Category Archives: Sense and Nonsense

Should You Worry about These Errors? Part 4

This is my last discussion of a provocative article by Bill Murphy, Jr., about writing mistakes. 

16. Double negatives
Murphy reminds us that people often use double negatives jokingly: “I don’t got none.” I wouldn’t have included this reminder in the list. Almost everyone I know has a sense of humor and can spot a joke when they hear one.

17. Confusing habits with rules
I would have reworded this one. Here’s my version: “Don’t be taken in by urban legends about English.” There are lots of nonsensical rules: Don’t start a sentence with but. Don’t split infinitives. Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.

You won’t find any of these stupid rules in reputable grammar books. Professional writers ignore them, and you should too.

One More Thing!
I think Murphy’s title is a mistake: “17 Grammar Mistakes You Need to Stop Correcting, Like Now.”

A strict grammarian would say that two things are wrong here: You should spell out a number (Seventeen instead of 17) at the beginning of a title or a sentence. And “Like Now” is too folksy for an article about – of all things – correct grammar.

I’m not a strict grammarian. My response is…pish-posh. I like to see writers run a red light once in a while!

My problem is the @#%&! word grammar. Grammar should be reserved for rules that explain how to put a sentence together. (A close synonym would be syntax.) Far too many people believe that if you master the rules of grammar, you’ll be a great writer. That’s not true.

Many important issues lie outside of grammar: word choice, capital letters, and many punctuation rules, for starters.

Most of Murphy’s rules fall into the category of usage – writing practices that 1) are subject to change over time and 2) don’t alter the structure of a sentence.

Don’t waste your precious time learning how to diagram sentences and label parts of speech! Be careful with usage, and you’ll see a big improvement in your writing.

A word cloud about grammar

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Should You Worry about These Errors? Part 3

Today I’m going to comment on five more errors discussed in a provocative post called “17 Grammatical Errors You Need to Stop Correcting” by Bill Murphy Jr. (You can read my previous set of comments here.)

11. Oxford commas
This is the rule about using a comma before the last item in a list: “red, white, and pink roses.” That comma is optional. (I like it, but I never insisted that my students use it.)
Murphy says, “
Believe it or not, there are people who get really worked up about this rule. Don’t be one of them.” He’s right, and I’m applauding.

12. I.E. versus E.G.
Murphy explains that i.e. means “that is,” and e.g. means “for example.” He urges his readers not to criticize writers who get those Latin abbreviations confused.
My position is different – and simple: Don’t use them. Ever. “That is” and “for example” are perfectly respectable English phrases.

13. Split infinitives
Murphy is talking about expressions like “to boldly go,” which used to be considered bad grammar. He suggests being tolerant when other writers use them.  Once again I’m taking a stronger position: It’s a stupid rule. Ignore it.

14. Incomplete comparisons
Murphy is bothered by sentences like this one: “Our company’s products are better, cheaper, and more efficient.” Better than what?
I’m not bothered by these sentences at all. I don’t think we need to be that picky.

15. Into versus in to
There is so much gobbledygook in Murphy’s explanation that I stopped reading. (Does he really need to talk about transitive verbs?)
Here’s my take on in and into: I think about walking in a room (walking around it) and walking into a room (entering from the hall). If you understand the difference, that’s all you need to know!

In the last post in this series, I’ll be talking about Murphy’s final two errors – and grammar in general.

Referee blowing a whistle

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Should You Worry about These Errors? Part 2

I’m working my way through 17 grammar errors that Bill Murphy Jr. thinks we can stop worrying about. (See his post here.)

6. Irregardless
Bill got this one right – and wrong. Irregardless is okay in casual settings, but you shouldn’t use it in professional writing. And he missed the mark when he described it as “technically not a word.” Of course it’s a word!

Look up the definition of “word” in a dictionary. Any group of letters or sounds with a consistent meaning is a word.

What Murphy meant was that “irregardless” is a nonstandard word.

Murphy makes another error when he declares no decent person would correct you. (I’ll skip the vulgarism he used.) If you’re an editor, you have my permission to go ahead and correct it.

7. Further versus farther
I not only agree with Murphy – I’d go a step further. Nobody cares which one you use. Attempts to give them different meanings fall apart very quickly. Stop worrying about this one!

8. Me versus I
Murphy made me happy when he explained this with a shortcut that I’ve been teaching my students for 40 years (with no need for grammar gobbledygook). Remove the other person from the sentence and see whether “I” or “me” still makes sense:

Greg helped me with the report.  CORRECT

Greg helped Donna and me with the report.  CORRECT

Again, though, I disagree that you shouldn’t correct this error. Isn’t that what editors are paid to do?

9. One or two spaces after a period
Murphy thinks this battle isn’t worth fighting. I do. Professionals don’t expect other people to clean up after them. If you’re getting paid for your writing, someone else is going to have to remove those unwanted spaces. Even worse, you’re going to come across like a dinosaur.

Professionals respect their equipment and use it properly.

10. Em-dash overuse
Here’s Murphy’s position: “As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as em dash overuse. I understand that other punctuation might often be more technically correct, but I think of it as all-purpose punctuation that fits the way people read today.”

All I can add here is – hooray! I love dashes. Bring ’em on! (If you’re wondering what an “em-dash” is, I used to be bothered by that too – but now I know what they are. And I just typed one for you.)

I’ll do 11 -17 in a future post (and I’ll add a gripe or two). 

Rules spelled out with an unstable stack of blocks

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The Chicago Manual of Style

My friend Mike Goronsky sent me an interesting sentence last week. It showed up in a forum for The Chicago Manual of Style, which is probably the most respected resource for writing, usage, and grammar.

My wife Deb’s father passed away on Sunday.

The editor at The Chicago Manual of Style wrote a helpful explanation about why the sentence is okay, even though it breaks a rule about appositives.

I, on the other hand, read the sentence and got angry.

Let’s deal with the grammar issue first. (Don’t worry: I’m not going to ask you to learn what an appositive is.)

All of us automatically change our voices when we’re talking. Here’s an example: My husband, Charlie, enjoys gardening. If you read that sentence out loud, you’ll hear your voice go down and back up when you read Charlie.

If you didn’t change your voice, listeners might think you were a polygamist: My husband Charlie enjoys gardening. The implication is that you have another husband – Sam or Joe or Bill – who has another hobby. (But would anybody really think that? Of course not. You don’t really need the voice change and the commas.)

Let’s go back to Deb.  That very nice editor made two excellent points:

  1. Nobody’s going to think you have more than one wife.
  2. Jamming a pair of commas into that sentence would be messy: “My wife, Deb’s, father passed away.” Gack!

I agree with that editor…and I want to add that I’m truly sorry about Deb’s loss. But  that’s a ridiculous sentence – and an example of what’s wrong with the way we teach writing.

(I’m climbing onto my soapbox.)

Writing is a powerful way to connect with other people. That power has to be channeled and managed.

That means there’s much more to writing than figuring out where the punctuation goes. You can see that the editor did some analytical thinking right away: “Will anyone suspect that you’re a polygamist? No. So we don’t need those clunky commas.”

Well done! But he should have dug deeper.

Here’s what I mean. Suppose (sadly) your wife’s father died. Who would you share that news with? Friends. Relatives. In other words, people who know you and Deb. Or – even if they don’t know Deb – they would be people who already know her name. You wouldn’t say, “My wife Deb’s father….”

If you’re taking off from work to go to the funeral, you might tell your boss, or HR, or a few of your co-workers about your plans. They might never have met Deb, and it’s possible they wouldn’t even know her name. But is it necessary to bring it up? You have only one wife. I doubt that you would say, “My wife Deb’s father….”

And here’s the clincher. You had a relationship with Deb’s dad too. If friends and co-workers don’t know Deb, wouldn’t you tell them that your father-in-law died?

In other words, nobody in the real world is ever going to utter a sentence like “My wife Deb’s father passed away on Sunday.” It’s a stupid sentence made up by someone who views language as a game: Where do the commas and periods and apostrophes go? I know! I win! 

If you’re trying hard to improve your language skills, good for you! Use your time and energy to think about real-world writing issues: word choice, organizing and presenting ideas, critical thinking, and so on.

Plucking tricky sentences out of the air isn’t writing. It’s not going to teach you anything. You should constantly be asking yourself this question: How can I use language more effectively today? Right now?

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Lookin’ Good!

“Overcorrecting” is a useful term if you want to be a professional writer. It’s possible to try so hard to be correct that you make a mistake instead.

Here’s an example of overcorrecting that I hear all the time: “Donna invited Harry and I for dinner.”

Nope! Think: Donna invited me for dinner. The sentence doesn’t change if you make it longer:

Donna invited Harry and me for dinner.  CORRECT

(Did you notice that you don’t need a ton of grammar to get this right? Just make the sentence shorter. Works every time!)

Today I’m going to talk about another example of overcorrecting. Recently someone online insisted that “You look well” is more professional than “You look good.”

No, it isn’t. In fact it’s wrong (unless you’re talking to someone who’s recovering from an illness).

Well sounds fancy because it’s an adverb. Good sounds…ordinary.

But you can’t throw adverbs around willy-nilly just because you want to sound posh. That’s why “You look well” is wrong.

The good news is that you already know this – even if you don’t give a damn about gobbledygook like adverbs and adjectives.

Doubt me? Read these sentences:

Jane, you look happily today!

I felt sadly when I heard that the Browns are moving.

Your plans for your trip to San Francisco sound wonderfully.

They sound silly, don’t they? “I feel,” “You look,” and “That sounds” require adjectives. Happily, sadly, wonderfully (and well) are adverbs. (If you don’t want to go there, just think about using simple words, and you’ll be fine.)

These sentences are correct:

Jane, you look happy today!

I felt sad when I heard that the Browns are moving.

Your plans for your trip to San Francisco sound wonderful.

And – of course – “You look good!” (But if someone has been sick recently, it’s fine to say “You look well.”)

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Is “Pre” Necessary?

Now that there’s been a shift in power in Congress, we can expect a lot of debate about the Affordable Care Act (popularly known as “Obamacare”). It’s going to be a difficult time for me because there’s going to be a lot of talk about pre-existing conditions.

Gack. Can anyone tell me the difference between an “existing” condition and a “pre-existing condition”?

Recently I came across a newspaper article about “premade” lunches that parents can purchase for their children to take to school. What, pray tell, is the difference between a “made” lunch and a “premade” lunch?

What about “prearrange,” “preplan,” and “preregister”?

Sometimes “pre” is useful (“prepay” and “preorder” emphasize that you’re shelling out your money ahead of time). And not all repetition is bad. Because the human brain is easily distracted, it’s sometimes helpful to say things more than once: “I will not – repeat not – vote for this bill.”

But do we really need words like “precooked,” “prepackaged,” and “precut”?

question marks on each side of a cube

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Alleged Assaults on the English Language

Please note that I’m not talking politics today. Note too that I’m all for pointing out a politician’s grammar and usage mistakes. But you need to make sure you know what you’re talking about.

I was interested in a couple of recent articles about President Trump’s allegedly bad English. And I came down on the side of…the President. Let’s look at three of the complaints.

#1: “No matter how good I do on something, they’ll never write good. I mean, they don’t write good. They have people over there, like Maggie Haberman, and others, they don’t write good. They don’t know how to write good.”

Of course all those repetitions of write good should be changed to write well. But here’s the thing: Donald Trump is a New Yorker (like me – well, I’m an ex-New Yorker). New Yorkers often use good instead of well. I still fall into that old habit. When someone is talking informally, I don’t think it’s fair to blame them for slipping into regional word patterns. 

#2: Commenting on the DNC email hack during the first presidential debate, Trump said that the culprit “could be somebody sitting on their bed that weighs 400 pounds, OK?”

A commentator I read found two mistakes: a dangling modifier (weighs 400 pounds should be placed next to somebody) and an agreement error (their bed should be his or her bed).

I agree about the dangling modifier. But I have sworn off “his or her” (after teaching that usage – I’m ashamed to admit – for some 30 years). Did you notice that I used “unfair to blame them” in my response to #2? I have become an advocate for the singular they. (Incidentally, I would have made a change that the commentator overlooked – changing “that” to “who.”)

Here’s my version:

“...the culprit “could be somebody weighing 400 pounds who’s sitting on their bed , OK?”

#3 is a Tweet that offended somebody because a sentence has five commas.

An edited Tweet by President Trump

It’s true that I have a private rule of thumb that limits me to three commas. But here’s the thing: it’s a rule of thumb – a guide – rather than a RULE. It’s a handy warning that a sentence might be too complicated or pompous – or just plain unreadable.

I would never criticize someone for using five commas. Actually Trump’s sentence is a sophisticated one that’s correctly written.

Before you correct someone else’s English, make sure you know what you’re talking about!

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My Fair Lady

I’m in New York! A couple of nights ago, a friend and I went to see a lavish production of My Fair Lady at Lincoln Center. (They had a two-story house onstage – and it revolved!) My Fair Lady is based, of course, on Shaw’s wonderful play Pygmalion.

Shaw scholars sometimes gnash their teeth when My Fair Lady is mentioned. Shaw hated the idea of turning his play into a musical, and the Shaw estate had to wait until he died to bring My Fair Lady to Broadway. Along the way, Shaw’s edgy and provocative play became tamer and more conventional.

I’m a Shaw scholar myself, but I have a much more friendly attitude towards My Fair Lady. It was, after all, my first introduction to Shaw – and it’s a wonderful play with a glorious score.

But it’s not Shaw. Friday night I noticed something for the first time in “Why Can’t the English,” a song from the show. Henry Higgins is bewailing the sad state of the English language, and he sings, “In America, they haven’t used it for years.”

No linguistics expert would ever say that, and neither would Shaw himself. I’m an American, and I don’t think there’s anything in this post that’s inferior to British English – or even significantly different.

Yes, there are differences in spelling and pronunciation when you cross the Atlantic Ocean. But that doesn’t mean one side of that body of water is right and the other side is wrong. Shaw would never have taken that snobbish position.

Quite the opposite, in fact. Here’s one of many reasons I adore Shaw: he thought New York accents were “elegant.” Yikes! I’ve always been ashamed of mine, and I’ve struggled – in vain – to erase it. My accent is a dead giveaway that I grew up on Long Island and attended public schools. I do not (sigh) have a classy accent.

But here’s what’s funny. If you didn’t grow up in New York, an accent like mine is extremely difficult to imitate. (Ask any actor!)

People think “boyd” is the New York pronunciation for bird. Nope! What we actually say sounds something like “buh-eed.” There are all kinds of subtleties like this embedded in our accent. Another feature of a New York accent is that we turn most of our vowels into diphthongs. And – famously – we often drop the r in words.

I suspect that all regional accents have these subtleties – and they all carry a linguistic history. I’ve been told that my New York accent originated in – of all places – Ireland and was brought here by immigrants.

If you’re a Beatles fan, you probably know that people from Liverpool tend to make the word book rhyme with Luke. (The boo– sounds like a Halloween boo.) That pronunciation proves they’re not educated, right?

Wrong. Book-rhymes-with-Luke is actually the original pronunciation. It died out in most places in England but lived on in Liverpool. So our Liverpudlian friends can snobbishly claim that they’re more authentic than the rest of us.

So – yes, I have a stubborn New York accent. But I also have an enlightened and respectful attitude towards other people’s speech habits, and that is something I can be proud of. Besides, Shaw thought my accent was “elegant.” So there!

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Engfish

That “Engfish” is not a typo.

A new semester will be starting this week in countless high schools and colleges. I’ve been thinking about the years I spent teaching English in a business school, a prison school, and a two-year college. Those were wonderful years, but it’s also true that I often felt frustrated about my students’ writing.

Those memories triggered thoughts about Ken Macrorie, a professor of English at Western Michigan University who despaired over the lifeless writing (he called it Engfish) that his students submitted every semester.

In a remarkable display of humility and honesty, he wrote a wonderful book (Uptaught, Hayden, 1970) that roundly placed the blame on…his teaching methods. Uptaught should be required reading for everyone who teaches English.

Or Engfish.

I’ve read more than my share of lifeless writing (and, alas, probably produced a good bit of it myself). The problem is not (surprisingly) weak language skills. I know that sounds crazy, but here’s what I’ve discovered again and again: Students produce wonderful papers if they have something to say.

And there’s the rub. What can an 18-year-old say that a middle-aged English instructor will find interesting?

My own solution was to create some controversy in my classrooms. My lower-level developmental classes studied scientific evidence about the Loch Ness Monster. Upper-level developmental students studied the Fall River Axe Murders (of Lizzie Borden fame). Sophisticated ideas, I learned, automatically generate sophisticated writing.

On the other hand, if you give students a weak topic, you’ll get weak writing back. It’s that simple.

What I really want to write about today, however, is Engfish: Expressions and ideas that immediately tip me off that I’m reading a weak paper.

#1: I would put in today’s society at the top of the list.

If this phrase has crept into something you’ve written, crumple it up, find a new topic, and start over. In today’s society is a dead giveaway that you don’t have anything provocative to say.

#2: ____________ (fill in a name) was born in ___________________.

If that’s the most interesting thing you can come up with to kick off your paper, you too need to start over.

#3: Any generalization about most people or everyone or all of us. (Everyone knows what love feels like. Money is important to all of us. Most people like to travel.) If the idea, experience, or emotion you’re discussing is that commonplace, it’s unlikely to be interesting.

What are some solutions to the Engfish problem?

Macrorie is a big fan of freewriting – allowing students to write honestly and freely in order to find a topic that’s fresh and real. I’ve already mentioned another approach: Bringing stimulating materials to class – a case study, for example, that challenges students to dig deeper into a subject.

I once attended an English teachers’ workshop that offered a different strategy that has worked beautifully for my students: Ask them to write about their jobs. We English professors are often a pampered lot who forget what minimum-wage workplaces are really like. If you want to see some amazing papers, ask your students to describe a typical day at work. Or tell you about their boss.

But remind them first that you won’t be accepting any Engfish.

 

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Dead Leaves Become a News Story

My friend Mary Dague told me about this headline from last Sunday’s newspaper: “Couple found dead leaves behind young boys.” Sadly, the story isn’t about dead leaves that were found behind some young boys. It’s about three small boys who lost their parents to an opioid overdose.

The obvious problem is the nature of headlines, which often omit words to save space and catch readers’ attention. The expanded sentence is perfectly clear:

A couple that was found dead has left behind young boys.

There are two points worth making today:

  1.  If you’re writing for anyone but yourself (a diary, for example), always have another person check what you’ve written.
  2. The postmodernists are right: language is a slippery business, full of booby traps for unsuspecting writers.

And I’m going to make an additional point: Today’s sentence might benefit from passive voice. It’s clear that the real concern is the young boys who have lost their parents. Passive voice allows you to put the boys in the position of importance: the front of the sentence.

Young boys were left behind when their parents were found dead.  PASSIVE VOICE

I sometimes encounter self-proclaimed language experts who insist that passive voice is always wrong. Don’t believe them!

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