Style and grammar, or why lots of things aren’t ‘wrong’


What do we talk about when we talk about grammar?

Strictly speaking, grammar is the unique patterns of a language, the system of how speakers can put together words and sentences. Grammar encompasses morphology (how to form words), syntax (how to form sentences) and semantics (what words and sentences mean). This is what linguists talk about when they talk about grammar.

The following areas are not grammar in the strict definition, but fall under the larger definition of grammar as “rules and principles of language”: punctuation, phonology (the sound system), orthoepy (correct pronunciation), orthography (correct spelling) and lexicon (vocabulary and usage). These (plus morphology, syntax and semantics) are what most people talk about when they talk about grammar.

The second definition of grammar is pretty broad, but there are language-related rules that fall outside of grammar. Many of these are style rules: whether to put the period inside or outside of quotation marks, whether e-mail is hyphenated or a single word, and so on. Style rules are set to ensure consistency in writing, so readers aren’t distracted by small differences. (And yes, readers do notice when things aren’t consistent.)

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To whom it may concern

“Who” and “whom”’ cause all sorts of problems for writers. No one seems to know when to use which one, and whether to even bother with “whom” at all. More on that in a minute.

The basics:
“Who” is a subject pronoun. It is the subject of a verb, even if that verb is in a dependent clause.
“Whom” is an object pronoun. It is the object of a verb or a preposition.

The trick:
Substitute “he” or “him” to determine whether to use “who” or “whom.” If “he” makes sense, use “who.” If “him” makes sense, you can use “whom” (both have an M).
– The employee, who/whom the boss promoted after only six months, ended up doing well in her new post. (The boss promoted HE? No, the boss promoted HIM = whom)
– The employee, who/whom everyone said was incompetent, got promoted after only six months.
(Everyone said HIM was incompetent? No, everyone said HE was incompetent = who). This one is wrong a lot — editors change a lot of overcorrected “whoms.”

The rub:
Usage of “who” and “whom” is in transition, and “whom” is dropping out of English.
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Grammar costs nothing

It’s National Grammar Day, the day each year when we celebrate grammar in all its glamour. Yes, the two words are related, and yes, grammar deserves a celebration. Grammar is what makes communication possible — it allows a person to convey ideas through language, and allows others to understand those ideas.

Why we need grammar

However, too often “rules” of grammar are used as a cudgel to bash anyone who steps out of line. The cudgel approach causes two problems, though: first, many “rules” that are used to smite the “barbarians” have no basis in English grammar and are just a bunch of peeves that have been passed down for generations; second, the division of people into the “civilized” and the “barbarians” — and the snooty correction of the latter by the former — doesn’t help the cause of clear communication but instead ticks off the people labeled as barbarians and distances them from the value of standard English.

This is not to say that grammar isn’t important, or that there’s no need for a standard of communication, particularly in writing. Good grammar enables readers to center on the message, rather than puzzling over what a sentence is attempting to say. Good grammar, correct spelling and proper punctuation lend credibility and authority to a piece of communication.

But the important thing is that grammar is not a “secret handshake” or code available only to those invited to the club — anyone can learn the rules of standard English. All it takes is time and inclination; like manners, grammar costs nothing. There are hundreds of books out there on grammar, language and writing, many of which are available at your local library or even free for download (make sure you don’t pick one that’s a collection of peeves). Plus, there are a multitude of websites, podcasts, videos and Twitter streams that offer tips and direction — all free.

While grammar costs nothing, ignoring it might cost quite a bit: Research has found that not only do readers notice mistakes, they engage less with websites that have language errors, and they are far less likely to buy something from a website that has even a single misspelling. (Spelling isn’t grammar, but it falls under the broad “rules of language” definition of grammar that many people use.)

So if for no other reason than the bottom line, grammar deserves a celebration. But while we’re at it, let’s go ahead and celebrate the beauty, richness and complexity of English for its own sake.

More fun stuff for National Grammar Day:
Send a National Grammar Day e-card from the official site: http://www.nationalgrammarday.com/
Editor Mark’s grammar haiku contest: http://markallenediting.com/2012/03/04/2012grammardayhaiku/
Free punctuation icons: http://www.winepressofwords.com/2012/02/punctuicons-a-free-grammar-themed-icon-set/
Free Grammar Day wallpapers:
http://www.winepressofwords.com/2012/02/a-free-collection-of-national-grammar-day-desktop-wallpapers/

The Versatile Blogger Award

The charming and talented Grammar Girl nominated this blog for a Versatile Blogger Award, and according to the rules (posted in full below), I have to list seven interesting things about myself and nominate 15 other noteworthy bloggers. Sounds like fun!

Thanks are in order

Thanks to Mignon Fogarty, aka Grammar Girl, for tagging us in her Versatile Blogger post — and also for offering grammar advice in a fun, non-threatening way, and being an overall Nice Person.

Seven interesting things about me

Let’s keep this professional, shall we?

  1. My favorite piece of punctuation is the semicolon.
  2. My most embarrassing newspaper correction was having to write that rabbits aren’t rodents (they’re lagomorphs, and I should have known that from college biology).
  3. I have literally (and I mean this literally, not figuratively) dozens of books on language, grammar, usage and words on my desk, and dozens more at home.
  4. I was trained as a linguist but am employed as an editor, so there’s a constant descriptivist vs. prescriptivist tug-of-war going on in my head.
  5. That said, I do  have language peeves. I can’t help it.
  6. I think that learning a foreign language gives people invaluable insight into their own language as well as into another culture.
  7. My favorite Grammar Rock is, of course, “Conjunction Junction.”

15 worthwhile blogs

Most blog posts I find through links on Twitter, but there are a few blogs I go to regularly because they’re worth keeping up with. Here are 15 that I hope you all will enjoy as well:

1. Headsup: The blog — A blog on editing and journalism run by Fred Vultee, a professor at Wayne State University.

2. Lingua Franca — The Chronicle of Higher Education’s blog on language has several regular authors: Lucy Ferriss, Allan Metcalf, Geoffrey K. Pullum, Carol Fisher Saller and Ben Yagoda.

3. Regret the Error — Craig Silverman, now with Poynter, tracks errors and discusses accuracy and verification.

4. You Are Not So Smart — Not a language or journalism blog, but a myth-buster backed up by scientific research. Fun and interesting.

5. You Don’t Say — A blog on language and editing, with a weekly joke, by John McIntyre of the Baltimore Sun.

6. Blogslot – Musings on language and editing by Bill Walsh of the Washington Post (also the author of “Lapsing Into a Comma”).

7. Overheard in the Newsroom — Because sometimes you need a laugh.

8. Language Corner — Merrill Perlman’s writings on words and language at Columbia Journalism Review.

9. That’s the Press, Baby — A more philosophical look at the world of journalism, and department stores, by David Sullivan in Philadelphia.

10. Johnson – The language blog of the Economist, for an across-the-pond perspective.

11. Language Log — This one gets a bit technical at times, but if you’re really into language and linguistics, it’s a must-read.

12. The Wordnik blog — Fun with vocabulary.

13. Separated by a Common Language — U.S./U.K. language differences, by Lynne Murphy.

14. Mind Your Language — The language blog of the Guardian style editors, for more across-the-pond perspective.

15. The Grammar Guide — Pam Nelson’s blog on language and editing.

The rules

Here are the rules, but, as Grammar Girl suggested, feel free to disregard them.

1. In a post on your, blog, nominate 15 fellow bloggers for The Versatile Blogger Award.

2. In the same post, add the Versatile Blogger Award.

3. In the same post, thank the blogger who nominated you in a post with a link back to their blog.

4. In the same post, share seven completely random pieces of information about yourself.

5. In the same post, include this set of rules.

6. Inform each nominated blogger of their nomination by posting a comment on each of their blogs. (Or post to Twitter.)

The year in typos (or should we say “typo’s”)

I’ve been taking pictures all year of errors I’ve spotted “in the wild” — on signs, in stores and other places out and about. Most were the “grocer’s apostrophe” — using an apostrophe to make a plural. But there were a few other types, and a couple of two-fers to boot. Enjoy.

The “warning” “sign”

Underlining and bold face exist for emphasis. Quotation marks serve their own purpose. But that doesn’t stop people from mixing them.

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Just you and I: Subject and object pronouns

When some of us were kids, we’d get corrected if we announced to our mothers or teachers a sentence along the lines of: “Me and her are going snake-hunting in the creek.” “It’s ‘she and I,’” they’d say, apparently more concerned about proper grammar than the state of our shoes after the excursion.

But they were right: when the pronouns are the subject of the sentence, we need to use the subject forms: I, we, you, she, he and they.

Conventions of English dictate that you don’t start a pair with “I,” but it’s not grammatically incorrect to say “I and my cousins went bungee-jumping in New Zealand.” (It does sound a bit odd, though.)

But we tend to run into problems with object constructions. We get so conditioned to say “you and I” that we want to use it everywhere, as in: “Just between you and I, his feet smell terrible.” However, “between” is a preposition, so we need to use the object forms: me, us, you, him, her and them. So “between you and me” is correct. The same goes for “Doodle’s going with Cindy and me on the snake hunt.”

Between you and me, a quick way to determine the correct word is to replace the pair of pronouns with “we” or “us.” If “we” sounds right, use the subject forms. If “us” sounds right, use the object forms.

“[Me and her] -> us are going snake-hunting in the creek” Nope. Use the subject pronouns here: She and I.

“Just between [you and I] -> we, his feet smell terrible.” Nope. Use the object pronouns here: you and me.

And watch out for snakes in the creek.

Corrections with a smile

I ran across an interesting post over the weekend that asks: “Why do people hate on those of us who know grammar? Why is it insulting to have your language skills corrected?”

The author, Claiborne L., a professional writer and editor, makes some excellent points in the post, and also links to a howlingly funny collection of obnoxious responses to language mistakes on Facebook. But she sums it up by saying that people knowledgeable about language should approach corrections as advice from a peer, not as diktats from on high. “Check the attitude,” she says, “and offer only the instruction.”

As an editor, I realize that I fall closer to “fussbudget” than “freewheeler.” That’s the job of an editor: to clarify, streamline — and correct.

But her post made me think, why DO people hate having their language corrected, and hate the people who do it? Aside from the fact that most people dislike being told they’re wrong about anything, there are a few other reasons that seem specific to corrections of grammar.

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Nutty non-rules of grammar

Speed limit may riseRecently I got a voice mail message from a reader saying that the verb “rise” could be used only with animate subjects, and thus our headline “Speed limit may rise to 75 mph” was incorrect, and it should have said “Speed limit may be raised to 75 mph.” Turning aside the issue of changing a perfectly good active-voice sentence to a wordier passive, I was intrigued, because I’d never run across this “rule” before. After all, bread rises. The sun rises. No one seems to complain about those. So I turned to the bookshelf.

None of our dictionaries said anything about “rise” being restricted to animate subjects.

Our usage manuals cite “rise” in distinction to “raise,” the former intransitive and the latter transitive. But I saw no rules limiting “rise” to certain classes of subjects.

The “raise” entry in one book reminded me of another “rule” I’d run across: “Raise” is for crops or livestock, “rear” is for children. That one merited a mention in Garner’s, which said that “raise” is standard for children as well as farm commodities, and the phrase “born and reared” is “likely to sound affected” in American English.

After I posted the rise/animate issue on Twitter, grammar-book author June Casagrande replied, “That’s one of the nuttiest non-rules I’ve heard, and I’ve heard a lot.”

I’ve heard a lot, too, and it can be really tough to disabuse some folks of the notion that a particular grammatical point is “wrong” when they’ve labored under that pretense for years — or decades. But let’s try.

For the record, these are NOT legitimate rules of English usage:

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Why we need grammar

On this day each year, March 4, we celebrate National Grammar Day, a chance to honor grammar in all its glory. But why should grammar get a holiday? Why is it even important at all?

A couple of recent discussions inspired me to think about why grammar is important. Of course it is, or I wouldn’t waste a bunch of time writing about it. But I’ve always thought of it as a given, rather than something needing an explanation.

So when someone on Twitter asked, “How would you convince someone that understanding grammar is important? ‘I will never use it, I know how to spell without it’ ” I had to articulate an answer.

First, spelling doesn’t equal grammar. (It’s important too, though.)

Second, you do use grammar — we all use it, every time we speak or write. Most of us don’t even think about it if we’re speaking our native language. Grammar is why we know Yoda talks funny, why we are able to differentiate “Dog bites man” from “Man bites dog,” and why we can pile up modifiers and clauses and compound predicates and still come away with a sentence that makes perfect sense.

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Putting up with phrasal verbs

Some languages add prefixes, infixes or suffixes to verbs to change the meaning. For example, in Russian the word for “go” can change through prefixes into “go in,” “go out,” “go around,” “go across,” “go over,” “go under” and so on. Each one is still a single word.

English, however, frequently adds a preposition after a verb to change the verb’s meaning. These are called phrasal verbs. (Phrasal verbs can also be constructed with adverbs.)

Some verbs have drastically different meanings depending on the preposition — or prepositions; there can be more than one — that follows.

For instance, you put your cards on the table. You put up money before the poker game, and put in your ante before each hand. You put down your friend who fidgets every time she has a good hand, but gently, so she doesn’t get put out. You put up with her cousin at the game because you need him to round out the group after another member put in for a transfer at work and moved to Peoria. You put away the cards when you’re done.

This is one reason you don’t need to worry about ending a sentence with a preposition: Many “prepositions” that are part of phrasal verbs don’t really function as prepositions. Some don’t even take objects.

Choose your prepositions carefully, making sure what you write is truly what you intend. And feel free to position the preposition at the end.