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Fisking a grammar prescriptivist Home

Here we go, another grammar article full of the most awful bollocks. 20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Gets Wrong by Jon Gingerich. Go read it, I’ll wait.

OED logoI just love the snide remark of “I know some of the best authors in history have lived to see these very toadstools appear in print.” Good grief, the best authors in history knew/know what they’re doing, and if you’re going to take Shakespeare, Dickens, Orwell, or Amis to court because they used which instead of that, then you lose. And that’s the problem with the majority of this piece: it’s Gingerich’s opinion masquerading as fact and cast as commands. And, to be utterly honest, a lot of this stuff isn’t really even grammar (that is, the morphology and syntax of the language), it’s word definitions.

Armed with the OED online, the Oxford Modern English Dictionary, Chambers Dictionary to support my fisking (they’re the ones I have at hand), let’s wade into this swamp and hope we reach some dry tussocks of grass every now and then:

Who and Whom. Oh, for the love of Pete, whom is dead. Unless you are writing a Victorian novel or are a pretentious snob. For everyone else, the language has moved on and now who is pretty much used everywhere, because, quite frankly, the myriad traditional rules suck to remember and get right. Not only do they suck, but people would really look at you askance if you tried.

Which and That. The old restrictive versus relative clauses rule. Well, since Gingerich refutes his own advice with a perfectly fine counter-example, don’t worry about it too much. Geoffrey Pullum has some good advice in his article that pulls apart Strunk and White (executive summary: they lay down the rule and then break it continually throughout the book). Or should that be which?

Lay and Lie. This is a good piece of advice. And, boy, it gets difficult sometimes.

Moot. WTF? This is in the top twenty because their/they’re/there and your/you’re went out for a drink down the pub? The possessive apostrophe was out to lunch? The Oxford comma was otherwise detained?

Continual and Continuous. Utter bollocks. Just read the OED (definition 1a). There are differences (in mathematics, you talk about a continuous function, but not a continual one for example), but the assertion that continual just means “always going on, punctuated by intervals” is not true.

Envy and Jealousy. Damn these dictionaries when they say that a definition of jealous is envious. It just ruins Gingerich’s day. Lexicographers the world over must be jealous (or should that be envious?) of his success at promoting his artificial view of the language. If only reality was so clear-cut.

Nor. Gets bonus points for mentioning the nor after neither, or after either rule and how that’s too restrictive. As a whole his rule’s almost right, but you still can’t convince me to use it. Nor will I change my mind.

May and Might. Just splitting hairs, in my view. I mean to say, may implies more possibility than might? So, if the probability of some action is, what?, 50% or more then use may? 75%? Sounds incredibly like a style thing. I may use it, but I might not.

Whether and If. A simple trek to the OED disproves this one. It’s OK as a general suggestion, perhaps.

Fewer and Less. Gag. Big time. Go and read Merriam-Webster’s Concise Dictionary of English Usage on the subject. This rule is the pinnacle of picky prescriptivism.

Farther and Further. Pretty much an invalid distinction (note the author’s weaselly use of implies for instance). It seems to be a matter of style more than anything obtained from a dictionary. Oxford Modern English Dictionary says “The form farther is used especially with reference to physical distance, although further is preferred by many people even in this sense.” Note there’s no clause about “measureable” which seems to be entirely in Gingerich’s head. Go ahead, make it a distinction for your own writing, but no way is it a hard fast rule.

Since and Because. Since I’m a cad, I’ll just say this is utter and complete bollocks. I don’t even have to go to the dictionary (but I did, and Gingerich is wrong to state his restriction: since can mean because). Has he ever used a dictionary since his first children’s picture dictionary?

Disinterested and Uninterested. Yep, agreed on this one.

Anxious. Another trip to the dictionary disproves this one. Yep, the primary definition is “troubled” or “uneasy”, but an alternative definition is “full of desire”. Let’s say I am anxious that this stupid rule is never seen again.

Different Than and Different From. Oxford even gives different to as a “less formal” British alternative. I suppose this advice is fine as far as it goes: “Use from unless it sounds better to say than.”

Bring and Take. This is a problem? So bad a problem that it has to appear in a top twenty list? I must be reading the wrong stuff.

Impactful. Gingerich may hate the word (and I’m not particularly enamored of it – it reeks of self-important Madison Avenue marketing types wielding PowerPoint slidedecks), but that’s no reason to pretend that it isn’t one. Here’s Chambers’ definition: “1. Creating an impact. 2. Effective or impressive.” Not in the OED yet. In Merriam-Webster though.

Affect and Effect. I’ll allow this one since he uses “almost always” in his description. Oh damn, I used since again. I so have to effect a change in my writing.

Irony and Coincidence. I’ll allow this one too. There’s a great skit by Ed Byrne that lampoons Alanis Morisette’s song Ironic by pointing out that many of her examples of irony aren’t.

Nauseous. Oh, geezus, this one just makes me feel sick, especially after the twaddle I’ve just been through. Definition 1b in the OED is the definition Gingerich rejects as being false (earliest citation 1885; “orig US”: Americans have been wrong for 125 years!). Definition 2a is the definition he allows. Ditto for all the other dictionaries: they have both definitions. Sorry, dude, you can’t just pick and choose the definitions you like and then cast the others as a mistake. That’s just arrogant.

And then to cap it all he recommends The Elements of Style. It’s a horrible little book that doesn’t even follow its own prescriptions. Talking of which, I really commend you to read through Pullum’s essay again: it’ll open your eyes.

So, let’s see the score: six or seven are OK, out of twenty. Thirteen or fourteen are somewhere on the line from being nauseatingly picky to arrogantly wrong. Some of them might charitably be described as style suggestions, but far too often he’s quoting his opinion as fact without even checking with the dictionary.

Album cover for Station to StationNow playing:
Bowie, David - Word on a Wing
(from Station to Station)



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I'm Julian M Bucknall, an ex-pat Brit living in Colorado, an atheist, a microbrew enthusiast, a Volvo 1800S owner, a Pet Shop Boys fanboy, a slide rule and HP calculator collector, an amateur photographer, a Altoids muncher.

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