Sunday, May 20, 2012

Grammar Mistakes That Aren’t

I’ve just nicely started reading a new language book and want to share some thoughts from it. Robert Lane Greene is a writer who lives in New York. Greene is a regular correspondent for The Economist and has published in The New York Times and many other well established periodicals so is well acquainted with modern English usage yet is no fan of prescriptionism. In his 2011 book You Are What You Speak: Grammar Grouches, Language Laws, and the Politics of Identity, Greene “pokes gentle fun” at linguistic sticklers.

As Greene learned new languages (he speaks nine last count) he began to question English grammar rules. If Danes can end sentences with a preposition, why can’t the English?

Here are some quotes from the Preface:

I think flexibility, humility, and multilingualism should take the place of sticklerism, arrogance, and nationalism when we think about language.

Language isn’t just rules and words, but communication.

Greene warns about journalists or other writers who, because they know how to use language well, think they can write about language without doing their research. He compares this to a top athlete thinking he is a physiologist. Greene devotes several pages to humorist author Bill Bryson’s “facts” about English and other languages that, in fact, just aren’t so.

Greene then takes umbrage with language sticklers, focusing on Lynne Truss in particular. The rally cry of her best-selling book “Eats, Shoots and Leaves” (2003) is “Stickler’s unite!”. Greene argues that her “fury on the decline of English punctuation and those who hasten it” is greatly “out of proportion to the crime”. As an example he quotes her pronouncement that those who misplace apostrophes “deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave.” Greene doesn’t seem to get her use of the British hyperbole. Later Truss demonstrates her appreciation of the Venetian printer Aldus Manutius (1450-1515) for standardizing Western punctuation by “absolutely kicking myself that I never volunteered to have his babies”. Perhaps Greene missed reading the Publisher’s Note to the American edition which ends “Please enjoy this narrative history of punctuation as it was meant to be enjoyed, bone-dry humour and cultural references intact…”

Getting back to my post title, there are two types of “grammar mistakes that aren’t”. One type occurs when the critic misunderstands or misapplies grammar rules himself. An example might be saying that the sentence “Send a copy to Joe and me” should be “Send a copy to Joe and I”. The first sentence is correct; the “and I” rule applies to the subject not the object of a sentence. Such incorrect corrections can be either ignored or dealt with satisfactorily by reference to the actual rule.

The second type, a few of which Greene tackles in his book, are grammar rules that shouldn’t be. Greene lists three bases for grammar rules:
·         clarity – does it make the meaning clearer?
·         literary tradition – is it used (or not) by great English writers, past and present?
·         purity – is it native to English or adopted from another language?

I would argue that only the first is essential. Just because Milton or Shakespeare broke a grammar rule doesn’t make it obsolete. And a rule borrowed from another language, if it makes English easier and clearer, should be welcomed. Some grammar rules, however, fail all three. Here are some examples:

Ending a sentence with a preposition
This is a natural sentence structure. We all do it. But according to a grammar rule, we shouldn’t. (We aren’t supposed to start a sentence with “but” either; I’ll get to that in a minute). So where did the rule prohibiting this particular sentence structure come from? (Now doesn’t that sound better than “from where did the rule… come?)  Blame a 17th century poet, John Dryden, who liked to compose in Latin and then translate into English. Because one can’t end a Latin sentence with a preposition, Dryden stipulated that one shouldn’t in English either. His arbitrary rule was adopted by the writers of the first English grammar books in the 18th century and continues to influence writers to this day.

Double Negatives
Robert Lowth, who I discussed in my post of April 2, proclaimed that two negatives cancel each other. Thus “He don’t know nothing” must mean that he does know something rather than emphasizing his ignorance. While this rule has some basis in mathematical logic (-2 x -3 = +6) there is no reason that it has to apply to English. The use of double negatives for emphasis is common in certain dialects and everyday speech both historically (Chaucer and Shakespeare used it) and currently. Some languages like Spanish and Russian require the negative pronoun with a negative verb.

Split infinitives
The rule banning the insertion of words between the “to” and the rest of the verb in the infinitive tense is more modern, appearing in an anonymous article in 1834. The rule was adopted by grammarians and quickly became official. It likely originated from Latin and Greek where it is impossible because the infinitive form is one word. It completely fails the clarity test and has a long list of respected authors who ignore it – both historically (before the rule was invented) and afterwards (witness Star Trek’s “to boldly go...”). George Bernard Shaw verbally attacked an editor of a newspaper who had corrected his split infinitives calling him, among many other names, “a pedant, an ignoramus, an idiot…” and suggested he be replaced by an intelligent Newfoundland dog. Ironically, Shaw’s character Henry Higgins in Pygmalion shows a complete intolerance of nonstandard speech when he tells Eliza Doolittle “A woman who utters such depressing and disgusting sounds has no right to be anywhere—no right to live.”

The attitude towards these (and other) rules is changing. Henry Watson Fowler (1858-1933) in his 1926 book A Dictionary of Modern English Usage encouraged readers to ignore rules that didn’t make sense or which caused ambiguity. He freely gave license to split infinitives, to end sentences with prepositions, to begin sentences with “and” or “but”, and to use “none” with a plural verb (e.g. “none of us are going”).

I agree that the first and third rule described above can be safely ignored. On the use of double negatives I’m not so sure. While the rule could have gone either way (that two negatives cancel or reinforce each other), one or the other should be standard. The use of double negatives was already in decline when Lowth’s rule was written, he just finished it off. For clarity sake, I would reserve a reinforcing double negative for dialogue in a dialect where it would not be unexpected (did you catch my double negative where the intent is to cancel?). One tip is the word “ain’t”; if someone says “she ain’t never comin' back” there’s no use waiting up for her.

Fowler’s rather liberal English usage book was published in England which one would expect to be the bastion of prescriptionism. Meanwhile in freedom-loving America William Strunck Jr. and E.B. White published, in 1959  The Elements of Style, commonly referred to as “Strunk and White”. This book is full of picky little rules, many of which are quite arbitrary like Strunk’s ban on beginning a sentence with “however”. White added “hopefully” to the sentence-beginning ban list as in “Hopefully, I’ll do better tomorrow”. Greene argues that in this usage “hopefully” is a “sentence adverb”, and gives another example “Honestly, he’s a liar”. In Greene’s example, “honestly” obviously does not describe the person being talked about but modifies the rest of the sentence. If “honestly” is acceptable in this structure, why shouldn’t “hopefully” be?

White’s inflexibility on the many rules in their book seems at odds with his beautiful quote on language change that I use in my blog heading. I suppose it illustrates the idea that language is very personal: “all changes to language are fine and acceptable – except for the ones I don’t like”.


  1. An inspiration for this post was a post by Chris Bucholz on his blog which my brother sent me: "7 Commonly Corrected Grammar Errors (That Aren't Mistakes)"
    Caution: fowl language warning (he refers to a duck)

  2. Great post. I wish you got wider circulation.
    I have trouble thinking in double negative in Russian and "ESL" explains why many people use it in English.
    Your last line sums up grammarians to a T (is that mixing metaphors?) Greene obviously has no sense of humour if he couldn't "get" Lynn Truss. I do like Fowler's rules - do what makes sense.

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