Writing an article like this is just asking for trouble. Already, I can hear one reader asking “Why do you need just?” Another suggesting that like should be replaced by such as. And yet another saying “fancy using a cliché like asking for trouble!”
Another will mutter: “Where’s your evidence?”
My evidence lies in the vehement protestations that I face when going through solutions to an editing test or grammar quiz with on-campus students in my writing courses at The University of Queensland, and no, that’s not deferential capitalisation. It is capital ‘T’.
Confirming evidence lies in the querulous discussion-board posts from dozens of students when they see the answers to quizzes on the English Grammar and Style massive open online course that I designed. Further evidence lies in the fervour with which people comment about articles such as the one that you are currently reading. For instance, a 2013 article 10 grammar rules you can forget: How to stop worrying and write proper by the style editor of The Guardian, David Marsh, prompted 956 comments. Marsh loves breaking “real” rules. The title of his recent book is For Who the Bell Tolls. I’d prefer properly to proper and whom to who, but not everybody else would.
Marsh’s 10 forgettable rules are ones that my favourite grammarian, Professor Geoffrey Pullum, co-author of The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language calls zombie rules: “though dead, they shamble mindlessly on”. A list of zombie rules invariably includes never beginning a sentence with “and”, “but”, or “because”, as well as the strictures that are a hangover from Latin: never split an infinitive and never end a sentence with a preposition. It (should it be they?) couldn’t be done in Latin, but it (they?) can be done in English. Just covering my bases here.
So, what’s my stance on adhering to Standard English? I’m certainly not a grammar Nazi, nor even a grammando, a portmanteau term that first appeared in The New York Times in 2012 that’s hardly any softer. Am I a vigilante, a pedant, a per(s)nickety person? Am I a snoot? Snoot is the acronym that the late David Foster Wallace and his mother — both English teachers — coined from Sprachgefühl Necessitates Our Ongoing Tendance or, for those with neither German nor a cache of obsolete words in their vocabulary, Syntax Nudniks of Our Time.
Foster Wallace reserves snoot for a “really extreme usage fanatic”, the sort of person whose idea of Sunday fun would have been to find mistakes in the late William Safire’s On Language column in the New York Times magazine. Safire was a style maven who wrote articles with intriguing opening lines such as this: “A sinister force for solecism exists on Madison Avenue. It is the work of the copywrongers”.
Growing up with a mother who would stage a “pretend” coughing fit when her children made a grammar error clearly contributed to Foster Wallace’s SNOOTitude. His 50-page essay “Authority and American Usage”, published in 2005, constitutes a brilliant, if somewhat eccentric, coverage of English grammar.
I need to be a bit of a snoot because part of my brief as a writing educator is to prepare graduates for their utilitarian need to function as writing workers in a writing-reliant workplace where professional standards are crucial and errors erode credibility. (I see the other part of my brief as fostering a love of language that will provide them with lifelong recreational pleasure.)
How do I teach students to avoid grammar errors, ambiguous syntax, and infelicities and gaucheries in style? In the closing chapter of my new book on effective writing, I list around 80 potential problems in grammar, punctuation, style, and syntax.
My hateful eight
My brief for this article is to highlight eight of these problems. Should I identify ones that peeve me the most or ones that cause most dissonance for readers? What’s the peevishness threshold of readers of The Conversation? Let’s go with mine, for now; they may also be yours. They are in no particular order and they depend on the writing context in which they are set: academic, corporate, creative, or journalistic.
Archaic language: amongst, whilst. Replace them with among and while.
Resistance to the singular “they” Here’s an unbearably tedious example from a book published in 2016 in London: “The four victims each found a small book like this in his or her home, or among his or her possessions, several weeks before the murder occurred in each case”. Replace his or her with their.
In January this year, The American Dialect Society announced the singular “they” as their Word of the Year for 2015, decades after Australia welcomed and widely adopted it.
Placement of modifiers. Modifiers need to have a clear, direct relationship with the word/s that they modify. The title of Rob Lowe’s autobiography should be Stories I Tell Only My Friends, not Stories I Only Tell My Friends. However, I’ll leave Brian Wilson alone with “God only knows what I’d be without you”, though I know that he meant “Only God knows what I’d be without you”.
And how amusing is this commentary, which appeared in The Times on 18 April 2015? “A longboat full of Vikings, promoting the new British Museum exhibition, was seen sailing past the Palace of Westminster yesterday. Famously uncivilised, destructive and rapacious, with an almost insatiable appetite for rough sex and heavy drinking, the MPs nevertheless looked up for a bit to admire the vessel”.
Incorrect pronouns. The irritating genteelism of “They asked Agatha and myself to dinner” and the grammatically incorrect “They asked Agatha and I to dinner”, when in both instances it should be me .
Ambiguity/obfuscation “Few Bordeaux give as much pleasure at this price”. How ethical is that on a bottle of red wine of unidentified origin?
The wrong preposition The rich are very different to you and me. (Change “to” to “from” to make sense.) Not to be mistaken with. (Change “with” to “for”). No qualms with. (Change “with” to “about”.)
The wrong word. There are dozens of “confusable” words that a spell checker won’t necessarily help with: “Yes, it is likely that working off campus may effect what you are trying to do”. Ironically, this could be correct, but I know that that wasn’t the writer’s intended message. And how about practice/practise, principal/principle, lead/led, and many more.
Worryingly equivocal language. After the Easter strike some time ago, the CEO of QANTAS, Alan Joyce, sent out an apologetic letter that included the sentence: “Despite some sensational coverage recently, safety was never an issue … We always respond conservatively to any mechanical or performance issue”. I hoped at the time that that’s not what he meant because I felt far from reassured by the message.
Alert readers will have noticed that I haven’t railed against poorly punctuated sentences. I’ll do that next time. A poorly punctuated sentence cannot be grammatically correct.