On the garmmra watch

From several sources recently, a January 31st LitReactor column by Jon Gingerich on “20 Common Grammar Mistakes”. Of course, it’s about garmmra, not actually about grammar — as Stan Carey asked rhetorico-challengingly on his blog, “Where’s the grammar in these “common grammar mistakes”? — but, for a change, it’s not a mish-mash of (putative) mis-steps in language, but a focused list: it’s all about word choice. Not about spelling, punctuation, linguistic politeness, and so on, but also not about such perennial syntactic peeve-faves as ending a sentence with a preposition, beginning a sentence with a coordinating conjunction, or splitting infinitives. Instead: it’s all

Don’t use word X; to convey this meaning, use Y instead.

(and at least two commenters noted this).

(Carey also cites a recent plaint from John McIntyre about a more mixed-bag list of “grammar mistakes”. New lists crop up all the time; assembling them is a kind of pop sport.)

Thanks to Tom Wasow (“here’s some usage advice that has been making the rounds among my daughter’s lawyer friends”), Paul Armstrong, and Stan Carey for the links.

A delicious irony is that Gingerich’s column was originally entitled

20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Gets Wrong

This is an inadvertent error itself, a syntactic blend of something like “grammar points/choices that (almost) everyone gets wrong” and “grammar mistakes that (almost) everyone makes” (or possibly a species of overnegation, combining mistakes and wrong). After commenters complained, Gingerich changed the title to the second of these.

Gingerich’s lead in:

I’ve edited a monthly magazine [O’Dwyer’s] for more than six years, and it’s a job that’s come with more frustration than reward. If there’s one thing I am grateful for — and it sure isn’t the pay — it’s that my work has allowed endless time to hone my craft to Louis Skolnick levels of grammar geekery.

[Louis Skolnick is one of the two protagonists of the 1984 college-campus comedy film Revenge of the Nerds (and its sequels and its tv spin-off).]

As someone who slings red ink for a living, let me tell you: grammar is an ultra-micro component in the larger picture; it lies somewhere in the final steps of the editing trail; and as such it’s an overrated quasi-irrelevancy in the creative process, perpetuated into importance primarily by bitter nerds who accumulate tweed jackets and crippling inferiority complexes. But experience has also taught me that readers, for better or worse, will approach your work with a jaundiced eye and an itch to judge. While your grammar shouldn’t be a reflection of your creative powers or writing abilities, let’s face it — it usually is.

Below are 20 common grammar mistakes I see routinely, not only in editorial queries and submissions, but in print: in HR manuals, blogs, magazines, newspapers, trade journals, and even best selling novels. If it makes you feel any better, I’ve made each of these mistakes a hundred times, and I know some of the best authors in history have lived to see these very toadstools appear in print. Let’s hope you can learn from some of their more famous mistakes.

The list:

1. who/whom
2. which/that
3. lay/lie
4. moot ‘superfluous’ (rather than ‘disputed’)
5. continual/continuous
6. envy/jealousy
7. nor/or
8. may/might
9. whether/if
10. fewer/less
11. farther/further
12. since/because
13. disinterested/uninterested
14. anxious/eager
15. different than/from
16. bring/take
17. impactful ‘influential’
18. affect/effect
19. irony/coincidence
20. nauseous/nauseated

And then the obligatory bow to S&W, treated as a reference on grammar:

If you’re looking for a practical, quick guide to proper grammar, I suggest the tried-and-true classic The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White. A few of these examples are listed in the book, and there are plenty more.

I don’t know why people who set themselves up as authorities, including some editors, don’t bother to look at actual reference works on usage, but instead just pour out their personal tastes, largely based on dimly remembered bits of lore they picked up in school. Why no glance at all at MWDEU, which has thoughtful, and scholarly, discussions of almost all of the points on Gingerich’s list? Instead, we get blinkered pig-ignorance.

Two of Gingerich’s attitudes are bizarre, though very popular: that there can be points of linguistic usage that almost everyone gets wrong (this is an appeal to the idea that there are regulative principles in language that were established by some small set of authorities and are fixed and unchanging); and that people should approach the task of writing with the goal of avoiding usages that would be viewed as erroneous by hypercrites, that is, judgmental assholes (see my “Crazies win” posting from 2008).

The comments on Gingerich’s piece include several bringing up putative errors in his text; writing judgmentally about “mistakes” tends to bring out your readers’ hypercritical impulses. Two are especially interesting.

Could care less. A commenter writes (I leave the spelling, punctuation, and syntax untouched):

I would like to point out a grammical error if I could, despite the irony. In the paragraph about disinerested and uninterested the last sentence you have ‘someone who couldn’t care less’ I do believe it should be someone who could care less, using couldn’t implies that they could care more. Right?

The commenter has done a very natural thing here, taking their own usage (could care less) as the yardstick for judging Gingerich’s. But that takes us into passionately disputed territory. Another commenter replies, defending Gingerich’s usage as standard:

Wrong, actually. People frequently use the phrase “could care less” to indicate that they don’t care.  This intended meaning makes “couldn’t care less” the proper phrase to use.  If one “couldn’t care less” that would mean one cares as little as it’s possible to care.  By saying that you “could care less” you are saying that you do, in fact, care. This is generally the opposite of the intended meaning most people are going for when they pull this phrase out.

(Of course, you’d have to be obtuse indeed not to understand what people are doing with could care less. There’s a MWDEU entry, of course, and extensive discussion on Language Log.)

Substitute. One reader picked up on substitute with (rather than replace with) in the who/whom item, where Gingerich wrote:

When in doubt, substitute “who” with the subjective pronouns “he” or “she,” e.g., Who loves you? cf., He loves me. Similarly, you can also substitute “whom” with the objective pronouns “him” or “her.”

This time it’s Gingerich who’s writing what comes natural to him, apparently in ignorance of the literature disparaging his usage.

I’ve written a lot on ADS-L about the argument structures for the verb substitute; there’s a concise summary in a Language Log posting, here. Even more concisely: there are three stages —

standard substitute (substitute NEW for OLD);

encroached substitute (substitute OLD with/by NEW);

reversed substitute (substitute OLD for NEW).

Gingerich used encroached substitute — which, as I said, has been disparaged, though it’s been around for quite some time as an alternative to replace. There’s a MWDEU entry, which points out that encroached substitute has been recognized as standard in Merriam-Webster dictionaries since WNI2 in 1934. (Reversed substitute is genuinely recent, so recent that it didn’t make it into MWDEU (1989)).

So in the real world, there’s nothing wrong with Gingerich’s encroached substitute. But given his attitudes towards other usages, he should be confessing usage sin and editing his piece to have replace rather than substitute.

Another thing that happens when you spew usage peeves is that you invite people to pile on with more (whether or not you intend to). A fair number of the comments on Gingerich’s piece accept this invitation enthusiastically.


4 Responses to “On the garmmra watch”

  1. Jonathon Says:

    “This is an appeal to the idea that there are regulative principles in language that were established by some small set of authorities and are fixed and unchanging.”

    The most bizarre attitude, I think, is that most people seem to think that the rules simply exist and should be followed. Not only do they never consider where the rules come from, they never even consider that they have to come from somewhere.

  2. Where’s the grammar in these “common grammar mistakes”? « Sentence first Says:

    […] Zwicky has also analysed the LitReactor article in detail, and finds that it’s “about garmmra, not actually about grammar”: I don’t know why people who set themselves up as authorities, including some editors, don’t bother to look at actual reference works on usage, but instead just pour out their personal tastes, largely based on dimly remembered bits of lore they picked up in school. […]

  3. This Week’s Language Blog Roundup | Wordnik ~ all the words Says:

    […] of conversation in Twitter. Jan Freeman unraveled a mind-buggering mystery; Arnold Zwicky was on the garmmra (not grammar) watch; Arrant Pedantry rolled the dice; and Grammarphobia flushed out some bathroom […]

  4. On (American) mootness « Motivated Grammar Says:

    […] *: For expert deconstruction of this article, see Arnold Zwicky and Stan […]

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