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Oh, keep your peeves to yourself

I don’t think I’ve ever contributed to anyone’s list of pet peeves. The whole concept is deeply suspect.

Think of the word peevish. Think of old Mr. Woodhouse in Emma, querulous (but not quite petulant) and preoccupied with trifles, someone who must be humored by everyone else.

Or look again at that phrase pet peeve — some personal preference that is caressed and indulged.

In writing and editing, there is nothing wrong with indulging in innocent individual preferences. I’m particularly irritated by the journalistic taboo against putting an adverb between the auxiliary and main verb — writing always has written instead of has always written. It is not, strictly speaking, an error of grammar, but it is awkward and non-idiomatic syntax. If I have time to change it while editing, I do so, and no one has ever complained. (And if you read over has ever complained just now without finding it amiss, you see how idiomatic English is written.)

It is when personal preferences are elevated to rules and arbitrarily imposed that both writers and editors lose perspective on the work. This is why it is salutary to look at people like Bryan Garner and Bill Walsh on the prescriptivist side, and Mark Liberman and Arnold Zwicky on the descriptivist side at Language Log,* to gauge whether those preferences are innocent or misguided.

For the record, a little zeal in opposing something that is manifestly wrong does not qualify as a peeve.

 

*All of whom, by the way, are in agreement in denouncing the “split verb” superstition.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 11:38 AM | | Comments (5)
        

Comments

I never have cared for the split verb superstition. I have always thought that the flexibility can allow for better flow. I suppose always is the wrong word, but since I have had an opinion on such things I have held that one.

Keeping your peeves to yourself is probably the best advice that a fledgling editor can learn, in my opinion. Too many young editors don't know where to draw the line and think it's their job to change anything they don't like or wouldn't have written themselves.

Let's put our palms together for Jonathon -- slapping officious copy readers upside the head, on both sides!!

the journalistic taboo against putting an adverb between the auxiliary and main verb — writing always has written instead of has always written. It is not, strictly speaking, an error of grammar,

Hmmm, not an actual error? I have thought it WAS an actual error, ever since I ran across the instruction, in Words into Type, that the adverb should follow the first auxiliary verb.

My experience w/ this particular problem (which also makes me crazy) is that every journalist who has ever done it in front of me has defended it by saying, "You're not supposed to split the infinitive."

Of which is isn't one, and which is acceptable anyway.

So I don't consider this to be a "pet peeve" so much as an instance in which I actually know more grammar than the journalists who turned in the copy, and I fix it, and I persuade them that they are applying an incorrect rule to the wrong situation.

As you said: "For the record, a little zeal in opposing something that is manifestly wrong does not qualify as a peeve."

But yes, I have to roll my eyes at the editor at my publication who decided that "autumn" is horrible, and only the word "fall" should be used.

(At my current employer, we used to have a rule that said not to use the word "confection" unless we were actually talking about candy--no hats, or paintings, or vases could be "confections"; and "fun" was not to be used as an adjective---no "fun paint scheme." Those are definitely personal peeves, but I think it is acceptable for the editor to issue those edicts in an attempt to influence the tone and voice of the publication.)

If we read and write carefully, "always has written" and "has always written" are not interchangeable. The emphasis is different. Likewise "to boldly go" and "to go boldly." There are cases where splitting an infinitive is "wrong" (i.e., if you're trying the emphasize the verb) and cases where splitting an infinitive is right (i.e., when you're trying to emphasize the adverb). Sorry if I'm beating a dead horse, but it seems that some dead horses need extra beating.

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About John McIntyre
John McIntyre, mild-mannered editor for a great metropolitan newspaper, has fussed over writers’ work, to sporadic expressions of gratitude, for thirty years. He is The Sun’s night content production manager and former head of its copy desk. He also teaches editing at Loyola University Maryland. A former president of the American Copy Editors Society, a native of Kentucky, a graduate of Michigan State and Syracuse, and a moderate prescriptivist, he writes about language, journalism, and arbitrarily chosen topics. If you are inspired by a spirit of contradiction, comment on the posts or write to him at john.mcintyre@baltsun.com.
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