Having been a writer and editor for some years now, I’m often asked for guidance on grammar, sometimes because of something that appeared in the news sections of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette, and sometimes for policing something that strikes some people as wrong. I also get blamed for news coverage from our wire services (not me), comics that offend someone’s sensibilities (also not me) and sports coverage (so far from me it’s ridiculous).
Because, you know, I’m all-powerful. I clearly direct the news coverage of the paper despite the clear, uncrossable line between news and opinion that we have, pick comic strips that pick on whatever group I’m annoyed by, and am probably also responsible for referees’ bad calls.
I only deal with the opinion pages (and directly handle only one of them), and the rules are less strict for grammar in opinion, as we write conversationally. We’re also the occasional rebels, like on The Associated Press style change on “percent.” AP now allows the percentage sign, but nah, we’re still writing it out while the rest of the paper is using that awful % (so ugly). So there!
Because we try to write as if we’re talking to someone over a coffee or soda, clarity is the bigger concern. While we do follow general grammar rules, we don’t get too far into the weeds or too proper because perfectly proper grammar can be a real bore to read. A news story is formal enough, but try reading an academic paper without snoozing.
Besides, many of those grammar rules we’ve been taught not to break on pain of a ruler across the wrist are perfectly fine to ignore sometimes, and some of them were most likely based on pet peeves of the people who came up with them.
There’d be a lot of new rules based on the response to my question to friends and colleagues about pet peeves. If people only knew all the things that make editors cringe …
Linguist Chi Luu, in the Lingua Obscura column on JSTOR Daily, tackled the idea of ungrammatical English in August 2015.
“Linguists would agree that there is a socially accepted standard dialect that rules much of the mainstream, literate world of the Anglosphere. It is indeed important to learn the accepted linguistic conventions of the standard dialect for reasons of communication, clarity and even persuasive style.
“But it happens to be a historically privileged dialect and is not inherently linguistically better than other, non-standard dialects of English. Even if you don’t buy this linguistic fact, like all dialects, even ones you may perceive to be ungrammatical, there are rules which reflect how speakers actually use the language. These rules are not formed by some invisible authority on high, never to be questioned, ever.”
And this would be the difference between prescriptive (how language ought to be used) and descriptive (how language is actually used) grammar.
“Here are the plain facts: Many of these pop grammar rules that are still seriously taught in schools and universities and even promoted (and inevitably violated) in style guides were magically pulled out of thin air by a handful of 18th and 19th century prescriptive grammarians. They’re totally made-up grammar myths that somehow gained a superficial, high prestige status among the public and are repeated as fact ad nauseam.
“Often these rules were modeled on an aspect of Latin, perceived to be a more ‘pure’ language than English, and went against actual historical and literary usage. In many cases the rules made communication more stilted and less clear (and promoted humorous syntactic constructions up with which I will not put). Some rules may even have started as merely an offhand expression of an individual grammarian’s opinion, before it somehow became ensconced in the public consciousness as a hard and fast grammar rule. The split infinitive, not ending a sentence with a preposition, the ongoing confusion with less versus fewer or use of the singular—they are all examples of rules that had shaky linguistic foundations to begin with.”“Dear Pedants: Your Fave Grammar Rule is Probably Fake,” JSTOR Daily/Lingua Obscura, Chi Luu, Aug, 17, 2015.
As for those pet peeves, Luu says they’re fine, “as long as we acknowledge that often these conventions are subjective and not forever fixed universal rules of language that define a person’s intelligence. In the same way, you may also find skinny jeans problematic as an item of fashion but plenty of people are still definitely wearing them as pants.”
Those people are nuts, even more so if they try to squeeze a body like mine into skinny jeans.
We can’t abandon grammar rules, though, because different types of writing call for different types of grammar. Formal writing, such as for academic papers, requires more proper grammar; business correspondence and newswriting also fall under this umbrella, but are typically a bit looser than dry scholarly writing.
Conversational writing, on the other hand, generally uses basic grammar as an outline to guide where it goes. You can split an infinitive if you want to (making sure that it means what you intend to say, as “to boldly go” is a little different from “to go boldly”), begin a sentence with a conjunction, or end a sentence with a preposition.
Cognitive scientist and linguist Steven Pinker wrote in The Guardian in 2014 about some of the grammar rules you can ignore in most cases, including the one on infinitives (which would distress one of my colleagues, who says if someone she dates splits an infinitive, she splits). Pinker says it’s OK to flout those rules if the answer to any of these questions is “yes”:
“Is the rule based on some crackpot theory, such as that English should emulate Latin, or that the original meaning of a word is the only correct one? Is it instantly refuted by the facts of English, such as the decree that nouns may not be converted into verbs? Did it originate with the pet peeve of a self-anointed maven? Has it been routinely flouted by great writers? Is it based on a misdiagnosis of a legitimate problem, such as declaring that a construction that is sometimes ambiguous is always ungrammatical? Do attempts to fix a sentence so that it obeys the rule only make it clumsier and less clear?
“Finally, does the putative rule confuse grammar with formality?
“Every writer commands a range of styles that are appropriate to different times and places. A formal style that is appropriate for the inscription on a genocide memorial will differ from a casual style that is appropriate for an email to a close friend. Using an informal style when a formal style is called for results in prose that seems breezy, chatty, casual, flippant. Using a formal style when an informal style is called for results in prose that seems stuffy, pompous, affected, haughty. Both kinds of mismatch are errors. Many prescriptive guides are oblivious to this distinction, and mistake informal style for incorrect grammar.
“The easiest way to distinguish a legitimate rule of usage from a grandmother’s tale is unbelievably simple: look it up. Consult a modern usage guide or a dictionary with usage notes. Many people, particularly sticklers, are under the impression that every usage myth ever loosed on the world by a self-proclaimed purist will be backed up by the major dictionaries and manuals. In fact, these reference works, with their careful attention to history, literature and actual usage, are the most adamant debunkers of grammatical nonsense. (This is less true of style sheets drawn up by newspapers and professional societies, and of manuals written by amateurs such as critics and journalists, which tend to mindlessly reproduce the folklore of previous guides.)”“10 grammar rules it’s OK to break (sometimes),” The Guardian, Steven Pinker, Aug. 15, 2014.
However you write, just be clear. Make sure that modifiers are in the right place, because a misplaced one will change the meaning of a sentence (example: “Covered in sweat, she flopped on the sofa” versus “She flopped on the sofa covered in sweat.”). Make sure your sentences make sense; a trick I learned in my college broadcast classes is to read what I write out loud. Hearing it helps you see if the sentence flows naturally or is stilted, or if there are holes than need to be filled. It isn’t necessary that your grammar be perfect, but if it sounds wrong to you when you read it, there probably is something wrong with it.
Reporter Dale Ellis hit on this in one of his comments to my question about word and grammar pet peeves:
“It absolutely puts my teeth on edge when someone incorrectly substitutes ‘you and I’ for ‘you and me’ such as ‘It was evident that if we just had faith all good things would come to you and I,’ which is WRONG, WRONG, WRONG! Or, ‘Drop by at the picnic to see George and I.’ Arrghhh! Stomp! Stomp! Stomp! Insert pouty face here.
“I’ll confess, I actually know very little about usage rules in the English language (or any other language for that matter) but I do know that if I drop ‘you’ it sounds stupid for me to say, ‘It was evident that if we just had faith all good things would come to I,’ or if I ditch ‘George’ and say, ‘Drop by the picnic to see I,’ people would look at me like I’m a moron, which I would be.
“Generally, if I see a sentence that is incorrectly structured, I probably can’t tell you what is wrong with it (I wouldn’t know the difference between a dangling participle and a misplaced modifier.) but I can tell it is wrong and I can probably fix it.”
Sometimes, the best way to fix one of those things you’re confused about as far as the grammar rule goes is to write around it or just cut it entirely. Who/whom? Many times, you don’t even need it, and if your use is noticeably incorrect, you’ll look like a fool. I look like a fool enough on my own, so coming in a little short on a word count isn’t a bad thing comparatively.
Language evolves, and so do the rules around it, yet we still follow rules that came about because something irritated a grammarian (sometimes an easily irritated sort), or because someone thought we should match Latin rules (in Latin, an infinitive is a single word, so can’t be split, unlike English infinitives). If strictly following all those grammar rules makes your writing clunky, it’s OK to ease up a bit.
I’m pretty sure no one will smack you with a ruler.
AP alum Chuck Bartels shared an anecdote when he told me his grammar/word pet peeve that was too funny (to me, anyway) not to pass on.
“Several decades ago the AP sent out a survey to sports editors asking what cliches they’d like to never see again,” he wrote. “I wish I knew the person’s name, but [someone from] the Miami Herald replied, ‘Think up your own cliches.’”
Dang it. And here I was hoping for some help. Mine are getting stale.