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There’s a poster in my office that says, “Grammar is not a secret code.” It is a code, sort of, but it’s certainly not a secret. Grammar is for everyone, and everyone deserves to feel confident using it. Plenty of resources exist to help people improve their grammar and language skills if they are so inclined.
The point here is that I wrote a book, “The Perfect English Grammar Workbook,” which is coming out in January, to support anyone wanting to learn more about language and how to use it according to current professional standards. It has explanations and practice exercises, and chapter-end quizzes so you can check your mastery. Continue reading With grammar, practice makes perfect
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.
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.
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?
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.
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” …
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.”