For three-quarters of an hour one afternoon a week ago, the British House of Lords was entirely occupied with a discussion of pronoun grammar. The discussion had been requested by a former judge, Lord Scott of Foscote, and the impetus was a promise by the previous government that future laws would be framed in gender-neutral language, at least “so far as it is practicable, at no more than a reasonable cost to brevity or intelligibility.”
Predictably, Lord Scott defended what The Cambridge Gramma…
Earlier this week, I had my copy-editor hat on and was working my way through a newsletter for a graduate program at the university. I was fixing typos, inserting and deleting commas (often for the sake of consistency), changing words to avoid repetition, and the like. Then at one point, I watched myself prescriptively cross out the phrase “freshman composition” and reword it as “first-year composition.”
I have long been a supporter of nonsexist language reform, from using singular generic they …
Odysseus before Scylla and Charybdis, Henry Fussell, 1794-1796
When the Stanford sociolinguist Penelope Eckert read my “Lying About Writing” post, she was just approaching the end of her writing-in-the-major course, so she already had her mind on what undergraduates need to learn about writing well. Agreeing with my criticisms of a silly list of don’t-do-this maxims handed out by an unidentified English department, she commented that “this kind of no-no advice is not just stupid but de-skilling”…
“Fortune and fame’s such a curious game/
Perfect strangers can call you by name/
Pay good money to hear ‘Fire and Rain’/
Again and again and again.
That’s Why I’m Here,” James Taylor
A couple of months ago, a journalist e-mailed me asking if I would talk to him for a language piece he was working on. His topic: why some people feel the need to point out to others that they have (supposedly) made mistakes in grammar or usage, such as saying “decimate” when they didn’t really mean that one in 10 were…
Many commenters on my post of last Thursday did not agree with me. They debated many topics; they cast various slurs. Ivy hinted at a drinking problem (!). Concerned Humanist seemed to imply that I might not know fiction from nonfiction. (I do; the distinction was not relevant.) And minnesotan came close to equating me with “the fellow who claims that anything goes.” (Don’t my contributions to the 1,860 pages of rules in The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language count for anything?)
A long time ago in a university far, far away (which I will not name), the English Literature department added to its undergraduate handbook a page of grammar and usage advice. That page, still reprinted every year, contains a well-known list of “common errors” stated as self-violating maxims (with droll intent). I will not repeat all of these tongue-in-cheek ukases, but here are a dozen samples:
||Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
||Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.…
Two weeks ago (Be Fair, Oscar; October 22), I wrote about my disappointment on discovering that Oscar Wilde had leaned on silly prescriptivist poppycock in critiquing someone else’s prose. I should confess that there’s a wrinkle, which for reasons of space I didn’t mention. One author who has made a detailed study of journalism and literary criticism in the relevant period believes that Wilde might not have written the column in question
The piece under discussion was an attack on the prose sty…
It’s around this time in the semester that I feel the particular burden of being a teacher of creative writing in an English department within a liberal-arts college. Not that we are any more burdened, generally, than other profs grading midterms. But it’s a peculiar position to be in when it comes to marking student prose for questions of usage.
Most, if not all, students come to college believing that their English teachers are the ones in charge of appropriate use of written language. Many of…
Britain’s jumper-wearing Prime Minister David Cameron
A significant body of press coverage suggests that the Conservative-led government of Britain recently recommended wearing jumpers (sweaters) as a response to increases in heating costs, and later did a U-turn. None of this is true; yet somehow the British press managed to create a mini-scandal dubbed Jumpergate out of it.
Jumpergate was spawned mostly by quotational inaccuracy verging on mendacity. But it was helped along by certain facts ab…
David Foster Wallace chose “she” as a pronoun for “the reader.”
The story up to now:
In a book I published in 2007, When You Catch an Adjective, Kill It: The Parts of Speech, for Better and/or Worse, I made a bold prediction: “You heard it here first: By the middle of the 21st century, the epicene ‘they’ will rule in speech and writing.”
Last year, I observed in Lingua Franca that five years had passed since that statement, and it just wasn’t happening. To be sure, in conversation and online, t…