Category Archives: Grammar

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Agree to Disagree

Robert W. Service was right.

Robert W. Service was right.

The emails come like clockwork, one or two every week. Sometimes they’re abusive, sometimes they’re  gleefully “gotcha,” and sometimes they’re civil and sincere, like this one (name of sender withheld):

I genuinely read and appreciate your articles, but this one stumped me. This sentence is near the end of your article in The Week,  published 14 March 2013: “As I noted in my previous article, the meaning of words inevitably and perennially change.”  If I was working…

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Valid Pronoun-Ambiguity Warnings

Dogmatic opponents of using they  with singular antecedents don’t argue for its wrongness; they simply assert. William Strunk called it a “common inaccuracy” 96 years ago; the revised version by E.B. White never revised this; and journalist Simon Heffer opines without argument in Strictly English (2010) that singular they is “abominable.”

Rebecca Gowers, in her revised update of her great-grandfather’s classic usage book Plain Words, is different. Exhibiting a sharp eye for ill-chosen pronouns, …

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Word Pardons

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Image by Jarrett Heather

Weird Al’s “Word Crimes” video now has close to nine million hits, with the thumbs-up outweighing the thumbs-down more than 100 to 1. For those who take debates over prescriptivism in language usage seriously, there’s plenty of material for hand-wringing in the video, as evidenced by Lauren Squires’s perceptive piece in Language Log. But since there probably aren’t nine million people who have heard of prescriptivism in language, I wonder if there isn’t something els…

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The Pursuit of Happiness—?

dec-indep-topDebates about punctuation, for me, are like debates about rests and accidentals in musical scores. They go on and on; if the manuscript is old enough, they can be decided by a coin flip; and they force us, in the end, to consider the work as a whole—its shape, its construction and intent. Mozart’s scores, for instance, several of which were left in disarray on the composer’s death, come in for a fair share of controversy. In his Piano Concerto No. 13, is the complex figured bass in the tut…

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The Etiology of Turgid Drivel

On July 10, chief executive Satya Nadella sent all Microsoft employees an inspirational memo (a prelude to sweeping layoffs, of course). The business sections and technology blogs were inspired to come down on it like a ton of bricks. I’ve struggled through it, and I have to say it deserves its damning reviews. The writing is truly dire. Look at this astonishing 10-sentence episode of verbal flatulence:

Organizations will change. Mergers and acquisitions will occur. Job responsibilities will evo…

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List With Legs

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

In March 2013, I wrote a short article for an online publication called The Week. Following the current mode, I composed it in the form of a list: “7 Bogus Grammar ‘Errors’ You Don’t Need to Worry About.” I explained why the following “rules” are no longer supportable, if they ever were:

  • Don’t split infinitives.
  • Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.
  • Don’t use “which” as a relative pronoun.
  • Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
  • Don’t use the passive voice.
  • Don’t neglect t…
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Grammatical Shades of Grey

shutterstock_138339137I responded cautiously when my nonlinguist partner, staring at the wording on a supermarket yogurt container, cried “That’s wrong!”

The words on the label promised that the yogurt was made of cow’s milk. “That’s wrong!” she said; “This yogurt didn’t come from just one cow!” It ought to be spelled cows’ milk, with the genitive plural, she insisted.

We happened to have a carton of a different brand of yogurt in the refrigerator, so we could double-check. Sure enough, down in the small-print list o…

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The (Melo)drama of English Grammar

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Title page of Bullions

I’ve been browsing through 19th-century grammar books. Yes, on purpose.

On my desk is an 1846 copy of The Principles of English Grammar; Comprising the Substance of the Most Approved English Grammars Extant, With Copious Exercises in Parsing and Syntax; and an Appendix of Various and Useful Matter, a popular text by the Rev. Peter Bullions, D.D., professor of language in the Albany (New York) Academy.

I hope the reverend’s royalties had an escalator clause. The copy I’m ho…

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Yesterday’s Errors

Last week I listened to a conversation on “All Things Considered” between National Public Radio’s Robert Siegel and author Ammon Shea about his new book, Bad English: A History of Linguistic Aggravation. It was fundamentally a discussion of language change and attitudes about language change, running the gamut from—to quote Siegel—“linguistic scolds to the most permissive writers on language.”

Shea, who puts himself at the permissive end of the spectrum, explained how some words that we now cons…

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New Book, Same Old Grammar-Babble

DSC_5529-2A complimentary copy of a popular book on grammar appeared in my mailbox recently, with a personal note from the authors. They express firm agreement with views of mine that they had seen in Tom Chivers’s article about me, and they say they hope I’ll like their book.

I wish I could respond positively. I don’t want to hurt the authors’ feelings, or condemn a well-intentioned project, or look a gift horse in the mouth. I wanted it to be good: I long to see a popular book on English grammar that ge…