16 January 2016

In Support of the Grammar Police

Lately I've found myself wondering about some of the so-called "rules" of writing. On the one hand--maybe it's my engineering background--I like having a structured set of guidelines. (Call this the S&W approach--Strunk & White, not Smith & Wesson.) On the other hand, like all fiction writers, I enjoy breaking some of those rules now and then. Anytime such breakage suits my needs, I happily splice commas, fragment sentences, split infinitives, begin sentences with conjunctions, make up words, and otherwise ignore the firm orders issued by my English teachers in both high school and college.

I also understand that language has evolved, over time. I won't go further into that, here, but you know what I mean: new words and phrases pop up, others fade away, and separate words eventually become hyphenated words and hyphenated words eventually become combined words (example: on line/on-line/online). That kind of thing happens, and will continue to happen.

Just between you and I . . .

I suspect that some rules will always stand--especially most of those governing punctuation, capitalization, spelling, the basics of grammar, and so forth. Others are subjective, like the late great Elmore Leonard's "ten rules of good writing." (Most of the ten are helpful but arguable, and a few are merely witty.) In reality, writers usually apply their own sets of rules regarding style and structure, at least to some degree. Just consider the vast differences in the styles of successful authors. Faulkner's complexity, Hemingway's minimalism, Fitzgerald's flowery descriptions, Christie's two-plots-converging-into-one, Clancy's technical details, Coben's multiple plot-twists, Patterson's ultra-short chapters, Leonard's realistic dialogue, McCarthy's experimentalism, O. Henry's surprise endings, Michener's margin-to-margin wordiness, and so on and so on.

Recently I saw a list--I can't remember where--of the seven grammar errors that editors and publishers hate the most. Among them were things like "for you and I," "good vs. well," "fewer vs. less," etc., and Grammar Mistake #1--the very top of the list--was "its vs. it's." (If you don't believe this one happens a lot, read a few movie reviews at imdb.com. "What a film! Its a hallmark of it's genre.") And one of the bad-grammar rules listed--I believe it ranked third or fourth--involved the mixing of singulars and plurals. Example: "Everybody does their own thing."

The interesting thing about that mismatching of singular (everybody) and plural (their) is that it has been done so often and by so many people, the rule against it is actually in danger of becoming obsolete. Yep, you heard me: so many people get this kind of thing wrong, there's a movement afoot to just say it isn't wrong at all, and make it okay to write or say things like "Everyone take their seats and open their test booklets."

Lowering the bar

Those who propose such an acceptance of incorrect word usage have a point, I suppose. Some of them maintain that clarity is the only really important thing, in writing and in speech, and that the meaning of statements like "Everybody does their own thing" is perfectly clear.

Those who feel uncomfortable, though, when they hear or read that sentence (I'm one of them), say you can't abandon a rule just because it's inconvenient to obey it. And it is, by the way, inconvenient. "Everybody does his own thing" (which is one of the proper ways to rewrite it) doesn't sound bad, but it borders on being politically incorrect: shouldn't it be "his or her" own thing? And if you say it that way you sound a little dumb, which is a rather high price to pay for correctness, political or otherwise. Besides, if you take that approach with my second example, it becomes "Everyone take his or her seat and open his or her test booklet," which sounds not only dumb but ridiculous.

So what's a wordsmith to do?

Since I'm usually an S&W supporter, I try to do it the correct way. In my stories and in my speech, the singulars and plurals match, or at least I attempt to make them match, unless doing so makes it sound idiotic. If it does, I sometimes dodge the problem by writing or talking "around it." In other words, I change it to other words. Instead of "Everyone take their seats," I might say "Everyone find a chair," or just "Sit down." No harm, no foul. The Grammar Police, probably responding to a call involving comma errors, march right by without giving me a second glance.

So, what's your take on all this? How do you feel about the singular/plural issue, and the possibility (probability) of making its misuse acceptable? What about other widely accepted rules of writing? Which ones do you regularly and voluntarily break? Which ones do you hold sacred? And finally, how far do you feel we, as writers, should go to maintain grammatical (and political) correctness?

Meanwhile, I hope everybody has their best writing year ever.


  1. A very interesting piece, John.

    For decades I have thought that what we REALLY need is a new singular pronoun that applies equally to males and females. If the language would evolve toward that a lot of the singular/plural errors would, seems to me, disappear.

    More broadly, I think most writers (including, by admission, E.B. White) write (in his case "wrote") by ear. But in order to effectively do so you need to know the rules. I still remember well a high school English teacher who would consider forgiving a grammatical usage problem if the student (that would have been me!) could explain to her what the rule was and why it had been violated.

  2. Good point, Dale. We have to (or at least should) know the rules before we try to break them. The truth is, I doubt I'm evolving as fast as our language is.

  3. Oh, Dale - I've thought that about pronouns myself. Greek has that - male, female, and a neuter, which can be used to be ambiguous. In fact, there's a famous poem by C. P. Cavafy, which can't be truly translated into English because one of the points of the [erotic] poem is that the gender of the beloved is never given...

    Meanwhile, John, what I do is try to hew to the rules when I'm narrating in 3rd person; but when someone else is narrating, or a conversation is going - well, Katie bar the door, because people don't always speak grammatically.

  4. John, I think I’ve always been a word-makerupper… not often, but once in a while, especially if sound effects are involved. Maybe I’m being a low-key Don Martin, I’m not sure.

    But I also misbehave when not writing. For example, when Cate visited from South Africa and found my sidewalk littered with acorns missing their caps, I told her they were highly toxic puma beans. In Florida, the salt air can turn aluminum (aluminium) screens into strange-looking dustballs. When Cate asked what they might be, I soberly explained they were spun by a large caterpillar and called ‘barleyfume’.

    Not that I believe in fiction. Of course when I’d give her real answers, for some reason she wouldn’t believe me.

  5. Having worked in the UK and other Commonwealth and former Commonwealth countries, I find myself at a total loss when dealing with collective nouns. In Britain (but not Canada and not South Africa), some people use collective nouns with plural verbs: “The family are happy to hear from you.” “Manchester applaud the goal.”

    Worse, use appears to be inconsistent. Frankly, I’d love to sit down with an English English professor and obtain a clear understanding of the UK rules.

  6. Good thoughts, Eve. I find myself doing the same, regarding when I break the rules and when I avoid breaking them.

    Leigh, as an old computer guy I still hate it when I hear or read that "the data are correct." Data, to me, has always been singular, like media.

  7. I'm a stickler. I've taught grammar (whole terms of it) at the college level. Less and fewer mistakes drive me MAD. Ditto, mistakes with the use of she vs her. I tell my writing students that words are their tools. If you are going to be a craftsman, you have to be a master at using the tools of your trade. If you use words incorrectly, then you are not a master.

  8. Thanks for this post, John. As a long-time English professor (and the daughter of an English professor), I'm a big fan of Strunk and White. I've got a copy on my desk's reference shelf, right next to the dictionary. Like Melodie, I tend to be a stickler about grammar and related matters, but that doesn't mean I'm never open to change. When changes are responses to new needs, they often make sense. I'd put moving from "on line" to "on-line" to "online" in that category: As computers have become more and more a part of our lives, it's made sense to streamline terms we now use every day. (I'm going to stop hyphenating "e-mail" any day now--I swear I am. I need just a little more time to get used to the idea.) Change that results from laziness and carelessness is another matter. The one that's making me crazy right now is the shift to using "teenage" as an adjective, rather than "teenaged"--"teenage boy" vs. "teenaged boy." This change isn't a response to a new need. It's just sloppy. And it seems to have triumphed. Even Blogger has capitulated. When I type "teenaged," Blogger underscores it with a wavy red line, as if I've made a mistake. But YOU'RE the one who's made a mistake, Blogger! On this one, I'm not giving in. (I do use "teenage" in dialogue, as a concession to reality, but I do it with a snarl.)

  9. I've told the story, I sent of a story to a contest and carefully used Strunk & White's book for the grammar & punctuation. The story won an Honorary Mention, but when they returned my manuscript I found my carefully Strunked grammar had been corrected! In red pen no less!

  10. I'm with you, Melodie. It's not like the old days, when we could write a story any old way and the editor would see its promise and "whip it into shape." It has to be as perfect as you can make it when you send it in, or you'll be labeled as an amateur and your work will be rejected. Period.

    Bonnie, you're right. I have a hard time accepting some of these new "ways" of writing. Good luck with the dreaded wavy red line.

  11. Horrors, Jeff--corrections were made to a Strunked manuscript!! I recall once sending a story to Grit, and when it was later accepted and published they had changed one of my carefully worded phrases to something that was wrong, wrong, wrong. What's a writer to do?

  12.  I appreciate language learning experiences. The fact that i read so much, and so profoundly, demonstrates the high level of your English. 

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  13. Thanks, Nancy. I too am always interested in discussions about language. And--especially for a writer--I think it's important to read as much, and as widely, as possible.

  14.  I appreciate language learning experiences. The fact that i read so much, and so profoundly, demonstrates the high level of your English. 

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  15. English is spoken throughout the world because it is soooo easy to learn! How many verb tenses are there?

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  16. How many, indeed? I'm just fortunate I didn't have to learn English as a second language--how hard would that BE??

  17. Actually, I used to teach ESL - and what I learned is that what makes English easy is that we don't gender nouns or verbs. But we do have a LOT of verb tenses, and they're all about slicing and dicing time. For example, English is the only language with 3 present tenses: Breathe! I am breathing! I breathe... Seems simple enough to the native speaker, but try to explain the differences to someone whose language only has one present tense.

  18. Well said, Eve. I wouldn't want to be the one to try to explain those differences. Thanks to you and Nancy for these comments.

  19. English is spoken throughout the world because it is soooo easy to learn! How many verb tenses are there?

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  21. Thanks, Brandy! Glad to hear that.

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