Language debate and sensible advice

Anne Curzan at Lingua Franca has a spot-on blog post about the descriptive-prescriptive debate. Her post is pegged to a Wall Street Journal essay headlined “There Is No ‘Proper’ English.” Curzan, an English professor and a linguist, explains that the usage beliefs that some label “superstitions” could be called “conventions.” She writes about the value of conventional, standard English.

As a copy editor, I hew to those conventions but avoid the discredited “rules.” For example, I would never edit a sentence to avoid a so-called split infinitive, and I know that writers are perfectly free to begin sentences with “and” or “but.” I do, however, edit to avoid an unintentional double negative or a dangling modifier. My goal is not to blindly obey rules, but to make published writing clearer and more readable. I am also trying to avoid distracting a reader from the writer’s point. A double negative in informational pieces, such as the ones I edit for a living, would be a distraction.

If thoughtful copy editors ever need an expert opinion to support their efforts to improve writing, they could turn to Professor Curzan’s essay.

By the way, Lingua Franca is worth checking regularly for language and writing advice.

I wrote earlier about the tone of the descriptive-prescriptive debate, too.


Just a little guidance: 10 years of blogging about grammar, usage, and copy editing

“But I’m just a soul whose intentions are good.
Oh, lord, please don’t let me be misunderstood.”
—Nina Simone*

Facebook friends sometimes share with me memes that refer to “Grammar Police” or “Grammar Nazis.” I never take offense at such posts. But the truth is that I hope I don’t come off as anything that could be construed as a Nazi (let’s use that term only for actual Nazis) or even as a police officer.

The tone on both sides of the prescriptive-descriptive debate bothers me quite a bit. Even if some folks cling to “rules” that are myths (split infinitives, sentences ending in prepositions), we needn’t be nasty or dismissive (even if we think the beliefs those people hold are baseless peeves). I say we practice the Precious Metal Rule of Facebook in all casual matters: When someone posts a silly meme that you think is vacuous and possibly even erroneous, just scroll on past (or hide it if it really gets under your skin) and don’t respond unless you’re asked directly to express an opinion. If you do respond in writing, be respectful of the people, even as you rebut their views. And those who hold those beliefs instilled long ago in a classroom or on a copy desk should take the opportunity to question whether a reasoned argument based on linguistic evidence might be valid. Don’t be rude, and don’t be priggish. We would all do well to remember that language changes and standards evolve. I learn a great deal from reading what linguists and lexicographers write about English.

Read the rest of this entry »


Tweets and teases need a second look (new Grammar Guide quiz)

I have a new Grammar Guide quiz (No. 76) for you to try. This one uses images of online tweets and posts. If you try the quiz, be sure to click on the images to enlarge (or, to use a word from The Simpsons, to embiggen) them. This quiz uses mostly fill-in-the-blank questions, and I hope I have anticipated different versions of the correct answers in spots. Click here to begin the quiz.

As always, I welcome your comments and questions, either in the comments section for this post or by email.


How knowing grammar can help copy editors

This headline in my community newspaper made me think twice: Growing area not in DOT plan.

growinghead

Nothing is wrong in this head. It’s perfectly accurate and correct. The confusion was in my own interpretation. At first, I read “growing” as the subject of the sentence with the understood verb “is,” but then I quickly questioned why the Department of Transportation would be trying to grow an area. I realized then that “growing” was a modifier for “area.”

To explain my misreading of the headline, I rely on terms that we learned in schoolroom grammar. (If I were educated in linguistics, I’d have a better explanation, but, alas, I am a mere copy editor and one of those oft-pitied English majors.)

At first glance, I saw “growing” as a gerund—a verbal formed with a verb and ending in -ing that functions as a noun. Gerunds, just like nouns, can be subjects of verbs, objects of verbs or prepositions, or subject complements. However, in this headline, “growing” is a present participle (also formed with a verb and -ing) being used as an adjective to describe or modify the noun “area.”

Knowing these terms allows me to explain how I read or misread this headline. If I need to tell a writer why I think a sentence should be edited to make misreading less of a possibility, I can draw on schoolroom grammar terms to make my case. This knowledge gives my suggestion some authority and makes me seem less arbitrary. I am not using it as a bludgeon to beat a writer into submission, but rather as a bridge to guide the writer to another way of thinking.

Copy editors often are criticized for clinging to usage shibboleths that we learned in high school or in our first editing jobs, and indeed, we should examine our long-held beliefs and discard those that don’t do anything to make writing clearer or more readable. But grammar we learned in school is still useful and helpful. I keep grammar, usage, and style references nearby to check and refresh my knowledge as needed.

 

 


Check out the new Grammar Guide quiz

I’ve posted a new quiz (No. 75) that has six multiple-choice questions and four fill-in-the-blank questions with images. All have to do with word choice. Give the quiz a try and leave feedback in the comments or send me email.