Carpe Diem

Grammar

According to John McIntyre, editor of the Baltimore Sun:

1. Fully exploded: Unless you are working for an uncommonly primitive and obtuse outfit, or your employer has slipped beyond ratiocination, you should not be observing any of these long-discredited superstitions:

No prepositions at the end of sentences.

No split infinitives.

No sentences that begin with the conjunctions and, but, and or.

No “split verbs” (no adverb between auxiliary and main verb).

No contractions.

No use of between with more than two persons or objects.

No beginning a sentence with because.

No use of decimate apart from “reducing by one-tenth.”

 

2. Not yet dead: Some operations cling to these pointless time-wasters:

Observing a distinction between since and because (reserving since for the temporal).

Observing a distinction between over and more than (reserving over for the spatial).

Observing a distinction between like and such as.

Observing a distinction between convince and persuade.

Refusing to use hopefully as a sentence adverb in the sense it is hoped that.

Refusing to use data as a singular noun.

Refusing to use none as a plural pronoun.

Refusing to use due to in the sense of because of.

Refusing to use while to mean although.

Insisting on who for people, that for animals and objects.

Insisting on loan exclusively as a noun.

Moving however from the beginning of a clause to the middle.

 

3. Room for judgment

Shunning passive voice: Bad for concealing responsibility. Good when it is not known who performed the action or the identity of the person(s) performing the action is of minor importance.

Maintaining a strict distinction between which and that. Often a good idea, but not always.

Insisting on whom as an object. Who increasingly serves as both subject and object except in the most formal cases.

Refusing to use they or their as a singular. Widespread in informal writing, and creeping into the formal

31 thoughts on “Grammar

  1. I would bet that Mr. McIntyre would have a different perception of a writer who said, “For whom is this intended?” than one who said “Who is this intended for?”

  2. Mostly good but he’s wrong about “between.” That is not a grammatical usage rule but but one based on the meaning of the word. One literally cannot be “between” more than two things – that’s not a matter of opinion, but a fact. One is “among” three or more things.

      • between need not refer to physical location.

        if one were attempting to decide between the 32 flavors at baskin robins, clearly, a choice could be between far more than 2 items. sure, one could also use “among” but between sounds better.

        one could also say “let’s keep this secret between us” when speaking to wither a group or one other person.

        this mythical idea that between can only refer to situations of duality has never been true.

        i do take issue with the notion of using who as an object though. that’s just poor english.

      • And morganovich isn’t advocating, guy, he’s just pointing out the realities. How many OECD countries require the use of among instead of between?

        None of them, right?

        What you’re advocating would return us to third world status.

    • From the above story: Stephanie Harrison posted: ‘Bad grammar, spelling and punctuation really annoy me. It is just laziness.

  3. Better headline: Editor throws in the towel, proposes new, gratifying standards to those for whom the English language is simply too bloody difficult.

  4. Great article, bound to grate a bit.

    I notice a commenter wrote “take issue”. Some people, me included, won’t use “issue” in the sense of “matter of concern” or “debating point”. But I’m going to bloody well start using it, because the work-arounds aren’t worth the effort. Let the written language respond sluggishly to new usage, but let it respond.

    English is a big brute of a thing and doesn’t need something like the French Academy to pick its fleas. Count the words which are now respectable among fusspots but which have moved away from their early sense. That’s why we’ve got our messy (but wonderful) phonetics, and that messy Shakespeare guy. The mongrel quality of English aids the transitions.

    “Decimate” won’t be used again to describe the sacking of ten percent of one’s staff. There’s something about the choppy sound of the word that implies a ninety percent sacking. No need to promote it, just give it a few more decades to see if its new meaning persists. I’d rather talk of the mangling of a hated Rugby League team (I’m in Oz) than its “decimation”, which does sound a bit poncy still.

    Look, I love French and would hate to see it go down the English track. But English is special, and it certainly isn’t French. We took a mighty slather of Latin (much via French) and laid it over a pared-right-down Germanic frame, having ditched case for word order. English is messy in detail but so clean in plan – a super-rich verb system runs on just a few auxiliaries! It’s built for adaptation.

    The problem comes from forcing the “issue” (ah!, at last). Recently the Oz dictionary altered the meaning of “misogyny” to help along our leftist PM, who’s a sheila. That’s the last thing one should do, even to an ugly lump of old Greek like “misogyny”. But how about a second person plural pronoun? Deep down, you-all know you want one. I’m offering Australia’s own “youse”. Youse won’t have to change a single verb ending – that’s English for you!

  5. That “between” can be used with more than two objects was pointed out nearly a century ago by H.W. Fowler. It is a point that is easy to look up in standard references and hardly counts as an innovation.

    Anyone who think me a lazy editor who has given up on the subtleties of the English language is welcome to submit a text for examination.

  6. Most organizations have style sheets, and one should follow the style sheet of the organization for which he writes. Newspapers which don’t use the AP Style Book often have their own, and this would not make John McIntyre an authority.

    The bottom line is that newspapers tend to be read by individuals with an average tenth-grade education, and that one can get away with a lot in a newspaper not allowed elsewhere. After all, what are you going to use the newspaper for once you’re done with it? Wrap the dead-fish remains from last night’s dinner? Line the bird cage or the pet box? McIntyre hardly can call himself someone who writes for posterity.

  7. Working at a newspaper does not give me authority. The Associated Stylebook does not give anyone authority. Authority comes from the strength of the argument, and the points quoted above have been dealt with extensively at my blog. They can be supported by citation to established references and other authorities, as well as from empirical evidence. If you want to argue for bogus rules on YOUR authority, let’s compare evidence.

    • From what I gather, you work for the Baltimore Sun, a major newspaper with which, incidentally, my firm does some business. No editor of a major city newspaper is a dummy, nor am I suggesting otherwise; however, the problems confronting a newspaper editor are very different from those confronting, e.g., a book publisher issuing a manuscript meant to last. Your primary problem lies in co-ordinating the writing of probably dozens of contributors so that the newspaper is not some overall hodgepodge of styles. That newspaper (if it’s making any money) is oriented toward a least common denomitator somewhere below a high-school graduate. Conversational forms and otherwise disfavored shortcuts are allowed for newspapers because they save column inches without impinging on the general sense of the readers.

      If, on the other hand, an author aspires to last like Shakespeare, he certainly shouldn’t write like Shakespeare, but he should ask himself what changes in the language are likely to be permanent and what changes remain solely fads of the moment. A snappy short cut today might be totally unintelligible to a reader 100 years from now. If one is writing for that reader too, he needs to think about that.

      But, let’s take a look at your conventions, supra, to see if there really is any dispute between us:

      1. Ending sentences with prepositions. I did this at least once in my initial reply. So, how absolute is your rule? I say: Don’t make a habit of it.

      2. Splitting infinitives or verbs. Ten years ago, I would have agreed with you. After much experimenting, I decided the old convention is the better form. And, in science, one knows nothing until he experiments.

      3. Beginning sentences with conjunctions. Since I just did it, I hardly can complain; but, this is more a conversational than formal element. It’s probably a better idea to use a semi-colon and comma with the conjunction, or better yet, rewrite the two sentences. The number-one rule of editing: FIRE ALL WORDS WHICH DO NO WORK! If such a conjunction serves no real purpose, get rid of it.

      4. No contractions. English is a spoken language first (as Shakespeare proved — Mark Anthony”s funeral oration). Contractions are common in spoken English and therefore almost never can be out of place in a newspaper directed to the common man. But, I would at least shy away from them in formal writing (unless, of course, one is trying to duplicate speech). Never say, “Never”; but, ’tis another thing to avoid, at least as a first effort.

      5. Use of “between.” I agree with the critic. To paraphrase William F. Buckley, words in English do (or at least should) have a precise meaning. That society may be moving toward Mr. McIntyre’s position is no reason to sing Hallelujah to the river god on the way downstream. We lose something when we don’t require precision in our writing. You are between two and among more.

      6. Beginning a sentence with “because.” “Because oil has less density than water, it was wrong for the student to draw the diagram of his experiment with the water on top.” I fail to see what’s wrong with that (other than that the water was on top).

      7. Use of “over” and “more than.” My own newspaper editor told me exactly the opposite, and that’s what once was in the AP Style Book (I looked it up). Using “over” for “more than” is highly conversational. I would go even further: “The boxer’s cut was above his right eye [not "over" his right eye]; but, he avoided further damage when his opponent’s left hook flew over his head.” Similarly, you drive under a bridge and are beneath it when you’re there. Yes, most will get the meaning the other way, but there can be such a thing as a refined ear.

      8. Definition of “decimate.” It only is the Latin root which means “to reduce by a tenth.” Furthermore, the Roman practice was designed to make a unit more effective in battle by heightening the spirit (or at least the level of fear against reprisal) in the remaining troops. In English, as far as I know, “decimate” always is used in situations where the affected unit is thrown into chaos or at least made ineffective, so “decimate” does not (and probably never did) mean “reduce by a tenth.”

      9. The singular of “data.” The English language has structure, but like the law is never still. The onset of computers has changed the meaning of many words (a “computer” when I was young was “someone who computes” — a person). Today, “data” is, indeed, singular (no one would say, “The computer data were corrupted”).

      10. Who, whom, and that. I’m still scratching my head on this one. In general, English stopped being an inflected language some 300 years after the Conquest. Inflections retained (e.g., the “m” in “who-m”) were retained for a reason, which in this situation is the need for the pronoun clearly to mark its antecedent. So, I absolutely must disagree with disinflecting “who”/”whom” (this makes no sense in terms of the very structure of the language). As for “who” and “that” — it’s late, and I can’t think of a sentence offhand to illustrate the problem, but if a man and his cat were sitting on a couch, and one of them peed on it, I should think one would want the sentence to be clear re which one did it. Also, I realize that religion does not have the prominence it once had in American life; however, as far as I know (per all beliefs), cats do not possess souls.

      11. “Loan” solely as a noun. I’ve never heard this claim made. Certainly it is a longstanding convention in English to convert nouns into verbs, as a way of better conveying action. “He was banished to Italy, where he found his tongue doubly portcullised against his criticism of the king.” (Freely from Shakespeare.)

      12. “They” or “their” as a singular. It isn’t; don’t do it. Yes, I understand the problem: There is no neutral singular pronoun for an adult human being (“it” only can be used for a child — or a cat). In our liberated times, the ancient legal instruction to use “he” as such a generic probably will ring increasingly hollow. But, it only compounds the problem to introduce more error. Newspaper editors trying to save inches might prefer it to “he or she,” &c. Understand that is why they increasingly prefer the error, not because such makes language sense.

      What does make language sense? Clarity in writing. Which brings me to a final distinction: The newspaper has to be in the carriers’ possessions before 5 a.m. tomorrow morning. Newspaper editors often simply don’t have time to do a bang-up job and thereby become accustomed to accepting some things which should not be accepted. (I do understand what a deadline is.)

      It should be different for the reader’s next foray to Random House (and certainly should be different if you’re writing for Addison Wesley). So, I stand by my original advice: Get the style sheet of the publisher, and before you deviate from it, think about what you’re doing and why.

      • Let’s move past the sneering at newspapers for a moment. I have edited books. I have edited a report for a federal agency. I have taught editing at Loyola University Maryland for eighteen years. I understand things about grammar and usage beyond the schoolroom memories that fuel most of the current shibboleths and superstitions about usage.

        So, about split infinitives. It’s nice that you have come to an aesthetic preference for avoiding them. You get to write as you like. But you don’t get to make your personal aesthetic preferences a rule binding on other writers. Bryan Garner, whose Garner’s Modern American Usage” is a standard reference, and one from the prescriptivist standpoint, includes the split infinitive under his “superstitions” entry. i commend it to you.

        Re “between” and “among”: The language is not moving toward my position. It is where it has always been. I mentioned “Fowler’s Modern English Usage.” Did you trouble to look it up? I’ll save you the effort: “The OED gives a warning against the superstition that b. can be used only of the relationship between two things, and that if there are more ‘among’ is the right preposition.’ Between “is still the only word available to express the relation of a thing to many surrounding things severally and individually.” If the secretary of state engages in shuttle diplomacy between Israel, Jordan, and Egypt, all are involved, though the secretary is meeting with only one party at a time.

        “Who” and “that”: Though “who” is conventionally used with people and “that” with animals and objects, better not make a rule of it. “That” is appropriate when the person is unknown or a group of people is involved. You may remember Irving Berlin’s “The Girl That I Marry.” Or Isaiah’s “The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light.” Or perhaps the translators of the Authorized Version were infected with liberal slackness about usage.

        • Who’s sneering at newspapers (I once wrote for one)? I’ve writtren for magazines. I’ve a book manuscript in preparation now. Each is subject to different editorial concerns. It is a fact that a newspaper is far more of a conversational entity than a textbook on physics and does not enjoy the luxury of having every story written by a single (or small number of) Ph.D.(s). A newspaper must employ conventions directed to satisfying the needs of a widespread audience of average to below-average mentality. That’s not sneering; that’s saying what a newspaper is. Should it behave differently, it will go out of busiuness.

          Re split infinitives, I gave you the results of an experiment conducted wertfrei. So, the only question is: Did Mr. Garner conduct an experiment or simply reiterate what has been posted in the past? Of course one may find examples of people splitting infinitives in modern usage (it happens all the time). One also may find numerous examples of people (including editors who should know better) employing an indicative form of “to be” in a subjunctive sentence ["If I were a rich man...," not, "If I was a rich man..."]. I don’t recommend either, but what now shall be The Rule? What people actually are doing or what tradition demands? Any language changes over time, but that can be no barrier to someone saying, “I tried both, and ‘A’ works better than ‘B.’”

          When English gave up its inflections, it became primarily a language of position. People who want to become better writers must take that into account. They must ask themselves: Is there a better way to position my words so that it is clearer what work any one of them does? They also need to remember that English, before it is anything else, remains a spoken tongue. I submit that we say, “He wipes the table,” rather than “He wipe the table” (a common ESL error for native Spanish speakers in some of my classes) simply because it sounds better. Similarly, not splitting verbs or infinitives simply sounds better. For that, I submit it should be preferred, and that it is not a sufficiently countering reason that students won’t get marked down for doing it otherwise on one of Professor McIntyre’s tests.

          Re “between” and “among,” if a diplomat engages in “shuttle diplomacy” between Israel, Egypt, and Jordan, by definition (of “shuttle diplomacy”), he is engaging in diplomacy between his country and Israel, then his country and Jordan, then his country and Egypt. That would not place him in a room among Israelis, Jordanians, and Egyptians. Maybe there’s a better proof, but this example does not support the claim. Here, “between” is absolutely the correct word, by any standard.

          “The people that walked in darkness…” does not appear to refer to individual souls but to a group of people generally. Furthermore, the “authorized” version of the Bible (a) is a translation from a foreign language and (b) was superseded by the RSV, which was made necessary precisely because conventions and meanings IN ENGLISH had changed since the days of King James.

          I did make the point that someone today who wants to be remembered like Shakespeare should not be writing like Shakespeare. Let’s add here that King James was a great and learned man who commissioned his scribes to do the best job then possible at capturing the Word of God; but, we probably don’t know just how good a job those scribes did. Unless you’re also an authority on Latin, Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic (and I confess that I’m not), you do not know what actually is in the original rendering of Isaiah and therefore do not know whether “the people that walked in darkness” is the correct translation or not. At best, this example grants limited support to a claim that “who” wantonly may be interchanged with “that.”

          Bottom Line: In addition to the AP Style Book, there are dozens more, with many in my library (though it’s far from an exhaustive collection). Agreement on English exists for general principles; beyond that, one probably can find an “authority” for anything. But, the question for us here is how to write better. It is pure folly to say that someone who conducts an experiment and reports the results of same in some way is “forcing” some nefarious corruption of a rule on the readers, merely because John Jones claimed such was a rule in the past. The rule in the past was that space was flat and time independent of events. No lesser an authority than Newton claimed the world was not otherwise. Einstein proved him wrong.

          • I owe Mr. Crim an apology for leaping to the conclusion that his condescending to me as a mere newspaper editor with now views meriting serious consideration reflected a lack of esteem for newspapers generally.

            I commend him for his attention to detail, in observing, ” ‘ The people that walked in darkness…’ does not appear to refer to individual souls but to a group of people generally.” I had immediately previously said the same thing: ” ‘That’ is appropriate when the person is unknown or a group of people is involved.”

            His scare quotes around “authorized” puzzle me a little; the formal title of what is called the King James Version begins “The Authorized Version.” And if it has been superseded, what of Irving Berlin?

  8. so “decimate” does not (and probably never did) mean “reduce by a tenth.”

    Decimate:
    1. Select by lot and execute one in every ten of, esp; as a punishment in the Roman legions.

    Shorter OED, Sixth Edn.

    So yes, decimate, does mean to execute one in ten. A good word that should not be decimated in meaning by ignorant people, who, having misused the word all their lives, try to insist on the correctness of their misuse on the basis of common usage. In fact, those who so misuse words that have specific and useful meanings should be decimated.

    For example, those who obscure the difference between uninterested and disinterested.

    • Oh, Speccy, Speccy … you’ve fallen right into the trap. The very first, oldest meaning of “uninterested” in the Oxford English Dictionary is “Unbiased, impartial.” The next is “Free from motives of personal interest; disinterested.” William Cowper used it that way. Only in the second half of the 18th century did the word come to mean “unconcerned, indifferent”. The oldest meaning of “disinterested”, on the other hand, the OED says, is “without interest or concern; not interested, unconcerned.” That’s how John Donne was using it in 1631. So historically the meanings of the two words were the other way round to the meanings YOU are now trying to straightjacket them into. Words change meaning, always have done, always will. Get over it. And “decimate” has been used loosely since at least 1663, not least by Charlotte Bronte. If you want to describe Ms Bronte as “ignorant”, you’ll find yourself in a minority.

  9. But those to be decimated for the misuse of “decimate” should be given the choice, whether most should be executed or only one in every ten.

    And, incidentally, correct use of “decimate” has been made on numerous occasions since Caesar decimated a Roman legion.

    In 1649 Oliver Cromwell decimated the garrison in the town of Drogheda, the remaining 90% of the men being shipped to the plantations in the Caribbean.

    In 1795 General Jean-Baptiste Carrier decimated the population of the Vendee after a Royalist uprising.

    And on February 7, 1940, so the JTA reports, the Nazi’s decimated the inhabitants of a town near Warsaw:

    “Polish official circles reported today that German troops on Dec. 26 executed every tenth inhabitant of the predominantly-Jewish town of Varka near Warsaw in reprisal for the shooting of a German policeman by a criminal escaping from a police raid. ”

    And in 1655, Cromwell imposed the so-called decimation tax on the Royalists: a 10% tax to support the militia.

    • Neither the French nor the Germans (and certainly not the Poles) would have used “decimate” to describe what they did (they would have used the word appropriate to their own language). I admit I am NO authority on Oliver Cromwell. The word remains a derivative of a Latin word which means to reduce by a tenth for the purpose of spiking morale in the remaining troops; but, is it ACTUALLY used EXCLUSIVELY today to refer to this ancient practice? I’ve never heard it used in any context other than to describe infliction of losses sufficiently great to DISRUPT unit cohesion. That, itself, would be a change in the meaning of the word from the original sense, even if “reduce by (only) a tenth” is a required, additional condition.

      • Neither the French nor the Germans (and certainly not the Poles) would have used “decimate” to describe what they did,/i>

        Of course not. At least, not when they are speaking French and German. But the English describing what the French and the Germans did when they decimated civilian populations used the word “decimate” in the sense given in the Oxford English Dictionary.

        The word remains a derivative of a Latin word which means to reduce by a tenth for the purpose of spiking morale in the remaining troops;

        Yes, like a great many words in the English language, “decimate” has a Latin root. So what?

        but, is it ACTUALLY used EXCLUSIVELY today to refer to this ancient practice?

        Obviously not, otherwise there would be no debate about it’s correct use. But does widespread ignorant misuse of a word justify trashing the original and meaning for which there is no other word?

        In my view, clearly not. If we agree to allow common usage to determine the meaning of all words, we’ll all end up speaking ebonics, or worse.

        • So, if we reduce by a sixth instead of a tenth, we have to use “seximate”?

          I don’t think we can be like the French and insist that English stay within a narrowly confined range. That would deny its principal strength, which is its flexibility. As I mentioned to Mr. McIntyre, we had to produce the RSV not because the King James is a bad Bible (it’s an extremely good one) but because English, itself, has changed since 1600. Even if the King’s scholarship were perfect (and he tried to make it so), OUR language has moved since his time, so the King James, for all its beauty, no longer is authoritative because many of the words don’t mean the same thing.

          An explanation of all this commonly is found in the introduction to any RSV. It’s an excellent introduction to how any language drifts with time. Perhaps it is correct to call such drifts “abuse” or “due to abuse,” at least in the beginning; but, if the vast majority of people adopt the “abuse,” then at what point does such abuse become the new norm? Or, must the new norm be restricted solely to the development of new concepts, e.g., “computer” as a device rather than a person?

          I’m not sure “decimate” would remain stable under either approach. Grant arguendo that the word means “reduce by a tenth.” There remains a significant difference between reducing by a tenth to improve the fighting efficiency of the other nine, and reducing by a tenth to make the unit cohesion of the remaining nine fall apart. The meaning of the word changes by its drift. It no longer represents solely what Caesar did.

          Within that context, I think the only thing we can do is adopt rules which make LINGUISTIC sense. Yes, AT LEAST 75 per cent of the people (probably more like 90) split verbs and infinitives (and that included me in the past). A newspaper editor well might insist that his reporters write that way, because (to benefit the newspaper’s readers) he’s trying to create a uniformity of style for the newspaper consistent with his readers’ expectations — and that’s not wrong! I changed my position some time ago because, after trying both approaches, I found that not splitting gives better word position, smoother language flow, higher readability, and a look of greater polish to the sentences. My old English prof. wasn’t such a pedantic ass after all — this is precisely the reason there should be a rule, and not merely tradition.

          • What is an RSV = a Respiratory Syncytial Virus?

            So, if we reduce by a sixth instead of a tenth, we have to use “seximate”?

            I think the word would be “sextimate,” but (a) no-one ever reduced a legion by one-sixth, so what would be the point of the coinage, and (b) “sextimate” has already been defined with a different meaning.

            I don’t think we can be like the French and insist that English stay within a narrowly confined range.

            There is certainly no point in insisting on what no one will pay the slightest attention to.

            Or should I have said, to avoid a terminal preposition, “no point in insisting on what to which no one will pay the slightest attention?

            What one can do is point out that only ignorant people, i.e., the great majority, use “decimate” when they mean “crush,” “annihilate,” or “reduce by a large proportion.”

            Then when historians refer to Cromwell’s decimation of the garrison at Drogheda in 1649, or General Jean-Baptiste Carrier decimation of the population of the Vendee in 1795, or the Nazi decimation of the population of Varka in December 1939, at least some people will understand exactly what is meant.

            But to promote general adherence to common usage or abusage, something the media does for purely commercial reasons, makes it ever more difficult for those who wish to to speak with precision.

            I’m not sure “decimate” would remain stable under either approach.

            What you’re saying is that since we cannot persuade the masses to speak with precision we should discourage everyone from doing so: a very bad principle.

            As to a universal ban on split infinitives, after StarTrek and “to boldly go,” resistance is futile.

          • Revised Standard Version — the mainline Protestant Bible, at least until recently. Although one reason for the RSV was new scholarship on the original texts, the primary reason was because of language drift in English (the definitions of too many words had changed significantly since 1600.

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