Grammatical dark matter

Like the gravitational influence of dark matter in the universe, there is a hidden force in the Web that causes too many bloggers, who should know better, to make contributions to the my-pet-grammar-peeves meme. This is the same force that compels commenters to make hypercorrections to posts, even to the extent of hijacking threads completely away from the original topic. Shamefully, here I am, myself, falling into that black hole.

Up front I’ll let you know that I’m an apostate Prescriptivist — that is to say, I’ve gone over to the Descriptivist camp — yet I still suffer twinges of dissonance whenever I run across certain usage patterns that I “just know” are wrong.

The gold standard of prescriptivism, at least for the laity, is The Elements of Style, by Strunk and White. There are innumerable other domain-specific style guides from various institutions such as AP, Chicago, MLA, NYT, APA, ….

The site I blame for my fall from grace is Language Log, where many of the pronouncements of the Grammar Police are skewered with analytical analysis and contra citations from well-respected authors, both from present day and backwards for centuries.

Ultimately, one writes to communicate. Motives may vary: to inform (or deceive), to persuade, to entertain, …, whatever. The best writing fades into the background of its content, conveying its message without bringing attention to itself. Unless carefully done, idiosyncratic or sloppy grammar and spelling disrupt, like breaching the fourth wall of a movie or play. If you’re consistently sloppy (as opposed to being consistently quirky) I begin to question how seriously to take your content.

All that said, here are some of the things that irk me. Do take this with a grain of salt; this is mostly tongue in cheek. I’ve not provided links or citations because I think it is much more fun to do your own research (urm, and I’m lazy).

Singular They

Rather, the complaints about singular “they”. Most of the “solutions” to the gender-neutral pronoun problem seem too contrived or awkward. Singular “they” has actually been used for centuries. Get over it.

Me, Myself, and I

I’ve become particularly annoyed that “myself” seems to have replaced “me” and “I” in what appears to be some misguided desire to sound sophisticated or hyper correct. Let me (in smarmy prescriptivist mode) set you straight: “I” is an actor, “me” is an object, and “myself” is reflexive. Perhaps it would help to mentally split “myself” into two words: “my self”. Similarly for the other “self” words.

* I gave the book to you.
* You gave the book to me.
* I gave the book to myself.

Its vs It’s

I’m quite aware of the distinction between its (possession) and it’s (contracted “it is”). I think that there is an over-abundance of vitriol whenever this error shows up. In most cases I think the writer should be given the benefit of the doubt, unless it’s repeated over and over; that is, they probably know the difference, they just suck at proofreading, as I do too. I think the misuse of “to”, “too”, and “two” is a similar problem. Oh, and “your”, “you’re”. Hmm, this could go on for a while….

Apostrophes and Gratuitous Quotation Marks

Contra to the previous item, I think too many people don’t know when to use apostrophes and quotes. This primarily occurs in signage and advertising. A Google search will turn up a lot of funny examples. I admit I’m not consistent when using apostrophes to indicate plurals of letters, numbers, and acronyms: “4’s are even numbers”, “how many CDs (or is it CD’s) do you have”, etc.
Update: 2009-09-24: see The “Blog” of “Unnecessary” Quotation Marks

Spelling and Structure

I’m tossing these in although they’re not about grammar. While using correct spelling and good structure won’t make you a good writer, their absence will certainly detract from your message. I used to be a really good speller and never used a spell checker. Lately though I’ve become careless enough (or enough brain cells have died) that I usually check my text before releasing it in the wild. Now if I could just do something about my structure.

Of course I’ll now have to pay more attention to my future posts, lest this one come back to haunt me. Sigh.

About hornlo

Geek. Curmudgeon
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3 Responses to Grammatical dark matter

  1. hornlo says:

    Hmmph. Not even any complaints that I misspelled the title, lol.

    I usually include the title in the (non-WordPress) edit buffer so that it gets spell checked too, but of course this time I didn’t. Sigh.

  2. Terri says:

    I always stump on its and it’s… and there there’s something called predicitive text that already knows what you want to say based on what you said last time. But you left out “there” and “their” which bugs me a lot. Not to mention “wut up” and “u no wut i mean”.

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