Category Archives: Grammar

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A Certain Closeness

Do you see any grammatical mistake in the sentence “He had developed a closeness to his recent suffering”? A classics teacher married to an author wrote to me a while ago to ask me this:

I am doing some editing on my wife’s new book (really, it’s just an excuse for me to get to read it a few times!), and she has a fairly consistent usage that Word (and the Internet) find to be completely unacceptable.

His wife was using phrases like a closeness, and Word was reporting that the first of those wor…

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Singular ‘They,’ Again

they copyThis week, I was at a dinner party with a dozen or so accomplished journalists. There are many things I enjoy about hanging out with journalists, including (but in no way limited to): (a) they ask interesting and surprising questions, and (b) they really care about language. Somewhere between the main course and dessert, the host asked me, “What would you say is the most contentious grammatical issue in recent history?”

On a different evening, while I think I would have come to the same answer, …

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Passive Verbosity Again

I have a correspondent I call Faxman who is a professor of accounting. He has the laudable desire to improve his M.B.A. students’ ability to write clear prose. This is a worthy endeavor, and I was rather shocked to learn that his efforts have led to (can you believe this?) complaints from students and a warning from his dean.

Faxman advises his students to avoid the passive. He wrote to me accusing me of straw-man argumentation in my recent paper on usage authorities’ hatred of passives, but wha…

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It Ain’t We, Babe

BBXPtI7CQAEQVqYReasons abound for why I’m glad I don’t have a teenager prepping for the SAT at the moment. But the latest word, from the pop star Taylor Swift, on the Princeton Review’s practice test tripled my relief at having passed that hurdle. The test introduces a section titled Grammar in Real Life with the following prompt: “Pop lyrics are a great source of bad grammar. See if you can find the error in each of the following.” The lyrics that follow are by Swift, Katy Perry, Whitney Houston, and Lady…

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An Insult From Professor Faxman

I have received a letter from a person I will refer to as Professor Faxman (I’ll explain the name below). After some preliminary throat-clearing compliments about The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, he comes to his main point: Alluding to my recent paper on the passive (browsable HTML version here), he asserts: “When I looked at your article on passive loathing, I found a lot of straw-man slaying.”

Scoundrel! The Oxford English Dictionary and Webster’s Third New International Dictiona…

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On Writing Well About Passives

passives

“Use active verbs unless there is no comfortable way to get around using a passive verb.”

 

That is what it says at the beginning of the section headed “VERBS” in William Zinsser’s much respected book On Writing Well. The front cover of the book announces that more than a million copies have been sold (more than 1,000,001 now, because I bought a copy of the 30th-anniversary edition at the University of Pennsylvania bookstore last week). I’m sure much of Zinsser’s 300 pages of advice is ve…

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Me and I, Sailing to Skye

Claire Elizabeth Beauchamp Randall Fraser (Caitriona Balfe), of “Outlander.”

Why me? Why I?

That’s the grammatical puzzle posed by a newly popular Scottish ballad. It’s a strange song, as well as a haunting one, that begins every episode of the Starz series Outlander. Based on Diana Gabaldon’s time-traveling novels, the TV series is an impressively realistic  re-creation of life in Scotland in the 1740s, to which the 20th-century heroine, Claire Beauchamp, finds herself transported. This happe…

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Talking About Grammar Pedantry

Seven hundred and seventeen comments in four days. The readers of The Wall Street Journal have many feelings about grammar.

On March 13, the Wall Street Journal published an essay by Oliver Kamm titled “There Is No ‘Proper English.’” In it Kamm makes arguments with which I wholeheartedly agree, including: The English language is not in deep decline; a wide range of variants are all grammatical in the descriptive sense; Standard English is not “correct” and all other dialects are not …

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And Now ‘This’

I came upon this at an online question-and-answer site:

Screen Shot 2015-02-19 at 1.59.56 PM

The most popular answer was this: “There’s nothing grammatically or syntactically wrong with starting a sentence with ‘this.’  It’s essential,  however, that it’s clear what the ‘this’ is referring to.”

This sentiment is widely endorsed by writing authorities. The Penguin Handbook counts “Vague use of this” as a “common error” and counsels: “Always use a noun immediately after this, that, these, those, and some.… Remember: Ask yourself ‘th…

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‘History Is Happening’

HAMILTON

“Hamilton,” a grammatically creative musical

The first line of the third paragraph of Ben Brantley’s review of the new hit Broadway play Hamilton delighted and shocked me. Following up on a line from the play, “History is happening in Manhattan,” he writes: “’Happening’ qualifies as both an adjective and a verb in this instance.”

Wow. Just wow.

For those who don’t get Brantley’s observation or my reaction, a quick lesson. The verb to be, followed by a present participle, often means some form of…