Tuesday, August 9, 2022

End a sentence with a preposition if you want to

 Yes, I know, Someone told you that it is wrong to end a sentence with a preposition. Someone also told you never to split infinitives, none is always singular, and avoid the wicked passive voice, even though you're not quite sure what it is. Someone told you a lot of rubbish.

And even though you (probably) don't advocate the Ptolemaic theory that the universe revolves around the Earth or the theory that fire is the release of phlogiston from combustible substances, you continue to adhere to nonsense merely because Someone once told you so.*

Let me roll out a couple of the Big Guns. 

A century ago, the Blessed Henry Watson Fowler wrote this: "It is a cherished superstition that prepositions must, in spite of the incurable English instinct for putting them late ('They are the fittest timber to make great politics of' said Bacon; & 'What are you hitting me for' says the modern schoolboy) be kept true to their name & placed before the word they govern." 

The maintenance of this superstition, he writes, means that "immense pains are daily expended in changing spontaneous into artificial English."

More recently, Bryan Garner writes thus in Garner's Modern English Usage: "The spurious rule about not ending sentences with prepositions is a remnant of Latin grammar. ... But Latin grammar should never straitjacket English grammar." 

To illustrate, he compares the "Correct and Natural" ("people worth talking to") to the "Correct and Stuffy" ("people to whom it is worth talking"). Among the examples of natural English he cites is a sentence by George Orwell: "The great majority of reviews give an inadequate or misleading account of the book that is dealt with." 

Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage closes its entry on the subject with a set of terminal-preposition sentences by established writers of English, including Bunyan, Swift, Johnson, Austen, Carroll, Joyce, Frost, and Thurber. 

You may at this point be unconvinced, firm in your resolve never to conclude a sentence with a preposition. And this is America, where if it is your preference to sound like a prig, it is also your right. 



*For a catalogue of rubbish frequently taught, Bad Advice: The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing is available by order from Amazon, Barnes and Noble, and independent bookstores like The Ivy Bookshop in Baltimore.  

Friday, July 29, 2022

Step up to the Grammar Table

On a September day in 2018, Ellen Jovin left her apartment in Manhattan and went to the street outside the 72nd Street subway station to set up a folding table and a sign identifying it as the Grammar Table, inviting questions, comments, and complaints, along with opportunities to vent. 

Public interest proved so strong that she and her husband, Brandt, took the Grammar Table around the country--to forty-seven states, Covid isolation thwarting their plan to make all fifty. Her exchanges with ordinary citizens over grammar and usage are now summed up in Rebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian (Mariner Books, 374 pages, $26.99). 

People, she discovered, are curious about grammar, ill-informed and uncertain about grammar, and sometimes dogmatic about grammar, occasionally giving her the Grammar Side Eye despite the presence on the table of references such as the Chicago Manual of Style and Garner's Modern English Usage to buttress her explanations.

Her fifty brief chapters cover nearly all the issues that commonly come up, and her explanations are clear and reliable. There's a great deal on punctuation: the common comma, the mysterious semicolon, the intrusive apostrophe. She finds it helpful to answer inquiries by making a chart to illustrate the differences of effect (noun and verb) and affect (verb and noun) or to write out the conjugations of lie and lay. She herself usually tries to write around singular they, but acknowledges that it has been widespread in English since Alfred burned the cakes. 

But the richness of the book comes from the people, who are straightforward about their perplexities and grateful for explanation. There's the man in Annapolis who doesn't care for swearing but is delighted to be informed that the technical term for inserting one of them in the middle of another word is infix. There are the two young men drunk at noonday in Decatur, Alabama, who occupy much of an afternoon on a variety of topics. There are people all over the country who say that they are bad at grammar, that they always hated grammar, that they are afraid of being mocked for their grammar. 

So much of people's uncertainties about grammar and usage rise from bad pedagogy. Many of the things that people think they know about grammar and usage, Ms. Jovin writes, are half-remembered "things you were told when your shoe size was changing annually." There are the perpetual zombie rules about not splitting infinitives and not ending sentences with prepositions. She says, "Prohibitions from childhood, unfortunately, are like grass stains on white pants; they resist efforts to scrub them away." 

But over and over in this delightful book, the light dawns with the offer of a concise explanation, and the recipient relishes a sense of greater understanding and mastery over their own language, of possession. In a world where writing about English usage can reflect a sense of an embattled elite surrounded by rabble, this book relishes our common humanity, our understanding that our language is what we collectively make of it. It is refreshing to see. People love language.

Not all questions about usage can be readily resolved. A recurring point in the book, for example, is people's comfort with, or discomfort with, the object pronoun me used as a subject, the subject pronoun I used as an object, and the reflexive pronoun myself stuck in where it doesn't belong. Ms. Jovin's counsel about these matters should stay with us: "It's going to continue in spite of our wishes, so it's important to achieve a sense of inner peace about it." 

Tuesday, July 26, 2022

Classic yard care

 Taking advantage of a break in the brutal summer heat, I cut the grass this morning in the appropriate classical manner, boustrophedon, mowing across the yard and then turning in the opposite direction.

We have the word because of the way the Greeks plowed their fields. A Greek farmer directed his ox, bous, across the field and then made it turn, strephein, and plow a furrow in the opposite direction, alternating until it was time to call it a day. 

The work of the ox informed writing and reading as well in the classical world, with texts running left to right and then right to left. Imagine mastering Latin, with lines of all-caps text (majuscule) running in alternate directions, with no punctuation and no spaces between words. And you thought the Wordle was a challenge. 

The Greek ox also turns up in a couple of places in English. 

Bucolic, "pastoral" or "rural," derives from boukolos, "herdsman."

And bulimia was coined from bous plus limos, "hunger," thus the appetite of an ox. 

The movement of the ox also turns up in English. In Greek drama, the chorus performing choral odes moved first from right to left on the stage, the strophe, then reversed and moved from the left to the right, the antistrophe. Strophe in English is a term for a pattern of lines in poetry, similar to a stanza. 

Friday, July 22, 2022

The white man's burden

 A wooden box of family papers holds the receipt for the property taxes my great-great-grandfather, John Early, paid to Fleming County, Kentucky, in 1852: $12.30 for 210 acres of land, four horses or mules, and four slaves. So the family farm on which I grew up, where my grandfather, Lucien Lundy Early, lived as a gentleman farmer, was inherited wealth built in part on the unpaid labor of enslaved persons. 

The elementary school I attended was segregated until I was in the fifth grade. 

My parents never made disparaging remarks about Black people, but the one time they visited Baltimore, my mother told me that my father had been troubled by the behavior of Black people on the train. She did not specify, and I did not press for details, because race is something that white people are not comfortable talking about. 

The church I attend, Memorial Episcopal in Bolton Hill, was founded by slaveholders just as the Civil War was about to break out, and it was a segregated congregation until 1969. 1969! (We have been trying to do better.) 

My own history was much on my mind this week as I read Baynard Woods's Inheritance: An Autobiography of Whiteness (Legacy Lit, 2022, 338 pages). It is an unflinching, unsparing account.

Growing up in South Carolina, a descendant of families who owned scores of enslaved people, he rebelled against the middle-class values of his parents and their unspoken, unacknowledged racism. 

His account is a series of discoveries, about himself and about his family. He looks back on his youthful rebellion, recognizing in retrospect that young white men, in their egotism and entitlement, get to misbehave. Their misbehavior is expected and tolerated; penalties, if any are light. They are protected in a way that young Black men cannot expect. 

He confronts his parents on their genteel racism--they are nice people; they don't hate Black people; they just can't acknowledge that they have benefited from their whiteness. He looks into his family's past, probing for details of his great-grandfather's participation in the assassination of a Black county commissioner in 1871. 

He lives in Baltimore, a daily witness to the residue of racism in housing, education, and employment. 

And though after a tumultuous youth he earned college degrees and became a writer--recently as co-author of I Got a Monster, an excellent book on the Gun Trace Task Force scandal--he cannot live comfortably in the entitlements of whiteness. He will stand up to white supremacy, identifying and opposing its manifestations. He will try to find ways to make reparations.

And because he cannot and will not deny his family, his inheritance, his history, and his whiteness, he  styles himself Baynard Woods. He is who he is and was, but he will mark his heritage and his privilege on his name.

Now, mind you, this is not wallowing in liberal white guilt, though some will dismiss this book to avoid confronting the truths in it. This is a clear-eyed attempt to understand the dominance of white culture and one's place in it, and I think that few will have the courage to match Baynard's self-examination. 

I'll leave you with a passage I copied out, and you can decide whether it describes the world you know: "This was the way white men rolled, I was learning--at war with the world, until you start to lose. Then at war with women. ..."

Thursday, July 21, 2022

Yes, you can, and you may

An online discussion group recently rehashed the ancient can/may distinction* with several participants stoutly holding to it. As it happens, I was reading something on the same point in Lane Green's excellent Talk on the Wild Side.**

He refers to Arnold Zwicky's distinction between the Normal, the dialect or variety of dialects we learn from childhood by listening to or speaking with other people, and the Formal, the dialect we learn through reading, writing, and schooling. Can is Normal; may is Formal. And it is a mistake to think that Formal is somehow more correct than Normal. 

But wait. As spoken and written American English have become steadily more conversational over the past century, can/may has eroded. Here's Bryan Garner: "Although only an insufferable precisian would insist on observing the distinction in informal speech or writing ... it's often advisable to distinguish between the two." But there's more. Educated speakers regularly say "can't I" rather than "mayn't I," "can't" rather than "may not." And "because may is a more polite way of asking for permission, a fussy insistence on using it can give the writing a prissy tone."

Lane Green moves from can/may to the deeper issue of how badly classrooms have handled language instruction. "When children are suddenly told that what they know their parents and nearly everyone else says, and what they have been saying all their lives thus far, is 'wrong,' there is a disconnect between the child's native competence and the new idea of an invisible but Platonically correct language out there. ..." 

The way they are taught grammar leads to humiliation, and they learn that "grammar is a set of rules for torturing your natural sentences into an unnatural form that will satisfy a teacher." 

We wind up with adults who are twitchy about the way they use their own language, apprehensive about being embarrassed. And the ones who were given no formal instruction in grammar after the defects of the traditional approach were recognized are no better off. That's why often when I am introduced to someone and say that I am an editor, they say, "I guess I'd better watch my language," and I have to suppress the impulse to murmur, "Too late." 

Until we get books on language for students and the general reader informed by linguistics rather than ill-informed pedantry, the best we can try to do is to insist that the Formal is something to learn for particular purposes and the Normal is just swell. 




*An explanation for readers who said "Huh?": Many of us who are still above the turf were taught in childhood that can expresses ability, may permission or authorization. Thus a child asking "Can I?" gets the fish eye from a teacher and must recast it as "May I." 

**Published in 2018. (I've fallen behind.) 

Saturday, July 2, 2022

Our whitewashed textbooks

Jim Johnson, who taught American history during my junior year at Fleming County High School, sought to enliven the class one day by setting up a debate on whether the Mexican War was justified. Knowing that I was both a talker and an avid reader of history, he assigned me to take the contrary view. 

It was indisputable that the Polk administration sent troops into disputed territory as a provocative act and that when Mexico responded the United States claimed justification to fight a brief war against a weaker nation, the result being an enormous land grab, and I said so. (That view was shared by an obscure member of the U.S. House of Representatives named Abraham Lincoln. Had I known it at the time, I would have used it.)

When the class voted, the decision was overwhelming and inevitable: The war was justified. 

The reason the vote was inevitable is that American history as taught in public schools is not history but patriotic propaganda. What can be discerned through the dull stodge of the textbooks* is that we used to have problems: slavery, you know, but that's all over; a civil war, but there were heroes on both sides; sad about the Indians, but they were in the way. And all those problems have been resolved in the steady forward march of American greatness. 

This is why The 1619 Project, which I have been reading, is so unsettling to people who were taught that kind of history. But we knew all the things it recounts. We knew that the Constitution was set up to ensure that a minority of voters in the slave states would get disproportionate weight in the House of Representatives and veto power in the Senate. We knew about lynchings and the violence against protesters during the civil rights movement. We knew that school segregation persisted into living memory. We knew that the federal government, cities, and business interests collaborated to keep Black residents in inferior housing. 

The other side of our history is also true. The Founders gave us a secular republic informed by the Enlightenment values expressed in the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution, and the Bill of Rights, values strengthened by the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments, and by the 19th. And we have always had people strong enough to stand up for those principles and point out how we fall short of them. 

We hold those two views of our history in tension, because there is substance in each of them. Benjamin Franklin said that the Constitution gives us a republic, if we can keep it. As we mark the anniversary of our national independence, one way to keep the Republic is to maintain a clear-eyed view of our history, both the promise and the failures of the promise, like adults. 


* Frances Fitzgerald's America Revised from 1979 presents a thoroughgoing explanation of why history textbooks have always been manipulated for ideological reasons. (And are consequently bland and dull.)

Friday, June 10, 2022

The accidental editor

I did not come readily to my life's work. 

As a student at Fleming County High School in Eastern Kentucky, I thought, being a bookworm good at grammar, about becoming a high school English teacher. That was, after all, where the models were.

As an undergraduate at Michigan State University, I seduced myself into imagining that I could become a writer of fiction. It turned out by my senior year, despite strenuous efforts, that imagination was lacking. 

So, when Syracuse University, which had turned me down for the master's degree program in writing, offered a fellowship in the academic program, I accepted immediately and came to aspire to being a professor of English specializing in eighteenth-century British literature. 

This despite the experience of my first semester, when I enrolled in a graduate seminar and wrote a paper on Jonathan Swift. It was not good. The professor favored me with four single-spaced pages of devastatingly sarcastic commentary on the paper's limitations and mine. A fellow student gasped that he had never seen anything like it. (That professor, denied tenure the same year, left the profession.) 

That experience left me gun-shy about writing academic papers. In fact, over six years in graduate school, there was only a single paper that I enjoyed writing and that a professor said could be made publishable. 

I left Syracuse in 1979, still thinking of finishing a dissertation on the joined themes of friendship and decay in the works of the Earl of Rochester and Jonathan Swift, which the world will now have to do without, and the world is not sad. 

Landing in Cincinnati, where my first wife had gotten a job, I spent five months applying for any opening that seemed even remotely possible, including one on the copy desk at The Cincinnati Enquirer, which offered a three-week trial, partly on the strength of my credentials as a minority hire. (Another story.)

There I found myself at last in my element, with smart and irreverent colleagues doing useful work, always against deadline and often in the face of the scorn of people, as I have described elsewhere, whose lapses in elementary English grammar and usage I cleaned up every working day. Recently on one of those online describe-your-job-obscurely posts, I wrote, "making people look more literate than they are." 

In time, I made my way to The Baltimore Sun, where I learned how to manage people from Andy Faith, and where two editors, John S. Carroll and Bill Marimow, allowed me to hire, train, and mentor the smartest people I could find for the copy desk. It was a grand time with grand colleagues, a long and full career. 

Some people go through their lives never discovering the work they were meant to do. It is largely luck, and I was among the lucky ones. 




Wednesday, May 18, 2022

Ten Reminders

 When you are on social media, remember that your classmates who were dim then are probably not appreciably brighter today. 

Your project will require three times the anticipated effort to achieve one-third of the desired result. 

In six months you will discover that you need the book you just donated to clear your shelves. 

If you did not put at least some vermouth into it, you cannot call it a martini. 

Any article or memo you write can be cut by at least 10%, and should be. 

When someone introduces themself as a member of Mensa, remember that they are the people who believe that IQ tests actually measure intelligence. 

That person rattling on about Judaeo-Christian values almost certainly knows little about Judaism, and may well know less about Christianity. 

They will tell you that it has become perfectly acceptable to wear brown shoes with a blue suit. They are wrong. 

You should stop adding all those commas before you turn into Henry James. 

You should make more productive use of your time than to read Ten Things posts. 

Tuesday, May 10, 2022

Take a breath. The wells of English are not defiled.

 Someone raised a question today at an online grammar site, "Why is correct grammar a lost art?" and damme, I am heading down a well-worn path. 

It is a bad question for two main reasons. First, grammar is not a lost art. Grammatical writing can be found at The New Yorker, The New York Review of Books, The Atlantic, and even in many blogs (including [cough] this one). 

Second, it is misguided to speak of "correct" English as if standard English, the form used in schools, government, and the professions were the only one, true English. Standard English is a dialect of English, one very useful if you aspire to academia, government, or the professions, but all the other English dialects possess distinct and genuine vocabularies and syntax. African American and Appalachian English are just as much Englishes as the standard version. (So stop belittling the people who use them, and stop moaning that what Dr. Johnson called "the wells of English undefiled" have been polluted.)

Usually people who bemoan what they imagine to be the passing of grammatical English are harboring an  assumption that there was a golden age when all the children dutifully learned their English and wrote it properly. There was no golden age. I was there. In the fifth, sixth, seventh, and eighth grades, 1961-1965, I learned standard English from two formidable teachers, Mrs. Jessie Perkins and Mrs. Elizabeth Craig, who kept at us relentlessly. I learned it, and several of my classmates did, but many did not. 

The blunt fact is that most people are not good at writing, and most people never have been. Speech is natural and learned naturally, but writing is a skill that requires extensive instruction and practice. It is not easy to get good at it, so most people don't. Before the internet we could entertain the belief that the skill was widely applied, because most of what we read was edited prose in newspapers, magazines, and books. But the internet, allowing anyone who has an online connection to publish their writing, has exposed how unskilled at writing most people are. Hell, I was a newspaper copy editor, and my daily work for more than forty years was to correct basic errors in grammar and usage in the work of college-educated professional journalists. 

Some in the golden-age crowd like to argue that linguists and permissive teachers dropped instruction in grammar in the 1960s and thereafter, leading to a collapse of literacy. But one reason to move away from the traditional schoolroom grammar instruction is, as I just told you, that it was not particularly effective. Another is that it was full of bogus rules and bad advice. Theodore M. Bernstein's Miss Thistlebottom's Hobgoblins, published in 1971, has 250 pages itemizing bad instruction in English. 

Online discussions of this sort inevitably degenerate into peevery, with some preening themselves on their expertise in punctuation and others on their I-fall-upon-the-thorns-of-life-I-bleed sensitivity to particular words or expressions they dislike. None of this edifies. 

English, people, still ticking along at 700-plus years, is in no imminent danger. Nice of you to offer to help it, but it can take care of itself.  


Sunday, May 1, 2022

You are entitled to ignore bogus usage distinctions

 Earlier today a colleague posted on Facebook about the entitled/titled distinction, that entitled must only be used in the sense of "having a right to," never in the sense of "bearing the title." I remarked that that was not reliable advice and was asked, quite reasonably, why. 

Bryan Garner, in Garner's Modern English Usage, is succinct: "The word entitle has two meanings (1) 'to provide with a right or title to something' ... and 'to give a title to.' ... But sense 2 actually predates sense 1, and both senses are well established."

Merriam-Webster's, Webster's New World, and the Concise Oxford give both senses of entitle, as does American Heritage, which, significantly, presents no usage note on this supposed distinction. There is no mention of a title/entitle distinction in four editions of Fowler's (I looked). 

Why, civilians ask, is this even an issue? It is because the Associated Press Stylebook, which has scraped many barnacles off its hull--but there were so many--advises in the entitled entry, "Use it to mean a right to do or have something. Do not use it to mean titled." This advice I followed for many years, until I didn't. 

The title/entitle distinction was also upheld by the late John Bremner, who as the admired (and occasionally feared) Oscar S. Stauffer Distinguished Professor of Journalism at the University of Kansas and the author of Words on Words, had considerable influence on U.S. journalism. 

The origin of "rules" like this one lies in editors' relentless pursuit of precision in language, which tempts them to invent distinctions. The Blessed Henry Watson Fowler, in a notable example, expressed a suggestion that English would be tidier if that were only used to introduce restrictive dependent clauses, which only to introduce nonrestrictive dependent clauses. The British have persisted in ignoring this pious wish for the past century, but among U.S. editors it has become a Rule with a status on par with Newton's Four Laws of Motion. 

My recommendation is that you should have better things to spend time on than title/entitle, but if you must dither over whether a sentence should read "Mark Twain wrote a book titled Huckleberry Finn" or "Mark Twain wrote a book entitled Huckleberry Finn," just make it "Mark Twain wrote a book, Huckleberry Finn." The italics (or quotation marks, if you're still in thrall to the AP Stylebook) will do the job for you.