Tag Archives: myths

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 They’re shibboleths, or they’re outdated, or they’re simply misguided attempts at clarity that don’t, in fact, make writing clearer.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.

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

Style and grammar, or why lots of things aren’t ‘wrong’

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on June 4, 2012.

What do we talk about when we talk about grammar?

Strictly speaking, grammar is the unique patterns of a language, the system of how speakers can put together words and sentences. Grammar encompasses morphology (how to form words), syntax (how to form sentences) and semantics (what words and sentences mean). This is what linguists talk about when they talk about grammar.

The following areas are not grammar in the strict definition, but fall under the larger definition of grammar as “rules and principles of language”: punctuation, phonology (the sound system), orthoepy (correct pronunciation), orthography (correct spelling) and lexicon (vocabulary and usage). These (plus morphology, syntax and semantics) are what most people talk about when they talk about grammar.

The second definition of grammar is pretty broad, but there are language-related rules that fall outside of grammar. Many of these are style rules: whether to put the period inside or outside of quotation marks, whether e-mail is hyphenated or a single word, and so on. Style rules are set to ensure consistency in writing, so readers aren’t distracted by small differences. (And yes, readers do notice when things aren’t consistent.)

Style dictates how words (and numbers) get rendered, how punctuation gets used and how text and graphics get formatted, as well as bigger-picture things like which vulgarities are acceptable for publication and in what contexts, jargon and euphemisms to avoid, and so on. But the thing about style is that many of the rules are decided arbitrarily — and writing that diverges from a particular style isn’t necessarily wrong. So people who hyperventilate over, for example, someone using — or leaving out — an Oxford comma, are wasting their breath. Either choice is OK (as long as the sentence is clear), but a publication’s style dictates which way to go.

Most newspapers in the U.S. follow Associated Press style, and most have a “house” style guide that addresses local usages and policies and notes divergences from AP style. Book publishers tend toward the Chicago Manual of Style, academia goes with APA style or MLA style, and Yahoo has its own style guide focused on websites and other online media. Users of any of these are familiar with the minutiae therein and will take pleasure in the satirical style guide “Write More Good,” by the Bureau Chiefs of @FakeAPStylebook.

Most editors also refer to usage manuals such as Garner’s and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, as well as general style guides such as Strunk and White’s venerable (or fusty, choose your adjective)  “The Elements of Style.”

Stylebooks usually cover grammar and usage matters too, but there are lots of conventions in writing that are strictly matters of style — arbitrarily decided — and have no bearing on grammar. These include spelling numbers out or using figures, certain punctuation preferences, putting titles in italics or quotes, British vs. American spellings* and usages, and so on.

Saying Sept. 1, 2011, is no more or less correct than saying September 1st, 2011, or 1 September 2011 — but one follows AP style and the others don’t. It’s not “wrong” to put a period outside of quotation marks, or inside, for that matter: one is typical of British style and one is more common in the U.S. “Towards” means the same thing as “toward” — neither is inferior — but it may not be the preferred form in the style of a publication.

The important thing to remember is that many aspects of written language are determined by style, not grammar — and just because something diverges from a particular style does not mean it’s wrong.

* “Write More Good” illustrates this point thus: “caliber/calibre: The diameter of a gun barrel; the diametre of a gun barrle.”

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