All posts by LisaMc

About LisaMc

Editor, teacher, linguist and writer, walking the fine line between prescriptivism and descriptivism.

Let’s try not to be disagreeable

disagreement-floodThis is not a post about immigration — grammarians have no power over politics. It is a post about some of the more complicated aspects of subject-verb agreement, and it’s something I hope everyone can agree on.

The basics: Subjects and verbs must agree, that is, singular subjects get singular verbs, and plural subjects get plural verbs. With straight subject-verb-object constructions, this is easy and everyone gets it right.

A wrinkle: When more elements — such as a prepositional phrase or subordinate clause — are added to a sentence, it can end up that a plural noun is right before the verb, but is not the subject of the verb. Only the subject gets to “govern” the verb, that is, determine its number.

Example: The headline pictured above, “Flood of unaccompanied minors rush to cross Southwest border.”

To check agreement, take out the phrase or clause temporarily and look at the sentence. With no intervening words, it will be obvious what the verb needs to be.

Fix: “Flood of unaccompanied minors rush to cross Southwest border.” “Flood” is singular, so the verb should be “rushes.”

And the really tricky type: “She is one of those annoying people who publicly correct/corrects other people’s grammar.”

Should the verb be singular or plural? Let’s examine this sentence closely to find out.

  • “She” is not the subject of the verb “correct” – “she” is the subject of the verb “is.”
  • The subject of the verb “correct” is the relative pronoun “who,” which is referring to “people,” which is plural.
  • So “correct” is correct.

Think of it this way: There are annoying people who publicly correct other people’s grammar. She is one of them.

Thus, “She is one of those annoying people who publicly correct other people’s grammar.” But if someone says “corrects,” don’t correct them — it’s a common mistake and not one that sticks out.

Don’t sweat it: “Who” and “That”

One peeve I’ve seen pop up a couple of times recently is the prohibition on using That and who“that” when referring to people, as in “The scientists that worked on the project toiled in anonymity” instead of “The scientists who worked on the project toiled in anonymity.” Some people think — and are quick to point out — that “who” is the only proper pronoun for human antecedents; centuries of written English say otherwise, as do most reputable usage guides.

In this kind of construction, “who” and “that” are relative pronouns introducing an essential, or restrictive, clause. Essential clauses are just that — essential to the meaning of the sentence. In other words, if you take them out, the meaning of the sentence changes.

“That” can refer to any sort of antecedent, whether it’s a person or a thing. It did for Chaucer, it did for Shakespeare, it did even in the King James Bible (the first instance is in Genesis: “And the sons of Noah, that went forth of the ark, were Shem, and Ham, and Japheth: and Ham is the father of Canaan.”). “Who” has arisen as a more specific form for people — and pets and zoo animals — and its use is apparently broadening, as it is occasionally seen referring to businesses.

Is there a preference for “who” when the antecedent is human? Absolutely. It’s even part of some style guides. But is “that” grammatically wrong? Absolutely not.

In defense of plain English

Sir Humphrey in "Yes, Minister" was skilled at talking a lot but saying nothing.
Sir Humphrey in “Yes, Minister” was skilled at talking a lot but saying nothing.

Last year I revisited the classic BBC show “Yes, Minister,” which is about a hapless British cabinet minister trying to get things done and the Civil Service employees who seek to thwart him. Much of the show’s humor lies in the dense, rambling speeches of Sir Humphrey, the minister’s permanent secretary, who can turn a single sentence into several jargon-laden, empty-phrased-stuffed minutes while saying next to nothing. Did I say the show was a comedy?

(Interestingly enough, the British government has made efforts to reduce jargon in government communication.)

Jargon has its place in language: it’s a shorthand for members of a particular group that allows them to communicate specific concepts quickly to other members, who don’t require definitions or explanations.

Problems arise when jargon bleeds into everyday speech or writing and ends up impeding communication instead of making it clearer. The same can be said for buzzwords, unnecessarily long words* and needlessly wordy sentences. This is not to say that every sentence has to be subject-verb-object only — we don’t want to sound like a second-grade reading textbook — but that separating individual ideas into their own sentences generally increases clarity.

In my experience, people who use too much jargon or construct overly dense sentences outside of professional discourse generally have three reasons for doing so:

  • They want to hide something. Government “bureaucratese” is the best example of this: if you really don’t want people to find out about something, bury it under an avalanche of convoluted sentences, jargon and endless prepositional phrases.
  • They want to seem smart. The old saying goes, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with bullshit.” Lots of people think using big words makes them appear intelligent, but the reality is that making a point clearly and concisely requires a lot more thought and smarts.
  • They want you to think they know something that they don’t. People don’t like to say “I don’t know,” especially when it’s something they think they should know. If you’ve ever watched an unprepared student get called on in class and try to muddle through an answer, you’ve seen this.

Because people can see through the use of jargon, a bunch of satirical websites have popped up to make fun of it. If you are so inclined, check out the educational jargon generator, the postmodernism generator and the business gobbledygook generator, or print off a B.S. Bingo card to make those long, boring business meetings more interesting.

All kidding aside, we do need to strive for clear, informative writing. If there’s a chance that something might be confusing, ditch the jargon in favor of straightforward language. Take a machete to overgrown sentences to clear a path for the reader. And if you don’t understand something, you can bet your readers won’t, so don’t be afraid to ask “What does this mean?” or “What are we trying to say here?” and adjust the writing accordingly.

Remember, no one will ever complain that something is too clear.

* I’m not one to shy away from sending people to the dictionary from time to time, but only when the word that will require looking-up is the best word for the situation and lacks a less-obscure synonym.

“Playing” English: Grammar rules and when to break them

One of last year's free National Grammar Day wallpapers from WinePress of Words.
One of last year’s free National Grammar Day wallpapers from WinePress of Words.

Writing can be like playing the piano. To get good at the piano, first you need to learn scales and chords and technique. Then you learn how notes fit together and form compositions. Then you can experiment and play and create — and break the rules if you need to in order to get a good sound.

To get good at writing, first you need to learn what words do and how they work. Then you put them into sentences and put the sentences into paragraphs. Then you can experiment and play and create — and break the rules if you need to in order to make a point, convey an idea or just make the language sing.

But those first steps are crucial for both writing and music. Just as a jazz pianist improvising (usually) sounds a lot different from a child banging on a piano, a careful writer throwing out a grammatical rule for a reason “reads” a lot different from a novice writer who never learned grammar to begin with. One is effective, interesting, uplifting; the other is noise. For one, every note — every word — has a purpose, a reason to be there; for the other, notes — words — are used sloppily, randomly.

A good writer knows the rules and understands why they’re there. A good writer also knows when breaking them is effective, and when it’s just sloppy.

Happy National Grammar Day! And may all your rules be broken for a reason.

Usage: Doing it right

One sense of the word "right" as found in the Oxford English Dictionary.
One sense of the word “right” as found in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Recently — and this is not the first time this has happened — I wrote something along the lines of “do it right” and  someone “corrected” the word “right” to the word “correctly.”

Apparently some people somewhere are laboring under the idea that “right” in the sense of “correct” can only be an an adjective. But “apparently” isn’t good enough for me, so I dug into the reference books.

According to the OED, the foremost authority on the history of the English lexicon, “right” has had an adverbial sense meaning “correctly” since the year 950. That’s not 1950, that’s 950. As in more than a thousand years ago. So right there we know this “rule” is bogus. But where did it come from?

The 1944 “A Dictionary of Modern English Usage,” by H.W. Fowler, probably the epitome of fusspot-itude in usage manuals, says that “The adverb right, in the senses ‘properly,’ ‘correctly,’ is being squeezed out by the tendency to unidiomatic -ly.” The examples that follow of correct usage include “If I remember right” and “Teach him to hold his pen right.” So, no proscription here. (Perhaps I need to rethink my characterization of Fowler.)

Maybe a little further back? My 1935 “English in Action” coursebook states: “slow, loud, quick, fast, cheap, right, wrong, clear, ill, well, hard, high, long, and deep are used as adjectives or as adverbs.” No proscription here, either.

Some of the language books I consulted for this post.
Some of the language books I consulted for this post.

So I kept looking. I have literally dozens of grammar and usage books in my office whose publication dates span more than a century (this is my job, after all). Not one — not Bremner or Bernstein, not Garner, not Strunk and White — even mention this rule to debunk it, much less perpetuate it.

That still doesn’t answer the question of where this bogus rule came from, though, so I headed off to the Interwebs. “Right” in the adverbial sense of “correctly” is acceptable in all the online dictionaries. There’s even a grammar book called “Grammar Done Right” out there. But I can’t find anyone stating that “correctly” is preferred over “right.”

However, I did run across a couple of queries in online forums about whether it’s acceptable to say “done right” instead of “done correctly,” leading me to think that someone out there is telling people that the “right” one is wrong.

Does anyone have any insights into where this came from? If so, I’d be glad to know.

Let’s stop perpetuating grammar myths

grammar mythsI’ll admit, I’m an easy target for “grammar mistakes you need to stop making” lists, but they’re starting to get on my nerves.

The latest one I saw — 15 Common Grammatical Errors That Drive You Completely Insane (on Buzzfeed, of course) — started strong, with “your/you’re” and subject-verb disagreement. But then, at No. 3, was split infinitives — and what drives me “completely insane” is not split infinitives, but people saying that split infinitives are wrong. They’ve never been against the grammar of English; someone just decided that they shouldn’t be split and dictated that as a Law of English (Grammar Girl has a great summary of this).

In at No. 6 is punctuation outside of quotation marks, which is a style matter, not a grammar rule. People in other countries put periods outside of quotation marks and I’d guess our putting them inside drives them “completely insane.” Or not.

Nos. 11 and 12 are matters of grammar, but ones that are in transition: “who/whom” and “they” as a gender-neutral singular. I’ve said before that I wish “whom” would just go ahead and make its graceful exit from English, and that “they” is as good an epicene pronoun as any, probably better because we all say it already anyway. Since so few of us use “whom” in every object position (Who unironically says “With whom are you going to the movies?”) and most of us use “they” as a singular, do these two items really drive anyone “completely insane”? (And yes, “since” can be used to mean “because” and has for hundreds of years.)

Now, I’m an editor, and I teach editing, so I’m not saying let’s throw caution to the wind and just write whatever, however. There are conventions for professional English, and most of them are there for a reason: clarity, precision, accuracy, or all three. But lots of “rules” have crept in that have a) nothing to do with English grammar, and b) nothing to do with making writing clear, precise or accurate. (See over/more than, due to/because of and not using “that” for people as a few examples.) They’re shibboleths, or they’re outdated, or they’re simply misguided attempts at clarity that don’t, in fact, make writing clearer.

These need to go, and we need to stop putting them in lists — and stop sharing lists that include them.

Writing is hard enough without worrying about manufactured distinctions that add nothing to a sentence. Writers and editors, and teachers of writing and editing, need to focus on the grammar problems — and there are plenty — that can impede understanding, mislead readers, or simply make a writer look sloppy and unprofessional, instead of sending more grammar myths around the Internet.

Happy National Punctuation Day!

semicolonToday, Sept. 24, is National Punctuation Day — admittedly, a created holiday, like National Donut Day, and, like National Donut Day, it’s a holiday that celebrates something worthy of celebration. (Yes, there are seven commas in that sentence. Plus a dash and an apostrophe, and the obligatory period.)

Punctuation is like road signs for writing. It tells us where to stop, where to slow down, when a turn is coming, and when rocks might be falling on us (well, not really). It helps readers get where they are going smoothly and safely.

But punctuation is a fairly recent development; in English it’s been around for a few centuries. Look at old manuscripts and you’ll see writing with no spaces, no punctuation and no capital letters. It’s hard to read. It’s slow. It’s confusing. Once punctuation arrived, though, it wasn’t set in stone: the rules have been changing over time. Read Victorian English literature and you’ll see semicolons sprinkled in places they aren’t seen today. Regardless, the reason for using punctuation is to make writing easier to read and easier to understand.

As M. Alderton Pink put it, “Bad punctuation is, in fact, a form of bad manners.” And, like many matters of etiquette, certain aspects of punctuation are open to debate: Oxford comma or not? Are semicolons elegant or awful? Should we get rid of apostrophes? (Read James Harbeck’s modest proposal “Kill the Apostrophe” and MedEditor’s response.)

Others, however, are not. Commas in the wrong places can confuse, mislead or even cost you a million dollars. Apostrophes in the wrong places make a writer look sloppy or ignorant, or can even affect your love life.

Properly used punctuation helps make writing clearer, and clarity is always good, so for that reason alone it’s worth a holiday.

To celebrate, you can:

Mixed (or mangled) metaphors muddle writing

Metaphors — comparisons of one thing to another in a poetic sense — are not just for poetry: they are an integral part of language. Metaphors help us communicate an idea more clearly by making it more vivid, more relevant or less complicated. We use metaphors every day: whenever we compare sports to war, a corporate merger to a romance, a political campaign to a horse race.

Metaphors are a useful linguistic device, but sometimes they can go off the rails (a train metaphor). Writers sometimes get carried away (a nautical metaphor) and shift gears (an automotive metaphor) in the middle of a metaphor, which can befuddle readers instead of making an idea clearer to them.

A metaphor too far

A recent news story I saw said that my employer, the University of Kansas, “pushed ahead by a few nose lengths” in an annual college ranking. I’ll buy a horse-race comparison here (though this annual ratings scramble seems more aptly compared to a decathlon), but horses can win by a “nose,” or by a “length.” A “nose length” is not a distance used in horse racing, so instead of making the idea clearer, this metaphor confuses the issue. Plus, a ranking doesn’t really need a metaphor to make it more easily understood. “Moved up a few spots” would have been perfectly clear.

In my career as a copy editor, I’ve run across a lot of mixed or mangled metaphors. Some made me scratch my head (figuratively) and others made me laugh out loud (literally). Here are a few:

“When this critical column buckled due to lack of floor supports, it was the first domino in the chain.” Domino effect / links in a chain — pick one.

The rival teams “find themselves with their backs against the wall as if they were stuck in a linen closet.” The backs-against-the-wall part is clear (if a bit cliched), but how the heck does a linen closet enter into things?

“We’re just about ready to start putting the pieces of this puzzle together in a way we can put some real structure on this skeleton.” Is it a puzzle, or a building, or a skeleton?

“A lot of people think they were born on third base and hit a home run.” How this usually goes is “He was born on third base and thinks he hit a triple,” which is a sports metaphor applied to a person who comes from a privileged background but is oblivious to the fact he got a head start. How the home run connects here I can’t imagine.

“As you go in the belly of the beast, you will run into this brick wall every single time.” Since when are there brick walls inside beasts?

The reason to use a metaphor is to help readers understand something. If it doesn’t do that, it’s not working — and your best bet (a gambling metaphor) is to rewrite.

Lessons from the Associated Press

Goerge V. Higgins quoteThe Associated Press is “the best creative writing school in the world. They have branches in every major city on the globe. They will teach you something that no creative writing school at Stanford or Iowa or anyplace else will ever teach you: Write it down. Do it fast. Keep it simple. Keep it short.”

— George V. Higgins, author of “The Friends of Eddie Coyle” and other novels, as told to Chuck Potter in a 1987 interview

Contronyms: Literally having opposite meanings

literallyVociferous hue and cry arose recently over the inclusion of the figurative meaning of “literally” (that is, using it to mean “figuratively” instead of “actually”) in the dictionary. The history of the word’s usage and the purpose of a dictionary have been well discussed, so here I want to talk about the phenomenon of a word having two meanings that are opposites of each other.

These words are called “contronyms” (also “auto-antonyms” or “Janus words,” after the two-faced Roman god) and they’re more common in English than you might think. Here are a few examples:

Cleave can mean “to cut apart” or “to cling together.”

Impregnable can mean “able to be impregnated” or “unable to be breached.” (The tricky “im-/in-” prefix leads to confusion over the word “inflammable,” which means not “non-flammable” but instead “highly flammable.”)

Rent and lease can each mean either to allow someone to use something (such as a residence, vehicle or piece of equipment) for money without selling it, or to pay money to use something without buying it.

Sanction can mean “to allow” or “to restrict.”

Strike can mean “to hit,” or, in baseball, “to not hit.”

And, of course, literally can mean both “actually” and “figuratively.” No one can accuse English of making sense.

(Daily Writing Tips offers a much longer list if you want to see more contronyms.)