Mary Norris has a gift for your favorite grammarian in this week’s New Yorker: a detailed account of comma policy from a veteran copyeditor. The magazine is notorious for its meticulous house style (where else do you still see a diaeresis over the word coördinate?), which it owes to Mensa-level punctuator Eleanor Gould and her acolytes....more
Posts Tagged: grammar
Bryan Henderson has made more than 47,000 edits to Wikipedia. This prolific career is not the product of Henderson’s great breath of knowledge, but rather because he has an obsession with fixing a specific grammatical mistake. The mistake he corrects over and over again is composed of two words: “comprised of.” His efforts to remove the error from the online encyclopedia have landed Henderson in the top 1,000 most active editors....more
Technically perfect writing is important when it comes to journalism or nonfiction, and especially helpful when writing with short deadlines. Fiction writing is different though. Nicole Bernier, over at Beyond the Margins, explains why grammatically sloppy writing might be the product of greater creativity:
Sometimes when creative writers say they don’t notice their own typos, it has a whiff of, well, humblebraggery.
In his new book The Sense of Style, brain scientist Steven Pinker calls for a relaxation of English grammar rules. While the Daily Beast’s review praises Pinker for rejecting the false dichotomy between prescriptive and descriptive grammar, the New Yorker argues that we need rules to communicate....more
Everybody has that one friend who insists they know good grammar. They’re probably wrong—Harvard cognitive scientist Steven Pinker insists strict rules just don’t matter because language is fluid. Mother Jones explains the grammatically anti-authoritarian position:
…language is never set in stone; rather, it is a tool that is constantly evolving and changing, continually adding new words and undoing old rules and assumptions.
The rules come so naturally to us that we rarely learn about them in school, but over the past few decades language nerds have been monitoring modifiers, grouping them into categories, and straining to find logic in how people instinctively rank those categories.
Adverbs are bad, every writer has been told, repeatedly. Use them sparingly, if at all, is the advice commonly given. But adverbs do serve a purpose, and more often it is misuse, not overuse, that unfortunately taints bad writing. Robin Black, writing at
Beyond the Margins, defends the adverb:
Adverbs are modifiers.
Sentence construction. That’s all a writer does anyhow, right? Not all sentences are made with great care and hold sentiments like this one:
There is something artful and sad in juxtaposing the certainty that something is wrong with the uncertainty over what that thing is.
We live in a heyday of punctuation. “Call this what you will—exclamatory excess, punctuation inflation, the result of the Internet’s limitless expanse—it is everywhere,” writes Megan Garber at the Atlantic. But perhaps not for long—with the rise of image-based expression like emoji and gifs, we are finding new ways to express ourselves, and we’re leaving exclamation points and question marks out of it....more
It’s actually the opposite. Most people break grammar rules so they can be more precise.
For Full Stop, Catie Disabato writes about prescriptive vs. descriptive grammar, and why “bad” grammar can be a good thing.
Her data points include Burger King ads, John Dryden’s seventeenth-century grammar campaigns, and use of the word “because” as a preposition....more
Those who are careful about their grammar run the risk of seeming pretentious. Strict adherence to grammar rules is sometimes written off as stuffy and elitist. There is a greater danger, however, in falling into the trap of being careless with language, or so Fiona Maazel writes in a piece called “Commercial Grammar.”
Imprecision allows you to say one thing when you really mean another…
Adverbs acting as manner adjuncts “do not occur between whether and infinitival to,” you guys. Duh.
Or, in other words, you can’t say, “…decide whether unconditionally to attend the Geneva talks.” Instead, you should say, “…decide whether to unconditionally attend the Geneva talks,” because that “rule” about split infinitives doesn’t actually exist....more
It always feels like society is crumbling when big linguistic changes occur, but as Megan Garber points out, even notorious grammar stickler William Safire advised rewriting sentences to avoid using the objective-case equivalent of “who.”
If “whom” really did die out, traditionalists would mourn, but at least they wouldn’t have to deal with people overcorrecting in an attempt to sound formal....more
Strunk and White’s Elements of Style has a soft spot in all our hearts, but some of its rules—no adverbs, an incorrect definition of passive voice—are a little…idiosyncratic.
If, as Constance Hale says, the point of grammar is to produce better writing, rather than squeezing words into an airtight mathematical equation, Strunk and White aren’t always super helpful....more
While some of you may scoff or shrug your shoulders, Kyle Wiens, writing for Harvard Business Review, is not messing around:
If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me.
It’s no secret that English is a constantly shifting, malleable, many-headed beast of a language, yet, much of the time, writers and speakers insist emphatically on obeying its many ostensibly rigid rules.
At The New York Times, linguist John McWhorter writes about the myth of “proper” English:
“We are taught that a proper language makes perfect logical sense, and that allowing changes willy-nilly threatens chaos.”
In the article, McWhorter argues that changes in the English language are akin to shifts in fashion: they have real, tangible effects, but should not be used in any way to infer the “intelligence or moral worth” of a speaker or writer....more
“Language can still be an adventure if we remember that words can make a kind of melody. In novels, news stories, memoirs and even to-the-point memos, music is as important as meaning. In fact, music can drive home the meaning of words.”...more
In a lyrical crusade against grammatical ignorance, super-fast rapper David McCleary “Mac Lethal” Sheldon breaks down the difference between “your” and “you’re”.
Video after the jump....more
“Verbs kick-start sentences: Without them, words would simply cluster together in suspended animation. We often call them action words, but verbs also can carry sentiments (love, fear, lust, disgust), hint at cognition (realize, know, recognize), bend ideas together (falsify, prove, hypothesize), assert possession (own, have) and conjure existence itself (is, are).”...more
Why is the second person such a natural and addictive tense–perhaps the only honest one–when writing about drug abuse and a foggy recovery?
For years, you haven’t been able to stop asking this question. Reading Patrick deWitt’s Ablutions: Notes for a Novel, you are asking it again, vocally (a real dinner-party silencer), by mistake or with motivations hidden from even yourself....more
“We are living in a moment of seismic linguistic change, and attention should be paid—but not to errors. Our changing language signals evolution, not degradation. ‘OK,’ the most popular American word in the world, was invented during the age of the telegraph, because it was concise.”
Anne Trubek asks “Should We Care About Grammar and Spelling on Twitter?”...more
Environmental Graffiti takes a look at Germany’s hanging railway.
We usually try to stay away from commercial stuff like this, but we think it’s pretty rad that Tropicana literally built a sun to make their point.
A very important tutorial: how to use a semicolon....more
Researchers spent a day familiarizing a group of cotton-top tamarins with a series of two-syllable words that followed a certain pattern....more
“We should take care with this phrase, which is useful in certain limited contexts but unnecessary and potentially offensive in others.
For starters, of course, we note someone’s sexual orientation only when it is pertinent and the pertinence is clear to the reader....more