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More correct than you

Jill Rosen should have known when she set out to write about people who correct other people’s grammar that she would inevitably draw the attention of people who like to correct the grammar of the people who like to correct people’s grammar. (My reaction you’ve already seen.)

Some of the responses she got, with my commentary:

"I do judge a little bit," Corsetto admits. "That comment section was appalling. I was kind of embarrassed as a Barack Obama supporter ... some of the comments trying to back our side up were so poorly written I was thinking, 'God, writing this poor is weakening our point.'" It should either read:'God, this poor writing is weakening our point, " or be changed to "'God, writing this poorly weakens our point.'" Otherwise, its grammatically clumbsy...

The is nothing grammatically or syntactically wrong with the sentence in question. Writing is a gerund appropriately modified by the adjective poor. This poor writing changes the meaning of the original, the sense of which is writing as poor as this. Writing this poorly also fails to catch quite the sense of comparative quality.

I am one of the school that hears a mistake but lacks (is that "lack," singular?) the courage or the confidence to correct it. But to be a grammar policeman is to ascend a slippery slope. You yourself slipped on that slippery slope: Page 1, third line from bottom, you write, "His standard for quickie Twitter is different than his blog." But on Page 22 of "Grammar Girls," Mignon Fogarty instructs: "Different from is preferred to different than ". (Ex: Squiggly knew he was different from the other snails..."

It’s a fair cop, as the British criminal classes say. Though different than is not always wrong — particularly useful in introducing a clause — different from followed by a noun is standard usage.

A small caution: as representatives of "the elite," we are pulverized when we make an occasional mistake, even a typo. Each of us is susceptible. You wrote, "...but a person's standing in the online universe is based, in part, on how they use words." The antecedent of they is person, so the pronoun needs to be singular, not plural. They don't match. Interestingly, Grant Barrett makes the same mistake in the article's next-to-last- paragraph.

Person … they is increasingly accepted as standard in British writng, and some commentators, among them the authors of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, suggest that Americans would do well to follow suit: Examples of they following a singular antecedent “are uses following a normal pattern in English that was established four centuries before 18th-century grammarians invented the solecism. The plural pronoun is one solution devised by native speakers of English to a grammatical problem inherent in that language—and it is by no means the worst solution.”

The singular they is already well established in speech and seems likely to prevail in time over the clumsy he or she construction or the sometimes-unworkable plural construction. It is probably better to think of it as a matter of individual preference rather than an error.

And finally, one writer drags in an error from a separate article:

I found it ironic that your column today dealt with mistakes in grammar. I sent an e-mail to Fred Rasmussen yesterday about his piece, but it came back undelivered. I.e. in the obituary headlines yesterday highlighting the life of Pasquale Polillo. The headline was:

Pasquale 'Pat' Polillo Johns Hopkins graduate was a broadcasting executive who become a well-known personality in Philadelphia.

When that is "spell checked" with my Juno program it does not alert me that the incorrect tense of the verb "become" is used. I have noticed that published books - particularly novels - have many errors. I think a significant problem is the use of "spell check" programs that often do not deal with syntax errors.

Mr. Rasmussen did not write the headline; copy editors write headlines for articles in The Sun. And while become for became is indisputably an error, I suspect that it is not an error in grammar so much as a mere typographical error. Sometimes the wrong synapse fires, or the finger hits the wrong key. Then the proofreader’s eye registers the near-correct spelling as the correct one, and off it goes merrily into print.



Posted by John McIntyre at 7:07 PM | | Comments (5)


"The singular they is already well established in speech and seems likely to prevail in time over the clumsy he or she construction or the sometimes-unworkable plural construction."

Singular "they" has been used by the best writers of English for hundreds of years. It's not an innovation. Its widespread use doesn't portend the collapse and death of the English language.

There is a website devoted to this, with lots of examples from Jane Austen and plenty of others from other paragons of English prose.

But to be a grammar policeman is to ascend a slippery slope.

I always thought slippery slopes were descended.

lacks (is that "lack," singular?)

"Lack" is the plural form.

Those who try to ascend a slippery slope occasionally succeed, but, yes, they tend to find themselves descending.

Can't figure why singular "they" presents such a problem when English is so hard up for inflexions. Numerous verb endings do multiple duty, in the process frequently crossing the singular/plural divide. So why not this one? Grammar advice typically admits this usage grudgingly, referring to it as an irregular use of the plural form. I think it makes more sense to regard it as just another singular that happens to share a form with a plural -- especially as the singularity of the reference is plain enough to annoy the pedants.

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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
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