Tag Archives: clarity

Corrections with a smile

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on July 26, 2011.

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.
Continue reading Corrections with a smile


Nutty non-rules of grammar

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on April 18, 2011.

20110402MAIN1ARecently 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:

Don’t split infinitives or compound verbs. Split away — there’s no basis in English grammar not to, and it often sounds stilted or unnatural to work around this false prohibition. As Tom F. put it on Twitter, “Nuttiest are the people who still haven’t realised that the infinitive, like the atom, can be split with productive effects.”

Don’t end a sentence with a preposition. The companion to the split-infinitive “rule,” this one is also not a real rule. Prepositions in English are notoriously flexible, hiring themselves out as adverbs or encrusting themselves onto verbs like barnacles. True prepositions are best followed by objects, but for the rest, they’re fine to end sentences with. Continue reading Nutty non-rules of grammar

Maybe so, might as well

Originally published on Grammar Monkeys on Sept. 20, 2010.

Modal verbs express possibility/probability, necessity/obligation or ability/willingness. They show up as a base verb with a modal auxiliary, such as may, might, should, ought to, must, can, could, would, wish to. Shall and will function sometimes as modals and sometimes as simple future tense markers, depending on context.

There’s a lot of nuance in modals, and here we’ll take a look at two that are close but not exactly the same: may and might.

pasta1If you say “I may order that pasta,” you’re likely — but not certain — to order it. Perhaps you’ll end up not ordering it, but you’re indicating a strong-ish possibility.

If you say “I might order that pasta,” there’s a little more hesitation, you’ll order it if it doesn’t have mushrooms in it, if it comes with a tasty sauce, if the special isn’t something you’d rather have, etc.

Some sentences are too close to call, with the may/might choice not yielding much difference: “We may/might go swimming tomorrow, depending on the weather.”

And many people don’t distinguish these two in their speech or writing, so it’s hard to put a lot of stock in the difference if you don’t know how closely the source adheres to the distinction. Use context as your guide.

Problems with “may” and “might” arise in two areas: past tense and negatives.

In the past tense, the difference is amplified, with “may” implying possibility and “might” implying something that didn’t happen but could have.

Here’s an example: “Tornado sirens may have given the family time to get to the basement before the storm hit.” From this, we know they survived the storm and could credit sirens for that. But if the sentence is: “Tornado sirens might have given the family time to get to the basement before the storm hit,” we know there weren’t any sirens and the family didn’t make it to the basement in time.

Also, “may” has “might” as its simple past-tense form, which shows up when there’s another past-tense verb in the sentence: “We thought we might have time to see the Wax Museum.” “Luella said she might be able to bring a mince pie.”

By the same token, in hypotheticals and contrary-to-fact situations, which call for the subjunctive, might is the only choice. “One might think someone with that attitude would have been fired long ago.” “I might be going to the picnic, if liked blistering heat, sticky humidity and ants.”

With negatives, the permission sense of “may” is often stronger than the possibility sense: “You may not eat that squid; it’s for the party.” Meaning you are not allowed to do so, though it is certainly physically possible.

Fussbudgets and freewheelers

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on June 18, 2010.

In discussions of language and grammar, you may have heard the terms “prescriptivist” and “descriptivist.” These are the two extremes: the fussbudgets and the freewheelers. But a lot of us, even editors, fall somewhere in the middle.

Prescriptivists adhere to a rigid standard of letterslanguage, with clearly defined right and wrong ways to say something, never mind how many people use different forms, never mind whether these “wrong” forms are perfectly clear and grammatically unobjectionable. They “prescribe” the proper way to speak and write; anything less is a degradation of the language.

These are the folks who form organizations like the Queen’s English Society or the Academie Francaise, defending the language from change, and, therefore, degradation. (Some interesting reaction to the QES is here and here.)

These are also the folks who write us letters — letters, not e-mail — enumerating a week’s worth of split infinitives that appeared in the newspaper.

Descriptivists, on the other hand, think that language is whatever people speak. They “describe” language without passing judgment.
Continue reading Fussbudgets and freewheelers