Wednesday, March 15, 2023

Stick it to sticklers

To start. My name is John, and I am a recovering stickler. As a bookworm and teacher's pet, I absorbed the schoolroom grammar to the last jot and tittle, and I was obnoxious about it. When you lack physical beauty, wealth, or distinguished lineage, you make use of whatever you can, and grammar enabled me to be an insufferable snob well into adulthood. 

This is my first count against people who identify as sticklers: their weaponization of language to assert dominance. Telltale indications are remarks about "illiterates," "the masses," "hoi polloi," "the uneducated," &c., &c. But, as I have said before, snobbery about language is not more noble than any other form of snobbery; it's just a shabby little stratagem to gain advantage over others. Not just shabby, but a pathetic assertion of superiority, as when someone sports an "I am silently correcting your grammar" mug or T-shirt. 

My second count against sticklers is that they are frequently WRONG. They will fume about split infinitives or none used as a plural or other bogus rules enumerated in my little book Bad Advice. They will complain that irregardless is not a word. They will carry on about terminal prepositions. And all that H.W. Fowler, the editors of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, Bryan A. Garner, and Benjamin Dreyer demonstrate to the contrary is pointless because Somebody Told Them Once and they will hold on to it until the universe enters its final entropy. 

My third count is that sticklers refuse to acknowledge register, usually under the mistaken belief that formal written English is the only "correct" English, all other dialects and variants being defective and used only by "illiterates," "the masses," "hoi polloi," "the uneducated," &c., &c. All the Englishes, formal and colloquial, allow speakers within their respective communities of usage engage with one another. None is inherently more correct than the others, but more appropriate to the situation.

This is not to say that "anything goes," one of those ill-informed retorts sticklers are fond of, though I tend to endorse Flannery O'Connor's remark that "You can do anything you can get away with, but nobody has ever gotten away with much." I have been a professional editor for more than forty years and a blogger about language for eighteen, during which time I have learned many things and have found it necessary, helped by colleagues, linguists, and lexicographers, to unlearn several. 

A person who did not leave a name commented on one of my recent posts, sneering about "those bogus rules that provided you a profession, but that you sanctimoniously deprecate." Yes, I enforced many bogus rules until I learned better, liberating myself and the texts I worked on from the stickler straitjacket. It turns out to be possible to produce effective language by paying attention to it and avoiding sticklers' faulty precision. 

Thursday, March 9, 2023

Copy editors see things many readers don't notice

We of the obscure craft see many things, large and small. Here is a recent sampling. 

Item: A flag flying half-mast. Uh-uh. A flag is only flying at half-mast if it is on a boat or ship. If it's on a flagpole on land, it is flying at half-staff.

Item: A reference to a city and a state lacking the second comma. When one writes about Baltimore, Maryland, the state name is treated as an appositive and is conventionally set off with commas. There is a parallel case with dates; a post written on March 9, 2023, needs that second comma after the year.

Item: Hyphens are cropping up in compounds with -ly adverbs. Adjective-noun compounds are hyphenated: free-range chicken. Compounds with an -ly adverb and a participial adjective are not: a fully fledged fowl

Item: At wit's end. No. You are at the end of your wits, so it should be the plural possessive, wits' end. A wit's end would be the death of Dorothy Parker. 

Item: A passage in a book: When Plessy v. Ferguson was decided in 1901, "the Supreme Court met in the old Senate Chamber in the Longworth House Office Building. That building was also infamously known for being the location where, in 1856, Preston Smith Brooks, a South Carolina planter, nearly beat abolitionist Charles Sumner to death." The Supreme Court met from 1810 to 1860 in the Old Supreme Court Chamber in the Capitol. From 1860 to 1935, when it moved into its own building, the Court met in the Old Senate Chamber in the Capitol (which is where Brooks assaulted Sumner). The Longworth House Office Building was completed in 1933. I gave up on the book 89 pages in. 

Item: An article about an an organization that receives public funds in which the organization quotes studies indicating that its work is effective, without a single citation of a critic questioning those claims. I doubt that there is a publicly funded organization anywhere in the United States that has escaped criticism. 

Item: I note that the impulse to identify any and every thing as iconic has not been suppressed, most recently "the iconic sign for The Baltimore Sun" above the scoreboard at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. 

Plainly, not all of these items are of equal importance, but I'm here, and I'm noticing.  

Saturday, March 4, 2023

Reminders for National Grammar Day

There are many Englishes, and each of its dialects is valid for communication among its users. 

Standard written English is not the One True English; it is a dialect that is useful in some, but not all, contexts. 

Language snobbery is not more noble than other forms of snobbery. When someone writing about grammar and usage begins to use terms like “illiterate,” “hoi polloi,” “the masses,” just stop reading. 

It is not your fault that you were taught bogus rules of usage. You can unlearn them.

Use or do not use the Oxford comma, as your taste or house style determines. And don’t make a fuss about it. 

To determine a point of standard usage, consult Bryan Garner’s Garner’s Modern English Usage (fifth edition), Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, Fowler’s Dictionary of Modern English Usage (edited by Jeremy Butterfield), and Benjamin Dreyer’s  Dreyer’s English. Preferably all four. When they don’t agree, you get to make up your own mind. 

Five books that can enlarge your sense of the language:

Robert Lane Greene, You Are What You Speak

Henry Hitchings, The Secret Life of Words

Gretchen McCulloch, Because Internet

Jack Lynch, The Lexicographer’s Dilemma

David Shariatmadari, Don’t Believe a Word

Language is the most democratic thing we have. You get one vote. 

Friday, March 3, 2023

Grammar Noir: The Old Editor grilled

I was at the bar sipping an afternoon boulevardier when some rando came in and asked, “Are you the Old Editor?” When I owned the soft impeachment, he handed me a piece of paper and said, “You have been served.” 

The paper was a summons to testify before the House Subcommittee on Governmental Travesties, chaired by one Representative Browbeat, with regard to challenges to my book, Bad Advice: The Most Unreliable Counsel Available on Grammar, Usage, and Writing. 

My attorneys at Dewey, Cheatam & Howe assured me that there was no option but to appear, so I selected a dark suit, a somber bow tie, and a humble demeanor, taking my seat in the chamber. 

The inquisitors glowered at me like reporters who have been assigned weekend shifts.

The first question was from Congressman Gorgon: “It says here, on the third page of this disgraceful book, that there is no harm in ending a sentence with a preposition, despite what all of us have been taught since elementary school. I’m appalled. If not teaching correct grammar, what do you think schooling is for?”

“Well, Congressman, since your question ended with a preposition without your noticing it, we may have to entertain the idea that terminal prepositions are just naturally used by native speakers of English.”

The chairwoman’s gavel cut off a ripple of laughter from the spectators. 

Congresswoman Preen followed up: “You also write that there is no harm in split infinitives, and you have the gall to advise that splitting the infinitive is often preferable. This is the worst kind of woke editing to even pretend to be legitimate.”

“Um, Congresswoman, I think you can see that you your remarks allowed the adverb even to fall into a comfortable spot in the infinitive to pretend.”

The look on the congresswoman’s face was like the expression at someone’s first sip of newsroom coffee, which, like the newsroom itself, is weak but bitter. 

Chairwoman Browbeat interrupted: “It is bad enough that you want to tear down the rules of grammar, but it’s even worse that you want to deny people’s humanity by allowing that to refer to human beings. This is more of the Critical Grammar Theory that has been gaining ground because of you people with your degrees from elite universities, and we cannot allow CGT to be taught.”

“Well, Congresswoman, I wouldn’t say elite. I have a master’s degree from Syracuse …” 

“And CGT is exactly why we must urgently pass legislation to make English the official language of the United States, and criminalize the subversive and woke teaching of CGT.” 

“I would have thought, Congresswoman, that your party’s principles of free speech and limited government might get in the way of a law to make the way people talk a criminal offense. But to respond directly to your proposal to make English the official language of the nation, I’d like to quote a maxim from my other book, The Old Editor Says.” 


“You’re looking up a dead hog’s ass.”

“Security! Eject this man!”