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The origins of error

People commit many errors in grammar and fall into many infelicities in usage — but not as often as the mavenry* would have you think. Many false prescriptions rise from misinformation, which has multiple sources, and many unreliable practices rise from misunderstanding. I’d like to begin an examination and classification of those sources of error.

You’ve got to be carefully taught

Well-meaning, long-serving and dedicated English teachers and composition teachers have unwittingly drilled generations of students to believe things that are not so, and to accept practices that are alien to idiomatic English.

One of the most notable examples is the longstanding prohibition against splitting infinitives, which has been repeatedly denounced as an arrant superstition by linguists and the better class of prescriptivists. It sometimes appears that the only thing that adults retain from English class, apart from a dislike of Silas Marner, is a vestigial sense that splitting an infinitive constitutes a high crime and misdemeanor against the language.

Even more unfortunately, since grammar and usage are taught almost as badly as mathematics in our serene Republic, these adults have only the most shadowy sense of what an infinitive is.** Thus befuddled, they embrace the further superstition that it is impermissible to insert an adverb between an auxiliary verb and the main verb.*** Journalists are particularly susceptible to this form of unidiomatic English.

Sleeping in class

Though English teachers, bless their hearts, must shoulder a heavy load of blame, we have to remember that many students don’t read the assignment, don’t retain the assignment when they read it, doodle or pass notes instead of paying attention in class, and carry away peculiarly distorted recollections of what was said in class.

This came home to me when I was a teaching assistant at Syracuse and a fellow graduate student recounted an incident from a freshman composition class: After he asked the class to explain what a paragraph is, one student’s hand shot up. A little dazed at the idea that a Syracuse undergraduate would be willing to speak in class, he called on the student to explain what a paragraph is and got the concise answer, “Six sentences.”

Managing editor syndrome

You don’t actually have to be a managing editor. You can be an executive editor or a copy desk chief or a department head. If you have an office with a name on the door, you probably have some measure of power to impose your whims on your subordinates. You don’t have to have studied anything or consulted any authorities; you merely have to conclude that you dislike some word or construction because your “ear” for the language is offended by it. Sanctified in a memo and embedded in an in-house stylebook, your uninformed strictures can outlive your mortal frame.

I can’t recall at the moment where I read recently about a manager who campaigned against the word got, arguing that it’s wrong to say that some one got sick, because to get can only be used in the sense of acquiring something intentionally. Anyone who has ever worked at a newspaper — and probably just about anyone who has ever worked in an office — can furnish examples of equally idiotic ukases.

Unjustifiable extrapolation

An affliction prevalent among copy editors is the tendency to turn guidelines into rules, and then to extend them beyond the original scope. Copy editors are particularly prone to this disorder. Bill Walsh and I have pointed out for years that the Associated Press stylebook entry specifying half-acre doesn’t mean that it is impermissible to write half an acre, but only that you must use a hyphen if you write half-acre. Yet I have known a number of copy editors who reflexively changed half an acre to half-acre in all instances “because AP says so.”

I don’t want to hear it

Perhaps the saddest phenomenon of all is the refusal to entertain new information. “This is what Sister Mary Catherine/my journalism professor/my first slotman told me.” “This is how I’ve written it for 20 years, and I’m not about to change on your say-so.” “I don’t care what Bryan Garner says; it doesn’t sound right.” “I don’t pay any attention to those people on Language Log because they use big words and act like they know more than you do.”

None so deaf as those who choose not to hear.

Sometimes an errant seed of sound practice will take root, grow and flower. But there are still a lot of weeds out there.

 

* Language mavens, self-appointed authorities and kibitzers whose ranks include schoolteachers, editors, columnists, bloggers and quacks of many varieties.

** An infinitive is the basic form of the verb with the preposition to: to speak, to write, to eat, to sleep, to defecate are all infinitives.

*** We have always placed adverbs between the auxiliary verb and main verb in English, since Chaucer was a schoolboy.

 

 

Posted by John McIntyre at 3:19 PM | | Comments (7)
        

Comments

The split infinitive! I was in college, doing the Creative Writing portion of English 101; setting the scene with ...he attempted to slowly, silently creep... and was gigged for splitting the infinitive. The professor - a Harvard PhD and didn't we hear THAT a dozen times during each class, prompting us to ask each other just WHAT a lah-di-darn-dah Harvardian was doing teaching at a NJ State college??! - wrote a "correct" sentence that was so boring I wanted to cry. My 18-19 year old self was quite sure he was just jealous of my talent.

Perhaps the most famous split infinitive: "...to boldly go where no man has gone before." For me, "to go boldly" just doesn't cut it.

Another annoying non-rule is Fowler's proposed distinction between the relative pronouns "which" and "that," which he advanced as a suggestion, but which others (Garner, in particular) have insisted on as a rule, despite Fowler's own admission that it wasn't.

Gotta say I'm a fan of the undergrad's "six sentences" response!

Off topic. But if there's an edict from the current U.S. attorney general is is a "Mukasey ukase" ?

"they embrace the further superstition that it is impermissible to insert an adjective between an auxiliary verb and the main verb"

Love your blog. But, dear colleague, shirley you mean 'adverb'.

(I'm a sub, as we call 'em, on the Times. Of London, I suppose I have to add!)

Surely I do.

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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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