Category Archives: Grammar

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.

Comings and goings, bringings and takings

Speaking of bring / brought / brought, people often get confused about when to TakeBringClouduse “bring” and when to use “take.” Some people use the two words interchangeably, but they aren’t interchangeable, or they aren’t if you are trying to communicate clearly.

“Bring” vs. “take” is easier to understand if it’s compared with “come” and “go,” because both pairs are distinguished by viewpoint.

“Come” and “bring” are both used when movement is “toward”:

Harry is coming at 8 tonight. He is bringing Hermione and Ron to meet us.
(The speaker is, or will be, where Harry is arriving.)

“Go” and “take” are both used when movement is “away” or elsewhere:

Harry is going to Hogsmeade. He is taking Hermione and Ron.
(The speaker is not, or will not be, where Harry is arriving.)

Continue reading Comings and goings, bringings and takings

Why does English … ? Just because

As a child, I hated the answer “Because” when I asked the question “Why?” It’s a non-answer answer that imparts no information and implies that the matter is closed.

As an adult, I teach editing and writing, and work individually with students who need help in both. They have lots of questions — good questions — about why English is the way it is. And, unfortunately, the simple answer to many of those questions is “Because.” (In fact, many of the questions have complicated answers based on when words entered English, where they came from and when their forms were standardized, but those answers don’t fit neatly in a sentence or two, so I’m left with a choice between 10 minutes of explaining or “Because.”)

Continue reading Why does English … ? Just because

Who gets to decide how language is used?

Few people use "forsooth" anymore.
Few people use “forsooth” anymore. It’s marked “Obs.” in the Oxford English Dictionary.

Recently during a discussion about standard English, usage manuals and stylebooks, I was asked, “Who gets to decide?” My answer was, “We all do.” As users of the language, we are the ones who ultimately determine the direction of our language: the fate of words old and new, changes in meanings, and addition or subtraction of grammatical constructions.

Of course, it’s not as simple as a few people saying, “Now X will mean B instead of A.” Change rarely happens from the top down; it’s an organic process that takes time. In the past, given enough time, one language would gradually split into new ones that were no longer mutually intelligible. It’ll be interesting for linguists of the future to study the effects of standardized usage, high literacy rates and mass media on language change.

As it is now, words that most people no longer use eventually get labeled “archaic” or “obsolete” and fade from the language. New words appear to describe new concepts or technologies (or newly discovered old things, like “Nasutoceratops”). Continue reading Who gets to decide how language is used?

Good grammar helps you professionally – and romantically semester when I was teaching a media-writing course, I handed a quiz back and one of the students blurted out, with a mix of exasperation and fear, “I didn’t know grammar counted.” I replied, of course it counts, because if you are going to write for a living, your writing needs to look professional.

Since then, I’ve encountered articles and studies that emphasize the importance of clear, clean writing in the professional world – and provide valuable advice to students (or anyone who writes).

The advice coalesces into three main points:

    1. Good grammar is good for your career.
    2. Good grammar is good for your business.
    3. Good grammar is good for your love life.

Continue reading Good grammar helps you professionally – and romantically

The Grammar Pep Squad

Yay, grammar!
(Julie Elliott-Abshire/stock.xchng)

I hear people all the time refer to the “Grammar Police,” or, even worse, “Grammar Nazis.” (As an aside, can we all please quit referring to anyone other than Nazis as “Nazis” — real Nazis were far more heinous than any politician, pedant or petty bureaucrat.) And while I’ve made a living as an editor and a teacher of editing, I don’t like to think of myself as the “Grammar Patrol” but rather the “Grammar Pep Squad.” After all, grammar is a grand and necessary thing, and it deserves a little cheerleading.

Grammar structures our language and lets us use it to communicate all manner of information (as linguist Noam Chomsky put it, a finite set of rules for infinite combinations). The rules of grammar help us convey messages clearly and accurately, and let us express meaning through small nuances and great distinctions. Grammar is not always elegant, but we need it. Without grammar, our sentences would fall apart and we’d have a hard time communicating. And communication is the point of language, after all.

Supporting clear, professional language and helping people understand how to get there calls for celebration, not scorn.

So, give me a “G” … give me an “R” …

Welcome to Madam Grammar!

I’ve started this blog to have a place to put stuff too big for Twitter and too opinionated, tangential or snarky for my official work website. You can read the “About” page to see more about me.

Come on in!
(Crystal Leigh Shearin/stock.xchng)

My goal for this blog is to have a place to share thoughts and tips about grammar, language, words and editing, and teaching all of those, in journalism particularly; to point out egregious errors in the hopes that they will help others avoid such mistakes (or give some folks a laugh for the day); and to explore different and changing usages in English.

As an editor, I know that “standard” language is important in professional writing, and that certain rules need to be followed for a writer to be taken seriously. As a teacher, I know that students need to have a good command of the rules to understand how language works and how to write clearly, then to know when they can successfully break or ignore these rules. But as a linguist, I know that “rules” are a moving target — only dead languages never change. It’s not impossible to reconcile these three aspects, and I strive to be a “reasonable prescriptivist.”