Category Archives: Mistakes

Errors, goofs, bloopers, flubs, foul-ups

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Being a Subject

As in previous fall semesters, I’m teaching (jointly with my colleague Nik Gisborne) a course that tries to unite modern modes of thinking about language with the description of English grammar. Just basic, ordinary grammar of the sort you would think might be taught in grade school (and once was). And once more, as I reaquaint myself with some of the statements obediently repeated in virtually all traditional grammars, I am staggered that anyone could ever have believed claims that are so obvio…

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The Vortex of Authorial Avoidance

vortex_artWelcome to the vortex, the tourbillion, where we turn and turn in the widening gyre of authorial avoidance of whatever truly dire error we may have committed in the penning of our novel. Step right into the typeset proofs. There—feel that hot wind blowing at your neck? It’s urging you to seize on something—anything, so long as it is minute, fixable, of no importance to anyone save you and the managing editor, to obsess over until the deadline for returning the galleys. Let it draw you onwa…

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Dumber and Dumb

Steven Pinker: "so cliche' is so wrong.

Steven Pinker: “So cliché” is so not good.

The other week, I got an email that referred to an online article I wrote last year, “7 Grammar Rules You Really Should Pay Attention To.” The email read, in its entirety: “There are three grammar errors in the title of your article.”

I was pretty sure that one of the alleged errors was using a preposition to end a sentence with, which isn’t an error, and isn’t really a question of grammar. But I couldn’t figure out the other two, so, against my better …

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First-World Problems

Matthew Good

Once upon a time, during the Cold War in the latter part of the 20th century, somebody pointed out that each of the nations of the earth belonged to one of three worlds. The first was ours, the world of the developed and more-or-less-democratic countries. The second was the world of our enemies, the Communist bloc, led by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and including its European satellites along with China, Cuba, North Vietnam and the like. The third world was the leftovers…

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One Less Toilet

Foc'sle BathroomI spent Labor Day weekend at a grown-up camp for world-music singers in northern Vermont, a happy retreat to the only thing I ever liked about camp, which was all the group sings after dinner. The rude toilet stalls by the women’s cabins had the usual country warnings about flushing sanitary products, cautioning that doing so “will not only mean more work for the maintenance crew, but will also mean one less toilet for you to use until it is fixed.”

I had been mulling over my recent wrist-slappi…

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Grammatical Icing on the Political Cake

Elliott Abrams, former State Department official and adviser to three presidents, has a B.A. from Harvard (1969), an M.S. in international relations from the London School of Economics and Political Science (1970), and a J.D. from Harvard Law School (1973). You might expect someone with such a fine education to have a fair command of the most fundamental subject of the classical tripartite road to truth known as the trivium. Not so, however.

The Cease Fire That Broke Itself,” a recent post on h…

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Verb Agreement and Hurdling

Sally Pearson, Australian medalist in the 2012 Olympics

It isn’t easy to admit being wrong in front of thousands of readers, but Ben Yagoda took it on the chin.

He had written this clause (I mark it with the asterisk that linguists use to signal ungrammaticality):

*The meaning of words inevitably and perennially change.

The incident reminded me of one of the worst features of the grammar advice so many university writing instructors hand out to students.

Certainly Ben’s sentence was ungrammatica…

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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

Weird-Als-Word-Crimes_article_story_large

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…