Category Archives: Mistakes

Errors, goofs, bloopers, flubs, foul-ups

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The Decline of Grammar Education

exam-f-grade-480x250_1024Mention an interest in grammar education to most people and they will assume you are concerned about incorrect use of English. What concerns me, by contrast, is the incompetence of those who pontificate about it and set quizzes on it. Google fetches more than 300,000 hits for the term "grammar quiz"; yet if quizzes on chemistry were as uninformed as those on grammar, they would ask silly questions on peripheral topics (“Who is the Bunsen burner named after?”), and would make no reference to the

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What’s Interesting About ‘Disinterested’

how-to-handle-a-disinterested-husbandHistory is so annoying.

Just when you gird your loins to pen an eloquent article about the fine distinctions of language, threading your way among the thickets of the prescriptivist debate to request that we all pause to acknowledge what might be lost when such distinctions collapse, history comes along and thumbs its snotty nose at you. I refer to the difference in meaning accorded the adjectives disinterested and uninterested, of which the noun forms are (or should be) disinterest and unintere…

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If Not Me Then Who?

dogwithtoy

“The anti-pedant zealots,” said a recent Lingua Franca commenter, “have become tedious and repetitive, and one can’t help but feel that all the strawmen getting the stuffing beat out of them is an exercise akin to watching a terrier worry a squeaky toy.”

I’m the main anti-pedant zealot the commenter had in mind. So let me begin by pointing out that zealotry in the defense of accurate analysis is no vice, and moderation in the struggle against pedantic foolishness is no virtue.

But remember too …

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Expediating the Matter

Hugh Freeze, football coach at the U. of Mississippi

“We certainly expediated the process,” I heard Hugh Freeze, the Ole Miss football coach, say.

It was Sunday morning and I was half-watching the ESPN Sports Center recap of the college football games the day before. In one of the several big upsets, Number 11 Mississippi beat Number 3 Alabama by the score of 23-17. ESPN played part of the post-game interview with the winning coach, and Freeze’s verb choice caught my ear.  (As part of talking…

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Dumb Writing Advice, Part 2: Yielding to Nitwits

“Happy the man who has never been told that it is wrong to split an infinitive,” says The Economist’s style guide: “The ban is pointless. Unfortunately, to see it broken is so annoying to so many people that you should observe it.”

So modifiers preceding the verb in an infinitival clause (as in to clearly demonstrate) must be avoided because grammatically uninformed readers might experience irritation. The Economist’s writers are expected to acquiesce to opinionated nitwits.

And that is just wha…

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Dumb Writing Advice, Part 1: Word Prohibitions

An Überflip page by Andrea Ayres-Deets is headlined “5 Weak Words That Are Sabotaging Your Writing.” If only there were a few words that you could simply expunge to get an immediate improvement in your prose! But of course it’s nonsense. Writing advice can’t be reduced to word prohibitions; and the prohibitions recommended here would be ridiculous overkill.

Here are the words you should allegedly shun: (1) really; (2) things and stuff; (3) I believe, I feel, and I think; (4) the be of the passiv…

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Pausing Over Pronunciation

islet copyA little over a year ago, I found myself standing in front of a class of almost 100 students, staring at a pronunciation conundrum. I was reading aloud a couple of key sentences from a quote on a PowerPoint slide, and my eyes jumped a line ahead and saw the word islet barreling toward me. Not a word I say aloud all that often, let alone one I have to say loudly in front of a roomful of people.

My brain started searching in a panicky way for memories of how to say this word. “Eye-let!” recomm…

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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 …