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Ask the experts?

In Rio de Janeiro they have set up a grammar hotline, according to the BBC. (thank you, Mr. Gitomer, for the link). Residents unsure about spellings and the use of accents in Portuguese may call up for advice. Apparently, there is anxiety in Brazil about correctness in using the language, because errors in grammar are stigmatized as indicating a lack of education. (Here, they appear to be a qualification for public office.)

Mr. Gitomer invited me to consider, “So, what happens when one calls with the same question eight times (the number of experts) and one gets eight different answers.”

Yes, imagine a grammar hotline for speakers of English. A lucky caller might get Bryan Garner or Jan Freeman or Bill Walsh, all of whom I generally agree with, which indicates that they are persons of rare discernment. An unlucky caller might get Martin Estinel, the British proponent of an Academy of English, or one of those glassy-eyed devotees of The Elements of Style, or the ignoramuses who inveigh against passive constructions without knowing what the passive voice is.

Things may be different in Portuguese, though I doubt it, but in English, beyond the rules of grammar that both prescriptivists and descriptivists recognize, there is a broad muddy ground of mixed choices. Mr. Garner, for example, has in the third edition of Garner’s Modern American Usage established a five-point scale of usage, from “Rejected” to “Fully accepted,” and there is a lot going on in the continuum between those poles.

Reasonable people can disagree over points of usage, but in these discussions, as in politics, it is the unreasonable people who appear to be loudest. You need to tune in to the reasonable people.

Fortunately, you’re reading here.



Sir Frank Kermode, one of the great literary critics of the age, died yesterday at the age of 90. I quoted him once in a post on the reasons for avoiding cliches. It merits remembering.



Posted by John McIntyre at 11:20 AM | | Comments (4)


I hope the AP doesn't take this up as a "good idea."

But, it turns out, you can safely ask Language Log:

In fact, as far as I could tell in my studies of (Brazilian) Portuguese, grammarians seem quite in agreement over rules of the written language. The spoken language, at least in Brazil, is significantly different from the written form (enough so that some even call it a separate dialect), and I am not familiar with attempts to describe spoken grammar (though I'm sure there are some). The prescriptivist grammar of written Portuguese in Brazil, however, is almost completely adhered to by writers (though not in informal contexts, such as text messages, etc.). My professors in Brazil, who were familiar with literature in other languages, made a point of telling us how Brazilian authors were infamous for their inability to write good, realistic dialogue. Brazilians are obsessed with correct grammar (though almost never in their speech, which is incredibly "ungrammatical," except in formal contexts), and it is easy to see how something like this might catch on, for those looking to write "more correctly." It seems to me there's less of a gray area in written Portuguese than in written English (although, reading books in Portuguese, I often wished writers were less committed to following the rules and actually wrote how people talked -- this, in my opinion, is one reason why Brazilians don't read for pleasure very often... it's hard!). Someone like President Lula, however, would be under great pressure to speak as he would write -- that is, following the rules. Also, as of this year and the last, Portuguese spelling worldwide has been adjusted so that most spellings are equivalent in all Lusophone countries (just imagine the confusion if we were suddenly told we had to write "colour" and "practise"!).

I thought English was a boring language to me until I looked at the log post you, John, mentioned in the comments. Would you consider writing something interesting about the discussed construction?

His hands gripping the door, he let out a volley of curses.
This done, she walked off without another word.

It sure looks nice.

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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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