Tag Archives: grammar

“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.

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.

Like physicians, editors should do no harm

Sometimes, you need to leave the cap on the red pen.
Sometimes, you need to leave the cap on the red pen.

When students first learn to edit, they’re looking for mistakes everywhere. And they find a lot. But one of the things I try to teach from the first day is that not everything has something wrong with it, so they need to know when to leave copy the heck alone. A principle that guides physicians should guide editors as well: First, do no harm. (Interestingly, this exact phrase does not appear in the Hippocratic Oath.)

In other words, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. (Or, as an overzealous editor might say, if it isn’t broken, don’t fix it.) This is one of the cardinal rules of editing: Have a good reason for any change you make.

Don’t edit to your peeves. Don’t change something simply because “it sounds bad.” Don’t alter perfectly fine writing because that’s not the way you would have written it.

Do fix the mistakes. Do fill in missing information. Do smooth out rough patches. Do trim words that add nothing. Do explain the complicated. That’s plenty of work to keep an editor busy without messing around in things that don’t need messing.

What editors hate more than letting a big mistake slip through is inserting a mistake themselves. One way that can happen is by mucking about unnecessarily in copy — that’s a typo, a dropped word or a repeated sentence waiting to happen.

It’s often said that good editing is invisible. (Great editing can chop 200 words and no content whatsoever from a piece, but let’s save that for another day.) That’s as it should be. The whole point of editing is for the reader to smoothly understand everything without being distracted by anything. And sometimes good editing means doing nothing at all.

Don’t sweat it: Due to / because of

It's good enough for the University of Kansas.
It’s good enough for the University of Kansas.

Earlier this year, I gave a presentation called “Sweat This, Not That: Real Rules vs. Grammar Myths” at the American Copy Editors Society national conference. The point of the presentation was that it’s easy for editors to get hung up on “rules” of language that are nothing more than peeves, shibboleths or outdated rules – and that wasting time and energy focusing on these can distract us from spotting and fixing more serious errors.

By now we all know (I hope) that it’s OK to split infinitives, end sentences with prepositions, begin sentences with conjunctions, and use the passive voice and sentence fragments judiciously. But there are other oddly persistent language “rules” that editors need not worry about.

In this post I want to talk about “due to” vs. “because of” and why there’s no reason to rack your brain trying to figure out when to use which. This is where some of you may gasp and say, “but they’re NOT interchangeable,” and a few of you might even think that this is another sign of the Decline and Fall of the English Language. To address the first, they aren’t exactly interchangeable, but they are much more flexible than certain strictures would allow, and to address the second, people have been complaining for centuries about someone or other ruining the language, and English is doing just fine. Continue reading Don’t sweat it: Due to / because of

Good grammar helps you professionally – and romantically

http://www.someecards.com/One 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.”

Grammar costs nothing

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on March 2, 2012.

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.

Just you and I: Subject and object pronouns

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Dec. 13, 2011.

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

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