grammar girl on grammar myths

FELLOW FORMER KINGSTONIAN Steve Frank posted a link on my Face­book page to an ar­ticle ti­tled “Top 10 Grammar Myths” by Mignon Fog­arty (aka Grammar Girl) on the Mental Floss web­site. Steve fol­lows my Strunk­and­whitenit! cat­e­gory and knew that this piece would in­terest me—and it does! So I thought it my duty to both share the myths with my readers and offer my com­men­tary to each.

Below, the myths (num­bered 1 through 10) and the text in black print are Ms Fog­a­r­ty’s state­ments from the orig­inal ar­ticle. The state­ments that follow in ital­i­cized text in rusty brown print and pre­ceded by an arrow (⇒) are mine. 1

⇒   You may proceed …


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Just thought I’d open with a plug for Ms Foger­ty’s ex­cel­lent and en­joy­ably read­able Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, avail­able at an Amzon.com near you!


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1.  A RUN-ON SENTENCE IS A REALLY LONG SENTENCE.

Wrong! They can ac­tu­ally be quite short. In a run-on sen­tence, in­de­pen­dent clauses are squished to­gether without the help of punc­tu­a­tion or a con­junc­tion. If you write “I am short he is tall,” as one sen­tence without a semi­colon, colon, or dash be­tween the two in­de­pen­dent clauses, it’s a run-on sen­tence even though it only has six words.

⇒   Agreed. I thought everyone knew this I al­ways have!


2.  YOU SHOULDN’T START A SENTENCE WITH THE WORD “HOWEVER.”

Wrong! It’s fine to start a sen­tence with “how­ever” so long as you use a comma after it when it means “nev­er­the­less.”

⇒   Agreed. How­ever many times people are told this, ‘how­ever’ is often im­prop­erly used to start a sen­tence without that req­ui­site comma.


3.  “IRREGARDLESS” IS NOT A WORD.

Wrong! “Ir­re­gard­less” is a bad word and a word you shouldn’t use, but it is a word. “Floogetyflop” isn’t a word—I just made it up and you have no idea what it means. “Ir­re­gard­less,” on the other hand, is in al­most every dic­tio­nary la­beled as non­stan­dard. You shouldn’t use it if you want to be taken se­ri­ously, but it has gained wide enough use to qualify as a word.

⇒   Agreed. How­ever, I am un­com­fort­able with the choice of the term “bad word” here, even if used as an ex­ample. There are an­ti­quated words and re­dun­dant words and in­cor­rect words and non-standard words and ir­re­gard­less may be all of those but it ain’t “bad.” How­ever, Ms Fog­arty is cor­rect: ‘ir­re­gard­less’ may be used by anyone, ir­re­gard­less of anyone else’s opinion. But using it will prob­ably make you look like a cretin …


4.  THERE IS ONLY ONE WAY TO WRITE THE POSSESSIVE FORM OF A WORD THAT ENDS IN “S.”

Wrong! It’s a style choice. For ex­ample, in the phrase “Kansas’s statute,” you can put just an apos­trophe at the end of “Kansas” or you can put an apos­trophe “s” at the end of “Kansas.” Both ways are acceptable.

⇒   Agreed. Nonethe­less, this is el­e­men­tary rule of usage #1 in William Strunk Jr and E.B. White’s ELEMENTS OF STYLE: “Form the pos­ses­sive sin­gular of nouns with ‘s [apostrophe-s]. Follow this rule what­ever the final con­so­nant.” It is the only rule in that book that I do not con­sis­tently abide by.

I was raised by Eng­lish teachers in Chester Street El­e­men­tary School NOT to follow a noun ending with an ‘s’ with an apostrophe-s EVER! It is a dif­fi­cult bit of im­printing to over­come. Still, I need to make some sort of com­pro­mise here be­cause I feel an un­spoken pact with Ju­nior and EB.

So I found an­other writer’s guide by an­other, con­tem­po­rary au­thority (whose name I have for­gotten, al­though I want to say Bill Bryson but won’t) who made a mar­velous, common-sensical sug­ges­tion: say the word out loud, and if you say two ‘ss’ (esses), use the apostrophe-s. E.g., ‘My brother Charles’s fa­vorite Rolling Stones album is STICKY FINGERS.’

But if you only say one ‘s’ (ess), do not use an apostrophe-s. E.g., ‘My brother Charles loves the Rolling Stones’ STICKY FINGERS album.’


5.  PASSIVE VOICE IS ALWAYS WRONG.

Wrong! Pas­sive voice is when you don’t name the person who’s re­spon­sible for the ac­tion. An ex­ample is the sen­tence “Mis­takes were made,” be­cause it doesn’t say who made the mis­takes. If you don’t know who is re­spon­sible for an ac­tion, pas­sive voice can be the best choice.

⇒   Agreed. And have I rec­om­mended the book Mis­takes Were Made (But Not By Me) by Carol Tavris and El­liot Aronson re­cently? If not, con­sider that boner rectified.


Tarvis_Comp2.indd

“Why do people dodge re­spon­si­bility when things fall apart? Why the pa­rade of public fig­ures un­able to own up when they screw up? Why the end­less mar­ital quar­rels over who is right? Why can we see hypocrisy in others but not in our­selves? Are we all liars? Or do we re­ally be­lieve the sto­ries we tell?” Chapter 5 on the law is worth the price of admission!


6.  “I.E.” AND “E.G.” MEAN THE SAME THING.

Wrong! “E.g.” means “for ex­ample,” and “i.e.” means roughly “in other words.” You use “e.g.” to pro­vide a list of in­com­plete ex­am­ples, and you use “i.e.” to pro­vide a com­plete clar­i­fying list or statement.

⇒   Agreed. Per­son­ally, I used to use ‘i.e.’ in place of ‘that is.’ Now I just write ‘that is.’ How­ever, I never use ‘e.g.’ Ever. 2


7.  YOU USE “A” BEFORE WORDS THAT START WITH CONSONANTS AND “AN” BEFORE WORDS THAT START WITH VOWELS.

Wrong! You use “a” be­fore words that start with con­so­nant sounds and “an” be­fore words that start with vowel sounds. So, you’d write that someone has an MBA in­stead of a MBA, be­cause even though “MBA” starts with “m,” which is a con­so­nant, it starts with the sound of the vowel “e” [Em Bee Ay].

⇒   Agreed. A word that throws a lot of people is ‘honest.’ If Eng­lish were pho­net­i­cally con­sis­tent, we would pro­nounce the ‘h’ and say HAWN-EST, as though the word began with a con­so­nant. We don’t—we say ON-EST, as though it began with a vowel. Hence ‘honest’ re­quires an ‘an.’


8.  IT’S INCORRECT TO ANSWER THE QUESTION “HOW ARE YOU?” WITH THE STATEMENT “I’M GOOD.”

Wrong! “Am” is a linking verb and linking verbs should be mod­i­fied by ad­jec­tives such as “good.” Be­cause “well” can also act as an ad­jec­tive, it’s also fine to an­swer “I’m well,” but some gram­mar­ians be­lieve “I’m well” should be used to talk about your health and not your gen­eral dis­po­si­tion

⇒   I’m good with this.


9.  YOU SHOULDN’T SPLIT INFINITIVES.

Wrong! Nearly all gram­mar­ians want to boldly tell you it’s OK to split in­fini­tives. An in­fini­tive is a two-word form of a verb. An ex­ample is “to tell.” In a split in­fini­tive, an­other word sep­a­rates the two parts of the verb. “To boldly tell” is a split in­fini­tive be­cause “boldly” sep­a­rates “to” from “tell.”

⇒   Agreed. If you re­call, in the orig­inal Star Trek se­ries, the opening mis­sion state­ment from Kirk was “To boldly go where no man has gone be­fore.” Ap­par­ently, this ticked off some­one’s sense of po­lit­ical cor­rect­ness and “man” was changed to “one” in Star Trek: The Next Gen­er­a­tion. Now we have to listen to Pi­card in­tone, “To boldly go where no one has gone before.”

Well, “one” is not gender spe­cific (i.e., it is nei­ther male nor fe­male, which is ap­par­ently ac­cept­able), but “one” is also not human race spe­cific. So how can the USS En­ter­prise go where “no one” has gone be­fore and find such “ones” as the Fer­engi or the Ro­mu­lans? Please re­store this “man” to his rightful place …


10.  YOU SHOULDN’T END A SENTENCE WITH A PREPOSITION.

Wrong! You shouldn’t end a sen­tence with a prepo­si­tion when the sen­tence would mean the same thing if you left off the prepo­si­tion. That means “Where are you at?” is wrong be­cause “Where are you?” means the same thing. But there are many sen­tences where the final prepo­si­tion is part of a phrasal verb or is nec­es­sary to keep from making stuffy, stilted sen­tences: “I’m going to throw up,” “Let’s kiss and make up,” and “What are you waiting for” are just a few examples.

⇒   Agreed. (Uh oh! The three ex­am­ples that Ms Fog­arty uses above re­minded me of a blind date that I had many, many for­gotten years ago. It was not quite in the league of the date that Bruce Willis sur­vived with Kim Basinger in Blind Date, but it was leaning in that di­rec­tion. She was my best friend’s wife’s best friend, for cryin­gout­loud; I had to do it!

Anyway, I made it through the night, got her home, and then—like the gen­tleman that I was—I walked her to her door. And, ap­par­ently ex­pecting me to kiss her, she said, “Well, what are you waiting for?”

And, having had a few too many Jack Danielses—however do you think I made it through the night?—I blurted out, “Let’s not kiss, or I’ll throw up!”)


BlindDateKimBasinger_1987

HEADER IMAGE: Blind Date (1987) was Bruce Willis’s début as a leading man in a feature-length move and he was great. You could see he was going to be star­ring in a lot more movies. Kim Basinger was in her prime and per­fect as the drop-dead gor­geous blind date from Hell. That’s all I am going to say.

Hope­fully, you will know now that this piece ex­ists for two rea­sons: ed­u­ca­tion and en­ter­tain­ment. The former is cov­ered by the in­sights and ad­vice of Grammar Girl, the latter hope­fully by my witty re­join­ders. And of course Grammar Girl has a web­site (Quick and Dirty Tips) and a Face­book page

Um, as much fun as I had writing “Grammar Girl on Grammar Myths,” I had more fun writing about fan­ta­sizing about the bed­d­a­ble­ness of Marisa Tomei. Just sayin’ … 3


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FOOTNOTES:

1   I know, I know: where the hell do I get off cri­tiquing the bloody Grammar Girl, heyna? It’s easy: it’s my bloody web­site you’re on! Plus, de­spite the French given name, Ms Fog­arty is a fellow mick and can no doubt handle it and me and any­thing else you throw her way! Plus, I agree with her on every point!

2   Mark De­Coursey posted this in the Com­ments sec­tion below, but I want to make it a part of the body of this piece: “The per­mis­sion to split in­fini­tives and end sen­tences with prepo­si­tions should be ap­plied with dis­cre­tion, and I be­lieve Strunk & White add a warning here. Sen­tences can be con­structed with whole sub­or­di­nate clauses be­tween the ‘to’ and the verb root, making com­pre­hen­sion very dif­fi­cult and vi­o­lating an­other Strunk & White rule of clarity.

THAT is the origin of the rule: clarity. Short in­ter­rup­tions are com­pre­hen­sible and even bril­liant, but long in­ter­rup­tions of the in­fini­tive can be ‘word salad.’

The same is true with ter­minal prepo­si­tions. If the ob­ject of the prepo­si­tion is ob­vious, go ahead. When it gets ob­scure, the ob­scu­rity po­lice with rel­e­gate your writing to the Limbo of Never-Seen Blogs.”

3   I wanted to end this post with a Grammar and Grampar Umphred joke, but Berni warned me agin it …


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Couple of comments: 

1. You have written “a list of in­com­plete ex­am­ples.” I be­lieve this is a mis­placed mod­i­fier, and what you re­ally mean is “an in­com­plete list of examples.”

2. The per­mis­sion to split in­fini­tives and ending sen­tences with prepo­si­tions should be ap­plied with dis­cre­tion, and I be­lieve Strunk & White add a warning here. Sen­tences can be con­structed with whole sub­or­di­nate clauses be­tween the “to” and the verb root, making com­pre­hen­sion very dif­fi­cult and vi­o­lating an­other Strunk & White rule of clarity.

THAT is the origin of the rule: clarity. Short in­ter­rup­tions are com­pre­hen­sible and even bril­liant, but long in­ter­rup­tions of the in­fini­tive can be “word salad.”

The same is true with ter­minal prepo­si­tions. If the ob­ject of the prepo­si­tion is ob­vious, go ahead. When it gets ob­scure, the ob­scu­rity po­lice with rel­e­gate your writing to the Limbo of Never-Seen Blogs.

what can i say neal, you got me dead to rights.

“Say the word out loud, and if you say two ‘ss’ (esses), use the apostrophe-s.”

I meant to com­ment on this when you posted it in some­thing else a little while back so I’m glad I get an­other chance: This is a re­ally good solution!

I’ve al­ways gone with the s-apostrophe (s’) by it­self when in doubt, but I’m trying to in­cor­po­rate this now, at least in re­ally ob­vious situations.

And, just FYI, I now find my­self wanting to get hold of “Blind Date.” …

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