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No More Gatekeeping

In an earlier century, I taught at an exclusive four-year college whose English department had a bang-up reputation for producing fine writers. Elders in the department had produced a style manual that all instructors were to follow. The rule of thumb was to mark papers with the style-manual codes and not to accept final versions until all errors had been taken care of. Such error codes included “wc” for “word choice” (using “like” for “as”); “cg” for “incongruity” (“an example of this is when”); “da” for “dangling”; and so on. I found the practice tiresome and relatively ineffective, particularly when I turned in my first annual report, where I had noted that my research “centered around” a particular topic, and one of my elders had written “cg!” in the margin. We were missing the forest for the trees, I thought then and think now; we were focusing our students’ attention on arbitrary usage conventions rather than on effective argument.

But the English department is seen generally as the gatekeeper of usage, and my colleagues at that institution took their role very seriously. If we in the English department wouldn’t stop the slide into sloppy, we felt, who would? We bore our burden nobly and smiled with gentle patience at seatmates on airlines who said, “Oh, an English professor! Guess I’d better watch my grammar!”

Of course, I’m in the business because I love language, and anyone who loves a thing hates to see it butchered. My solution since those days has been the ubiquitous circle. If it’s misspelled, I circle it; if the usage seems illogical, opaque, or inappropriate to a formal paper, I circle it. Sometimes I flick a question mark into the margin. Come talk to me if you don’t know what’s amiss, and we’ll have a chat. The rest of my extensive comments are reserved for the heart of the story, the poem, the argument.

This elegant system has worked for me, but I’ve noticed recently that I’ve stopped circling several items that used to get loop-de-loops. I’ll mention just two.

  • Alright, according to my own English teachers, was a misspelling of all right, and I used to mark it as such. Though the dictionary not only defends the variant spelling and notes that it has been in use for over a century, Google Ngrams still shows a large gap between the two, suggesting that formal usage is still slanted heavily toward the two-word version. Word marks alright for grammar, though not for spelling. But alright is ubiquitous among students. There’s zero ambiguity in its meaning. And I suspect that in another generation, publishing venues from newspapers to treatises will accept alright regardless of how many circles decorate my students’ papers. So I have stopped.
  • All the sudden and all of the sudden are variations on all of a sudden that I saw very rarely until recently. When I first spotted the phrase, it got a circle—lazy student, I thought, or a typo. In the last three years its frequency has increased exponentially. A host of Web sites have puzzled over the usage, with Urban Dictionary’s pronouncing all of the sudden “A stupid variation … which stupid people use”; and dozens of commenters on Motivated Grammar ascribing the use of the sudden to a particular region or a mishearing of “of a.” But the OED history of this idiomatic phrase is eclectic, with the sudden preceding a sudden chronologically and on or upon sometimes replacing of. If there’s one truth to be told about idioms, it’s that they change over time, and Google Ngrams reveals the sudden to be distinctly on the rise. Though there’s no way to tell if the phrase is being used adjectivally (“all the sudden attention”), I suspect at least some of the increase is due to this twist on the more common idiom. Who am I to interrupt its ascendancy?

Now, I know that certain commenters on this site will applaud my new restraint in playing grammar cop, while others will bemoan my having removed my finger from these holes in the dike. But I wonder if others have adjusted their practice incrementally, as befits the evolution that we who have taught for more than a quarter century have been privileged to witness? Step forward, I say, and testify.

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