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.

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

  1. Alan Pagliere says:

    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.

  2. Alice says:

    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.

  3. Kate says:

    If language is defined by users, what’s the point of learning correct spelling, punctuation, etc.?

    Not a fan of this relativist chaos. Learn the rules, use them. Good grammar is not a “status symbol” – it is the clearest way to communicate.

  4. Georgia says:

    I love this list, both as a descriptive linguist and a lover of precision in language and punctuation. I did notice one error, which perhaps was intentional – what exactly is Muphry’s Law?

    Thank you for this – it’s getting a lot of praise in the linguistic community for sure!

  5. Sasha says:

    Thank you, Alice.

  6. Richard says:

    To Alice:

    Thank you for the clarification.

    The confusion is more about a poorly constructed sentence, rather than a misplaced comma, or the Oxford comma.

    “I invited Bethany, Irene, and two idiots to my party.” This sentence indicates that four people are invited to the party; there is no equivocation.

    Your example: “Two idiots, Bethany, and Irene” identifies the two idiots, Bethany and Irene, it does not specify four people. Regardless a poorly constructed sentence.

  7. Devo says:

    I am curious about why you choose to place your periods outside of quotation marks. Although not every style guide may demand placing the closing punctuation within the quotation (which is news to me, although I am Canadian, so that may be the reason), I know of none that demand it be placed outside (unless there is a citation, of course, in MLA or APA). If even all other things were equal, would not aesthetics alone favour placing the period or comma within? Compare:
    “Quotation”.
    “Quotation.”
    “Mentioned word”.
    “Mentioned word.”
    “Scare quotes”.
    “Scare quotes.”

  8. goofy says:

    Kate, it’s not chaos. When you learn spelling and punctuation, you’re following the conventions used by the writers who came before you. No one is saying it doesnt matter how you spell and punctuate. What I would say is that there is sometimes no One Right Way. There is often some variety allowed, depending on the register.

  9. Warner says:

    On #2, the period inside or outside quotes (I forget which) is from printing – on movable type. One is physically less damaging to the piece of type than the other.

    This also holds true for the matrices used by a Linotype machine.

    This from my father who was a printer (typographer specifically).

    Modern, computer based printing, is indifferent to this.

  10. Autumn says:

    As someone who adheres to The Subversive Copy Editor ethos, thank you.

  11. James Taylor says:

    🙂

    Sometimes the best response is completely non-verbal.

  12. Thomas says:

    On point nine for singular ‘they’, I wouldn’t describe this use as an issue at all if I’m reporting how speakers or writers are using the word. To describe this use is to see that there are two different pronouns or two separate words being both uttered and understood who happen to share the same form. In everyday speech, singular ‘they’ is not confused with a plural pronoun. I’ve witnessed this speech behaviour even from English professors even during a discussion in which they’re criticising singular ‘they’. There is a ‘they’ singular and the predicate it agrees with also seems (but only seems) plural to us; however, if we’re describing English usage then we recognise that this predicate is singular as well. The predicate only looks plural.

  13. Thomas says:

    And I love this blog entry so thank you. It addresses a common frustration I have with the absence of linguistics and grammar comprehension in language and literature education.

  14. Jane Lienau says:

    I love your points, and agree with them…mostly. I teach Latin, Greek, and sometimes English in a public high school, and feel that I have a duty as a pedant. I do a whole lot of correcting the colloquial world of student chatting (who/whom, split infinitives, post-positive howevers), knowing how annoying that is. As a teacher of grammar, usage, syntax, and rhetoric, though, I feel vigiliance to be my duty. If nothing else, a student walks out of my door with an echo of precision in his subconscious. When he writes that important letter to a college or potential employer, the echo may resurface and save him from looking ill-educated.

  15. Susan Peterson says:

    What about language changes that did not involve a gradual change of usage, but were pushed in academia in order to push a political, or essentially philosophical point? I am referring to the use of they, and especially “their” to refer to a subject which is clearly singular, when the sex is unknown, or more recently, even when the sex is known. ” The client will have *their* case reviewed every six months. ” And even when Sally Smith is the client in question, the treatment plan will still be written using “their.” “The client will discuss their feelings…the client will learn new coping skills to deal with their work environment.” And on Facebook “John shared their photograph.” My children have even been corrected by high school and community college teachers for writing correct sentences, such as that of the writer above. “a student walks out of my door with an echo of precision in his subconscious.” This would be returned with a big red circle around the “his” and “their” written next to it. This truly makes me want to scream, or cry. I have actually felt glad that my remaining lifespan is no more than 20 or 25 years, since I have to live in a world where people write this way.

  16. DB says:

    Fine, just don’t tell immigrants to “learn to speak English” if you either can’t or won’t use proper grammar!

  17. Goofy says:

    Susan, “their” with a singular antecedent whose gender is unknown is not part of a plan to push a political point. It’s been part of English for about 600 years.

  18. Mededitor says:

    Muphry’s Law is deliberately misspelled. It states, approximately, that “Any post that attempts to correct an instance of grammatical error will, invariably, contain a grammatical error.”

  19. Tricia says:

    We don’t need a word that means “kill one in ten” but we also don’t need a word that means “all but completely destroy/devastate” which is how it’s used. What decimate really gets at is it was an overly harsh punishment Roman officers could order against their own subordinates. Perhaps if we kept a word for this alive, it would remind political parties to stop shooting themselves in the foot.

  20. Chris says:

    Ha! This sort of descriptive approach to writing (along with a healthy dose of criticism toward/awareness of watching one’s back in certain environments) is exactly what I teach in my college composition classes. The result? Students who move forward with confidence and, based on emails following graduation years later, claims that my courses were a major factor in some students’ ultimate success.

    This post is rebellious and lovely.

  21. Richard says:

    To Pagliere:

    Alan, I don’t enjoy nit-picking or fights, I’m just countering your vague declarations; there is no need to be defensive. It was not a nit-pick concerning Safire, I was just informing you that he had passed away, if perhaps you were not aware of it. (A forgetfulness of which we’re all guilty).

    You seemed compelled to accuse me of the same error, however, your faultfinding is incorrect. For I used the example of Safire and Simon in the present tense in the context of your denunciation, which was the tense that you used in your assertion. Keep in mind; John Simon is still alive and well. I’m not familiar with your credentials, but if they’re remotely close to Simon’s then perhaps your criticisms can be acknowledged, regardless of their merit.

    Simon’s opinions, or those of many prescriptivists, are not “untruths”, they’re opinions and their opinions have as much validity as yours. Bigotry is a very provocative word to use as loosely as you have, but it weakens your argument and demonstrates perhaps your own bigotry.

    You’re obviously not understanding the difference between linguistics and usage. If one wants to learn how to write one needs to study a grammar book, not a book on linguistics. If you want to argue this point, then take it up it with all the acclaimed writers of today. I would rather learn about language from Joyce, Shakespeare, Faulkner, Dickens et al. (I understand they’re all deceased, but you get the point)

    I appreciate the grammar book suggestion.

  22. Ribs Susiaho says:

    Excellent post! I have just sent the link on to a fellow pedant to whom point 8 is particularly appropriate.

  23. Susan Peterson says:

    I was taught by my father at a very early age that masculine is the common gender in English.

    I would like to be given an example of a 600 year old use of “their” to refer to a singular subject.

    I am aware that the British use it with reference to a corporation or agency as in “The BBC recorded over all their tapes but one of CS Lewis’ “Mere Christianity” broadcasts.” In American English we would say “its tapes.” An organization can be thought of as a single entity or as an aggregation of individuals. This is not the usage I mean. And I know that the usage I refer to in my comment above was not prevalent when I was young, and became prevalent after the upsurge of so called feminism, along with the extinction of the use of “man” to mean humanity and “mankind” to mean the human race. One can no longer cite Aristotle as saying “All men by nature desire to know,” in Academia. One religious group has found it necessary to retranslate “For He is gracious and loves Mankind.” to “For He is good and loves us all,” making its ancient liturgy sound like kindergarden.

    Susan Peterson

  24. Susan, with all due respect to your father:

    “Hastely hi?ed eche wi?t..til þei ney?þed so nei?h..þere william & his worþi lef were liand i-fere.” –William of Palerne, a1375 (as quoted by Oxford English Dictionary)

    In case you don’t read Middle English any better than I do (can anyone translate, please?), here’s a slightly later usage, also from the OED:

    “If any Person desire to be furnished with young Abeele Plants..they may be furnished with what quantity they please,..at 10s. a hundred.” -London Gazette, 1681

  25. While I have my own pet grammar peeves, I have also been the victim of the English-Major orthodoxy as well. For the title of one chapter of a book I had deliberately reversed the word order. The editor, for no good reason, put it back into the standard (and dull) word order. Both sequences of words were perfectly intelligible to the reader; it was just that one sounded better than the other.

    For what it’s worth, Robert Graves weighed in on the whole issue you discussed above. In contrasting English, which has no absolute arbiter of correctness, to French, which has the Academie Francaise acting as a collective grammar (and word) Nazi over their language, he said that “in English there is no such thing as good grammar, only good manners.”

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