Tag Archives: good English

Rules and laws

For Grammar Day, I want to talk briefly about laws and rules, and the fact that some people who should know better get them confused.

Let’s start with laws of nature. Say someone holds a rock in front of them and lets go of it. It flies upward instead of falling. Do you say, “No, you’re doing it wrong – the rock is supposed to fall down”?

Then there’s criminal law. Let’s say that instead of dropping the rock, they throw it through a store window. You might say “Hey!”; a cop who is nearby might arrest them – or they might get away with it.

That’s sort of like the rules of sport. Say the person is playing football, and they throw a rock instead of a football – or maybe they just throw a football the wrong way. The player will get a penalty – if the referee sees it.

But how about the rules of grammar? Let’s say someone writes a sentence: “Person the throw rock football and window at.” Your reaction on reading it is probably something like “Huh? That doesn’t even make sense.”

So let’s say instead that the sentence is “Smashing a window, the person throwed rock and football.” If you’re like a lot of people, you’ll readily utter a correction of one or more errors, even if no one asked you to. You may also say something about the intellect of the writer.

The law of gravity, like any law of nature, doesn’t need anyone to enforce it. If you see a law of nature being broken, you’re wrong: either the law isn’t really being broken (it’s an illusion, or some other law is relevant) or the law as you know it is inaccurate or incomplete and your understanding needs to be revised.

Civil and criminal laws do need enforcement, because they’re human creations. Some of us may believe that laws are there to enforce laws of nature (or of God), but really at most we’ve just appointed ourselves to try and keep people behaving in accordance with our ideas of those laws, which is an us thing. Civil and criminal laws are like the rules of sports, but with broader application and stronger enforcement mechanisms.

And rules of grammar? Ones like in the last example, such as that it’s “threw,” not “throwed,” that you shouldn’t use dangling participles, and that you should be careful with definite and indefinite articles, are also like the rules of sports: in published texts, editors typically serve as referees, following specified style rules; in a broader social context, enforcement is mostly not formalized. The rules may have a certain tidiness, but that tidiness is not a natural law, nor is it inevitable – any editor who works with multiple house styles knows that.

But what about more basic rules of grammatical conmprehensibility, such as the ones broken by “Person the throw rock football and window at”? Those, too, are human creations – just at the level of social norms that we rarely stop even to inspect. Using the rules of some other languages, that weird sentence would be entirely coherent. English puts the definite article (“the”) before the noun, but Scandinavian languages tack it onto the end of the noun as a suffix. English can be very fussy with verb conjugations (“throw,” “throws,” “threw”), especially irregular ones, but other languages are less so, and some – such as Mandarin Chinese – don’t conjugate at all. English requires indefinite articles (“a rock,” “a football”), but Gaelic doesn’t, and Slavic languages don’t use definite or indefinite articles. And English expects “and” to go between the things it combines, but in Latin its equivalent can be tacked onto the second item, as in “Senatus Populusque Romanus” – literally “Senate People-and Roman” (in English, “the Senate and People of Rome”).

So, in short, the rules of grammar, even the most apparently essential rules, are not inevitable. Grammar, even the most fundamental grammar, is not a natural law; it is like the rules of a sport. The way you say a thing is not the one logical, inevitable, natural way to say it, even if – within the variety of the language you’re speaking – it’s the only “proper” way to say it. Even the idea that a double negative equals a positive, which seems plainly logical to modern English speakers, seems otherwise to speakers of languages such as Spanish or Italian, where a negative requires agreement (e.g., “No vale nada” and “Non vale niente”: “It’s not worth nothing”). After all, it can’t be a negative statement if it’s positive in some places. Logic!

But some people, even some otherwise well educated people, seem unaware of this. Editors and linguists are wearily used to people priggishly “correcting” them with simplistic grammar rules and ideas that they recall from school, as though those rules were basic truths like natural law. I’ve seen it even from people who have graduate-level educations and clearly ought to know better.

And why does it matter? I’ve written before about how this kind of dogmatic position is used to license social aggression (see What do we care about, really and Why all English speakers worry about slipping up), but the boorishness of grammar snobs is not the biggest thing. The idea that there is one correct, natural, logical grammar gives cover for not just class discrimination but also racism (because different social groups use different varieties of the language) and even sexism (in particular ideas about such things as pronouns and grammatical gender – I’ve given talks on this several times; a video of one time is at A Hidden Gender?). 

A person who understands the socially decided nature of grammar rules can understand that someone who’s using a kind of English that’s not “proper” is not inferior, and that different varieties of English are grammatically coherent even if they’re different from the schoolbook standard. Knowing this also broadens a person’s expressive repertoire.

Does all this mean that grammar is a free-for-all, or that there’s no point in teaching it? Of course it doesn’t mean that. We teach people about the rules of sports and the rule of law. We also teach people about dress codes – there are certain things you just don’t wear in certain places and occasions, not for any matter of intrinsic suitability (sweatshirts are no less functionally suited to formal occasions than tuxedos), but just because of the social implications they have come to have. Likewise, if you use a library, you learn how the books are arranged on the shelves, and it’s a tidy, systematic, enforceable order, but it’s not an inevitable one: the choice of Dewey versus Library of Congress, just for instance, will give quite different orderings. 

Tidiness can be good, and consistent, well-defined rules can be useful. I make a nice bit of money every year tidying up text. But rigidity and narrow-mindedness are bad. And believing that the simple rules you learned in your simple youth are the only true rules is a mistake that will limit your effectiveness – and, on the larger level, can limit others, and our effectiveness and potential as a society. Learn rules – as many different sets as possible – and use them judiciously.

Oh, and have fun.

One fewer thing to fuss about

Let us say, for the nonce, that the author of a book telling people how to improve their English has declared, “More is commonly used in speaking of numbers; I believe greater would do better. No greater than a hundred appears to me not only more elegant than No more than a hundred, but more strictly proper. More is best reserved for mass quantities.”

Well. We English speakers have a very problematic relationship with our language. If something seems natural, simple, clear, and obvious, and if it’s something we heard people do all the time, we are very eager to believe a rule telling us it’s wrong. We’re prone to rule-seeking behaviour because we’ve learned to be insecure about our grasp of English’s rules – they’re so capricious and inconsistent – and a new rule also gives us an additional sorting and tidying tool… and something to whack people on the head with to show our superiority, too.

So, if the book came out at the right time and found the right audience, we would soon have people insisting that cookbooks that say “More than 200 of the best high-fat recipes” should instead say “Greater than 200 of the best high-fat recipes,” and that when inviting friends over you should say “The greater, the merrier”; news articles would fussily put “Observers estimated there were greater than 5,000 people in attendance” and “He has lived in the city for greater than five years.”

Does this sound far-fetched? It’s so incredibly near-fetched, it’s fetched right off your page… more or less. Continue reading

What do we care about, really?

“Oh, please, stop. I can’t stand to hear that. It’s like chewing on tin foil. You have it all wrong. Really, I must insist. I care about good English.”

Behold one of the great socially countenanced forms of authoritarian aggression: brutishly objecting to someone else’s English usage. The sin may be a pronunciation that’s not “right,” or a transgression of one of the grade-school superstitions (“split infinitives,” ending sentences with prepositions, using the word ain’t), or a “wrong” meaning (decimate gets a lot of this), or – Heaven forfend – a misspelling. We treat a spelling error as sufficient to vitiate any argument, however well reasoned; we may even issue peremptory unsolicited corrections to slight variations from what we consider correct. Some people have gone so far as to vandalize public signage to change punctuation. And the self-justification is always on the order of “I care about good English.”

Spoiler: That is not why we are doing it. Continue reading

Currying favour with your readers

Originally published on The Editors’ Weekly

Editing and writing have a lot in common with cooking. For one thing, people come to a text, as to a restaurant, with certain expectations and ideals, and you should satisfy them. You don’t have to give them something completely predictable – especially if you’re in a line more artistic than industrial – but you do want to curry their favour.

That puts me in mind of a recipe in the Larousse Gastronomique, 1977 English edition: “Chicken curry (Plumerey’s recipe).” The listed ingredients are two chickens (cut up), butter, 500 grams of diced uncooked ham, a tablespoon of flour, light veal stock to moisten, a bouquet garni (a standard French seasoning made of a bundle of herbs), and two teaspoons of curry powder.

I don’t think you’ll be served that recipe at any restaurant today. It would seem weirdly out of place (and just weird) in a French restaurant, and it would get the chef in an Indian restaurant fired. But there was a time when French cuisine was considered by many to be the apex of the culinary world, and anything you might eat could be “improved” by a French touch. Even curry.

Likewise, there was a time when a single standard prevailed throughout most of literature. Even if a given work didn’t meet that standard, it was understood that that was what it was aiming for. Certain things were simply infra dig, my dears. Other standards were sub-standard. It was important to show you had the right sort of education.

That time is past. Just as we no longer consider French ingredients and techniques the basis of all the best food, we – or many of us, anyway – are now wise enough not to think that starchy formal English is necessary or even appropriate everywhere. There are, alas, still some people who believe that an overarching consistent adherence to a single standard is the goal of writing and editing. If a writer aiming a rambunctious piece at an informal audience puts “There’s a couple things you should know,” such an editor will tut-tut and change it to “There are a couple of things you ought to know” – or “a few things” if there are more than two. Never mind that that changes the flavour completely; somehow, a palate that can’t taste the difference is supposed to be better.

And perhaps such an editor would be pleased to be served a curry cooked to the standards of Carême. For everyone else, let’s use appropriate ingredients and techniques. English – like any living language – has a multitude of styles suited for different contexts and people. When we recognize that and work with it, we aren’t letting go of rules, we’re choosing which rules to use to suit the occasion. When people come to a French restaurant, give them the best French cuisine, sure. When they come to a chain restaurant, give them a consistent demotic product. And if they’re after good barbecue, or tortellini, or nuer pad prik, or vindaloo, leave Larousse on the shelf.

The weaponization of grammar

I’ve published another article on BBC.com. This one is about something that we all have to deal with and many of us participate in: the treatment of “bad grammar” as evidence of intellectual and moral deficiency. I read quite a few “grammar guide” books for this, and there’s a lot more I could have written… but I had to fit it in 1200 words. So it’s not too long to read!

Why all English speakers worry about slipping up


The lord, the bishop, and the harlot: an etymological fallacy

This article was written as a guest post for the Merriam-Webster Unabridged blog, http://unabridged.merriam-webster.com/blog/2014/12/quest-post-the-lord-the-bishop-and-the-harlot-an-etymological-fallacy/

“I literally decimated my bank account, but it was so unique, I just had to get it! It’s fantastic!”

There are many in whom such a sentence would provoke an attack of bruxism. “To the letter,” they might say as they gnashed their teeth, “you reduced your bank account by one tenth? For something that is mere fantasy? Reaallllyyyy. I would expect no more from someone who doesn’t seem to know that ‘unique’ is not gradable – it means there is only one: un.”

Ah, the etymological fallacy: the idea that the true meaning of a word is whatever it “originally” meant – or its source parts meant. Its adherents may protest, for example, that we cannot use transpire to mean ‘happen’ because the Latin for transpire means ‘breathe across’. If adherents of the etymological fallacy were set loose on chemistry, they would declare table salt to be a combustible metal (sodium) and a poison gas (chlorine), and say that since water is two highly flammable gases (hydrogen and oxygen) it should be kept far from a fire.

Such people – like most people, really – seem to have a basic idea of language as a fixed thing, with timeless fixed rules (that just happen to coincide with whatever they remember their grade school English teacher telling them), and if people in a previous era used English differently, either they were wrong or we are. Every change observed is an aberration, and it follows from this that whatever a word or its constituents once meant is the true meaning. This also provides a handy trump card for interpersonal competition, and a tool for group exclusion: “You didn’t know that accident really means just ‘a thing that happened’ – in fact, ‘a thing that fell into place’? Idiot.”

But look, I’m preaching to the choir here. If you’re reading this, you know as well as I do that language changes, and meanings shift. Why don’t we have a little fun and run with the etymological fallacy? Here’s a story that uses words with their “true” meanings:

Our local lord – I mean the baker, of course – is a silly man, though lewd, and so is a favorite of the local ecclesiastics. One day, the bishop – a truly awful and egregious man, and among the most enthusiastic spellers you could ever find – came to town on a holiday to have a thing with the local priests. He came to the lord to get a loaf, but the lord was not there, so his queen gave him a special one she had thrown around.

Walking back to the church, the bishop saw a harlot. “Can you help me and my girls?” said the harlot, gesturing towards several knaves around him.

“My whore,” said the bishop, “I hope you are not pretty.”

“No,” said the harlot, “I am just a nice pastor, but I cannot win.”

As the bishop extracted his meat, the lord came running down the lane carrying several more loaves, and shouting, “I pray, do not give that loaf to the harlot and his girls, it’s sophisticated!”

The lord was a crafty man, but not always a clever one, and as he neared the bishop he offended and warped the loaves. The bishop attended to the loaves, but he too offended, killed his head on a cute peter, and was astounded.

At first the lord and the harlot thought the bishop had starved, but a small deer – a hound – licked his face and he awoke. The bishop, too, was a crafty man, and full of animosity, and he declared that the accident had been a small enormity and nothing noisome. He gave some bread to the harlot, saying “May you be silly and no longer nice,” and went on with the gaudy lord to join the priests in their thing.

Oh, do you need a key to the “true” meanings? Not familiar with all of them? Tsk. Well, here is a translation into the words people would usually use now, “wrong” though they may be:

Our local loaf-keeper – I mean the baker, of course – is a blessèd man, though a layman, and so is a favorite of the local ecclesiastics. One day, the bishop – a truly awe-inspiring and outstanding man, and among the most divinely inspired preachers you could ever find – came to town on a holy day to have a conference with the local priests. He came to the loaf-keeper to get a loaf, but the loaf-keeper was not there, so his wife gave him a particular one she had twisted in a ring.

Walking back to the church, the bishop saw a beggar. “Can you help me and my children?” said the beggar, gesturing towards several boys around him.

“My dear,” said the bishop, “I hope you are not cunning.”

“No,” said the beggar, “I am just an ignorant shepherd, but I cannot work.”

As the bishop pulled out his food, the loaf-keeper came running down the lane carrying several more loaves, and shouting, “I ask you, do not give that loaf to the beggar and his children, it’s impure!”

The loaf-keeper was a strong man, but not always a nimble-handed one, and as he neared the bishop he stumbled and threw the loaves. The bishop reached for the loaves, but he too stumbled, struck his head on a sharp rock, and was rendered unconscious.

At first the loaf-keeper and the beggar thought the bishop had died, but a small animal – a dog – licked his face and he awoke. The bishop, too, was a strong man, and full of lively courage, and he declared that the fall had been a small irregularity and nothing harmful. He gave some bread to the beggar, saying “May you be blessed and no longer ignorant,” and went on with the joyous loaf-keeper to join the priests in their conference.

Well, yes, there is some entertainment potential in the etymological fallacy. But I still say that those who hold to it are very silly and not at all nice. And I mean that in the modern sense.


It was just after Montgomery’s and Elisa’s discussion of get-go and gecko that things almost came to blows.

Not between Elisa and Montgomery, to be sure; rather, the issue was with a prospective member who had joined us at the restaurant, a rather self-important specimen named Will Knott. He caught the end of the discussion on get-go and commented, to no one in particular, “I had thought that this was a society for people who valued the English language and knew how to use it well.”

“It is for people who love the language and wish to handle its words as fine ingredients in excellent dishes,” Montgomery said.

“So how did this one become a member?” he said, jerking his thumb at Elisa. “That’s not very good English. Get-go.” Elisa looked hurt and focused her attention on her wine glass and its emptying and refilling.

“You need to be sensitive to context,” I said, my hair starting to stand up on the back of my neck. “I’m not quite sure you got it. It was a colloquial recounting.”

He waved me off with his hand before I was done speaking and turned to Montgomery. “I suppose everyone enjoys a bit of slumming now and then, but I certainly wouldn’t allow such common – almost vulgar – words in my workplace. I handle important documents.”

Montgomery’s left eyebrow was arching ever so slightly higher and higher. “Vulgar?”

Get. Got. That’s not good English.”

Get is not good English?!” I exclaimed, almost disbelieving (I say “almost” because I have once or twice heard of others having the same view).

Will Knott sighed slightly and looked upwards for a moment. Then he continued speaking to Montgomery. “It’s a bit discouraging that you have members who are surprised to hear this.”

“Perhaps,” Montgomery said, “it’s that they wonder at your placing yourself above Shakespeare, Pope, Dickens, Thackeray, Emerson…”

“Shakespeare had terrible grammar,” Will Knott said. “Everyone knows that. Many supposedly great authors were sloppy with their usage.”

“You don’t like ‘Get thee to a nunnery’?”

“He was just trying to fit his meter. He could have said ‘Take thou holy orders’ or ‘Enter the novitiate’ or any of several better options. It doesn’t even make sense as it is. Get means ‘receive’. Receive thee to a nunnery?”

Get has a rather broader range of use than that,” Montgomery said.

“I’m talking about the proper definition,” Will said.

“I thought you said it wasn’t a proper word,” I said. Will made an eye roll worthy of a fourteen-year-old girl and returned to ignoring me.

“The Germanic root it comes from,” Montgomery said, “is one referring to seizing, taking hold of, grasping, obtaining, and such like. The word get has, of course, been in the English language as long as there has been an English language to be in.”

“A weak defence,” Will said. “There are always better words, just as with many other old Anglo-Saxon words. I hope you grasp my meaning. Not get, grasp.”

“I don’t know that you can always get away with such substitutions,” Montgomery said.

“Would you use that sentence in a government report?” said Will. “It would be better as ‘Such substitutions may not always be allowed.’ Or, to avoid the passive, ‘You may not always succeed in making such substitutions.’”

“They don’t mean the same thing,” I said.

“Could you be quiet?” Will said. “The adults are speaking.”

“Get over yourself,” I said.

He gave me a condescending look over the tops of his glasses. “Be less impressed with yourself.”

“You might want to try to get along with others,” Montgomery said.

Agree is a better word than get along with,” Will replied.

Elisa broke her silence. “Even I know that those don’t mean the same thing.”

“You do not know all the meanings of the word agree,” Will said.

You don’t know all the meanings of the word get,” I said. “And you get your back up too readily.”

“I am too readily irritated, you mean,” he said. “However, it seems to me that you are the one with a temper here.”

Montgomery gestured towards me and Elisa. “It is from members such as these that you must get permission to get into the Order of Logogustation.”

“Obtain permission,” Will said. “Obtain is a much better word. And join or enter, not get into.”

“You truly feel that this is the way to get ahead?”

“To advance, I believe you mean?”

Montgomery paused and glanced at his watch. “Well, it’s getting on.”

“The hour is advancing,” Will corrected him.

“Let’s get this over with,” Montgomery said, glancing at me.

“Draw it to a conclusion,” Will said.

“Get up,” Montgomery said.

“Arise,” Will said.

“And get out,” Montgomery said.

“Leave, exit, depart,” Will said.

“I mean you,” Montgomery said. “Do you get it now?”

“Understand it, you mean,” Will said.

“We mean get out,” I said, positioning myself behind him with two of the waiters, whom I had signalled to come over. “You will never get in. You need to get a clue.”

“The door is this way, sir,” said one of the waiters. “Don’t make us exert ourselves.”

Will Knott looked at us distastefully and drew himself up to standing. He looked for moment more and made a bee-line for the door, muttering “Disappointing!” loudly enough for all to hear.

“You ignorant git,” I said after him as he left, exited, departed.