Two things generally happen when I write about grammar: I get a lot of people applauding me for tackling it, and I’m called out for my own imperfect grammar. This time, it was because I used the phrase “refer back” in my column on “me” and “I” misuse.
Why? Because it’s redundant.
The readers who noted that are correct, and I should have caught it and eradicated the redundancy. It’s always hardest to edit your own work, and it was missed each of the multiple times it was edited.
We all have been guilty at one time or another of being redundant in our conversations and writing. One of the first things I do when I have to trim a letter to get it to an acceptable length is look for repetitive phrases, such as “reason why,” “very unique,” “safe haven,” “past history,” “hopeful optimism,” “added bonus,” and others. Since the definitions for both words in any of these phrases can mean much the same thing, one of the words has to go.
I mean, really—something is unique or it’s not; there are no levels of uniqueness because there would be nothing which could be compared to the unique whatever. If indeed it is actually one-of-a-kind; when that eBay listing says several are available, I don’t think it’s unique … but maybe that’s just me. And what kind of person goes to an “unsafe” haven? If it’s not safe, it’s not exactly a haven, is it?
But there’s a contingent that believes such phrases aren’t necessarily redundant. “Word Guy” Rob Kyff of the Hartford (Conn.) Courant wrote in 2004:
“The purpose of language is clear and effective communication. That’s why it’s always wise to avoid unnecessary words that glop up a sentence. Of course we should avoid silly tautologies such as ‘the reason is because,’ ‘basic fundamentals’ and ‘free gift.’
“But in some situations redundancy is actually helpful and desirable in clarifying and emphasizing a point. If you want to make sure your trousers stay up, it’s best to wear a belt and suspenders.”
If your pants still fall down with a belt and suspenders, you have other problems. And not just people snickering at your fashion choices … or the fact that you decided to go commando.
In news, tight, more formal writing is expected because the news hole is limited. In opinion writing, we still have the news hole issue, but we can be far more informal, much like we’re talking to friends over coffee (but perhaps minus the risqué jokes … our publication is a family newspaper, after all).
There are still grammar and style rules we go by, but the stricter rules are relaxed. This is a conversation, after all.
Linguist Steven Pinker wrote in the Guardian in 2014:
“[S]tandards of usage are desirable in many arenas of communication. They can lubricate comprehension, reduce misunderstanding, provide a stable platform for the development of style and grace, and signal that a writer has exercised care in crafting a passage.
“But this does not mean that every pet peeve, bit of grammatical folklore, or dimly remembered lesson from Miss Thistlebottom’s classroom is worth keeping. Many prescriptive rules originated for screwball reasons, impede clear and graceful prose, and have been flouted by the best writers for centuries.”
What?? Miss Thistlebottom might have taught her own grammar prejudices to us in the guise of teaching us grammar? Not Miss Thistlebottom!
(OK, I just love that name. Humor me.)
Pinker wrote about grammar prescriptivists and descriptivists; prescriptivists (strict grammarians) describe how language ought to be used, while descriptivists (laissez-faire grammarians) describe how it’s actually used. Sometimes the rules some prescriptivists swear by are their own language biases, and sometimes the devil-may-care attitude of some descriptivists results in word salad. (Pinker, by the way, spoke of some questions to ask to determine if a grammar rule should be rejected. Read more here.)
Just like the left-versus-right thing in politics, the prescriptivist/descriptivist battle is a false dichotomy. All the world is not painted in stark black and white. Like most things, what works best is usually somewhere in the middle.
And that’s where I try to live. My grammar won’t always be perfect even though I love words. I can be neither a grammar snob nor an anarchist; what I want to be is understandable, a realistic grammarian. If I’m also entertaining, that’s just an added bonus (and bonus points if you got the joke).
Pinker argues that some grammar rules can and should be broken; many of them, after all, arose from pet peeves (I can’t stand “to be sure” as an introductory phrase … I might have to make a rule for that …) or from Latin grammar rules that don’t always work as well with English.
Yes, follow the rules when writing for academia and formal papers, but in everyday usage (and creative or opinion writing), it’s OK to break a few as long as the end result is understandable (yes, intentionally redundant again).
A puppy won’t die if you split an infinitive or start a sentence with a conjunction. He might whimper a little, but he won’t die. But be prepared for him to pee on your leg.
One of the rules Pinker advocates breaking is the one about ending sentences with prepositions, illustrated by the apocryphal tale of Winston Churchill saying that a directive about prepositions was nonsense “up with which I will not put.” While Churchill didn’t say this (Quote Investigator traced it to a May 1942 issue of The Strand, with no Churchill involvement), it illustrates the unnatural contortions one must sometimes go through to avoid ending with a preposition.
Communication should be clear, and strict grammar rules can sometimes make that more difficult than it should be.
Language evolves, and so does grammar. I’m prepared to boldly go—are you?
OK, somebody get a mop, please. The puppy peed on my leg.