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12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Mistakes Makes    Headlinese   Remember Ferlinghetti   So...  Social connotations colour accents   new  

12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Mistakes Makes
This is a piece by Jonathon Owen, a linguist who blogs at Arrant Pedantry:
There are a lot of bad grammar posts in the world. These days, anyone with a blog and a bunch of pet peeves can crank out a click-bait listicle of supposed grammar errors. There's just one problem -- these articles are often full of mistakes of one sort or another themselves. Once you've read a few, you start noticing some patterns. Inspired by a recent post titled "Grammar Police: Twelve Mistakes Nearly Everyone Makes," I decided to make a list of my own.
1. Confusing grammar with spelling, punctuation, and usage. Many people who write about grammar seem to think that grammar means "any sort of rule of language, especially writing." But strictly speaking, grammar refers to the structural rules of language, namely morphology (basically the way words are formed from roots and affixes), phonology (the system of sounds in a language), and syntax (the way phrases and clauses are formed from words). Most complaints about grammar are really about punctuation, spelling (such as problems with you're/your and other homophone confusion) or usage (which is often about semantics). This post, for instance, spends two of its twelve points on commas and a third on quotation marks.
2. Treating style choices as rules. This article says that you should always use an Oxford (or serial) comma (the comma before and or or in a list) and that quotation marks should always follow commas and periods, but the latter is true only in most American styles (linguists often put the commas and periods outside quotes, and so do many non-American styles), and the former is only true of some American styles. I may prefer serial commas, but I'm not going to insist that everyone who doesn't use them is making a mistake. It's simply a matter of style, and style varies from one publisher to the next.
3. Ignoring register. There's a time and a place for following the rules, but the writers of these lists typically treat English as though it had only one register: formal writing. They ignore the fact that following the rules in the wrong setting often sounds stuffy and stilted. Formal written English is not the only legitimate form of the language, and the rules of formal written English don't apply in all situations. Sure, it's useful to know when to use who and whom, but it's probably more useful to know that saying To whom did you give the book? in casual conversation will make you sound like a pompous twit.
4. Saying that a disliked word isn't a word. You may hate irregardless (I do), but that doesn't mean it's not a word. If it has its own meaning and you can use it in a sentence, guess what -- it's a word. Flirgle, on the other hand, is not a word -- it's just a bunch of sounds that I strung together in word-like fashion. Irregardless and its ilk may not be appropriate for use in formal registers, and you certainly don't have to like them, but as Stan Carey says, "'Not a word' is not an argument."
5. Turning proposals into ironclad laws. This one happens more often than you think. A great many rules of grammar and usage started life as proposals that became codified as inviolable laws over the years. The popular that/which rule, which I've discussed at length before, began as a proposal -- not "everyone gets this wrong" but "wouldn't it be nice if we made a distinction here?" But nowadays people have forgotten that a century or so ago, this rule simply didn't exist, and they say things like "This is one of the most common mistakes out there, and understandably so." (Actually, no, you don't understand why everyone gets this "wrong," because you don't realize that this rule is a relatively recent invention by usage commentators that some copy editors and others have decided to enforce.) It's easy to criticize people for not following rules that you've made up.
6. Failing to discuss exceptions to rules. Invented usage rules often ignore the complexities of actual usage. Lists of rules such as these go a step further and often ignore the complexities of those rules. For example, even if you follow the that/which rule, you need to know that you can't use that after a preposition or after the demonstrative pronoun that -- you have to use a restrictive which. Likewise, the less/fewer rule is usually reduced to statements like "use fewer for things you can count," which leads to ugly and unidiomatic constructions like "one fewer thing to worry about." Affect and effect aren't as simple as some people make them out to be, either; affect is usually a verb and effect a noun, but affect can also be a noun (with stress on the first syllable) referring to the outward manifestation of emotions, while effect can be a verb meaning to cause or to make happen. Sometimes dumbing down rules just makes them dumb.
7. Overestimating the frequency of errors. The writer of this list says that misuse of nauseous is "Undoubtedly the most common mistake I encounter." This claim seems worth doubting to me; I can't remember the last time I heard someone say "nauseous." Even if you consider it a misuse, it's got to rate pretty far down the list in terms of frequency. This is why linguists like to rely on data for testable claims -- because people tend to fall prey to all kinds of cognitive biases such as the frequency illusion.
8. Believing that etymology is destiny. Words change meaning all the time -- it's just a natural and inevitable part of language. But some people get fixated on the original meanings of some words and believe that those are the only correct meanings. For example, they'll say that you can only use decimate to mean "to destroy one in ten." This may seem like a reasonable argument, but it quickly becomes untenable when you realize that almost every single word in the language has changed meaning at some point, and that's just in the few thousand years in which language has been written or can be reconstructed. And sometimes a new meaning is more useful anyway (which is precisely why it displaced an old meaning). As Jan Freeman said, "We don't especially need a term that means 'kill one in 10.'"
9. Simply bungling the rules. If you're going to chastise people for not following the rules, you should know those rules yourself and be able to explain them clearly. You may dislike singular they, for instance, but you should know that it's not a case of subject-predicate disagreement, as the author of this list claims -- it's an issue of pronoun-antecedent agreement, which is not the same thing. This list says that "'less' is reserved for hypothetical quantities," but this isn't true either; it's reserved for noncount nouns, singular count nouns, and plural count nouns that aren't generally thought of as discrete entities.
10. Saying that good grammar leads to good communication. Contrary to popular belief, bad grammar (even using the broad definition that includes usage, spelling, and punctuation) is not usually an impediment to communication. A sentence like Ain't nobody got time for that is quite intelligible, even though it violates several rules of Standard English. The grammar and usage of nonstandard varieties of English are often radically different from Standard English, but different does not mean worse or less able to communicate. The biggest differences between Standard English and all its nonstandard varieties are that the former has been codified and that it is used in all registers, from casual conversation to formal writing. Many of the rules that these lists propagate are really more about signaling to the grammatical elite that you're one of them -- not that this is a bad thing, of course, but let's not mistake it for something it's not. In fact, claims about improving communication are often just a cover for the real purpose of these lists, which is...
11. Using grammar to put people down. This post sympathizes with someone who worries about being crucified by the grammar police and then says a few paragraphs later, "All hail the grammar police!" In other words, we like being able to crucify those who make mistakes. Then there are the put-downs about people's education ("You'd think everyone learned this rule in fourth grade") and more outright insults ("5 Grammar Mistakes that Make You Sound Like a Chimp"). After all, what's the point in signaling that you're one of the grammatical elite if you can't take a few potshots at the ignorant masses?
12. Forgetting that correct usage ultimately comes from users. The disdain for the usage of common people is symptomatic of a larger problem: forgetting that correct usage ultimately comes from the people, not from editors, English teachers, or usage commentators. You're certainly entitled to have your opinion about usage, but at some point you have to recognize that trying to fight the masses on a particular point of usage (especially if it's a made-up rule) is like trying to fight the rising tide. Those who have invested in learning the rules naturally feel defensive of them and of the language in general, but you have no more right to the language than anyone else. You can be restrictive if you want and say that Standard English is based on the formal usage of educated writers, but any standard that is based on a set of rules that are simply invented and passed down is ultimately untenable.
And a bonus mistake:
13. Making mistakes themselves. It happens to the best of us. The act of making grammar or spelling mistakes in the course of pointing out someone else's mistakes even has a name, Muphry's law. This post probably has its fair share of typos. (If you spot one, feel free to point it out -- politely! -- in the comments.)

Headlines have been written in a weird way for a long time, but no one seems to have worked harder to make headlines a language of their own than British newspapers. It is not journalese but a different breed of English used only by headline writers. They are after shortness and impact, not clarity. But now this form of English is creeping into the mainstream language.
Here are the rules of this new language as given by Andy Bodle:
Articles and possessive pronouns are practically nonexistent. Thus “Scotland at heart of new fracking deal” instead of “Scotland is at the heart of a new fracking deal”
All forms of the verb “to be” are similarly superfluous: “Sisters praised for hitting back at sex attackers” (This can cause unfortunate ambiguities – the notorious 1980s headline in a national newspaper “Boy wanted to kill queen”, and a more recent example from a first edition of the Guardian: “Ennis-Hill sent rape threats in footballer row”)
The past tense is replaced by the more concise present simple: “Ukip say more Tories ready to defect”, rather than “Ukip said/have said that more Tories are ready to defect”. This also makes the news seem more immediate.
The future tense, meanwhile, is rendered by the infinitive: “Muggers to avoid jail sentences” rather than “Muggers will/are going to avoid jail sentences”, (Again, care should be taken; see the case of the Deseret News’s 1975 splash, “Juvenile court to try shooting defendant”)
Noun modifiers are rampant. Instead of expressing relationships between people and things with punctuation, conjunctions and prepositions, headline writers string nouns together. Similarly, adjectives are often abandoned when the noun is shorter. Hence “Horror deaths in Cadogan Square” instead of “Horrifying deaths in Cadogan Square”, and “Blades axe for rapist Evans” in place of “Sheffield United decline to renew the contract of Ched Evans, a convicted rapist”. I’ll leave it to you to unpick this offering from a September 2012 issue of Dublin’s free newspaper, the Metro Herald: “China Ferrari Sex Orgy Death Crash”. (You might counter that noun modifiers are everywhere in English. Well, yes, they are now, but they were quite rare before the 20th century, and only started flooding the language in the 1950s and 60s, when tabloids came to prominence.)
Conversely, prepositions are often coopted to do the work of verbs, so “Holiday joy for millions” and “Miliband in attack on Rangers tycoon”
Punctuation is deemed surplus to requirements. It is, however, occasionally called upon to denote speech (verbs of speech, obviously, being too long): “Sir Cliff: 'I’ll sue the BBC'”; “Budget row ‘ruins case for EU’”.
Abbreviations and shorthand are commonplace: “PM: I’ll ban benefits for EU migrants”.
Commas are (in America, chiefly, but increasingly in the UK) used to replace “and”: “Men Walk on Moon: Astronauts land on plain; collect rocks, plant flag”
The grandest, oldest and arguably finest headline tradition of all, of course, is the use of short words. Instead of disagreeing, people “clash”. Rather than competing, they “vie”. Instead of divisions, we have “rifts”. And instead of a Mexico president promising reforms of the policing system in an effort to mollify people’s anger over the murder of 43 students, we get “Mexico president vows police reform in bid to quell massacre rage”. I was inordinately pleased with myself for coining the word “thinnernym” to describe these short words, although I’ve since been informed that I’m not the first to do so.
And here are some thinnernyms:
Amid = before, after, during, or all three; in the face of, in spite of
As = at the same time as; before; during; after. Also, because
Axe = dismiss, remove, eliminate
Back = support, offer support, express support for, approve (of), stand with/behind
Bash = criticise (thus, “Catholic health association bashes bishop on abortion hospital”)
Bid = attempt, try
Blast = criticise
Blaze = fire, conflagration
Blow = setback, handicap, hindrance; consider rephrasing to “hamper, scupper chances”
Boss = manager, executive, CEO, chairman
Brand = describe as, label, nickname
Bug = infection (viral or bacterial); malicious computer program
Cage = imprison, incarcerate, jail
Chide = criticise
Clash = conflict
Con = convict, prisoner
Critics = opponents, adversaries
Curb = rein in, restrain, repress, limit
Cut = reduce, lower; reduction, decrease, discount
Diss = criticise
Dodgy = underhand, corrupt; we suspect they’ve done something wrong, but have no evidence to back up our suspicions
Dub = describe as, label, nickname
Eye = consider, contemplate
Face = is in line for; faces the prospect of; must prepare for; is threatened with
Fear = anxiety, concern, worry, terror
Fever = excitement (however mild)
Fire = dismiss, remove, eliminate
Flay = criticise
Furore = outcry, hubbub, uproar
Fury = anger, or, more probably, mild annoyance
Guru = expert
Hail = welcome, recognise, approve of
Heist = robbery
Helm = run; take over control of
Hike = increase, rise
Hold = arrest, detain
Ink = sign, put signature to (thankfully on the wane)
Ire = anger, or, more probably, mild annoyance
Jibe = accusation, criticism, sideswipe
Lag = convict, prisoner
Laud = praise, garland with praise
Key = significant, important, major
Kill (figurative) = cancel, overrule, countermand, rescind
Knock = criticise
Lash = criticise
Loom = impend, be imminent, approach; should be used only with negative events. Isn’t.
Mar = spoil, ruin, undermine
Maul = criticise
Moot = suggest, propose, table
Mull = contemplate, consider, weigh up
OK (v) = approve, pass, agree to, sign off on
Pact = treaty, agreement, contract
Pan = criticise
Plea = request
Poll = survey; election
Probe = investigation, inquiry, review; (verb) look into, examine, review
Raft = wide range, selection, host, plethora
Rage = anger, or, more probably, mild annoyance
Rue = regret
Quiz = question, interrogate, grill
Quit = resign, stand down, tender one’s resignation, vacate one’s position
Rap = criticise
Rift = division
Rig = manipulate, pre-arrange, fix
Roast = criticise
Row = conflict; controversy
Sack = dismiss, remove, eliminate
See = forecast
Seek = request
Seize = arrest
Set to = is going to, plans to, intends to, is about to, is preparing to
Slam = criticise
Slash = reduce, cut down/back
Soar = rise, increase
Spark = trigger, cause, prompt
Spat = conflict
Split = division
Slate = criticise
Swipe = criticism
U-turn = change of heart
Vie = compete, fight
Vow = swear, promise
Wag = raconteur, wisecracker; romantic partner of footballer
War (figurative) = conflict
Woe = misery, hurt, or, more likely, mild disappointment
Woo = make advances/overtures to, try to win over

Remember Ferlinghetti

It reminds me of my youth. Lawrence Ferlinghetti is 95 this March. It is interesting that my two favourite poets are so similar under all their differences. Ferlinghetti and Thomas both pay such attention to the exact sound of words and are so playful with them.
Ferlinghetti is known for four things: his poems, his visual art, his publishing and his 'making' of the Beat movement in San Francisco with City Lights.
So here is my favourite poem of his (and here's to the '50 and '60 in 'San Fran man'). By the way – keds were the hot sport shoe in those days.

The Great Chinese Dragon - Lawrence Ferlinghetti

The great Chinese dragon which is the greatest dragon in all the
world and which once upon a time was towed across the
Pacific by a crew of coolies rowing in an open boat—was
the first real live dragon ever actually to reach these shores

And the great Chinese dragon passing thru the Golden Gate
spouting streams of water like a string of fireboats then broke
loose somewhere near China Camp gulped down a hundred
Chinese seamen and forthwith ate all the shrimp in San Francisco Bay

And the great Chinese dragon was therefore forever after confined
in a Chinatown basement and ever since allowed out only for
Chinese New Year’s parades and other Unamerican demonstrations
paternally watched-over by those benevolent men in
blue who represent our more advanced civilization which has
reached such a high state of democracy as to allow even a
few barbarians to carry on their quaint native customs in our midst

And thus the great Chinese dragon which is the greatest dragon
in all the world now can only be seen creeping out of an
Adler Alley cellar like a worm out of a hole sometime during
the second week in February every year when it sorties out
of hibernation in its Chinese storeroom pushed from behind
by a band of fortythree Chinese electricians and technicians

who stuff its peristaltic accordion-body up thru a sidewalk
delivery entrance

And first the swaying snout appears and then the eyes at ground
level feeling along the curb and then the head itself casting
about and swaying and heaving finally up to the corner of
Grant Avenue itself where a huge paper sign proclaims the
World’s Largest Chinatown

And the great Chinese dragon’s jaws wired permanently agape as
if by a demented dentist to display the Cadmium teeth as the
hungry head heaves out into Grant Avenue right under the
sign and raising itself with a great snort of fire suddenly proclaims
the official firecracker start of the Chinese New Year

And the lightbulb eyes lighting up and popping out on coiled wire
springs and the body stretching and rocking further and
further around the corner and down Grant Avenue like a
caterpillar rollercoaster with the eyes sprung out and waving
in the air like the blind feelers of some mechanical preying
mantis and the eyes blinking on and off with Chinese red
pupils and tiny bamboo-blind eyelids going up and down

And here comes the St. Mary’s Chinese Girls’ Drum Corps and
here come sixteen white men in pith helmets beating big bass
drums representing the Order of the Moose and here comes
a gang of happy car salesmen disguised as Islam Shriners
and here comes a chapter of the Order of Improved Red Men

and here comes a cordon of motorcycle cops in crash helmets
with radios going followed by a small papier-mâché lion fed
with Nekko wafers and run by two guys left over from a
Ten-Ten festival which in turn is followed by the great
Chinese dragon itself gooking over balconies as it comes

And the great Chinese dragon has eaten a hundred humans and
their legs pop out of his underside and are his walking legs
which are not mentioned in the official printed program in
which he is written up as the Great Golden Dragon made in
Hong Kong to the specifications of the Chinese Chamber of
Commerce and he represents the force and mystery of life
and his head sways in the sky between the balconies as he
comes followed by six Chinese boy scouts wearing Keds and

carrying strings of batteries that light up the dragon like a
nighttime freeway

And he has lain all winter among a heap of collapsed paper
lanterns and green rubber lizards and ivory backscratchers
with the iron sidewalk doors closed over his head but he has
now sprung up with the first sign of Spring like the force of
life itself and his head sways in the sky and gooks in green
windows as he comes

And he is a monster with the head of a dog and the body of a
serpent risen yearly out of the sea to devour a virgin thrown
from a cliff to appease him and he is a young man handsome
and drunk ogling the girls and he has high ideals and a
hundred sport shoes and he says No to Mother and he is a
big red table the world will never tilt and he has big eyes

everywhere thru which he sees all womankind milkwhite and
dove-breasted and he will eat their waterflowers for he is the
cat with future feet wearing Keds and he eats cake out of
pastry windows and is hungrier and more potent and more
powerful and more omnivorous than the papier-mâché lion
run by the two guys and he is a great earthworm of lucky life
filled with flowing Chinese semen and he considers his own
and our existence in its most profound sense as he comes and
he has no Christian answer to the existential question even
as he sees the spiritual everywhere translucent in the material
world and he does not want to escape the responsibility of
being a dragon or the consequences of his long horny tail still
buried in the basement but the blue citizens on their talking

cycles think that he wants to escape and at all costs he must
not be allowed to escape because the great Chinese dragon
is the greatest potential dragon in all the world and if allowed
to escape from Chinatown might gallop away up their new
freeway at the Broadway entrance mistaking it for a Great
Wall of China or some other barbarian barrier and so go
careening along it chewing up stanchions and signposts and
belching forth some strange disintegrating medium which
might melt down the great concrete walls of America and
they are afraid of how far the great Chinese dragon might
really go starting from San Francisco and so they have
secretly and securely tied down the very end of his
tail in its

so that
this great pulsing phallus of life at the very end of its parade
at the very end of Chinatown gives ones wild orgasm of a shudder
and rolls over fainting in the bright night street since even
for a dragon every orgasm is a little death

And then the great Chinese dragon starts silently shrinking and
shriveling up and drawing back and back to its first cave
and the soft silk skin wrinkles up and shrinks and
shrinks on its sprung bamboo bones and the handsome
dejected head hangs down like a defeated prizefighter’s and
so is stuffed down again a last into its private place and the
cellar sidewalk doors press down again over the great wilted
head with one small hole of an eye blinking still thru the
gratings of the metal doors as the great Chinese dragon gives

one last convulsive earthquake shake and rolls over dead-dog
to wait another white year for the final coming and the final
sowing of his oats and teeth

'So' is one of my favourite words, and so I am surprised that many people really loath the word. They think it is used to much, that it is used in ways that have no meaning, and that it is used to control conversations.
I don't find it used to much, it has more functions than just being a pseudonym for 'thus', and one of its most useful functions is to control conversation. (A good thing – not a bad thing.) I have written before about how 'so' is used to end an utterance, to say I'm done and now I invite you to reply. I also talked about how it is used to start an utterance especially to start a change of focus or topic. It is also a method of interrupting someone's utterance. “So, I think it's time to eat.”
It is an excellent way to start a summary of what has been said. One can say “In summary,..”, “To sum up..”, “As I understand our talk...” or just “So...”. The use of 'so' has a certain air of equality about it.
Now I have run across other uses. It can restart a conversation that has stalled. Two people can be talking about the weather and come to a point where there is nothing more to say. A short silence descends and then, “So, how's work?” This is not forcing a change of topic but suggesting one when the current topic has just disappeared. It is somehow more polite than simply abruptly starting another topic without warning.
It appears to be a polite way of getting to the point if someone is beating around the bush. “So, I take it you would like to borrow mine.” Some people take a very long time to get to the actual point of what they are saying. It can also be a polite way of getting back to the point of a conversation that has wandered off on another track. “So, have we decided what to do on Tuesday?”
Recently it has been noticed that the police use a type of 'so' question to get a clear narrative from witnesses. “So you say it was late, was it actually dark?” “You went into the store; so, what happened then?” By the careful use of these sorts of questions (confirmation of a fact, so, and then a question to make it clearer) police can produce a clear, short, relevant and accurate statement for a witness to sign.
So, it seems that 'so' is a friendly, polite way for people to deal with problems in the pragmatics of conversations. Why are there so many who dislike the word? I think there are two sorts of so-haters. One is on about 'so' being used without meaning. They are not thinking in terms of oral language or in terms of the logistics of conversation. They are the one sentence at a time, written down with all words have their conventional meanings sort of people. They see the 'so' as a throw away, of no use and are irritated by it. There are people who do not like others to having any control over a conversation. I have known people who will talk for an hour straight and get terribly annoyed if anyone dares to interrupt. They would have to deal with a lot of 'so's and would resent each and every one.

Social connotations colour accents
I think this conclusion would apply to American, Canadian, Australian ets. accents as well. People do not know that they are making aesthetic judgments on various emotional, social, historical factors and not on the actual sound.
Mark Liberman's piece from LanguageLog:
In May 2002, I recorded short samples of 20 different accents of English… In order to limit the influence of extraneous variables, the speakers chosen were all male, white, aged between 35 and 40, and upper-working to lower-middle class. These recordings were played to 96 native and 109 non-native English speakers who were then asked to briefly describe each accent and rate each one on a scale of 1-10 (1 = very unpleasant, 5 = neutral, 10 = very pleasant). [...]
… the native speakers reacted predictably. The French, Southern Irish, Edinburgh Scottish and Geordie (Newcastle-upon-Tyne) accents received the most favourable responses (none, incidentally, described the very nasal French accent as 'nasal'), the American and rural accents such as Cornish and Norfolk also did well, but Welsh, RP (Received Pronunciation), Northern Irish and accents associated with large urban conurbations such as London (Cockney) and Liverpool (Scouse) fared badly. No prizes for guessing which accent came bottom. Black Country. [...]
Ask a British person what their least favourite accent is, and they will more than likely say 'Brummie' – the variety of English spoken in the West Midlands city of Birmingham. Ask them why, and they will more than likely use adjectives such as 'nasal', 'monotonous', 'miserable' and/or 'ugly' to justify their responses. Such views are based on the belief that all other accents are higher in aesthetic value than Brummie, and even those who are prepared to accept that Brummie is not 'wrong' (and many aren't) seem fundamentally opposed to the idea that other accents are not more aesthetically pleasing. But is Brummie really ugly? [...]
The responses of non-native speakers, on the other hand, were inconsistent – ranging from 'harsh' (for Brummie), through 'nice', to 'melodic', 'lilting' and 'musical', and from 'clear' (for Southern Irish), through 'boring', to 'disgusting'. Although there was no significant difference between the overall scores for each accent, many appeared to prefer the characteristically Brummie 'rising' and 'high tone at the end of sentences', criticising instead the 'cold and unemotional' character of Edinburgh Scottish – one respondent even going so far as to describe the Scottish speaker as 'untrustworthy'. Scouse was also praised on many occasions for its intonational distinctiveness – its clarity, 'pleasant tonality', and dynamic 'rolling of the r', but reactions on the whole were generally mixed, and there was little evidence to suggest that foreign speakers were dipping into the same adjective cluster as their British counterparts – no high occurrence, for example, of the words 'nasal', 'common', 'whingey', or 'wrong' to describe the Birmingham accent. [...]
These findings demonstrate that non-native speakers work to a totally different set of criteria when evaluating English accents, and do not discriminate on the same grounds as native English speakers. Judgements of the perceived beauty or ugliness of accents are based almost entirely upon a knowledge of the social connotations which they possess for those familiar with them.