Grammatical Hell in a Handbasket

Maw of HellThe Washington Post has started the apocalypse. Yes, they have. And the whole world is about to go to hell in the proverbial handbasket because of it. The maw of Hell has opened…

The Post has decided after decades – centuries? – of editors, writers and grammarians arguing about the lack of gender-neutral singular pronouns in English, to accept “they” as the stand-in. Can you see the dominoes starting to topple?

I shudder with that. It’s a diagnosis of grammatical ebola. There is no vaccine.

The story popped up on Mental Floss today:

Post copy editor Bill Walsh explains that he personally accepted singular they many years ago, but had stopped short of allowing it in the paper. He finally decided to endorse it in house style after coming to the conclusion that it is “the only sensible solution to English’s lack of a gender-neutral third-person singular personal pronoun.”

Gadzooks! Until now, I had Walsh pegged as one of my main style-guide heroes, a no-nonsense, but literate man to whose works I frequently resorted when trying to unravel the spaghetti-like nature of our language. I even ordered his latest book from Amazon only last week. Now I’m afraid I might be burying them in the backyard compost pile with the other unwanted detritus.

Mental Floss added:

The news of the acceptance of singular they may cause a little stir, but nobody will notice the change in action, as Walsh says, “I suspect that the singular they will go largely unnoticed even by those who oppose it on principle. We’ve used it before, if inadvertently, and I’ve never heard a complaint.”

A “little” stir? Sir, the floodgates of Hell have opened! In its own pages, the Post notes even more changes to be wrought upon us. A tsunami of change! The pillars of linguistic stability shudder!

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Moved by myself…

After watching Collingwood council meetings on Rogers again, I felt I should re-post a link to a piece I first wrote several years ago, then again in 2014, then re-wrote in April of this year:

Me, myself and I

Every time I watched the meetings, I also watched councillors say the same thing: “move by myself.”

The incorrect use of the reflexive is like nails on a blackboard.

We don’t expect all of our elected officials to be English majors, or great orators, but we do expect them to know – and speak – the basics. We expect them to speak better than some TV trailer park characters.

“Moved by myself” is like hearing them say “I seen…” or “yous guys” or calling the library a “lie-berry.”

Trying to improve someone’s idiomatic speech is a Sisyphus effort. I realize it makes me seem like a tired old pedant to keep harping on it.

But even if I don’t like their politics, I don’t want to be embarrassed by our town’s official record. I don’t want outsiders watching it and snickering at what they perceive as hayseeds who can’t speak well. I want us to come across as cultured, mature and literate. And the way to do that is to speak properly.

I suppose this is just me pushing the rock of literacy up the steep slope, but it matters to me how others perceive us. With our reputation already in tatters, and the common perception we’re an aggressively anti-business, anti-growth, anti-development and anti-progress community, I’d rather not add to our disgrace with something more easily corrected than bad policy.

A Sense of Pinker’s Style

Sense of StyleI share one of Steven Pinker’s passions: I like to read style books, grammar books, language books. To me, they’re like literary chemistry sets. When I was young, getting a chemistry set for Christmas or a birthday opened a whole world to me. I’d explore all sorts of interactions and experiments until I had run out of chemicals to do them with. Used litmus paper littered my bedroom.

Reading a book on style or usage is similarly exciting to me. How words can be placed, can work together, how they meld or conflict, the alchemy and the choreography of language, all delight me. There’s magic in writing.

I have a wall of books about language, about style, usage, etymology and meaning. Pinker’s works are just a few among many that date back to the early 20th century. The greats are there: Bernstein, Fowler, Stunk and White, Gower, Flesch, the CMOS, as well as AP, CP media stylebooks, Blackburn, Crystal, Walsh, Pinker and many others.

I recently got Copperud’s American Usage and Style: The Consensus (1981) and have been reading it at bedtime. I never tire of them.

No, this isn’t a strange pastime for someone involved in writing . Everyone who cherishes his or her art and craft as a writer reads style and grammar books, and does so regularly and eagerly. I don’t know a reporter or editor of any merit who doesn’t read them. Only amateurs don’t.

You expect a doctor to keep up on medical trends through books and journals. You expect a builder to keep up on changing codes and materials. You expect an IT guru to keep up with technologies and trends. Why wouldn’t you expect a writer to do the same? Language and style, after all, are always in flux. Anyone who doesn’t read such books regularly doesn’t deserve the name of writer.

Since writing is a critical mode of communication, everyone should know at least the basics. And books help remind us of them. It doesn’t have to be stodgy or boring: there are plenty of humorous and entertaining books on grammar and punctuation. Lynn Truss’s Eats Shoots and Leaves, for example. Karen Gordon’s Transitive Vampire series is another.

If you don’t quite get the difference between they’re, there and their, or its and it’s, or your and you’re, you really should take the time and learn. Language is a tool you can use as a chainsaw or scalpel: coarsely or effectively. But back to Steven Pinker. He’s not one of your basic book authors.

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Me, Myself and I Redux

T-shirtAt Collingwood Council meetings, you will always hear someone say “Moved by myself…” when presenting a motion at the table.*

Argh! Where did these people go to school? Clearly our education system has failed us if people were raised to say that. And this is in the public record, too.

To me it’s like nails on a blackboard. It’s like saying “I seen…” and “yous.”

The grammatically correct way to present a motion is, of course, to say, “Moved by me…”

So why the mistake we so frequently hear at the table – and in fact in many other councils across the province?

Common misunderstanding and discomfort, it appears are the cause, at least according to the grammar sites I read.

People often (and incorrectly) think “me” is incorrect or even coarse (well, it is when you say something like “Me and my friends are going dancing” or “I got me a pickup truck…”). But this is misplaced.

That unnecessary caution is why some people will say things like “It is I” or “It’s for my wife and I” when they really should say “It is me” and “It’s for my wife and me.” And say “between you and I…” when they mean (or should say) “between you and me…”

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Abusing quotation marks

What goes through your mind when you see words in a paragraph or a sentence surrounded by quotation marks? Like that sign in the image on your left? That they are words excerpted from conversations or written content? Or that they are special; peculiar words, or perhaps used ironically, sarcastically or in jest?

Take these examples from the “Blog” of Unnecessary Quotation Marks:

  • “Chicken” pot pies $5.99
  • Please open the door “slowly”
  • “Push” the last channel button.
  • No “Free” refills

It makes you wonder, doesn’t it? What is in the pie that isn’t “chicken” but we’ll pretend it is? Try reading them aloud and putting air quotes around those words. Ah, now you get it. “Slowly” means open the door really quickly, right?

Words in quotation marks tell the reader not to take them seriously or literally. They’re telling you that what’s between the quotation marks isn’t what’s in the pie. That you really need to pull the button not push it as was sarcastically suggested. They usually mean the opposite of the word within the quote marks.

As Distractify notes, quotation marks around words make people suspicious. That sign that says Professional “Massage” makes people go nudge-nudge, wink-wink. One that just reads Professional Massage doesn’t raise an eyebrow. I’ll eat fresh sushi, but stay far away when it’s advertised as “fresh” sushi.

So what about the sign that offers “Beer” for sale? Is that “beer” just coloured water? Pop? Or a vodka cooler? And you have to ask how used that “new” underwear really is before you buy it. Those quote marks just beg you to ask questions.

BuzzfeedMis-using quotation marks for emphasis is a fairly common form of grammatical abuse. The irony deepens when abusers don’t realize others treat the words in quotation marks as sarcastic or ironic. But the readers will see it thus and treat the content rather differently than intended. As in meaning something opposite to what is implied by the words themselves. Like that professional “massage” – nudge, nudge…

Buzzfeed offers more examples of quotation mark abuse. You may laugh at most – except the one selling guns as tools of “freedom” which is a bit scary, given the crazy gun culture in the USA. And that “sushi” – you have to ask yourself what it really is. Would you eat it?

Similarly, the Huffpost gives this example of abused quotation marks. “Quality” installations suggests the opposite and hard-boiled “eggs” – Nudge-nudge, wink-wink – are really potatoes….

And as you might expect, there’s even a Facebook page where you can list your latest examples of “unnecessary” quotation marks. Like this one…

Facebook image
These are not the confidential files you are looking for…. nyuck, nycuk, nyuck…

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Ruthful, funct and doleless

Crazy EnglishWhy can’t someone be clueful, only clueless? Hapful, not simply hapless? Aweless instead of just awful? Ruthful not merely ruthless? Doleless, not just doleful? Gormful, not just gormless?

We can be thoughtful or thoughtless, careful or careless, mindful and mindless. Why not ruthful and gormful? Why not the qualities of ruthiness, gormliness and doleliness?

Can we be kempt or just unkempt? Couth or just uncouth? Gruntled or just disgruntled? Shevelled or just dishevelled?* Maculate or just immaculate? Domitable, or just indomitable? Ruly or just unruly? Can we come ravelled instead of just unravelled? Can we member a corpse instead of just dismember it? Can a Wikipedia entry be an ambiguation rather than a title=”Wikipedia” href=”http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Wikipedia:Disambiguation” target=”_blank”>disambiguation?

If we’re not disappointed are we appointed? If not distressed are we tressed? If not discombobulated are we combobulated? If not nonplussed, are we plussed? If we’re not impeccable, are we just peccable? Can we be chalant rather than nonchalant? If we don’t want to dismantle something, can we mantle it? If we don’t disfigure a painting, do we figure it? If it’s not inevitable, is it evitable? If an event doesn’t unnerve us, is it nerving? If it’s not defunct is it funct? If an online hoax isn’t debunked, can it be bunked instead?

Can we be placcable, effable, trepid, ert, ane and feckful? can I rupt the proceedings? Can any love be requited? Can any heroes be sung? If I don’t dismiss you, do I miss you? If you stop your incessant chatter, does it become cessant? If I’m not an imbecile in your eyes, am I a becile? Can a tool be wieldy?

Some of these odd-seeming words have been in our language, just fallen out of favour or replaced by other terms. Ruthful, the Word Detective tells us, was in common use in the 12th until the 14th century, although it hung around as an anachronism until the 19th century.** Ruly was coined around 1400 CE, according to World Wide Words. Tools could never be wieldy, but persons could be, in the sense of being nimble (same source).

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