gravatar

    Nice post. Thank you.

    I’m a bit of a grammar cop, but I do understand register. Sometimes “ain’t” is exactly the right word to use and “isn’t” isn’t. I’m also fond of “y’all” in informal speech and despite having spent very little time south of the Mason-Dixon line, I can concisely and correctly explain the difference between “y’all” and “all y’all.”

    The original point I came here to make was made quite nicely by Arlene above.

    Author’s gravatar

    I concur wholeheartedly with your submissions, but I don’t agree completely with your philosophy on language.

    Standard English seems to adhere to an academic standard; therefore, would it not be the preferred register? After all, everyone strives to be educated, as everyone tries to make money. In other words we will always have distinctions, and some seem to be better than others

    Author’s gravatar

    I like this… lots of common sense. But while I like french window, french polishing and yorkshire pudding I would have written Oxford comma.

    Author’s gravatar

    SocraticGadfly writes ”To misuse it fosters misunderstanding of Roman history.” Why do I have to know about Roman history to use English? Etymologies are not definitions. “Miniature” is from a Latin word meaning “to make red”. “nice” used to mean “ignorant”. “deer” used to mean “animal”. All very interesting, but irrelevant to how English. Is used.

    Author’s gravatar

    Etymology is often used to demonstrate what the writer considers to be the “real” meaning
    of a word, effectively changing the subject.

    Author’s gravatar

    Jonathon, thanks for this.
    In 1999, I wrote an article for an online English-Sky-is-Falling publication, which of course was antithetical to my deeply held anti-descriptivism. It’s a bit dated, but mostly holds up. I wrote it in a style I thought the readers would not be able to attack because it was like theirs, one of pedantry. I thought it would help prevent attacks based on anything but the content.
    It argues around for a while and concludes by essentially warning people to get over their bigotry, since after all, that is the main reason for prescriptivism.
    It is here:
    Thanks again.

    Author’s gravatar

    Let’s make flirgle a word. Any ideas for a definition? An obvious candidate is “to haggle flirtatiously“, but there may be better ones.

    Author’s gravatar

    To Pagliere:
    I partially read your post on the link you submitted, only partially, because its content was tautological. (By the way, I think you erred when you wrote: “…my deeply held anti-descriptivism.” Unless you’re in denial.)

    As you wrote: “ For decades and even centuries, these arguments have been thrown in vain in the way of relentless language change.” That statement in itself is centuries old; the declaration works both ways.

    I don’t understand why descriptivists, who constantly denounce prescriptivists, articulate by adhering to prescriptive grammar. Your argument, and that of descriptivists, is a straw man argument. For everyone, to ad nauseam, is knowledgeable on the evolution (change) of language, but many are also aware, and concerned, of its deterioration; these are two antithetical arguments.

    Prescriptivists have also debunked the split-infinitive-and-ending-a-sentences-with-preposition rules, another reiteration from descriptivists, because of their dearth in ammunition.

    Your comments concerning Safire, Newman, Simon et al. are misguided and inaccurate. If these pundits had a more liberal view on language, regardless of their accreditations, you would have undoubtedly commended their viewpoints with endless encomiums.

    As Steve Pinker (your ally) declared: “…no one ever said that linguistics can settle questions of usage…” Therefore, a Safire or a Simon may know more about grammar and proper usage than a Pinker, Crystal et al.

    Author’s gravatar

    Dear Jeff:

    “I invited two idiots to my party: Bethany and Irene.”
    “I invited Bethany, Irene and two idiots to my party.”
    There really is no need for a serial comma if you think before you write.

    Author’s gravatar

    The thing is, bad ‘grammar’ (in the non-technical usage) actually does impede communication, because the people who use ‘grammar’ as a status symbol will stop listening to and respecting the person trying to communicate.

    Author’s gravatar

    To Richard. Thanks for catching the mistake. Of course I meant anti-prescriptivism.
    I think I know what you mean by “deterioration of language”. And I think I’m sure it doesn’t exist.
    I’m happy you think “prescriptivists have also debunked the split-infinitive-and-ending-a-sentences-with-preposition rules” but I must say I don’t think it’s all of them.
    You say, “If these pundits had a more liberal view on language, regardless of their accreditations, you would have undoubtedly commended their viewpoints…” That seems obvious.
    I agree that linguistics can’t “settle questions of usage.” I would say that it can help describe them.
    Safire and Simon may know a lot, but they should study linguistics.

    Author’s gravatar

    Thanks for a job well done. I have a few pet peeves I’d like to add. For one, the adverb seems to have lost its final ‘ly’. Secondly, infinitive are being split in gay abandon. I offer thr opening lines of Star Trek, which ‘boldly goes.’ My finanal peeve is the use of impact to meean affect or effect, depending on your statement above.
    Thank you for your clarification, and for a place to put in my 2 cents

    Author’s gravatar

    To Pagliere:

    One doesn’t need to study linguistics to better understand(split infinitive) standard grammar, or to improve one’s writing. Nevertheless, linguistics is a fascinating subject and certainly can facilitate one’s interest and comprehension of grammar.

    Yes, linguistics can help describe questions of usage, but so can a well written and comprehensive book on grammar.

    You’re correct not all prescriptivists countenance the usage of a split infinitive or the preposition at the end of a sentence, just as not all linguists think that language is not deteriorating.

    It’s interesting though that you admit that if Safire, Simon etc. had a more liberal view on language you would not contest their accreditation. Admitting that you’re only contesting their position because it counters yours, not because they lack credentials.

    It seems your views are more idealistic than pragmatic.

    P.S. By the way, William Safire passed away four years ago, he will not be able to study linguistics, and I’m so happy he didn’t.

    Author’s gravatar

    Nice post. Might I add my frustration with those who say “never end your sentence in a preposition”?

    Also, the whether/if pedants are annoying.

    Author’s gravatar

    Richard, you seem to enjoy picking nits and, I’m beginning to believe, fights.

    Of course, “one doesn’t need to study linguistics to better understand(split infinitive) standard grammar, or to improve one’s writing.” You don’t need to be a car historian or mechanic to drive well. But it does help if you are going to give speeches and hand down Truths about the history or mechanics of cars. Please don’t be going down some nit-filled rabbit hole about the loose metaphor here.)

    How nice that we agree: “Nevertheless, linguistics is a fascinating subject and certainly can facilitate one’s interest and comprehension of grammar” and “Yes, linguistics can help describe questions of usage, but so can a well written and comprehensive book on grammar.” I’d go further to say linguistics can also facilitate knowledge about the history, structure, and workings of language. BTW, my favorite book on grammar is Quirk and Greenbaum.

    You say, “You’re correct not all prescriptivists countenance the usage of a split infinitive or the preposition at the end of a sentence.” I, or was it you?, meant to say that there exist some prescriptivists who do countenance those things. Not a biggie.

    It is not at all interesting that I would admit that I would praise anyone for a more liberal view on language. As I wrote, that seems obvious. As for “admitting that you’re only contesting their position because it counters yours, not because they lack credentials,” I don’t quite follow. I contest their position because it counters mine, period. I repeat, that seems obvious. I _also_ believe that they lack credentials. What bothers me most about the Linguistic Police is that they use their positions (credentials or no) to perpetuate untruths and bigotry.

    The nit about William Safire being dead — a cute gotcha regarding my verb tense usage — and therefore not able to study linguistics is odd to me. And perhaps you’re joking when you say (notwithstanding your statement about “linguistics being fascinating” and all that) that you are happy a man didn’t learn something that would have informed his well-published words on a subject. I prefer people study linguistics, and more generally, that they learn more about everything they can, while they have a chance.
    BTW, you did notice that though I might have, I didn’t go after your use the present tense “lack” for Safire and Simon. Oh, I guess I did. See, how silly that was?

    I was going to ignore, but can’t seem to now, the following two bits from your earlier post: “For everyone, to ad nauseam, is knowledgeable on the evolution (change) of language…” and “I don’t understand why descriptivists, who constantly denounce prescriptivists, articulate by adhering to prescriptive grammar.” As to the first, surely you know not everyone is knowledgeable on the evolution of language. As to the second, I don’t understand the statement at all. You can explain if you will, but I gotta go. I have a full day of not picking fights ahead of me.

    Author’s gravatar

    Richard, I almost can’t be bothered to point this out, but I can’t bear not to. It’s the pedant in me. Sasha meant to add two people in the second example. The point of Jeff’s post was that if you place the commas a certain way (“two idiots, Bethany, and Irene”), you might well be talking about four people. If you are a slavish adherent of the Oxford comma, though, you might not. The point of Sasha’s examples is to show how, by rethinking the sentence, you can remove any ambiguity.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.