• September 3, 2015

The Elements of Clunk

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Four years ago, I wrote an essay for The Chronicle Review cataloging "The Seven Deadly Sins of Student Writers"—the errors and infelicities that cropped up most frequently in my students' work. Since then a whole new strain of bad writing has come to the fore, not only in student work but also on the Internet, that unparalleled source for assessing the state of the language.


For our one year anniversary, my girlfriend and myself are going to a Yankees game, with whomever amongst our friends can go. But, the Weather Channel just changed their forecast and the skies are grey, so we might go with the girl that lives next door to see the movie, "Iron Man 2".

Those two hypothetical sentences contain 11 instances of this new type of "mistake" (I put the word in quotes to include usages that would almost universally be deemed errors, ones that merely diverge from standard practice, and outposts in between). They are as follows:

1. There should be no comma after "But."

2. The period after "Iron Man 2" should be inside the quotation marks around the title (which would be italicized in most publications, including The Chronicle).

3. No comma is needed after "movie."

4. "Its," not "their," is needed with "Weather Channel."

5. "Whomever" should be "whoever."

6. "Myself" should be "I."

7. "Girl that" should be "girl who"

8. "Gray" is the correct spelling, not "grey."

9. "Amongst" should be "among."

10. "One year anniversary" should be written as "one-year anniversary," but, really, "first anniversary."

11. It's a "Yankee," not "Yankees," game.

Are you surprised by the absence of smiley faces, LOL-type abbreviations, and slang terms like "diss" or "phat"? A reading of the typical lament about student writing would lead you to think all are rampant. However, I have yet to encounter a single example in all my years of grading. Students realize that this kind of thing is in the wrong register for a college assignment (even an assignment for my classes, which for the most part cover journalism, broadly defined—that is, writing for publication in newspapers and magazines, in print or online). Maybe students are being too careful. Slang can streamline or lend poetry to language, or both. The new errors and changes, on the other hand, make it longer and more prosaic. They give a new sound to prose. I call it clunk.

The leadoff hitters are Nos. 1 to 3; punctuation is a train wreck among my students. I have no doubt as to the root of the problem: Students haven't spent much time reading. Punctuation, including the use of apostrophes and hyphens, is governed by a fairly complicated series of rules and conventions, learned for the most part not in the classroom but by encountering and subliminally absorbing them again and again. Students have a lot of conversations and texting sessions, but that's no help. You need to read a lot of edited and published prose.

Unfamiliarity with written English has brought about the other mistakes and changes as well. They may not appear at first to have much in common, but note: All except Nos. 2 and 8 lengthen the sentence they're in. This is the opposite of the way language usually changes. "God be with you" becomes "goodbye"; "base ball" becomes "base-ball" and then "baseball"; "disrespect" becomes "diss." Two hundred years ago, Jane Austen wrote, "It is a truth universally acknowledged, that a single man in possession of a good fortune, must be in want of a wife." A copy editor today would cut both commas.

Standard written English is a whole other language from its spoken (and texted) counterpart, with conventions not just of punctuation but also of many shortcuts to meaning—streamlined words and phrases, ellipses (omitted word or words), idioms, figures of speech—that have developed over many years. You learn them by reading. And if you haven't read much, when you set pen to paper yourself, you take things more slowly and apply a literal-minded logic, as you would in finding your way through a dark house.

Thus, in No. 1, it seems natural to place a comma after "But" because in speaking you would pause there. (So natural that commas after "But," "And," or "Yet" at the start of a sentence now show up frequently in Associated Press dispatches and The New York Times, as well as in blogs and other writing on the Web.) And in No. 2, it makes sense to put a period after the title Iron Man 2—after all, a film title is a unit. But in both cases the rules, animated by a general urge to make writing smooth and efficient, allow us and in fact compel us to punctuate in an illogical and counterintuitive way.

The question in No. 3, of whether to put a comma after the word "movie," relates to the famously difficult issue of defining or nondefining clauses and phrases—the whole "that/which" thing. It's a slam dunk that students would be clueless here. What I want to point out is that they're much more likely to err by putting a comma in than by taking one out. In other words, every day I see mistakes like "the movie, Iron Man 2" or "my friend, Steve." But rarely do I encounter something along the lines of "We live in the richest country in the world the United States."

As for No. 4, every student of mine who is not the child of a high-school English teacher uses the third-person plural pronoun ("they," "them," "their") to refer to companies, organizations, and rock bands with nonplural names, such as the Clash and Arcade Fire. That is eminently reasonable, given that these outfits consist of multiple individuals, and in fact the plural pronoun is standard in Britain. However, we live in the United States, where it is not.

(Even English teachers' children use "they" for the epicene pronoun—that is, to stand for a person of indeterminate sex. Thus, "Everyone who wants to come on the trip should bring their passport." In that sentence, "their" is so much better a choice than "his or her," "her or his," or "her/his" that it will almost certainly become standard in written English in the next 10 years.)

Nos. 5 and 6 are examples of "hypercorrection": errors that are induced by a combination of grammatical confusion and a desire to sound fancy, such as the chorine who refers to "a girl like I." Her equivalent today would say "a girl like myself." The enormous popularity of that last word stems in part from understandable uncertainty over whether "I" or "me" is correct. The same goes for "who" and "whom," about which almost nobody is completely confident.

But there is more going on here; stay with me. In No. 5, while "whoever" is correct (you would say "we'll go with he who can make it," not "with him who can make it"), the error is reasonable because most of the time prepositions like "with" take an object, like "whom." But people often use "whomever" even when the error is not reasonable. A Google search quickly yields a Facebook group called "Quazie's Hair Fan-club" (put up by college students, significantly), which has a discussion called "Whomever wants an office in this group."

Here's what's happening, as I see it. My students aren't unique but represent a portion of the millennial generation: at least moderately intelligent, reasonably well-educated young people. When they write in a formal setting—for a class assignment or for publication in a blog or a magazine—they almost always favor length over brevity, ornateness over simplicity, literalness over figuration. The reasons, I hypothesize, are a combination: the wandering-the-house-in-the-dark factor, hypercorrection brought on by chronic uncertainty, and the truth that once people start talking or writing, they like to do so as long as they can, even if the extra airtime comes from saying "myself" instead of "I."

Examples of the trend may seem trivial in isolation. Take "a person that" instead of "a person who." It's not a crime against the language. But the language, in its wisdom, has offered us "who" as a relative pronoun when referring to a person rather than a thing. It's there to make your prose marginally more fluid, to save a letter, and to be used. Why not use it?

Another manifestation is a boom in Britishisms: not only the weirdly popular "amongst," but also "amidst," "whilst"—I actually have gotten that more than once in assignments—and "oftentimes." (In a parallel move, the stretched-out and unpleasant "off-ten" has become a vogue pronunciation among youth, as has "eye-ther.") In spelling, "grey" has taken over from the previously standard "gray." I haven't seen "labour" yet, but the day is young. "Advisor" isn't British—in fact, dictionaries label it an Americanism—but it seems so, or at least fancier and more official than good old "adviser." The "-or" spelling has become so prevalent—85 million in Google, against 26 million for "adviser"—that although the Times, The New Yorker, and the Associated Press, along with The Chronicle, cling to "-er," it has started to look funny in their articles.

Rampant hyphen confusion is part of the general punctuation problem, but the particular usage in No. 10 is also an example of a concise locution replaced by an awkward literalism. People: We've always had a way to indicate the day when something is a year old, and it's "first anniversary." A Google search yields 1.2 million hits for "one-year anniversary" (or "one year anniversary") to 2.4 million for "first anniversary"—and I predict the margin will quickly vanish. (It just occurred to me to Google "one-year," as opposed to "first," birthday. I have to admit I am shocked: nearly two million hits.)

A lot of venerable expressions have had their seams let out recently. One change (picked up and then propelled by Facebook) is from the traditional "he's my friend" or "he's a friend of mine" to the longer, clunkier, and more literal "I'm friends with him." In similar fashion, "too big a" has turned into "too big of a"; "can't help thinking" into "can't help but think"; "this kind of thing" into "these kinds of things"; "I would like to have gone" and "I would have liked to go" combined into "I would have liked to have gone."

And then we come to the Yankees and their contests. I know there will be skeptics on this one, so let me start with some numbers. In The New York Times, from 1851 to 1980, the phrase "a Yankee game" occurred 39 times. And "a Yankees game"? Zero. Contrast the period between January 2005 and June 2010. The Times used "a Yankee game" 19 times and "a Yankees game" 65 times: more than three times as often.

To understand the change, let's first look at the previously dominant "Yankee game." I would characterize "Yankee game," "Yankee pitcher," or "Yankee fan" as metonymy: a figure of speech in which the part (a Yankee) stands for the whole (the Yankees collectively). The convention still holds for some expressions: We say "I'm a cookie lover" or "Let's go to the shoe store," even though I like cookies (plural) and the store stocks many pairs of footwear. The dropping of the "s" is one of those shortcuts that streamline the language.

Not for sports teams, however—not anymore. Trying to get a more precise fix on when the change occurred, I compared a "Yankees game" with a "Yankee game" in the Times database for various chunks of time. It turns out that "Yankees" surged ahead between 1996 and 2000, beating out the previously preferred "Yankee" 35 to 22 and setting the stage for dominance in the 2000s. What was going on in the late 1990s? I confess I do not have a clue, only a conviction that this was an early sign of the coming of clunk.

Ben Yagoda is a professor of English at the University of Delaware and author, most recently, of Memoir: A History (Riverhead Books, 2009).


1. rodtye - January 02, 2011 at 11:27 am

I hesitate to disagree with a professor of English, but I would definitely say "with him who can make it". To me, it sounds ungrammatical to say "with he", regardless of whether the pronoun is followed by an adjectival clause.
A quick Google search returns plenty of examples using "with him" - for example "Fortune sides with him who dares" and none using "with he."

2. moyenage - January 03, 2011 at 09:13 am

You forgot the most glaring--and more and more common--error of all. "My girlfriend and myself" should be "my girlfriend and me." There is no antecedent for the reflexive to refer to.

3. persse - January 03, 2011 at 09:45 am

"My girlfriend and I" is correct. It's the plural subject of the verb "are going."

4. finaleyes - January 03, 2011 at 10:29 am

To rodtye: Don't use Google searches to prove your grammatical point. Otherwise Prof. Yagoda will rest his case.

To moyenage: If you can't drop your girlfriend and go alone (as in "For our first anniversary [my girlfriend and] me am going to a Yankees game), then it needs to remain I. (See persse.)

Question for the author: Isn't the team the NY Yankees? So wouldn't it be correct to say they were going to a Yankees game? They're not just going to see one Yankee fling a ball around, right?

5. rob_poh - January 03, 2011 at 10:30 am

How is it clunkier to call a game played by a team with a name a Teamname game than to call it a Teamnam game? What logical difference does it make whether the letter you lop off the team's name is the s of Yankees or the e of the hypothetical Teamname? I speculate that the reason the New York Times has moved forward from "Yankee game" to "Yankees game" is that achieving brevity by arbitrarily shortening a proper name is a step onto a slippery slope. Should the New York Times softball team's games be called Time games? If it is your argument, Professor, that there should be Yankee games and Time games to "streamline the language", why not Ynk games and Tm games?

6. aephirah - January 03, 2011 at 11:58 am

Previous readers' arguments about team names are convincing: I would not go to a "Phillie" or "Philly" game instead of a "Phillies" game, would I? Why would the Yankees' team name be treated differently?

Please keep in mind that the reason we moved away from "Britishisms" here in the U.S. is precisely because language evolves through usage. The Romance languages were once considered bastardized forms of Latin. Nonetheless, I hope I am not alone in thinking that the world is richer because we have such beautiful languages as Italian, French, Portuguese, and Spanish. Likewise, even within a given language, most irregular forms evolved through usage patterns that deviated from standard rules. As unattractive as new forms may seem, fighting them when they have become more common than previous forms may be as unnatural and fancy as clinging to "whilst" or "labour."

7. fesmitty77 - January 03, 2011 at 12:03 pm

Perhaps it is worth noting that if this is an analysis of student writing, there is a direct correlation between the lengthening of sentences and the length of the assignment. It is beneficial to add 'clunk' because students often desire to fill the pages of assignments as quickly as possible, especially if content knowledge is a problem for them. I would also ask whether language as a construction that is dynamic as opposed to static should be viewed as flawed when written in a more verbose manner.

8. charper1951 - January 03, 2011 at 01:01 pm

Thanks for reminding me as I contemplate the upcoming semester. My department, which is journalism, decided recently to have every student take a grammar, punctuation and style course. I hope it helps! All the best.

9. dwojciec - January 03, 2011 at 01:39 pm

RE: with he/him who can make it
"Who" is now the subject of the clause, describing the object "him." So it would be correct to say "with him who can make it."--Yes?

10. rch1952 - January 03, 2011 at 02:57 pm

Nice analysis of the (sometimes counterintuitive) logic behind "clunk" (or what I might call "misgrammatical" writing). But some of these instances have been occuring long before the the millenial generation was a twinkle in the Boomers' eyes. I remember in 6th grade catching out our school principal's announcement on the intercom that she wanted the school to be a "better place for you and I." And I've seen plenty of similar examples from well-educated people over the last half-century. (I know--this post marks my own age and how I was fated to my eventual profession!)

11. hhelm - January 03, 2011 at 03:52 pm

This is a fun and provocative article, Ben! But if I were editing that first sentence it would just say: On our first anniversary, my girlfriend and I are going to a Yankees game with friends.

Whoever among their friends can't go won't go so there's no reason to bring that up in the first place, right?

12. finaleyes - January 03, 2011 at 04:06 pm

Despite the arguments with a couple of Ben Yagoda's changes, he's absolutely right about the abhorrent state of students' writing. And with the exception of the Yankees change, he's correct in all the others. And these are among the dozens of commonly made errors. Not just students but writers of all ages are pretty lax in their usage.

13. ellenhunt - January 03, 2011 at 05:41 pm

The real instructor of English in today's world is MS Word, not professors of English. Its often weird-making "rules" are what students today (and adults) use for proofreading. If it's not in MS Word syntax, it's not in English.

Pasting your circumlocutory clunk into MS Word, it flags precisely one possible error. It finds "myself" and suggests "I."

We are entering a new era in which proper English syntax is not determined by people, but by software. Specifically, proper English syntax is now determined by the rules that the manager of the software group that writes such rules decided on together with what his team thought they liked. After completion, those software people moved on to other tasks, and the syntax system languishes, to be maintained from time to time as new releases appear.

Since MS Word was the first large-scale syntax checking program, and it is therefore the de facto gold standard, all other programs emulate its rules, and don't go beyond them. Microsoft set the bar, and customers only care if competitors are as good if they care at all.

(If you want a truly awful experience in word processing, try LATeX. Would you believe that there are three major editors that put out different (incompatible) flavors? Yes, one can make it work, but dear god. Certain professions, like economics, require most papers to be submitted in LATeX.)

14. gophertortoise - January 03, 2011 at 07:34 pm

Grey is a variant spelling of gray and neither right nor wrong.

15. jdxxxe - January 03, 2011 at 08:25 pm

For what it's worth, I offer the results of a Google search relating to the variety of space aliens known as "the Greys/Grays"; the search returns some 2,780,000 results for "Gray aliens", and a mere 290,000 resuls for "Grey aliens." I don't know if this says more about variant spellings or alien color proclivities -- or possibly I just have too much time on my hand(s), the jury being as yet out on the question of pluralizing recreational venues.

16. ornery_mike_v7 - January 03, 2011 at 11:15 pm

Having just read & evaluated over a "ream" of incoming Freshman, English Placement Writing Samples, I can't agree with you more.
To add to the Gray/Grey debate consider this:
In a 19th Century System of Chromatology (the study of colors), the Pigment difference between Gray and Grey depended upon whether you your adding White to Black (Gray) or adding Black to White (Grey), in that the Hue of both Black and White can be of differing and are therefore considered to be Chromatic, rather than achromatic, as they are in light.

17. xenoncam - January 03, 2011 at 11:38 pm

If Ben Yagoda thinks "with he who can make it" is correct English, he has no right to criticize anyone else's writing.

18. fortunato92 - January 04, 2011 at 12:26 am

In British English the period does go outside the, as they say, inverted commas, and amongst is correct.

19. raphaeli - January 04, 2011 at 12:41 am

I'm surprised that Yagoda was faulty in some of his corrections, as pointed out in the comments above, but I think no.2, placing the period (full stop here in Oz) before the inverted commas at the end is erroneous. If it were, say, a pair parenthesis brackets instead of the film title the period would follow. The end of the sentence is indicated by the period, as written in the original.

20. sdnelson - January 04, 2011 at 01:55 am

Raphaeli: Mr. Yagoda is correct. The period goes inside of the comma in standard American usage. In Britain, it goes outside. When it comes to question marks and exclamation marks, they go inside the quotation marks if they are part of the quotation and outside if they are part of the writer's own sentence construction. Your analogy to parentheses is incorrect because parentheses follow their own rules. If the parentheses only contain a clause and follow the grammar of the sentence they modify, then the period goes outside of the final parenthesis (because it is part of the sentence). If the parentheses contain a sentence that stands alone, then the period goes within the final parenthesis. (This sentence is an example.)

21. sdnelson - January 04, 2011 at 02:00 am

And now to edit my previous comment: "Mr. Yagoda" should be "Prof. Yagoda" and "outside of/within the final parenthesis" should be "after/before the final parenthesis." Also, I say "The period goes inside of the comma" when I meant to write "inside of the quotation marks." Terrible, terrible, terrible.

22. aucklander - January 04, 2011 at 02:37 am

Although the other "Britishisms" you mention may be so, I have always thought of "oftentimes" as an Americanism if anything.

23. oroklini - January 04, 2011 at 03:23 am

"This is the opposite of the way language usually changes"? How did the English language reach the ornate heights of eighteenth-century prose, if not by addition and complication?

24. ccenglishprof - January 04, 2011 at 03:26 am

1) As a community college professor and a former Basic Skills coordinator at my college (a major urban cc with an enrollment of over 40,000 students in credit courses), I can state that all of the errors Prof. Yagoda illustrates are common--but only for students at the *higher* placement and course levels (i.e. pretty close to actual freshman level). More than 50% of the students at my college place into English courses that are essentially 9th grade level or below. They don't generate prose that is even this good (as bad as it may be).

2) While I agree that the vast majority of today's students have insufficient exposure to reading well-written and well-edited prose, I think Prof. Yagoda overestimates the effects such reading has on students' working knowledge of things like punctuation and sentence construction. The reality is that most students have had little or no direct instruction in the rules of punctuation, syntax, and usage. Direct instruction in reading stops in late elementary school. Direct instruction of sentence skills appears to end some time shortly after that. And today's students have all too often been taught sentence skills by teachers who, in turn, were taught that direct instruction in grammar and technical skills has "no effect" or does "damage" to emerging student literacy. (That's a corruption and oversimplification of the research on grammar instruction, of course.) Students are taught to "intuit" things like punctuation ("listen for the pause" etc.). They get very little written feedback on what they write prior to college, and they are taught to avoid error rather than engage in the kinds of extensive practice, experimentation, and rejiggering of sentences that proficient writers engage in. Without such instruction and practice it's hard for any student, other than the most gifted auto-didact, to get better.

25. archilochus - January 04, 2011 at 04:44 am

It's funny to see that rch1952 misspelled 'occurring.'
ccenglishprof touches on a sad fact: Writing as a skill is no longer taught early and persistently by passionate, dedicated schoolmarm-types, respected by young persons who appreciate over the early years that there is much to learn in the special skill of writing, and reinforced by any prevailing desire in the college culture to strive toward correct writing that expresses interesting ideas. They don't know that they don't know. It is also my experience, with ccenglishprof, that Clunk, as described by Prof. Yagoda, is a step up from the rambling and loose sequencing of high-frequency words and hackneyed phrases separated by odd punctuation practices, seen in many of our students' writing--students at an expensive private urban university.

26. lamidave - January 04, 2011 at 05:59 am

Mr. Yagoda perpetrates an infelicity himself in the first paragraph of his article: "... a whole new strain ...." Did he mean wholly new and forget the adverbial ending? Or a new half-strain, as opposed to a whole one?


27. jwwbrennan - January 04, 2011 at 06:06 am

Are quotation marks defined so carefully when used to substitute for italics to accommodate Internet limitations? Audience should also be considered as for much of the English speaking world the period is properly placed outside ('Chicago Manual of Style' 6.10 15th Edition) in what is labelled 'Alternative System.'

28. james_volcano - January 04, 2011 at 06:24 am

No matter the grammar. Or spelling. Or punctuation. The clarity and song of the prose is what we are looking for, surely.

Or: No matter the grammar, the spelling or the punctuation, the clarity and song of the language is that/which/what the reader seeks.

29. daniel_von_flanagan - January 04, 2011 at 07:24 am

The difference between "Yankees" and "Phillies" is that the former is designedly the plural of "Yankee," whereas the latter is a contraction. Back when the team was the "Philadelphias" it would have been correct to discuss going to "a Philadelphia game."

ellenhunt, there are actually dozens or even hundreds of editors you can use for LaTeX (including Word!), but when you refer to editors which "put out" LaTeX you are likely referring to one of a few front-end WYSIWYG preprocessors. Blaming LaTeX for the problems with this software is like blaming Jonathan Swift for last year's film version of Gulliver's Travels.

30. emucio - January 04, 2011 at 07:35 am

I think you are all missing the point! We should focus on his decision making and not his grammar. A Yankees game? How romantic! Being a long time Cleveland Indians fan (okay, stop laughing), I have a problem with his choice of sports teams.

Okay, enough levity for now. Back to the serious discussions.

31. marlyyoumans - January 04, 2011 at 09:02 am

My observation is that children no longer have much time to dream and read. At my house, homework and sports fill up the after-school hours. My youngest child wants to read but often falls into bed long after his bedtime. He reads more during school breaks than any other time.

As for the source of British spellings and vocabulary, I wonder if we need to look toward J. K. Rowling. The Potter books appear to be the only books some older children (particularly boys) have read outside of school. Schoolwork, Rowling, and prose encountered via some electronic medium (videogame, cell phone, or the internet) make up the trinity of influences on these young writers.

32. miande - January 04, 2011 at 09:37 am

Such a devotee of proper usuage should knoe that "text" is not a verb; therefore "texted' is a solecism.

33. nordicexpat - January 04, 2011 at 09:46 am

I really have my doubts about the validity of some of these judgements and analyses. "Who" is preferable to "that" because it saves a letter? OK, maybe New York sportwriters preferred, "Yankee game," but did they prefer "Giant Game," "Saint Game," Redskin Game," etc.? *Webster's Dictionary of American Usage* says that both "grey" and "gray" are correct in common in American English, although the preference is for "gray." What's your complaint again? (By the by, if students don't spend much time reading nowadays, where do they pick up spellings like "grey," "advisor," etc. from?). And if the appositive Iron Man 2 is pronounced as a separate intonation unit, then it would be set off by commas. (There are integrated appositives, like "the poet Robert Burns," but I don't think your example is a very good one). And please don't imply that "that" is used for restrictive and "which" is used for non-restrictive clauses. Even Fowler didn't really believe it.

Sometimes, I find your comments on language informative, but this is disappointing.

34. ianderso - January 04, 2011 at 10:13 am

If only I had errors like these to lament. Allow me to share two emails I recently received from a student (any identity-revealing information has, of course, been changed):

"So i was looking at my Schedule for next semester on [the registration portal] and it says i only have twelve credits i really need another class can you please help me fix the problem."

"ok well when is the environmental science class because i guess im fine with it i got to get it out of the way so i guess sign me up for it the more gen eds out of the way the happier i am so i dont have to to in the future."

Am I right to be upset by emails like this? How does someone make it through 12 years of public education with such poor writing skills? How do they make it into college? Sadly, the vast majority of my students write at a comparable level. It's heartbreaking.

35. aspielman - January 04, 2011 at 10:49 am

Sitting in London I am puzzled by a couple of these

- I have never seen or heard the word "oftentimes" in British English
- I spend much time making sure that in my oranisation's literature the names of companies and organisations take singular verbs, or are represented by singular pronouns. Plural pronouns and verbs are common but wrong, in Britain as in America.

As others have pointed out, the period outside inverted commas is a matter of British vs American usage, like the grey/gray spelling. It is also a particularly arbitrary rule, and one for which it would be helpful to have a global convention rather than multiple regional conventions.

Furthermore, if you did the same analysis on British student writing, you would find a similar set of solecisms and probably many Americanisms, which also tend to lengthen words and sentences: (eg 'transportation' rather than 'transport').

It is perhaps not surprising that the regional forms of the language, having diverged for a couple of hundred years, are now under pressure to converge. With the amount of shared media, it could hardly be otherwise - and is it really such a bad thing?

I would be quite happy for the doyens of prose style on each side of the Atlantic to settle down and agree where the more arbitrary rules could be modified to bring the two forms of English closer together.

36. adamdonahue - January 04, 2011 at 10:55 am

These comments are revealing.

1. At least one person labels your post "provocative." Good grammar is now provocative.

2. Someone else verifies your assertions using Microsoft Word's grammar checker. Word is notoriously bad at checking grammar, and I suspect at one point at least one of your students has fallen prey to its recommendations, changing a perfectly acceptable sentence into one full of grammatical errors. (I do not believe that Microsoft Word is the de facto "gold" standard; perhaps a standard -- perhaps! -- but certainly not a gold one.)

It would interesting for you to incorporate the ol' prescriptivist vs. descriptivist debate into your thoughts here.

37. rightwingprofessor - January 04, 2011 at 11:10 am

@miande: I assure you "text" is indeed a verb, and has been for at least three years. It is only a matter of time before the dictionaries catch up to this usage, if they haven't already. Dictionary.com lists it as a verb according to the "World English Dictionary," whatever that is!

38. blaz311 - January 04, 2011 at 11:15 am

To answer your question about the Yankee vs. Yankees usage,as someone who did some work with the Brewers and the Packers I can tell you that PR happened. The teams have made an effort to have everyone using the proper name of said team. Technically, it is a Brewers game and a Brewers player, not a Brewer. As far as the teams are concerned, there is no such thing as a Brewer or a Yankee.

39. oldcodger - January 04, 2011 at 11:20 am

About mistake 2 - I do not agree that the 'period' (or full-stop as we refer to it here in Ireland) should be inside the close quotation mark.
However I agree with the other point in mistake 2 - that the film title should be in italics.

40. oldcodger - January 04, 2011 at 11:27 am

Please ignore earlier comment above. I now accept I was wrong. This side of Alzheimer's I will never make that particular mistake ever again.

41. kanolan - January 04, 2011 at 11:35 am

All this controversy over "Yankee" versus "Yankees" could have been avoided if only the writer and his girlfriend were Red Sox fans.

42. robbopop - January 04, 2011 at 11:46 am

Yankees fan? What about the extraneous apostrophe? It's Yankees' fan, surely. Or really mash it up and make it Yankee's fans.

43. leditrix - January 04, 2011 at 11:49 am

@ianderso: Precisely. When, as a college student, I discovered that -- without exception -- the dumbest of my roommates were pursuing careers as public-school teachers, I vowed to homeschool my own children.

The oldest four of my homeschooled children are now straight-A college students. The youngest girl is on track to become a medical practitioner (and at age 12 told me: If I ever start talking about boys, remind me that I want to be a doctor.)

Their excellent writing skills can be attributed to my high expectations and incessant nagging.

44. oldcodger - January 04, 2011 at 12:02 pm

RE: 'Yankee' or 'Yankees'? We got a bit of clarity on this particular issue here in Ireland a couple of years ago when the England soccer team were involved in the final stages of a competition and their fans were being a bit unruly. Some news outlets referred to the fans as the 'English' fans. This of course mistakenly assumed that the fans' nationality was English; each and every one of them. Undoubtately the majority were; but perhaps there was the odd Irishman or Frenchwoman among them too.
The correct discription therefore was 'England' fans.
Applying that to the Yankees it seems to me that to describe the fans as 'Yankee' fans would be a mistake as some of them may be Confederates; or, God help us, Canadians.

45. coolnmisty - January 04, 2011 at 12:02 pm

I'm just a student who probably makes a lot of grammatical mistakes! Unfortunately, the majority of students don't have teachers who can correct them. I think the problem is not that students don't read, but that students don't practice writing enough.

46. blaz311 - January 04, 2011 at 12:03 pm

@robbopop I am going to go out on a limb here and try to explain it from the team's perspective.

In the case of "A Yankee Fan," the word Yankee works as an adjective. When you change it to "A Yankees fan," adding the 's' doesn't make it suddenly a possessive. It still functions as an adjective. So, there is no need for an apostrophe.

The teams try to beat this over the heads of media partners. There were signs hanging up in our studios to remind people that it is "Packers," not Packer.

47. racheltoor - January 04, 2011 at 12:05 pm

Thank you for this essay. More conversation about writing at the sentence level is important, especially if it keeps us from thinking we already know it all. As evidenced by many of the responses, clearly we don't.
Rachel Toor

48. blaz311 - January 04, 2011 at 12:07 pm

I meant to add, I say that I'm going out on a limb because I am in no position to correct anyone's grammar! That's just my take on it, which is based on some discussions with NFL and MLB PR folks.

49. jimbajuice - January 04, 2011 at 12:25 pm

"Slam dunk" - That's some sense of irony from the author.

50. leditrix - January 04, 2011 at 01:00 pm

*correcting myself: doctor).

Every writer deserves an editor; in my case, that editor is called "give it an hour before you hit the submit button."

51. chresmologue - January 04, 2011 at 01:21 pm

In No. 5, Yagoda is perfectly correct, but his explanation makes it clear that he doesn't understand why. "Whoever" is undoubtedly the correct form; for it is the subject of the noun clause "who[m]ever . . . can go," and it is that whole (indeclinable) clause, not the pronoun "who[m]ever," that is the object of the preposition "with."

The syntax of Yagoda's example is in no way comparable to the original: it should be "with him who can make it" because here "who can make it" is an adjective clause modifying the pronoun "him", which is the object of the preposition "with".

Mind you, such errors are common enough. It was a pretty good writer named William Shakespeare who spoke of "young Ferdinand, whom they suppose is drown'd." But as for the remark that "most of the time prepositions like 'with' take an object," implying that sometimes they don't, I don't think anyone capable of writing that should presume to correct others' English.

52. mbelvadi - January 04, 2011 at 01:30 pm

There seems to me a world of difference between a mistake that is pretty universal across all variants of English (like the "myself" example) and ones that are legitimate English in some variants of English (maybe like "grey" although other commenters suggest that was legit in American English too). It seems to be very pre-globalization thinking to try to impose the concept of "American English" on students, to actually grade as "wrong" usages that are correct in other parts of the world. It makes sense for publications like CHE to have standards for consistency, but what makes sense within a single publication doesn't a priori make sense for students from various parts of the world sharing a class for a semester.

Also, in an age where often the text in quotation marks/inverted commas is being offset in that way as instructions to be typed into a computer, I would like to offer the suggestion that including any text, including punctuation marks, that isn't part of the precise text being indicated is very bad and goes against the whole point of language rules, which is unambiguous communication. How many of us have clicked on a link in an email and gotten a 404 error because the email author allowed a period or comma to be right up against the ".html" and thus the browser searched for a URL ending in ".html."? And how often have students had trouble following directions from technical manuals because they typed periods and commas that were inside those quotation marks but weren't intended to be part of the instructed command? If you haven't seen that communication failure a LOT due to sticklers for an obsolete American English rule, you obviously haven't ever been in a tech support role anywhere.

53. blackbart - January 04, 2011 at 01:38 pm

In my experience correcting clunk, the main problem isn't the use of a "Britishism" or a poorly-placed comma. Those errors are symptoms of the larger issue: the inability to articulate and connect complete thoughts with clarity and concision.

The author's example:

For our one year anniversary, my girlfriend and myself are going to a Yankees game, with whomever amongst our friends can go. But, the Weather Channel just changed their forecast and the skies are grey, so we might go with the girl that lives next door to see the movie, "Iron Man 2".

I'm sure I've introduced some other stylistic faux-pas with which to quibble, but isn't the following much better than the corrected version offered by Prof. Yagoda?

My girlfriend and I have been together for a year! To celebrate, we're planning to go to a Yankee game with all our friends who can join us. If the weather doesn't cooperate, we may instead see _Iron Man 2_ with our next-door neighbor.

To me, the main contribution of this essay is the identification and classification of clunk--the example sentences and the description of this prose "style" resonates with my experience. But correcting clunk is not typically a matter of simply pointing out faulty spellings or word choices. Thinking sentence-to-sentence and paragraph-to-paragraph would help a lot. Even this example is an illustration. In the first sentence, the writer and his beau "are going to" a game, but in the second sentence we learn that the weather might change their plans. I find this sentence-to-sentence clunk more egregious than the word-and-punctuation-mark clunk, and drawing more attention to the former may help do away with some of the latter.

54. mtboots - January 04, 2011 at 02:02 pm

I am no expert on Englsh grammer but there are quite a few grammatical todayisms that drive me crazy.
Our community college recently invited its honor's students to speak about a particular subject they had been studying.
One student in response to a question asked began his sentence "I, myself, personally..."
Reminds me of the Beatles tune "I, me, mine."
God help us!

55. zebedee - January 04, 2011 at 02:02 pm

I agree with 24, 34; this specimen of Clunk is better than some writing I see from Masters students in science. Rambling, redundant, off-topic, unshapely...Scientific prose has its own conventions, which you can only absorb by reading. Born and bred in England, I'm with 35 on the alleged Britishisms. I have only seen the word Amid as an element of naval jargon, Amidships. Whilst and Amongst are indeed used in some English regions, but like other common but sub-standard words (such as the verb to Reckon, meaning to Suppose) I don't come across them in written English. Oftentimes is a complete novelty for me; if I'd met it, I'd have assumed (in my ignorance) that it was American, along with One Time (= Once in British English), which is catching on here at least in speech.

56. mlefavor - January 04, 2011 at 02:13 pm

There is actually a good reason why we young folks use the redundant "one-year anniversary," especially in the context of a relationship. It is very common for young couples to celebrate a "six-month anniversary," or even an "anniversary" every month. While college students have presumably grown out of the extreme case, middle-school couples might celebrate a "one-week anniversary."

Because of this, "first anniversary" is a little ambiguous, especially in speech, since we don't know whether it is the couple's one-year anniversary or one-month anniversary. We can usually figure it out, but "one-year anniversary" usually helps to clarify things (though, in reality, we would probably just say "our anniversary").

57. goxewu - January 04, 2011 at 02:31 pm

Re 44:

It's always puzzled me that in British (and, apparently, Irish) English, the plural verb is used in regard to a single team, e.g., "...when the England soccer team were involved in the final stages of a competition."

I know that a team is composed of many players (and coaches, trainers, executives, et al.), but would the British say, "Manchester United were one of the finest teams in the country"? (Or would the Irish say, "Celtic were one of the finest teams in the country"?)

And if this one-consisting-of-many convention is applied across the board, would it be proper in England or Ireland to say, "Ben Yagoda are a fine observer of the English language"? He is, after all, made up of about one hundred trillion cells.

58. jejuniper - January 04, 2011 at 03:02 pm

No Chicagoan would ever go to a Bear game.

59. digiwonk - January 04, 2011 at 03:34 pm

Sigh. Nothing more fun that a big majority out of 58 commenting professors becoming embroiled in minutely debating the minutest grammatical points.

What I got from this article: student writing is developing a new kind of problem, described here as 'clunk' and attributed to an informality with formal (or even standard) written English. Aware of their own shortcomings in this regard, they engage in a style of writing that is prone to a particular set of errors, identified here.

I too might quibble (I do quibble) with some of the author's examples, but the larger point is, I think, true: I can recognize in my own students these patterns of self-conscious, excessive, and error-prone formal writing. I now have a new way to try to understand how and why this pattern of errors happens, and for that, I am grateful.

Thanks for this thought-provoking piece.

60. digiwonk - January 04, 2011 at 03:35 pm

Yeesh to me: I meant "unfamiliarity with formal (or even standard) written English"

61. tgjxexulzzwgmg - January 04, 2011 at 05:29 pm

It's a bit hard to believe that Yagoda would would think to try to make grammar corrections when several of his corrections were incorrect. It's even harder to believe that he would do so in a publication that caters to higher education.

To Yagoda (and von_flanagan) - #11 is laughably incorrect. The correct term is a Yankees game since THAT IS THE NAME OF THE TEAM. Company filings show that the legal name of the entity is New York Yankees Partnership dba The New York Yankees Baseball Club.

Just because historical usage was INCORRECT doesn't mean you should publish a column in the CHE and suggest that it is correct grammar, especially in an example of "clunk" writing that YOU made up.

62. iamblichus - January 04, 2011 at 11:49 pm

"These comments are revealing.

1. At least one person labels your post "provocative." Good grammar is now provocative."

In some circles it is. See if you can find a copy of the article by W. Nelson Francis called 'Revolution in Grammar'. This article, written not by a teacher of English, but by a linguist, is actually quite dismissive of what is here being called 'good grammar'. Indeed, he asserts that this is not really 'grammar' at all, but more a form of linguistic etiquette.

Grammar, properly understood, is "the branch of linguistic science which is concerned with the description, analysis, and formulization of formal language patterns", which this article has almost nothing to say about.

63. knarnie - January 05, 2011 at 01:06 am

Iamblichus (post 62): You use both double and single quotation marks. This is incorrect. Show me the rule where you use singles for titles and then doubles around an apparent quotation quoted from, it seems, nowhere.

64. iamblichus - January 05, 2011 at 01:53 am

"Iamblichus (post 62): You use both double and single quotation marks. This is incorrect. Show me the rule where you use singles for titles and then doubles around an apparent quotation quoted from, it seems, nowhere."

The text was quoted from the article by Professor Francis.

And your reading comprehension is abysmal. Comically so.

65. marylow - January 05, 2011 at 02:59 am

The professor has used the word 'metonymy' instead of 'synecdoche'. The first is using an object to represent a function, as in 'crown' for 'monarchy', or 'hired gun' for 'assassin'. The second is using a part to represent a whole, as in 'All hands on deck' when one hopes the rest of the bodies will come along too. MaryLow

66. aldebaran - January 05, 2011 at 09:23 am


"Grammar, properly understood, is 'the branch of linguistic science which is concerned with the description, analysis, and formulization of formal language patterns', which this article has almost nothing to say about".

"Properly understood"? Says who, exactly? For a rather different view, see whether (not "if") you can find the writings of Mark Halpern, which challenge the descriptive linguists' little power-grab, and brilliantly undermine their pretensions to authority.

67. iamblichus - January 05, 2011 at 09:42 am

"Properly understood"? Says who, exactly? For a rather different view, see whether (not "if") you can find the writings of Mark Halpern, which challenge the descriptive linguists' little power-grab, and brilliantly undermine their pretensions to authority.

Yes, well, I understand that there were quite a few chemists who were upset when Lavoisier overturned the phlogiston theory, too.

68. iamblichus - January 05, 2011 at 09:57 am

Finally, I should note that even Halpern doesn't defend the kind of schoolmarmishness (is that an acceptable neologism? Can you correct it for me if it isn't?) that I have seen in this thread.

Seriously. You people are fighting over something as trivial as table manners. I realize that some of you take this stuff really seriously, but you should acknowledge, at least to yourselves, that you are arguing about your own preferred linguistic conventions, and not about some timeless standards.

69. catzeyes - January 05, 2011 at 01:29 pm

I have my own theory about the prevalence of 'I' where 'me' is more correct: song lyrics. Aside from _Me and You and A Dog Named Boo_, a sizable number of lyricists seem to find more rhymes for eye than ee. (I admit, I wince when I sing along with Jim Morrison in _Touch Me_, but that doesn't stop me doing so.)

Does anyone still teach that handy ear-training mnemonic to distinguish which belongs in the sentence: If you remove the other person/s from the sentence, would you say me or I? ("Sue and went to the store" would come out " went to the store" -- presumably jarring to even the floppiest cloth ears.)

@blackbart: I currently edit a quarterly for a state government agency, and I often encourage our small team of young-ish editors to rewrite entirely if a piece submitted by a tech-specialist author is so tangled that subbing would take more time and effort. They're incredibly hesitant to do so, and I sometimes wonder if that's because they're unsure their own work will be an improvement.

@zebedee -- I bet you don't read a lot of homes/fashion/life-style periodicals or holiday brochures. I've written and edited for quite a few UK magazines and tour operators, and I can assure you that whilst, amidst, and amongst are alive and well. I think writers in those genres believe it makes them sound more ... folksy? Genteel? (Without going as far as writing _serviette_.)

70. catzeyes - January 05, 2011 at 01:31 pm

Oop: I guess the comments system doesn't like open and close brackets. My example in para. 2 should have read: "Sue and _me_ went to the store" woulc come out "_me_ went to the store."

71. yomama - January 05, 2011 at 03:28 pm

You think you've got problems with "labour"? Try living in Canada, caught between the two of you.

72. ellenhunt - January 05, 2011 at 03:51 pm

@daniel_von_flanagan - "Blaming LaTeX for the problems with this software is like blaming Jonathan Swift for last year's film version of Gulliver's Travels."
Well! Mr. von Flanagan! I snorted coffee through my nose. Not that common these days.
But of course. I do indeed refer to LeD, LYX and the other one. I am, after all, a human. I recognize that some are computer jocks whose life is centered around HOW to represent what is written so it comes out on paper as desired. But Mr. von Flanagan, my life is centered around WHAT I want to write.
I suggest that you research in the software field the subject of user interface and affordances. A fellow by the name of Donald Norman wrote an excellent book. There's also Allen Kay who developed this thing we call the 'desktop metaphor'? You use that don't you? Or are you a command line wizard who refuses to leave DOS? Brenda Laurel edited one of the best books on UI design. And then, of course, there is Bruce Tognazzini's excellent work from Apple.
Seriously, Mr. von Flan-a-gan, the idea that "any editor" can be used is akin to telling me that any form of transport will get me from Chicago to Fairbanks. I can: walk, run, bicycle, rollerskate, skateboard, fly an ultralight, etc. But for some odd reason I fly. I suspect strongly that you do as well.
If you see the creators of LATeX, tell them to review Norman, Kay, Laurel and Tognazzini. Snort.

@adamdonahue - de facto "gold standard" of MS Word's checker
I caused a bright chinese engineer to attack me, rip the paper from my hands and shred it into little bits! The poor dear had accepted every recommendation of MS Word. The result was the most hilarious document I have ever read. Had I saved it, I am certain it would be a classic bringing both of us fame. Tears were streaming down my face and I could not stand up nor speak properly. Sadly for posterity, said document was wrestled from my laughter addled hands and it is lost forever.
I suppose we can call MS Word a "lead standard" but until the worthy gathering of cats that calls itself the protectors of public syntax/grammar gets itself together and obtains a grant to create a proper syntax/grammar checker, we shall languish in the pews, mocking the congregation.
Hmm. Perhaps the worthies could petition to Bill Gates' wife to please come to the aid of English professors everywhere by giving a billion dollars to an institute for the development of a proper checker?

73. poetix - January 05, 2011 at 03:55 pm

On the placement of periods outside of quotation marks: almost any computer programmer will do this as a matter of course, in order to avoid the headache that placing an end-of-line token inside a quoted string will cause them. Consider the following:

foo = "hello";
print foo;

If we substitute the value assigned to foo into the second statement, we get:

print "hello";

I've never understood why written English hasn't always, naturally, worked the same way. In any case, the convention seems to have shifted significantly over the past couple of decades, to at least the point where consistent use of either approach will seem acceptable to reasonable people.

74. duchess_of_malfi - January 05, 2011 at 04:13 pm

I teach a social science, 4/4, and can't and don't comment on student writing in this level of detail. I am grading for content first and clarity of communication as a means of accomplishing the communication of content. But the example given here indicates a higher level of error than the errors I see. I've been teaching weaker writers for only about 6 years, so I can't say much about when these habits started. The most common problems I see include:

I, I, I - "I feel that the author was trying to say..." "I became interested in this topic because..."
Capturing reader interest - "Did you ever wonder why...?" in the introduction, or similar tactics elsewhere. I wonder if students are being taught to do this somewhere.
Redundant, wordy ways of citing references - "In the article titled "XYZ," professor of psychology Blahh Blah reports on how she..." instead of "Fact (Blah Year)."
Poor or no proofreading - similar words, similar sentences and sentence fragments, artifacts that remain when someone edits on screen, incompletely
Spellcheck reliance error - This should have a catchier name. Sometimes they are homonyms, but sometimes only words containing many of the same letters:"defiantly" instead of "definitely," "penile" for "penal," etc.
Off-topic clunk - Pages are added to papers, by paper-padding, of course, but also by students who work with no or bad introductions and get distracted by details about the thing they are summarizing instead of summarizing quickly and making a point.

Some of these are whole-paper problems, but they also happen because writers include unnecessary sentences in paragraphs and unnecessary words in sentences. That element of extra, value-less-added content is what "clunk" suggests to me.

I do read such textspeak as "u" for "you," widely used slang words (esp. "kids" instead of "children,"), slang expressions (e.g., "The International Criminal Court is all that"), and oddball punctuation (commas apparently are out of style and exclamation marks are used often).

My students don't read or write much, although they are very good listeners. Dictionaries are a thing of the past and the favored approach is to "sound it out." But journalists, too--even in the New York Times--are using more slang than they did previously. On the other hand, my students don't like to write much in terms of quantity, but they are happy to write shorter pieces and many are grateful to be given specific advice about how to improve their writing.

75. jkwoodward - January 05, 2011 at 04:34 pm

@imblichus "Seriously. You people are fighting over something as trivial as table manners."

Actually, that is exactly what I tell my community college students: using good grammar is an act of courtesy. No one wants to be treated rudely or taken for granted.

As with manners, there are varying degrees of offenses. Use your teaspoon to eat your soup and few will care; burp and chew with your mouth open and everyone will think less of you guaranteed.

76. ricktator - January 05, 2011 at 05:43 pm

But, the unnecessary comma, however, is, frequently, and annoyingly, used all over Wikipedia, where, for reasons, mostly unknown, except to themselves, poor writers think, somehow, that intelligence is measured by how often they, annoyingly, break up the natural flow of a sentence.

77. draekeferrell - January 05, 2011 at 06:29 pm

What a joy to read the article and the comments. I teach writing-intensive courses and find myself surrounded by a dictionary, thesaurus, APA Style Manual, and other sources. Unfortunately, the errors are so horrendous that these references are not needed.

I enjoyed this discussion and learned a new word - solecism. (I am sure I should have recognized that!)

Students not only write poorly - they speak poorly. Me and him shoulda went to the Yankees game!

78. ejb_123 - January 05, 2011 at 06:57 pm

duchess_of_malfi wrote in post 74: Redundant, wordy ways of citing references - "In the article titled "XYZ," professor of psychology Blahh Blah reports on how she..." instead of "Fact (Blah Year)."

Students are likely learning this kind of redundant and wordy way of citing references from English teachers and English professors teaching MLA Style who want students to include more information in their signal phrases than just the the source's author. Context is important, as well as the reason for why an authority should be cited and trusted in the first place. I was instructed to add lengthy signal phrases (similar to the one you cite) to the papers I wrote for my English literature graduate courses. This kind of information, though, apparently is unimportant in papers composed in APA Style that list only the last name of an author along with the year of publication in a parenthetical citation. (In APA style, even the first name of an authority is unimportant in the References page, with "Smith, J." taking the place of MLA Style's "Smith, Jennifer.") Thus, it seems as if your students do not know how to properly cite authorities in APA Style, and are using some of the techniques they have no doubt learned for citing authorities in MLA Style.

79. grammarqueen - January 05, 2011 at 11:23 pm

"...so we might go with the girl that lives next door to see the movie..." It is grammatically correct to use "that" as a clause marker when the subject of the adjective clause is a person. Either "who" or "that" is perfectly fine!

80. segads - January 06, 2011 at 06:50 am

To dwojciec & rodtye
Prof. Yagoda is correct. "He who can make it" is a clause -- "he" is the subject of the clause which acts as the object of "go with."
If "who can make it" was removed, the use of "him" would then be correct.
Yes, I am a high school English teacher.

81. tdyck - January 06, 2011 at 08:07 am

Love the irony of a professor of English going on about poor English and then claiming that metonymy is "a figure of speech in which the part (a Yankee) stands for the whole (the Yankees collectively)."

Part-for-whole is a synecdoche.

Give him an "F."

82. quidditas - January 06, 2011 at 08:18 am

"The leadoff hitters are Nos. 1 to 3; punctuation is a train wreck among my students. I have no doubt as to the root of the problem: Students haven't spent much time reading."

Reading could remedy this. But, punctuation is also a personal internal rhythm thing. So, they may be reading but they may not be interested in composing to the beat of Strunk and White.

"Are you surprised by the absence of smiley faces, LOL-type abbreviations, and slang terms like "diss" or "phat"?"

No, I'm surprised at the absence of exclamation points!

83. farrellml - January 06, 2011 at 08:20 am

I'm not a professor but an administrator; from experience, I can say that the students Dr. Yagoda describes are leaving college and going into the work place where they continue their clunky writing ways. I oversee a staff of communications people and freelance writers, and I spend far too much of my time correcting the mistakes Professor Yagoda outlines in this piece. What to do? I am trying to teach people in their 30s how to write, but I fear it is too late. The sad thing is that many of these people were English majors or studied writing in college.

84. alexisa - January 06, 2011 at 08:36 am

Right on everything, but "Yankee game"? I don't think so. We don't go to a Knick game or a Jet game or a Met game. Except for the Jazz and the Heat, it's always plural: a Yankees game, a Mets game, a Knicks game, a Jets game. The New York Times is simply wrong.

85. reinking - January 06, 2011 at 08:39 am

A key distinction seems fundamental to this discussion: immutable rules of grammar for grammar's sake alone or more flexible, evolving guidelines for the sake of precision and clarity of meaning. The former is what justifies the inconsequential rule against splitting infinitives, which I'm told is a tip of the hat to the perceived superiority of Latin, or putting a period inside (American English grammar) or outside (British English grammar) quotation marks. The latter is what permits the occasional use of the passive voice even though frowned upon by the APA style manual or Winston Churchill's purported response to an editor who had revised a sentence Churchill wrote ending in a preposition: "This is the sort of impertinence up with which I will not put."

86. trainer12 - January 06, 2011 at 09:13 am

Doesn't language and grammar evolve? What ever happened to "poetic license"? Even the author's use of the word "clunk" as a definition of the examples of this student's bad writing is and example. Grammar, punctuation, spelling, syntax and context are good to know and should be applied. But too often the purpose and impact of writing is overlooked. Does the piece written for the intended audience communicate the message intended by the writer? Should all novels, magazine and newspaper articles be stripped of bad writing if people do indead speak and write like the example sited in this article?

87. dank48 - January 06, 2011 at 09:15 am

It's amazing the myths that persist about grammar, usage, spelling, etc. Fowler made it clear (not recently, either) that the split-infinitive "rule" is nonsense and always has been, that the preposition-at-end-of-sentence shibboleth is equally imaginary, and that language changes and always has and always will.
Of course Fowler himself got all wrapped around the axle over the that/which distinction between restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses, as if "The vicar said he would wear no clothes which would distinguish him from others" were not acceptable English, along with "... no clothes that would . . . ." and ". . . no clothes, which would . . ." In fact, it's the comma which (or that) makes the difference.
So what? We all have our hobbyhorses.
On the other hand, with all due respect to Mr. Yagoda, I think anyone who would say, "we'll go with he who can make it" would steal sheep. The relative clause "who can make it" is irrelevant to the case of the pronoun, which is the object of the preposition and so must be "him" not "he."
The "reason" periods and commas go inside American closing quotes and outside British closing quotes is tradition and convention based on practical esthetics. UK practice has single quotes primary and double quotes secondary; US has double quotes primary and single secondary. It may well be more logical to have the period or comma outside the close quote, but the fact is that a period or comma following a closing double quote is ugly as a mud fence:

. . . the word she wanted was 'plastic'.

. . . the word she wanted was "plastic."

Just as if it mattered a damn.

88. sleepwalker - January 06, 2011 at 09:32 am

However one might quibble with Yagoda's specific points (as the previous comments do, entertainingly), I think he is right as to the general tendencies in student writing, which do indeed derive from texting, social networking, anything other than careful reading, for sound as well as sense. Two points, however, require more than quibbles: points 3 (comma usage) and 4(the unisex singular they/them/their). On the comma, the distinction Yagoda finds students missing would be clearer if he followed Fowler on restrictive and non-restrictive rather than "defining or nondefining" clauses and phrases. Defining is vague; restrictive is clear and specific. On the singular "they/their," English follows Latin and other languages in its recourse to a pluralis ad sensum, i.t., to a rhetorical need for situational and notional agreement rather than grammatical. I think, with Yagoda, that the "correct" his/her construction is clunkier than the grammatically incorrect "their" (at least on this side of the Atlantic). However, I am certain that good writers use "their," just as bad writers and texters do. Language changes, and rhetoric is at least as powerful an instrument as formal grammar.

89. eupher61 - January 06, 2011 at 09:53 am

re: The Yankee(s) game. The corporate entity is "The New York Yankees Partnership." (I'm uncertain of the proper delineation, whether quotes italics, or none. Please forgive me.)

Thus, "Yankees game" is not only appropriate, it is correct. British traditional usage refers to a sports team as a single entity. Americans use the plural. Perhaps that says something about American sports mentality.

90. dank48 - January 06, 2011 at 10:03 am

The third person plural has been used for indefinite third person singular for centuries: the OED quotes Shakespeare inter alia. There's precedent for this sort of thing, after all: what happened to thou, thee, thy, thine, and thyself, after all? We dropped the singular and now use the plural you, your, yours, yourself, and the only second person number distinction we preserve in "standard" English is yourselves rather than the relatively new yourself. (Of course Southern US "you all," variously spelled and pronounced, generally if not invariably denotes the plural, which is nice.)
About pronoun objects of prepositions: there's also the matter of phrases that become in effect names, where the separate elements have set like concrete. Rider Haggard's "She" is a good example. John Mortimer has Horace Rumpole refer to his wife Hilda as "She Who Must Be Obeyed," a term Rumpole declines to decline, saying he wants to avoid offending She Who . . . rather than Her Who . . . But this is a special case, where the descriptive has gelled into something like SheWhoMustBeObeyed, just as the titles of books, movies, etc. are considered set: Have you read "She"? not Have you read "Her"?

91. feuerbachian - January 06, 2011 at 10:18 am

"But in both cases the rules, animated by a general urge to make writing smooth and efficient, allow us and in fact compel us to punctuate in an illogical and counterintuitive way."

Where are these rules codified?

For example, re no.2, Fowler calls putting the stop within the inverted commas the 'conventional' and putting it outside the 'logical' rule, and allows them to be equally valid. His only argument for the 'conventional' is its pleasing appearance, yet I've never found it so --- so I go with the 'logical'.

One surely has to exercise some taste and judgment --- appealing to mere (and apparently arbitrary, poorly motivated and uncodified) authority is hardly the way to inspire students to write better.

92. grward - January 06, 2011 at 10:38 am

Wow, I'm afraid to say anything since, as a scientist, I long ago forgot most of what I learned about writing and composition. However, I still want to make a couple of points.

First (or, as my students would say, "firstly"), I agree that reading is necessary for good writing. When I assign writing projects to my students, I remind them that they need to read several published reports to get a "feel" for the way scientific research is communicated. When I discuss their work with them afterward, I'll say "why did you put this is the Discussion section, when obviously it should be in the Results section? Have you ever seen this type of information in the Discussion section of a published paper?" and they'll just stare blankly at me. Most of them try to get through a four-year science program without reading any published reports at all, so they simply haven't learned what their own writing should "look like".

My second point is, I think, more important. It's easy to blame their former teachers, but we should recognize our own role in this. Students won't take good writing seriously because we don't require that they do so. I'll make comments on my students' assignments, but they never come by to pick them up and so they simply never see where they went wrong. I teach hundreds of students and don't have time to force each of them to confront their errors. They'll simply accept their grade, move on and write badly in the next course, and so on and so on, until they graduate. I could simply refuse to pass them until they correct the worst mistakes on their papers, but when would I have the time? I can barely get the marking done on time as it is. Furthermore, if I have 300 students in my class, and 200 of them should not be allowed to pass because they simply cannot communicate effectively, my department will suddenly end up with a huge drop in enrollment and a concommittant drop in funding. On the bright side, I'd probably have my 15 minutes of fame, appearing on any number of TV talk shows as the rogue prof who had the temerity to demand excellence from his students. On the downside, after my 15 minutes of fame were up, my contract would never be renewed by my department, and I'd never be hired by another one, and my career would be over.

93. n2n_0131 - January 06, 2011 at 10:59 am

As a regular editor and proofreader of faculty and staff writing, I can assure readers that poor writing and grammar is not the sole domain of students. My own pet peeve is the use of imprecise language that may seem right (perhaps because of repetitive usage), but upon a closer read simply doesn't make sense. I see a lot of misused verbs in particular. This may be the fault of overreliance on the thesaurus, which simply doesn't do a good job of distinguishing shades of meaning.

94. n2n_0131 - January 06, 2011 at 11:11 am

Oh, and on the sports team theme, there is nothing more painful than hearing a commentator pronounce a recently-acquired player as the "newest Red Sock." Please!!

95. goxewu - January 06, 2011 at 11:19 am

The problem cited in #94 is caused less by insensitive announcers than it is the nickname of the Boston baseball team. A commentator pronouncing a recently-acquired player in New York or Detroit as the "newest Yankee" or the "newest Tiger" isn't "painful" at all. Don't like "the newest Red Sock" (or, if one were to be formal in Cincinnati, "the newest Redleg")? Change the nickname to something less ugly in the singular.

This leaves unanswered, of course, what to call the newest member of the Seattle Storm (WNBA) or Chicago Fire (MLS). The newest "Raindrop"? The newest "Flame"?

96. bellows11 - January 06, 2011 at 11:28 am

If "Yankees" is undoubtedly correct, the organization should be fixing the sign: YANKEES STADIUM.

When I worked on sports copy years ago, I decided that team names before the adjective--singular or plural?--had to be decided on a case-by-case basis.

I like "Yankee game," "Yankee tradition," and "Yankee record" because they sound old-fashioned. In old movies and TV shows, you can even hear "in the Yankee Stadium." Love that "the."

97. 22113683 - January 06, 2011 at 01:27 pm

I've loved reading this whole thread, from Prof. Yagoda through all 96 comments. Yes, it seems at points as though we're getting all tangled in the briers; but it's refreshing to find so many people who _care_ passionately about the details of writing.

I believe this insight is attributed to Winston Churchill, my favorite writer/speaker of English prose: "Easy writing makes damned hard reading."

I teach music history, not English, and my students perennially grumble about my expectations for their writing. It's not my fault! My grandmother, my mother, and one daughter were/are English teachers, and I grew up playing language gotcha at every meal.

I'm terribly frustrated with teachers--and especially teachers of English--who dismiss all questions of bad writing with "Oh, well. Language is always evolving. You don't want them to write like Dickens, do you? Just be sure you can figure out what they're trying to say."

Question for the collective wisdom: I was always taught that "human" is an adjective, never a noun. My dictionaries agree, but may be out of date. Yet #72, ellenhunt, wrote "I am, after all, a human." My sense is that she ought either to drop the "a" or to append the word "being" to the sentence. (Of course, the old and Politically Incorrect solution probably would be "I am, after all, Everyman.")

98. pacifica888 - January 06, 2011 at 01:31 pm

To instructors who are more interested in engaging with student writers as thinkers rather than as rules-appliers, I suggest reading Joseph Williams's classic "The Phenomenology of Error."

99. brittany_d - January 06, 2011 at 04:46 pm

I agree students are being too careful about slang. Young people read and write more informal text than ever (Facebook, Twitter, blogs, text messages), so when it comes time to write for school, they overcompensate by overcomplicating.

Many students equate verbosity with intellectualism. They choose the longer word they don't know over the shorter one they do. They use Britishisms because the words "sound more proper." They construct awkward sentences because they believe a simple sentence has no place in a formal essay.

Worst of all, word counts and page requirements seem to lead students to write more long-winded papers not to do more research and analyze a subject more deeply.

100. cunningham2 - January 06, 2011 at 05:32 pm

From someone on the other side of the globe who has marked a lot - too much? - student writing: It is nice to know that I am not alone. A lovely explanation for my students' verbosity and general prolix tendencies.

I have been grading for so long that I can confidently assert that over-compensating by indulging in verbosity predates any of the electronic media getting the credit for it in some comments here. Of considerable vintage is the tendency to start an essay, even about minor issues or recent lines of inquiry, with ludicrous hyperbole along the lines of 'Multitudes of scientists have worked for centuries to answer the question why . . . .'

The unnecessary piece of lengthening/fancifying that is currently setting my teeth on edge is the frequent use of 'within' when 'with' is meant/required. In the eye of the writer that one little syllable add so much gravitas.


101. cunningham2 - January 06, 2011 at 05:34 pm

Yes, I do know it should have been 'adds'. A typo, good friends.

102. quard88 - January 06, 2011 at 06:06 pm

Ignoring accepted usage is much like indulging in personal sarcasm. Both can be funny sometimes, but both also tend to interfere with effective communications.

Before I switched to being a practicing journalist, I used to tell budding writers something my high school English teacher had said decades before: "Yes, you can eat peas with your knife if you want to -- no matter what the etiquette books say. That approach will get the job done. It won't be as efficient as using a fork, though, and you certainly won't look very educated."

That's quite an easy-to-visualize example for students, isn't it? Plus, it keeps earnest English teachers out of the emotion-provoking arena of how difficult communicating is for human beings, even those who supposedly use the same language. (ALL in-common "rules" can help.)

Speaking of which ... I have to wonder if one reason Yagoda's elements of clunk are inspiring such divergent opinions might be our differing exposures to stylebooks and writing guides.

In my current position, I'm a practicing journalist, surrounded by academics and researchers, each of whom owns and has used at least two types of writing/style references. Yet, none has ever had a grammar course.

So far as I know, required English classes since the 1960s have meant literature and a bit of "composition." The only exception I ever heard about was at the University of Arkansas, when the English department head happened to be a grammarian, interested in writing/selling textbooks.

Nonetheless, some of my own academics are quite willing to "correct" my writing as they check my news story drafts for factual errors -- for which I thank them, if they're correct. When they're wrong, though, all I have to say is: "Y-e-es, but current AP style is. ..."

In fact, one of my personal theories now is that AP style and the inverted pyramid are rapidly evolving into standards for "popular" writing throughout the United States.

The first has to do with Americans' broad-based exposure to a style that's been accepted for more than a century. (BTW, someone once told me that U.S. printers, not writers, decided that periods and commas should go "inside" closing quotation marks. I can't remember whether that decision was supposed to relate to the location of the punctuation marks' boxes, back when type was set by hand, or to printers' opinions about what looked best.)

The inverted pyramid is proving increasingly useful because we're becoming so busy, so inundated with information, and so limited by screen size. (This most-to-least-important format evolved in the Civil War, when Northern reporters' transmissions from the South had to travel by telegraph wire. The reporters never knew when they might be cut off, so they evolved the concept of leading with attention-getting facts -- what readers needed or would want to know, in case they couldn't read further.)

I'm finding a certain comfort in my theory, as well as daily confirmations. Traditionally, at least, newswriting is formula writing, guided by a (mostly) in-common stylebook. Each inverted pyramid has to be accurate, correct and complete, as well as to follow the rules. Preferably, it also will go under an editor's eye before it's distributed, but it's still up to you whether the result is boring or fascinating.

Now, if I could just find someone who can straighten me out on the subject of what's correct in such sentences as these:

Those men have an eye problem. (One eye, shared?)
Those men have eye problems. (More than one problem?)
Those men have a problem with their eye/eyes. (Does the second choice eliminate the possibility that only one of each pair of eyes is affected?)


103. omohole - January 07, 2011 at 12:53 am

i wish my students made ""mistakes"" (i am quoting his use of scare quotes around the word mistakes, and bah to you and your 'use single quotes in double quotes' literal-minded rule-bound fiddle faddle) instead of, what i like to call, "egregious sins against taste and decency, theology and geometry, the good, the pure, and the just". which is to say, all of those "mistakes" are stylistic/mechanical, none of them actually obscure the meaning, they just distract you if you are the kind of literal-minded rule-bound reader so often produced by "higher" edumacation. and, if his goal is to bemoan the state of contemporary clunk, how does he miss the tense mess? the narrator ("mistake"n student) would seem to be at an awfully indeterminate time, the first sentence placing him in the continuous present (we "are going to a Yankees game"), the next referencing both an event that just occurred and a present condition ("the Weather Channel just changed their forecast and the skies are grey"), and as a consequent modally imagining an alternative future ("we might go...see the movie..."). or is this the "mistake" that tell the truth, invisible because the teacher is as alienated in time as the student, and so not a "mistake"?

104. aicaiel - January 07, 2011 at 12:55 pm

There is a fundamental difference between "with whomever/whoever ... can go" and "with he/him who can make it."

In the first, the relative pronoun (whomever/whoever) is acting as the subject of the relative clause; hence, "whoever can go" is correct. Just as you wouldn't say "him can go" you should not write (or say) "whom can go."

In the second, by contrast, there are two distinct "units": the prepositional phrase "with him" (which is correct -- even an English professor, and I am one, would not say "with he") and the modifying relative clause-unit is "who can make it." The "who" in this case refers to (modifies) "him."

105. sirthomas - January 07, 2011 at 01:51 pm


106. rprotsik1 - January 07, 2011 at 03:22 pm

Until the Yankees change their name to the New York Yankee, "Yankees game" or "Yankees player" would seem to be correct. Would one say "Red Sock" game or "Red Sock" player?

107. recumbent - January 08, 2011 at 12:26 am

"Yankees" is not an adjective in "Yankees game"; "Yankees game" is a compound noun composed of two nouns (unlike, for example, "White House" which is a nominalized adjective + noun pair). While the first element in a compound noun is typically singular (bookstore, not booksstore), there are cases in which it is plural.
Which sounds better in each case?
-single bar or singles bar
-clothe horse or clothes horse
-welfare benefits increase or welfare benefit increase
-skill gap or skills gap
For more information, read a book by a linguist such as Steven Pinker (I took these examples from his excellent "Words and Rules").

108. exengineer - January 08, 2011 at 06:14 pm

As a retired engineer of Central European origin having lived half my life in Canada, and now an occasional teacher of primary school science, I feel a bit outside of the esteemed circle of Academe contributing to Prof. Yagoda's article on "clunk" in student writing. Setting these "handicaps" aside, I do like clarity and accuracy in communication, whether formally handwritten or in any electronic form such as emails, blogs, or text messages. While I agree with most points Prof. Yagoda makes, I am with the dissenters on point 2. (only the "logical" version makes sense to me, period being outside the quotation mark, signifying the end of the sentence) and on 11. about the team name being in the plural, it being the official team name.

I feel however, that there are much more important and disturbing grammatical problems I have often experienced, written by native English speaking and college or post-graduate educated colleagues with erroneous use of "there" instead of "their", "he's" instead of "his", "...do to..." instead of "...due to...",etc.

To 102. quard88
May I suggest: "Those men have an eye-problem". I believe the hyphen takes care of identifying the health issue as a general concern, and not related to any patient's single sensory organ.

109. kendall_rice - January 08, 2011 at 07:13 pm

Prof. Yagoda has done a great job identifying some of the forces that are making English so unwieldy. I especially like his justification of "who" as a relative pronoun. There's one example I have to disagree with, though:

you would say "we'll go with he who can make it," not "with him who can make it"

I'd say the latter because it's correct. An adjective clause can be removed from a sentence without changing the grammar of the sentence. While "him" is the object of "with," the relative pronoun that replaces it in the adjective clause needn't be in the same case; if the clause needs it to be a subject, it certainly can be.

On another note, another bit of linguistic misfortune greeted me at the bottom of this very page. Before posting this comment, I was prompted to "login or create an account." I never was able to login, though I did log in without difficulty. Though native English speakers are using more phrasal verbs than ever (hang out, hang in, hang with), they're less sure than ever how to write them, so most get confused with their noun equivalents (shutdown, setup, login).

110. the_duke - January 08, 2011 at 07:38 pm

re: 57 (@ goxewu)

"I know that a team is composed of many players (and coaches, trainers, executives, et al.), but would the British say, "Manchester United were one of the finest teams in the country"? (Or would the Irish say, "Celtic were one of the finest teams in the country"?)"

- Yes, the British would absolutely say "Manchester United were...", or "Celtic were..." when referring to a team. I can't speak for the Irish, but I believe it is the convention there, also.

As for your facetious comment:

"And if this one-consisting-of-many convention is applied across the board, would it be proper in England or Ireland to say, "Ben Yagoda are a fine observer of the English language"? He is, after all, made up of about one hundred trillion cells."

I hardly need point out that your 'clever' example doesn't really work, or make your point about the logic behind conventions very well at all; and is, for that reason, in fact rather stupid.


111. goxewu - January 08, 2011 at 09:09 pm

Sometimes you have to spell it out for the aristocracy (unless the_duke, as his linguistic subtlety, or lack thereof, attests, is less a real blueblood than the wandering spectre of that great grammarian, John Wayne).

I KNOW the British would say "Manchester United were..." I was trying to indicate, with a somewhat light touch, that if a single team takes a plural verb because it's made up of a multitude of people, then a multiplicity of teams (e.g., "All the teams in the Premiere League...") must require, being a multiple of multiples, a kind of super-plural verb. I was also trying to indicate that the logic of a single entity requiring a plural verb because the entity is made up of a multiplicity of smaller entities, could be applied to practically ANYTHING. "The Earth [composed of rocks and oceans and continents and trees and deserts and...] are a very interesting planet."

And the_duke's last sentence is a simple assertion, with no evidence or explanation (thus the rhetorical gambit of "I hardly need point out" to attempt to disguise that). "Stupid," in this case comes in the shape of a boomerang.

The_duke [composed of his title, cufflink initials, smoking jacket, estate in Kent, Dunhill cigarette case, toupée, etc.] are grasping at straws, aren't he?

112. cheiron - January 08, 2011 at 10:04 pm

Regarding error #5, those readers are right who say that "with him" is correct; "with he" is grotesque. But no one has pointed out another mistake in your analysis. The unexpressed antecedent of the indefinite relative "whoever" is not "he" or "him" but the indefinite pron. "anyone": "We'll go with anyone, whoever can make it."

113. sneedy - January 09, 2011 at 08:22 am

It is 'Yankee Stadium' after all, which would explain 'Yankee game', but as several people have pointed out the teams themselves have taken pains to get sportswriters use the plural (if the team's name isn't something like 'Heat' or, as with Adelaide's new professional baseball team, the 'Bite' [playing on 'The Great Australian Bight']). Having been an Oakland A's fan for many years I can state unequivocally that I have never heard anyone say (or seen in print) 'an A game' to refer to a game involving the A's. And aren't the Yankees unique in having the name of their stadium singular? (They surely must be one of the few professional sports teams anywhere playing in a stadium named for them, rather than for a sponsor. And the Heat play at American Airlines Stadium, btw.)

That said, wouldn't a member of the team be called a 'Yankee' or an 'Athletic'?

114. the_duke - January 09, 2011 at 02:09 pm

Yes, gowexu, you do need to spell it out, as the matter is a lot more complicated than you seem willing to admit.

British English admits of both forms, for the reason that the English language does not base itself easily within the rules of classical logic. Plenty of grammarians, sticklers and prescriptivists (including those of your forefathers who made an admirable, but rather half-hearted effort to reform spelling, and the like) down the years have tried, and failed miserably, to force matters otherwise - usually with a misguided subservience to the rules of Latin and Greek.

And American English is, accordingly, not immune to this muddling of conventions (it, too, being an all too human set of practices and customs, rather than an exercise in logic-bound reference). For example, do you refer to the collective noun 'family' with a singular or plural verb? My experience over here (speaking from my armchair in the US), is that you use both.

Similarly, I'm willing to wager that the following phrase both works, and is perfectly acceptable, in US English: "The team is full of confidence. They are going to win."

In this case, it is obvious why, even in logical terms, the mixing of singular and plural pronouns and verbs is perfectly allowable when referring to a collective noun.

This fun with the logical lapses of language is why no less a toff than dear Berty Russell and his friend Peter Strawson had such fun writing humorous (yes, no second 'u') papers on 'denoting' and 'referring'.

Papers which, though they failed to secure the logical foundations for linguistic utterances as completely as they'd have liked, certainly did enough to show why your facetious example was a stupid one. If you read them, you might learn a little about how a single denoting entity (like 'Ben Yagoda', or 'the earth') can also include within its scope of reference limitless other attributions (such as things about the number of cells, or rocks and continents, of which the entity is comprised), and yet still work perfectly consistently with either singular or plural linguistic forms.

Which is why I hoped I wouldn't have to be so tiresomely obvious in pointing out why and how your example is stupid: it's a pseudo-problematization (yes, with a 'z') of a linguistic convention which works perfectly well in its loose form, in a non-logical manner, but which can be given an ad hoc logical basis for its trouble, if one so chooses.

The fact that the logical basis had to be given in such an ingenious manner, and yet could still not satisfy everybody, underlines the point I wish to leave you with: that the English language (in any of its forms), is not terribly consistent or logical, and so it is always strange to see someone (e.g. you) take the 'high ground' when talking of logical lapses. It's not, as I have shown, as if US English obeys and safeguards an ineluctable law of logic or rule-consistency which others are lacking, now, is it?

Oh, and: Celtic 'is' a Scottish team, not Irish. And it's the 'Premier League', as it's not a 'first showing of a league', as your styling would have it.

Now, if you don't mind, I'd like to return to my armchair, monocle and cufflinks. My toupee and I need a drink before lunch.

115. itzikbasman - January 09, 2011 at 03:39 pm

A few of these points are well taken, most are pedantic.

The context would need to be understood.

I'd distinguish between informal and formal writing.

But, I'll comment for both cases.

1. Pedantic, who cares? Usage wipes out this concern.

2. Pedantic, who cares? Usage wipes out this concern.

3. Pedantic, who cares? Usage wipes out this concern.

4. Agreed.

5. Pedantic, who cares? Usage wipes out this concern.

6. Agreed.

7. Marginal: I'll give it to you.

8. Pedantic, who cares? Usage wipes out this concern.

9. Pedantic, who cares? Usage wipes out this concern.

10. Pedantic, who cares? Usage wipes out this concern.

11. Pedantic, who cares? Usage wipes out this concern.

My man, you be 8/11ths of a pedant.

116. goxewu - January 10, 2011 at 07:32 am

Man, youse gotta not only spel it out for dem aristocrats, youse gotta tell 'em to chill out: Da whole foist comment was kinda faceitious, a little poke at wunna dem Brit ways of sayin' tings dat don't sound so pretty good.

* Yes, well all know that "the English language does not base itself easily within the rules of classical logic." But to invoke that rubbery fact is to obviate Professor Yagoda's entire post and the whole of this thread.

* No, I didn't say or imply that American English is devoid of irregularities in logic.

* "The team is full of confidence. They are going to win." This is not PERFECTLY acceptable [emphasis mine] in American English. If it appeared in a student's paper handed in to me, I'd blue-pencil it.

* To paraphrase Tina Turner, "What's Berty Russell got to do with it?"

* The paragraph beginning, "Papers which..." is either goobledy-gook, or a bromide, or both, or some noxious chemical reaction of the two.

* "I hoped I wouldn't have to be so tiresomely obvious...": Hoping against hope. (And maybe "...ly obvious" doesn't really apply.)

* I know Celtic is a Scottish team. The Irish don't talk or write about football in Scotland? (I didn't think hurling or that peculiar game sometimes called "Gaelic" that the Irish play--it's fun to watch on television, though--would make a good reference.)

* "Drink BEFORE lunch" [emphasis mine] probably says it all. I don't do that and, as a consequence, I are feeling fine today.

117. fjfish - January 10, 2011 at 08:17 am

In British English "and I" is wrong, sorry. It's known as "the toff's error" because the Queen says "my husband and I" in her speeches. The test is to reverse the two objects:

I and my girlfriend - just sounds wrong, doesn't it?

me and my girlfriend - sounds right,

see http://www.amazon.com/Between-You-Little-Book-English/dp/1402203314 - not sure about American usage.

Others have commented about our tendency to describe collective things, like teams, as plural nouns. Well that's what we do, it make sense to us. There's no need for "super" plurals, because there's such a thing as context. Also, interestingly, we'd probably use singular for the Premier League some of the time, like the workings of its management.

To be honest, the whole sentence given as an example is just too long and tries to do too much. Fans of DH Lawrence take note.

Gray/grey - A = America, E = England. That's my understanding.

118. fjfish - January 10, 2011 at 08:18 am

In British English "and I" is wrong, sorry. It's known as "the toff's error" because the Queen says "my husband and I" in her speeches. The test is to reverse the two objects:

I and my girlfriend - just sounds wrong, doesn't it?

me and my girlfriend - sounds right,

see http://www.amazon.com/Between-You-Little-Book-English/dp/1402203314 - not sure about American usage.

Others have commented about our tendency to describe collective things, like teams, as plural nouns. Well that's what we do, it make sense to us. There's no need for "super" plurals, because there's such a thing as context. Also, interestingly, we'd probably use singular for the Premier League some of the time, like the workings of its management.

To be honest, the whole sentence given as an example is just too long and tries to do too much. Fans of DH Lawrence take note.

Gray/grey - A = America, E = England. That's my understanding.

119. goxewu - January 10, 2011 at 05:13 pm

The demanding lady with the rimless spectacles and bun-in-the-back hairdo who taught me English composition in high school said that the proper sequence in a double subject that included the speaker put the speaker second.

"I and my girlfriend..." sounds terrible.

"My girlfriend and I..." sounds very nice.

"Me and my girlfriend..." sounds, to invoke the_duke, stupid.

120. the_duke - January 10, 2011 at 09:58 pm

Interesting, goxewu... that you're still sticking to the humour line. In my experience, any humour which has to be explained to the extent that your initial attempt has (I get the later stuff}, is either not particularly funny, or something worse...

And I would also note that hardly anything of what you've subsequently written by way of explanation is evident from the terribly garbled, and downright confusing, phrasing of your first post on the matter. I simply don't see that what you claim is in there.

But, nevermind. I quite take your point, now, and thank you for making it. I am, indeed, a plodding and tiresome fellow.

Just a couple of things to leave you with: a curious, and probably overly hasty, declaration that you would, regardless of the surrounding text, 'blue-line' the phrase I offered. What if it were the ending to a piece? An attitude like that in a teacher would give me cause to doubt your professional opinion on matters to do with writing. It does not, you will at least grant, fall foul of the comma splice/run on sentence notion, or the sense of grammatical 'distaste', shall we say, that accompanies errors of that nature in certain circles...

And, nothing I said obviates the article, or the thread. It rather cautions that much that passes for grammatical dictat should be taken with a pinch of salt (cf. the Francis W. Nelson reference, by an earlier poster, above).

I welcomed your description of 'that' paragraph as 'goobledy-gook' (I see that you mean 'gobbledygook') and/or 'bromide', as I quite agree that much of classic analytic philosophy merits precisely those adjectives. But you do rather fall foul of your own claim (against me) that I indulged in "simple assertion, with no evidence or explanation"; and so should we agree, by your own lights, that you employed there a (mere) "rhetorical gambit"?

But, enough of this. As I say, I take the sense and spirit of your later posts, and do certainly agree that I am, as before, tiresome. Hats off to you for that, at least.

121. goxewu - January 10, 2011 at 10:37 pm

Your dookiness:

"Manchester United are one of the best teams in the league."

"One of the best teams in the league are Manchester United."

If the latter works for you, so be it.

122. the_duke - January 10, 2011 at 11:23 pm

What - another rhetorical gambit? A sleight of hand, no less...! You do realize, goxewu, that by changing the word order in a sentence you change the emphasis, and even the emphasis of reference, etc., and actually end-up with a different sentence entirely? Which is why, as others point out, that you can't rely on the apparently innocuous trick of reversal to decide correctness in grammar...

But, then again, your dismissal of the sort of philosophy that Bertie wrote should have alerted me the possibility that you might not know this...

I quite agree that the latter sentence sounds awkward. But, then again, its relation to the first sentence has been manipulated by sleight of hand.

123. dragonfly29 - January 11, 2011 at 06:19 am

May I add a new perspective to this very interesting discussion?
I am not a native speaker of English. However, part of my daily work includes proof-reading both German-language and English-language publications written by researchers at an institute of applied research (software engineering).
Sometimes I feel like I am too pedantic, but reading this article and the comments has confirmed my long-held opinion: Reading an article or any piece of writing that is full of grammar mistakes makes it hard for the reader. Not only do I consider this to be impolite; I also believe that it may make a reader put the article aside or may, particularly in a scientific environment, have the effect that a reviewer, for example, becomes more critical of the content itself when he/she has problems reading the text!
In German, there is one authority for spelling and grammar issues, the "Duden", which gives us an advantage over English. I sometimes get insecure when I see a certain word or sentence structure or punctuation that I have intuitively corrected used incorrectly by a native writer. But when I look at this discussion, I can see that my "intuition" (which is the result of many years of studying English, with grammar rules, and much, much reading) is generally right.
German students learning English are most often told that "there are no punctuation rules, particularly no comma rules, in English". The result (oh, note my intuitive placement of the final quotation mark and the period...) is that they tend to write long sentences (which in German is considered "academic writing", but is actually bad style) without any commas at all!
One final comment: The sequence "I (or me, for that matter) and my girlfriend" would be considered very impolite in German at least. We are taught that "I" is always put last in any enumeration of people (otherwise, you would be an "ass" (donkey) - there is a saying that "The donkey always names itself first").
Now, would anyone care to correct any mistakes I may have made in this post (American English)? Thank you!

124. goxewu - January 11, 2011 at 09:40 am

A predicate nominative* ain't no sleight-of-hand.

I are certain of this.

* "Typically, a predicate nominative has the same value or grammatical weight as the subject." http://www.grammaruntied.com/nouns/PredicateN.html

125. the_duke - January 11, 2011 at 01:05 pm

My, my - you really don't understand, do you?

Saying the 'predicate nominative has the same value or grammatical weight as the subject' BEGS the very question at hand! (And so sounds, in your own terms, like 'bromide' from somebody who doesn't seem to understand the essence of the debate.) That question being, simply put: should a team, organization, family, body of individuals, etc., refer to the 'collective body' considered in abstract (the convention in US English, and, where necessary, also used in British English), or the individuals who comprise the collective body (the usual convention in British English when referring to sports teams, the Government, etc.)?

The fact that this is a genuine issue for all speakers of English was highlighted by my pointing out that, even in US English, people will aver between saying 'my family is [coming to town]', and 'my family are [coming to town]'.

Thus, the issue falls into the realm of CONTEXT first (do you wish to emphasize individuals, or the abstract entity?), and the application of grammatical rules is applied SUBSEQUENT to that decision. You simply cannot, as you are wont to do (especially with your rash comment about blue-lining my phrase regardless), pre-empt the situational expression with an insistence on rule-following FIRST, as that leads to the exactly the ridiculous situation which Ben Yagoda highlights: people garbling their communication needlessly by attempting to prioritize what they think are universal rules - rules which only have any legitimacy when APPLIED to an EXISTING situation.

Thus (if I really have to spell it out to you):

In the sentence "Manchester United are one of the best teams in the league", the emphasis (falling at the beginning) is on ManU as a team, with the attribution of 'one of the best [teams] in the league' being made of them. Which is why, in British English, people habitually (though not exclusively, as it is NOT a grammatical rule) like to play-up the fact that you are referring to a bunch of individuals. This is a matter of context, as fjfish seems to point out.

In the sentence "One of the best teams in the league are Manchester United", the emphasis falls, again, at the beginning. Which means that it is now focused on the the need to identify 'one' team, in the singular form, as being '[amongst] the best teams in the league'. Which means, that as a matter of logic, grammar, and context, you are forced to use the singular 'is', and therefore refer to the ABSTRACT entity 'Manchester United'. And, accordingly, users of British English would do so.

So, in the case of a team, the predicative nominative will have the 'value' (which is NOT set-and-dried) the speaker ascribes to it.

You will see this in the link you provide from the use of the word 'Typically', to qualify the statements concerning usage. And not least from (1 a simple google search of a team name (e.g. DC United) within US press reports. Accordingly, we find this astonishing opening line from a Washington Times report: "The D.C. United are broken." (http://communities.washingtontimes.com/neighborhood/balls-without-discretion/2010/jul/19/dc-united-defied-donovan-and-galaxy/)

Or this: "The Chicago Fire are signing midfielder Daniel Paladini..." (http://espn.go.com/blog/chicago/fire/post/_/id/863/fire-signing-midfielder-paladini)

And both of these after apparently using 'the' as a function word to indicate that the following noun is a unique member of its class!
And, perhaps, (2) the fact that the majority of NFL team names are in pluralized, meaning that you are FORCED to use the plural in phrases like "The Jets Are Preparing for a Change in Overtime" (headline from NYTimes:http://fifthdown.blogs.nytimes.com/2011/01/06/the-jets-are-preparing-for-a-change-in-overtime/).

Is it really so different from the British tendency? I think not.

As I say, if you really don't 'get' how to use grammar appropriately (i.e. in accordance with context), then don't post prescriptivist nonsense purporting to problematize the perfectly acceptable usage conventions of others.

Looks like you've joined me in being tiresome...

126. goxewu - January 11, 2011 at 04:10 pm

Definition of "tiresome": A 650-word reply to a 30-word comment. Or, perhaps, simply using such a word as "problematize." Or (speaking of sleight-of-hand) attempting to justify the use of a plural verb with a single subject by changing the subject into plural form, e.g., "New York" to "Jets." Nobody on this side of the Pond would say "New York are preparing for a change in overtime," or "Auburn are preparing for a change in overtime." And if somebody in England said, "The Wolverhampton Wolves are fine team," it'd sound fine.

A plural verb for a single entity may be a longstanding convention in English English; it may be that no language demonstrates perfect logic; and it may be that American English has its homelinesses, too. But the likes of "Manchester United are a fine team" is illogical and ugly," sort of like Englishmen wearing gray (oops! grey) shoes with grey suits in Mayfair.

127. the_duke - January 11, 2011 at 06:29 pm

Ugly? Perhaps, to an unaccustomed ear. Illogical? Not really.

I would say that it's illogical to attribute human acts like 'preparing for a change in overtime' to an abstract entity incapable of self-directed change, such as you would in your reformulated version of the "New York" sentence.

Logic, you see - especially where language is concerned - is a renownedly slippery fish.

But, then, as we've seen you admit in your posts, you don't have time for logic (you dismissed Russell, after all), preferring instead to let ad hominem attacks, slurs and the dealing in oddly outdated stereotypes (which fit 80's Wall Street as well as 80's Mayfair) tell us what we need to know - about you, and your thinking.

Incidentally, grey shoes and suits lets them blend into the background, or the weather, much more easily - the better to avoid being pestered by fools, I would imagine. ;)

You did make me laugh. So long, goxewu, old chap.

128. lescav - January 12, 2011 at 04:47 am

Genuine British speaker so listen up. There is a reason why amongst and among have endured, neither ousting the other. It is a matter of euphony. Use "amongst" before words beginning with a vowel; "among" before a consonant. Take my word for it or listen to yourself trying to say, for example, "amongst strangers" or "among older people" and hear how ugly they sound

129. goxewu - January 12, 2011 at 09:13 am

* Lescav, a "genuine British speaker," uses "ugly." There are occurrences in languages that are genuinely ugly.

* I'm an Anglophile who's been to the UK (all over, not just London) any number of times on business (I've even been taken for a drink in the bar in the House of Commons by an MP--howdat!), and, aesthetically, generally prefer English English to the brand of it I speak and write. But the plural verb ("are") applied, illogically, to a single entity (a single "team" among "teams") sounds awful.

* There are Americanisms that sound equally awful. That doesn't
change the awfulness of "Manchester United are a fine team." (Manchester City are, apparently, not.)

* I didn't dismiss Bertrand Russell. I dismissed the_duke's attempt to buttress his bad argument with a citing of Russell that amounted to little more than name-dropping.

* I saw a lot of grey shoes with grey suits in Mayfair on my most recent trip. Then again, male couture in England isn't known for either rapid change or abandoning uglinesses.

* If I were the_duke, I probably wouldn't want to be noticed, either.

I are saying goodbye to the_duke, who failed to make me laugh. Later, dude.

130. baryonx - January 12, 2011 at 09:40 am

A few months ago my boss asked me to help her edit an academic book (I'm a university administrator - she's a faculty member). In reading through the chapters (submitted by faculty from around the world) I'm appalled at how poorly written they are. Of the twenty or so that I've read, only about two don't require significant revision. I'm reading one right now and am literally rewriting every sentence. The author - an alleged Ph.D. - seems entirely unable to construct sentences that make coherent sense and/or follow even the most simple rules of grammar.

My point is - many university faculty mangle written communication just as badly as their students. It's disturbing and disheartening to see. It tells me that as a society we just don't care anymore about how we represent ourselves in our writing.

A final note - if you're reading this, then I'm probably not talking about you.

131. vinerg - January 15, 2011 at 11:10 pm

I know several extremely intelligent students who just don't have a knack for spelling. They read constantly and ambitiously, but somehow the correct spellings of words don't stick in their minds. Surely, as for all other skill sets, people's brains vary in aptitude for spelling.

Also, I'm fairly certain that prepositional phrases always take "whom," and "who" is only used in the nominative case. "With whom?" "For whom?" "To whom?"

Finally, why should we be driving a wedge between us and the British? Who cares how you spell "grey"? We speak the same mutually intelligible language, and should tolerate and embrace each others' differences.

132. zastas - January 16, 2011 at 12:19 am

There is no I in team; therefore, there is no Yankee in Yankees.

133. goxewu - January 16, 2011 at 09:44 am

The old joke: "England and the United States are two countries separated by a common language."

I think the joke (composed of multiple words) are a good one.

134. djweaver - January 16, 2011 at 02:22 pm

I've taught college composition, developmental English, and business writing. In all venues, focusing on clarity of communication. Takes care of most of the issues found in "clunk." Teaching the definition of a clause and the differences between how coordinate, subordinate, and conjunctive adverbs are used takes care of most of the rest.

I'm weary of grammarians (of whom I am one) treating students like they are stupid. They welcome the opportunity to more clearly express their thoughts. I treat students as expert native speakers who are learning a new dialect. We have to take students as they come to us and not punish them for not knowing how to use the language of the academy.

135. larry367 - January 17, 2011 at 08:39 am

10. While I agree that "first" best describes the specific occasion, "one-year" seems more appropriate for events that occurred due to unfortunate circumstances. For example, most of us would refer to it as "the one-year anniversary of the earthquake in Haiti," rather than its "first anniversary."

136. aussie_pedant - January 17, 2011 at 09:52 pm

As an Australia, I couldn't help but chuckle at the gripes about creeping "Britishisms" - for decades the tide has been running the other way.

But aside from such differences, I think if you're going to write this kind of article - and speak of "hypercorrection" - you need to be very clear about your claims and reasons.

I never use "whomever", as I believe "whoever", unlike "who" or "whom", works for either subject or object. But I was astonished by this:

'...you would say "we'll go with he who can make it," not "with him who can make it"'.

I don't believe any native English speaker, even those for whom "whom" is a marker of pretension, would say "we'll go with he". Surely the author doesn't imagine the adjectival clause following the pronoun changes its case?

As for "a Yankee game", I defer to local idiom but for me this sounds as awkward as "a Beatle song". (Or, for those who object that this is a made-up word, "a Rolling Stone song". Or, if these are too British, "A Mama and Papa hit".) In general only singular nouns are used as adjectives, but I think on exception is the case where the noun (or noun phrase) is a proper name which only exists in the plural. (Try "A Brooks Brother suit" on for size.)

Absent the context (as Americans say), I would assume "a Yankee game" meant the game of baseball.

137. aussie_pedant - January 17, 2011 at 09:53 pm

Correction: should read "As an Australian". I'm not claiming to speak for the nation!

138. peedeetee - January 19, 2011 at 07:00 am

I have come late to this debate (via Wordsmith.org and AWADmail Issue 446). I just want to say that I generally find text easier to read when there are two spaces between the end of one sentence and the start of the next - or am I being clunky? Perhaps it's a function of the font and/or size of font chosen but the original article and many of the commnents look very crowded on the page.

139. mandu - January 27, 2011 at 12:58 pm

goxewu and the_duke: Loved the repartee, guys! Seriously, would you mind if I forwarded some of it to Woody? All it needs is some humor and it would make great script material.

El Manduvian

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