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7 bogus grammar ‘errors’ you don’t need to worry about

8 March 2013

From The Week:

I hate to see people waste their time hunting down so-called mistakes that really aren’t mistakes at all. So consider this a public-service announcement in the wake of Monday’s National Grammar Day. Here are seven rules you really (really!) don’t have to worry about following.

. . . .

2. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition
The idea that it’s wrong to end a sentence with a preposition (from, with, etc.) was invented by the English poet John Dryden… in 1672. He probably based his objection on a bogus comparison with — you guessed it — Latin, where such constructions don’t exist. In any case, there is no basis to the rule in English grammar, and, once again, great writers have ignored it with no great loss to their prose or reputations. Jane Austen: “Fanny could with difficulty give the smile that was asked for.” Robert Frost: “The University is one most people have heard of.” James Joyce: “He had enough money to settle down on.” Trying to avoid ending with a preposition frequently ties you into the awkward knot of “to whom” and “to which” constructions. On a memo criticizing a document for committing this “error,” Winston Churchill allegedly wrote: “This is the type of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put.”

It is true that prepositions are a relatively weak part of speech and, all things being equal, it’s desirable to end sentences strongly. So sometimes it pays to rewrite such constructions. Thus, “He’s the person I gave the money to” isn’t as good as “I gave him the money.”

. . . .

5. Don’t use the passive voice
The poster child for passive-hating is a quote from President George H.W. Bush. In a 1986 speech about the Iran-Contra scandal, he said, “Clearly, mistakes were made.” Just as clearly, the problem is that the grammar fudges a crucial question: Who made the mistakes? Passive construction can indeed propagate such obfuscation, as well as wordiness, and thus should be used judiciously. But there’s nothing inherently wrong with it, and when the subject of a clause or sentence isn’t known, or isn’t as important as the object, passive voice can be just the thing. Tom Wicker’s classic New York Times opening sentence of November 23, 1963, would have been ruined if he’d tried to shoehorn it into the active voice. Wicker wrote: “President John Fitzgerald Kennedy was shot and killed by an assassin today.”

Link to the rest at The Week and thanks to Meryl for the tip.

Writing Advice

66 Comments to “7 bogus grammar ‘errors’ you don’t need to worry about”

  1. The “this book is riddled with grammatical errors!” kind of review we all get are probably just as bogus as the rules.

    Good to know.

    • We tend to see what we want to. I want to believe that my Forrester is a safe car – they even put an extra locking post on the rear doors…

      The real story is probably that they failed the side impact test and had to come up with a jury rigged way to improve their rating.

      Some readers want to believe that indie authors are ruining the industry and so they see the typos more often than they would in a traditionally published story. We humans have a strong urge to seek consonance between reality and our expectations.

      Having said that, the average indie book has seemed far better to me than the average tradpub. Some of those I have found right here on the Passive Voice. (can you guess where my bias lies?).

      • Some readers want to believe that indie authors are ruining the industry and so they see the typos more often than they would in a traditionally published story.

        This is so true. I published a backlist book originally published by Atheneum, one of the finest publishers in the business when quality actually mattered. This is one book accused of being riddled with spelling and grammatical errors. Yeah, I don’t think so.

    • Not all of them. (Possibly all of yours are bogus though.) :)

      It seems to me that a lot of reviews that mention grammar errors and typos suffer from three problems, at least when there isn’t really an issue. The first is that “riddled with grammatical errors” might mean they remember spotting two or three errors and it’s something specific to complain about to justify a lower ranking when they can’t articulate why they didn’t like a book.

      The second is language differences. Typically this is going to be a US reader and a book by a UK or Aussie author. Sometimes this is spelling differences. Sometimes it is word choice. My personal bugaboo is sentences that are missing words, at least in my opinion, primarily articles and propositions. At least with books by UK authors, this seems to be a more frequent problem. However, a portion of this is a difference in how English is spoken and written. For example, someone in the US will say that a person was “in the hospital” while in the UK they’ll say “in hospital.”

      The third thing I see a lot is authors who initially did have a lot issues in their book, cleaned them up (or at least think they have), yet continue to get reviews complaining about grammar and typos. They can never be certain whether there are additional problems that weren’t caught or if possibly the reviewer has the original version of the book.

    • Out of curiosity, how many reviews complaining of typos, misspellings or mistakes in grammar have typos, misspellings or mistakes in grammar?

      Just wondering if an old Usenet rule about post content also applies to online book reviews.

    • A lot of the problem is that most people who complain about grammar and word usage have no understanding as to how the English language works. They fail to realise that English is not a fixed language and what they may have learnt at school several decades ago may no longer be the case. English is continually in flux and changing and is governed by usage not by predefined laws and rules. If decimate is commonly used to describe destruction, and everybody understands it to mean that, then that is what it now means, regardless of its original definition. Same as all the other words mentioned, and more besides. How many people now refer to themselves as being gay when they are happy or jolly? The original meaning has long since been overridden by common usage. You can cling on to old forms and conventions all you want, but the rest of the English speaking world will just leave you behind.

  2. Good article, especially the point about the that/which thing, which (that?) just so happens to drive me crazy.

    BUT:

    It’s okay to use…

    Decimate to mean “kill or eliminate a large proportion of something”

    I could care less to mean “I couldn’t care less”

    The first is annoying, and shows an ignorance of Latin prefixes, but whatevs.

    The second? NO. It quite literally says the opposite of what is intended. SO STOP SAYING IT.

    • There are many English words that convey the same meaning as the colloquial usage of decimate, but only one that conveys the precise technical meaning. Furthermore, in my experience, people who use decimate in the non-technical sense are usually trotting out a five-dollar word for the sake of a rhetorical flourish — and it doesn’t come off. You don’t build rhetorical flourishes by sticking one fancy word into an utterly pedestrian sentence.

      I vote we let the Roman history buffs have decimate all to themselves, and make do with the alternatives.

      • People who use “decimate” to mean “massacred or destroyed” seem to be the same ones who use “impact” instead of “affected, disrupted, effects,” and so on. Yes, that is my pet peeve and I feed him regularly.

        • As a medical person, I can’t help but snicker when someone talks about how they were impacted. I want to say, “Oh, honey, I am so sorry that you are impacted. That’s miserable. Can I recommend colace? Or Golightly?”

          • im·pact [noun]

            1. the striking of one thing against another; forceful contact; collision.

            2. an impinging.

            3. influence; effect.

            4. an impacting; forcible impinging.

            5. the force exerted by a new idea, concept, technology, or ideology.

            impact [verb (used with object)]

            6. to drive or press closely or firmly into something; pack in.

            7. to fill up; congest; throng.

            8. to collide with; strike forcefully.

            9. to have an impact or effect on; influence; alter.

            I don’t like #9 much, but surely the medical connotation came later, the more general use indicating one thing striking another, first.

        • I always figured that “impact” came into wider use because middle school English teachers destroyed the confidence of students to distinguish between “effect” & “affect”. IMHO, “effect” when used correctly does have a more impressive sound than “impact”.

    • *sighs*

      “I could care less” is sarcasm.

      • In my experience, most of the people who say ‘I could care less’ aren’t being sarcastic; they simply have never bothered to analyse the meaning of the phrase at all.

      • What Tom said. It’s not sarcasm; it’s someone attempting to dismiss the subject at hand, but doing it poorly.

      • Everyone I know who says it says it sarcastically, and folks I know are more likely to say “I could care less” rather than “I couldn’t care less.”

        But even if folks don’t think about it—”I could care less” does make sense, from the sarcastic standpoint.

  3. I think I see I could care less as meaning I could care less, but not my much…

    I agree with most of her points. Latin is a dead language so you can’t monkey with the rules (especially decimation). English is a living body of language and it evolves. Split infinitives, for example, are an appendix we can do without. My editor always brackets my split infinitives and then writes “Not a big deal” in the margin.

    I fully expect words like Ahma to find their way into grammar rulebooks in the next five years. It neatly replaces I am going to…. In my humble opinion, it’s a far better contraction than isn’t which only replaces two syllables with two syllables. Ahma is a five to two and the time to pronounce it is reduced by far more than the syllable ratio.

    English, like the Romans who played a part in it’s birth, is very good at borrowing ideas and putting them to good use.

    • I’m afraid I only see I could care less as adolescent baby-talk. It shows that the speaker is not much more than a parrot, reciting phrases without troubling about their meaning or even making sure to learn them correctly. It’s in the same class with ‘once and a while’ and ‘curve your appetite’.

      • Perhaps I give too much credit to users of the phrase.

        One that really bothers me is un-thawed. I once had a roomate who insisted that his pirhanna could only eat un-thawed meat.

        I sarcastically offered to put some steak tips in the freezer and he said, in loud slow English – “No, it has to be UN-THAWED!”

        The guy was a night manager at McDonalds. Based on his understanding of cold chain principles, I stopped eating fast food immediately.

    • By the way, ahma might be forgivable — but the spelling I usually see online is imma, which is a dreadful spelling for the pronunciation. Anyway, it’s not much of a timesaver, since ‘I am going to’, in informal speech, is nearly always pronounced ‘I’m gonna’.

      • It’s a word-off!
        Should we set up a voting page somewhere?

        Ahma vs I’m Gonna’.

        I’ve still got a one syllable lead on you, Tom.

        Ahma win this one!

      • I’m glad you said this, only because I thought “ahma” was a word we were borrowing from another language. I figured that it came from a movie I just never saw.

        As to the point, I think I’d spell it ima or I’ma, because I would have pronounced imma with a short I, or like Emma in my head.

        • I’m glad you said this, only because I thought “ahma” was a word we were borrowing from another language.

          That’s the problem with that spelling, all right. What’s wanted is a spelling that makes both the pronunciation and the etymology clear. I’ma and ima both do that.

          However, the prophetic bump on the back of my noggin tells me that no matter how you spell it, I’ma is probably not going to last. In forty years’ time, I suspect, it will seem as dated as groovy does now.

    • “I think I see I could care less as meaning I could care less, but not my much…

      That was my take also.

  4. For all you Latinate language peevers:

    Do you call a secret meeting a conclave without checking to see if the meeting occurs in a locked room?

    Do you ever use the word orbit to describe the motion of something without wheels?

    Do you ever use the phrase “Of course”?

    I could go on, but the idea that the meaning of an English word is limited by its Latin root is so obviously ludicrous that there is no point. There is a name for your particular misunderstanding: the etymological fallacy. I’ll turn this over to the linguists at Language Log. Way back in July 2004, they did an entire series of posts on the “could care less” (sparked by Steven Pinker’s claim that the phrase was sarcasm).

    In its textbook manifestation, the etymological fallacy has to do with semantics. People maintain that “decimate” can’t mean ‘almost entirely wipe out’ because it really means ‘wipe out one-tenth of’. Or that “since” and “while” can only be used as temporal connectives, not as logical ones (meaning, roughly, ‘because’ and ‘although’), because that was their original meaning. (“Original” is, of course, a moving target here.) What’s going on here is a reluctance to recognize change, and that idea can be applied to all sorts of innovations: a [t] in “often” or an [l] in “walk” (note that these things can come around in cycles); the use of past forms in counterfactual conditionals (“if I was your father”); plural subject-verb agreement with “none” (“None of the students were prepared”), because “none” is really “not one” and therefore singular; and so on.

    Describing half the English-speaking world as “not much more than parrots” is mere prejudice. The purpose of language is to communicate. Meanings of words evolve and the meanings of colloquial phrases evolve even faster.

    • I don’t think I’ve ever agreed with anybody as much in my whole life. Well said.

      English is an evolving language. It is not static and based in just Latin, but also Gaelic, Old English, Norman, Anglo Saxon, Greek, Indian, African and more besides. It is forever changing an adopting new words and usages. It is a casserole of different languages. American English has changed the language too. Early American writers decided to drop the different noun and verb forms in words such as licence/license, practice/practise, despatch/dispatch. This wasn’t ignorance but merely an attempt to simplify. This process is still ongoing. We now see the use of farther, meaning distance, being used less and less in texts. Who is often used instead of whom. But these are not errors, but simplifications that are adopted by the masses.

      And just because a sentence is grammatically correct, doesn’t mean its a good sentence. And the opposite is also true. Grammatically “incorrect” sentences can often make great sentences. The only thing that matters in writing is clarity. If people know exactly what you mean you have done your job, regardless of what some grammar pedant thinks.

      • Of course English is always changing. Who ever denied it? But the vast majority of the changes are ephemeral; most of the experiments fail. What changes most quickly is the slang; and a slang word or expression can be the latest fashion at a particular time, and utterly dead and forgotten a decade later. It would take a mighty leap of faith to assume that the latest innovations will automatically take their place as standard English. Most won’t.

        The only thing that matters in writing is clarity. If people know exactly what you mean you have done your job, regardless of what some grammar pedant thinks.

        If you say the exact opposite of what you mean, and people understand you, the credit for it is theirs, not yours.

        • None of the examples in the article are simply the “latest innovations”, most have been used that way for decades and centuries. “I could care less” has been around for over fifty years (http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/could-couldnt-care-less.aspx — and it is Americans that can be blamed for it) and many of the examples have been around a lot, lot longer. Is fifty plus years ephemeral? It exists. Its used. People know what it means. Ergo, it’s correct.

          All sorts of words contradict their literal meaning, but we still use them without question. We fly on planes (flat surfaces), eat hamburgers (residents of Hamburg), smoke a joint (side of beef), be gay (happy and jolly) and yet people understand what we mean. How many people say they feel nauseous, and yet you know they mean they feel sick, not they are making everyone else sick, which is the literal meaning. English is about common understanding, not literal meanings.

          • “Their wierd. They don’t care weather they win or loose; they just except it.”

            100% correct, because people know what it means, and all of these mistakes are wildly common.

            • We are not talking about homophone errors, but word and grammar usage. It’s not about common mistakes its about common understanding. Big difference. But as you raise it, in speech they don’t matter. Taking your example to the extreme, I wonder how many police officers take: “I ain’t done nothing” as a confession? None, I imagine, because it may be inarticulate and to the contrary, but the meaning is still obvious. I must admit “could care less” is a new one on me, but I’m British and it must be an American thing, but I hear and read centred about instead of centred on and nauseous instead of nauseated all the time. But do I let it get to me? Of course not. I understand what people mean. You can spend your whole life tutting at people’s grammar, but you will run out of breath before you change the way usage defines the English language.

              • But you’re speaking specifically about individual words. No one’s arguing that words can have multiple meanings. The issue here is a fully-crafted sentence that means the opposite of what it’s intended to mean.

                I have a hard time equating the spoken denial of a near-illiterate criminal with professional writing.

                At any rate, I posted this down there somewhere:

                “I could care more.”

                “I couldn’t care more.”

                Are they interchangeable?

                • And stop editing after posting, for Pete’s sake. I keep having to go back and see if you added anything. :-)

                  • I’m not defending people’s usage, I merely saying get over it. If it’s being used by the masses, YOU need to get used to it, otherwise you’ll spend your whole life correcting people’s grammar until you become the one that is speaking and writing incorrectly. English is defined by usage, not by what is or isn’t correct. Always has been, always will be.

                    • And I shall edit as much as I see fit. No matter who Pete is and whatever rice wine he likes to drink.

                      Or have I misunderstood you?

                    • I completely understand that. But this leads me to wonder why we bother to teach the language at all? Why edit for grammar? You’re a writer, so I assume that you take care with language, but why do you bother using the correct words and spelling, if the only thing that matters is getting your point across?

                      More importantly, would you ever buy, read, and write a glowing review for a book in which poor grammar was rampant?

                    • It depends what you mean by poor grammar. One of my favourite sci-fi books I’ve ever read is The Moon is a Harsh Mistress by Robert Heinlein. It is in 1st person, written in “Moon Speak”. The language is ungrammatical and akin to modern gang speak in a sense (being as the story is set in a penal colony on the moon). Halfway through the first page I thought I’ll never stick this, because of the way it is written. By page three, I was not only hooked but the language had become irrelevant. Akin to spending a night with a Californian surfer. The dudes and gnarly speak may sound odd at first, but you get used to it. The Moon … is in now my top 5 favourite books of all time. The lesson I learned is that it is not HOW you tell it that matters, but WHAT you are telling.

                    • The fact that I have to define “poor grammar” in comparison to a skilled author who is intentionally writing a made-up dialect in a fictional story set on the moon tells me we’re at an impasse.

                • How about, “Isn’t John in the garage?” Anyone confused by either the question or a yes/no answer?

                  • Perhaps to answer your question more succinctly I shall say this: Good writing, as I have said before, is about clarity. Good grammar aids clarity and causes less confusion than bad grammar. But if unconventional grammar is clear to the reader then who’s to say it is bad grammar?

                    • To put it another way, the purpose of good grammar is clarity in writing and speaking. When the rules of grammar and spelling become ends in themselves instead of servicing understanding, you have a problem, and bigger chance of being misunderstood. And so in such cases, grammar does you no good.

    • Conclave — I only use that word to refer to secret meetings (where a lock door is implied). I only use “orbit” for planets, or occasionally people behaving a similar fashion to planets (they orbited her like satellites). That “of course” might mean something other than what I think it does is a revelation. Scheduling my next time waster now…

    • Sir,

      I have seen what I have seen. When people say ‘I could care less’, they are generally not aware that the literal meaning of the phrase they use is exactly the opposite of the meaning that they intend to convey — and which was conveyed by the phrase in its original form. They are simply not attending to their own language; the faculty of reason is not governing their choice of words. If it is ‘mere prejudice’ to observe this, then call me prejudiced if you must — but don’t expect me to refrain from calling you out for abusing the word.

      Meanwhile, I shall keep company with (among many others) George Orwell, who warned about this kind of debasement of language in ‘Politics and the English Language’, and coined the word duckspeak to describe the kind of sub-rational, virtually autonomous use of language I have been objecting to.

  5. Fair enough, but a word like “decimate” has half of the definition within the word, and people still screw it up.

    At any rate, none of this changes my hatred for the phrase, “I could care less.”

    • No, they are not screwing it up. You are. Look up the origin of the word “orbit”. It comes from the Lation “orbita” which meant a wheeled-track. Do you think everyone on the entire planet is using that word incorrectly? Your position is wrong. The world has changed since the fall of Rome.

      Hate on “I could care less” all you want. Just realize that your hatred is completely irrational. There are many English phrases that you use every day that are just as “incorrect”. Does it bother you that hot dogs aren’t dogs?

      • Ummm, no idea why you’re so angry, but have fun with that.

        • I’m not angry and I regret giving that impression. A wise man once told me that “It ain’t the things you don’t know that hurt you, it’s the things you know that ain’t so.”

          I’m trying to do you a favor. You “know” some things about English usage that are simply incorrect. This happens to almost everyone at one point or another. “I could care less” and “I couldn’t care less” are two colloquial phrases that mean exactly the same thing. There is no sound basis for preferring one over the other. No matter what you’ve been taught or believe, that is a fact. Decimate has more than one meaning. The one you insist on as the only possible correct meaning isn’t even the primary meaning today.

          If you want an environment where the meanings of words are fixed for all time, become a lawyer. If you want to be a writer, you should learn how people actually use the language you write in.

          • Lesson learned: There is no such thing as incorrect usage, because the language itself will eventually adapt to accept it. For all intensive purposes.

            And thank you for replacing perceived anger for blatant condescension. It reads so much better.

            • Ah, the eternal dodge of the language peever. If the meaning of one word ever changes, all hope is lost.

              • Yep, dodging. That’s totally what I was doing. But, no, Sir Ockham isn’t angry.

                I do love how you keep talking about the meaning of an individual word, when the issue is a sentence which, as it’s written, means the complete opposite of what it intends to.

                I keep asking this: Are “I could care more.” and “I couldn’t care more.” interchangeable?

                PS I’m not a language peever, although I do have a few peeves. I freely admit that a sentence that says the complete opposite of what it should annoys me.

                • No, “I could care more” and “I couldn’t care more” aren’t interchangeable, but so what? That’s not how language works.

                  Try these:

                  Clean up, scrub up, and scrub down.

                  Clean up and scrub up are often interchangeable (applied to people). Clean up and scrub down are sometimes interchangeable when applied to objects, but for most people “clean up the kitchen” and “scrub down the kitchen” mean different things. Up and down are directions. You can’t apply logical rules to the directionality in those phrases. Phrases are more than the sum of their parts.

                  hot dog and hot sauce.

                  This is easy (different meanings of heat), but “hot dog” became a single concept so that “cold dog” isn’t its opposite, but mild sauce is more or less the opposite of “hot sauce”.

                  The more you write, the more I think of you.
                  The more you write, the less I think of you.

                  Changing more to less in that sentence changes the meaning of “think of you”.

                  Phones still have a dial tone, even though they have no longer have a dial.

                  Here are my non-angry, non-condescending questions for you:

                  1. Do you agree that the English language has many phrases that have meanings that are not the same as the literal interpretation of the words that make up the phrase?

                  2. Do you agree that those phrases have the meanings that we have collectively agreed that they have?

                  3. Do you agree that clean and scrub are more or less synonyms?

                  4. Do you agree that up and down are opposites?

                  5. How do you explain the fact that “clean up” and “scrub down” sometimes mean the same thing?

                  6. Why is that any different from “could” and “couldn’t” in the phrase that causes you some much consternation?

          • “I could care less” and “I couldn’t care less” are two colloquial phrases that mean exactly the same thing. There is no sound basis for preferring one over the other.

            Only the basis that one of them means what it says, and the other means the exact opposite of what it says. There is no good reason to use the one that means the opposite when one extra syllable or three extra characters will remove any possibility of confusion.

            When there are two equally convenient ways of putting a thing, and one of them is rational and the other is flagrantly irrational, I prefer the rational one; and I regard reason as a sound basis for the preference. English is frequently illogical, but it does not behoove us to add our own errors to the unreason we have inherited.

            No matter what you’ve been taught or believe, that is a fact.

            No, that is your own opinion.

  6. P.G., I’ll bet you’re happy writers are allowed to use The Passive Voice.

  7. This has been interesting and educational. I finally understand why my hillbilly relatives get irritated with flatlanders. Imma fixin’ to warsh some clothes now, but not at the crick since Imma in Texas, and we only gots bayous here.

  8. I recommend Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words, by Bill Bryson. He takes apart a number of old saws about English usage that have outlived their usefulness. While he’s about it, he writes an entertaining book that can teach any writer a thing or two.

  9. “I could care more.”

    “I couldn’t care more.”

    Same.

  10. Hum, interesting article, and I agree with much of it. I would add the following amendment to his discussion of the passive voice.

    He said, “Here are seven rules you really (really!) don’t have to worry about following.”

    I think there are two common errors dealing with passive voice, as well as some other rules. One is, as he displays, taking these rules as absolutes–“I must get rid of every instance of passive voice, no matter what!”

    Two, “I don’t need to worry about passive voice.” First, a lot of that has to do with the type of writing (the example he gave was journalism, not fiction, two different types of writing). Second, it is a common error for new writers, especially, to use lots of passive voice without thinking about it or realizing it. For those people, it should be something to worry about. Because indiscriminate use of passive voice in *fiction* creates a passive feeling story, and usually that is not what you want, where everything happens to the characters.

    Bottom line, there is a balance. The goal should be to use it intentionally for effect. But to do that, one does have to worry about it, at least until it becomes natural to do so.

    Same thing with using “was” a lot.

  11. I ain’t got no more time this. I need to satisy my hunger pains. I’ll pour over these later with baited breath.

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