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Hide! National Grammar Day looms

You needn't lift a rodent out of the ground in February to figure out that National Grammar Day is not far off. March 4 is less than a month away, and that leaves you with little time to mend your slovenly ways.

But National Grammar Day is not time for fretting or hysterics. It’s a day to take a cold, hard look at what you imagine to be the case with grammar and usage, comparing it to what is actually the case. By way of assisting you, You Don’t Say offers a few principles to keep in mind. *

English has rules, but not as many as you think.

There are rules for making subjects agree with verbs. There are rules for making nouns plural — you don’t get to use z instead of s. Some of the rules can get complicated, particularly because of exceptions, but they belong to a fairly discrete core group.

English has idioms.

You can’t call them rules, but if you fail to observe idiomatic expressions and constructions, people will think you odd. Certain prepositions accompany certain verbs, just because they do. You can comment on a subject, but you cannot comment of it. And some expressions are idioms; that is, they have a meaning that cannot be deduced from the meanings of the individual words, either singly or in combination. When you discover something, you come across it; when you fall asleep, you drop off.

English has conventions.

Spelling and capitalization are agreed-on practices, though they can vary widely by region, nation, genre or community of writers. The Chicago Manual of Style is a dauntingly thorough guide to the conventions of book publishing. The Associated Press Stylebook serves the same function for newspapers. But such conventions hold in limited circumstances and contexts; they are not universal and are not meant to be.

Moreover, conventions shift over time, and what you were taught in the sixth grade may no longer be the case.

Guidelines are not rules.

Winston Churchill is frequently quoted as saying that short words are best and old words best of all. “Blood, toil, tears, and sweat” carries an impact not to be denied. But if you look at his published work, you’ll find that he get can get as Augustan as the best. What you write will vary, depending on subject, context and audience.

Individual stylistic preferences are that and no more.

You may agree with H.W. Fowler that it is sensible to use that, generally, to introduce a restrictive clause and which, generally, to introduce a nonrestrictive clause, but it is not a rule, or even an unquestioned convention. It is an individual stylistic preference, like a taste for inserting commas to replicate the pauses of spoken language. You may want to restrict who to refer to people, that to animals and inanimate objects; but that is merely your preference, not a practice that you can oblige someone else to follow.

Some “rules” are mere superstitions.

Split infinitives. Not ending a sentence with a preposition. Do I have to go on again about the nonsensical and non-English prohibition on “split verbs”? If you thought I was tiresome about Wikipedia … **

So put away that cell phone. Sit up straight. Look at me while I’m talking to you. You have three weeks to clean up your act. Get busy.


* I’ll forward you subsequently to Language Log or other sites at which the experts explain patiently how I have made a hash of things.

** Oh yes, here’s a blog by someone who carries on about Wikipedia in a way that leaves me looking like a model of restraint.



Posted by John McIntyre at 9:52 AM | | Comments (19)


A little birdie (okay, Bucky over at the Sandbox) mentioned that today is your birthday.

Happy Birthday! Hope its a great one!

Actually, English has more rules than you may think. It's just that most of them are internalized to such a degree that you're unaware of them unless you think really hard. For example, the rule against using the present perfect tense in discussing dead people. Or the rule against using "to" to link an infinitive form with a modal auxiliary. The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language consists of 1860 pages of nothing but rules of English. However, many of the rules most of us were taught in school are not rules of English.

PCB Rob, John's birthday isn't until Tuesday. Unless he made a mistake on his Facebook page, which doesn't seem likely.

Great post, though I'll second what Bill says—it's not that English has few rules, but rather that it really doesn't have (or need) as many explicit rules as many people seem to think. We learn the vast bulk of the rules simply by communicating with others.

We think this day should be celebrated,
the date remains unsubstantiated,
but if this fact be true,
Happy Birthday to you,
verified, vetted, and validated.

Whichever day it is, Happy Birthday, McI!

Laura Lee is becoming my commenting hero.

Love your posts. I learn, I laugh. I learn some more.
Question on the Naional Grammar Day post.
re: "grammar and usage, comparing it to what is actually the case."
I was taught by humans and the AP Stylebook to use "compared to" when referring to similar items. "Compared with" is used to contrast items.
A rule or guideline?

-- Kathleen

That compared to/compared with distinction is one I tend to observe, but it's not statutory.

Maybe you could do a post on "bring" and "take" especially when you are talking about a group going from here to there. Does the group take stuff with them to, say, the meeting or does it bring stuff with them to a meeting?

Can you please suggest a good grammar book that one can learn from. Please suggest one that is contemporary. What do you think of Wren & Martin. Do you think it can be used in USA?

Garner's Modern American Usage by Bryan Garner is the reference on grammar and usage that I have found most helpful and accessible.

I'm not familiar with Wren & Martin.

I'll go out on a limb, Bucky, and say that "take/bring" depends on your point of view when speaking. If I am "going" to a meeting I "take" things with me. If I am "at" the meeting I use the things I "bring" to the meeting. Makes sense to me.

R-I-E - your example is clear to me. Where I get confused is when I'm part of a group that is on the move, talking to others in the group who are on the move with me.

I may be over-thinking it.

Bucky, I think I would say "take" until I reach the point of no return at which point it becomes "bring". Also known as the point at which you realize you forgot to "bring" something and it's too late to go back and get it.

You have three weeks to clean up your act.

What happens on March 3?

You have three weeks to clean up your act.

What happens on March 3?

(In the event that I did not sign this a moment ago. I was so stunned by the realization that something important is happening....)

What happens on March 3?

Grammar Eve, Eve.

Paragraph 4, last line (under English has idioms), is "do fall asleep" supposed to be "you fall asleep?"

JEM: Yep.

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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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