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Sense amid the clamor of nonsense

People believe all kinds of nonsense about politics—that George W. Bush was behind the September 11 attacks, that Barack Obama is not a native-born American citizen. Moronic legislators in what H.L. Mencken used to call the cow states are forever trying to smuggle Genesis into the biology curriculum of the public schools. Crackpot theories—that immunization causes autism, for example—take root in the public consciousness and remain long after they have been discredited.

Nonsense also infests my little realm of writing about the English language, as you have seen in numerous previous posts. People obstinately adhere to what Arnold Zwicky calls “zombie rules”—you know, split infinitives, prepositions at the end of sentences—that no reputable authority has advocated for decades. Popular books on writing and websites offer stunningly unsound advice, including statements about the language that are demonstrably incorrect. Much of the writing on language in newspapers and magazines is simply laughable, with the exception of a few intelligent stalwarts such as Jan Freeman at The Boston Globe.

So today I want to steer you toward something reliable.

First off, Geoffrey K. Pullum has taken on the task of explaining passive clauses. “The passive in English” at Language Log runs to 2,500 words, but don’t be daunted. Professor Pullum has taken the trouble to minimize the number of technical terms and to explain them clearly. His essay will do two things for you:

1. It will explain thoroughly how the passive operates in English, including a number of cases that people do not generally recognize as passive.

2. It will also show you how linguists approach the language, and just why the traditional terminology of grammar that you learned in the classroom long ago is not adequate to the purpose.

Take time for it.

Afterward, you can turn to a short article by Anthony Gardner on the practice of turning nouns into verbs. Even though you can find abundant commentary scorning the practice, verbing nouns, along with nouning verbs, has been commonplace in English since the peasantry dropped all those inflections from Anglo-Saxon long, long ago. Impact, for one, has been a verb in English for centuries, despite what your personal preferences might be.

And there lies a point often obscured in wrangling over language. These changes in usage crop up continually. Some of them stick, and some of them fade. But they are not grammatically incorrect. You may, with justice, find them aesthetically repugnant—vogueish, affected, awkward, wrong-headed, pretentious, obscurantist. (If there is any justice in the universe, the hours I have spent listening to management-speak in meetings should materially shorten my time in Purgatory.) But your personal tastes and preferences are not the rules of the language.

That bears repeating: Your personal tastes and preferences are not the rules of the language. Keep stylistic issues separate from grammatical issues.



Posted by John McIntyre at 10:29 AM | | Comments (6)


Thanks, John, for pointing out excellent articles. Even more thanks for reminding editors about the difference between rules and style. Zombie rules, indeed!

Geoff's scorn for popular opinions of Passive reminds me of one of my favorite quotations from P.J. O'Rourke:

"Opinions about language are as interesting as opinions about arithmetic."

John Lawler,

I'm sure diehard, committed mathematicians, and any of those suspected- anal-retentive brainiacs who get their jollies from contemplating, and then waxing poetic over some exquisitely formulated humongous arithmetic equation, or elegantly posed new geometric theorem, might find a certain inherent 'interest' in various opinions re/ all things arithmetic, or in the grander scheme of things, the broader over-riding discipline of mathematics.

Otherwise, I would guess like most of the mathematically-challenged, artfully creative, right-brain-favoring, lefties out there, like yours truly, I'm kind of more drawn to opinions, and discussion re/ the rules of language usage. (Hence my lingering on THIS site.)

I can basically balance my check book, and that's where my grasp of higher mathematics sadly ends. (Ugh!)

(Oh, I realize that the jury is still out re/ which particular hemispheres, and specific sectors of our human brains are responsible for creative artistic and mathematical thinking, and expression. Most folks, (not unlike w/ the issue of right versus left-handedness), tend to favor one-or-the-other brain hemisphere, although it appears in recent credible scientific studies that we all use both, in our varied cognitive, and creative processes. Very interesting, indeed.)

John (Lawler), by-the-by, I've always appreciated, w/ delight, humorist P. J. O'Rourke;s shibboleth-bashing, slightly ironic sense of the absurd, when I first discovered him many decades ago as the then-editor-in-chief of National Lampoon magazine, and more recently as an occasional guest funny-guy on NPR's satirical, news-themed regular weekend morning show, "Wait! Wait! Don't Tell Me".

Comics Moe Rocca, Paula Poundstone, Roy Blount Jr., Tom Bodette et al, along w O'Roarke always seem to deliver hilariously,without fail, w/ their zany off-the-wall quips, and lively on-air humorous, free-for-all kibitzing. But I digress. (What else is new? HA!)


@ Alex: Arithmetic is the branch of mathematics concerned with counting and calculation (e.g. 2 + 2 = 4, 6 - 4 = 2, etc.). It is functional, not theoretical. Unless you are prone to arguing with your calculator, it's unlikely that opinion would ever play a part in any understanding of arithmetic, which is pretty much the essence of O'Rourke's joke.

Nouning? Oh please. And you wonder why some reasonably literate people protest.

JD Considine,

Ex-cuse me! As the comic Steve Martin would say.

Hmm.... according to your obvious left-brain-induced mild admonition of my NOT clearly recognizing the basic distinction between "arithmetic" (a fixed, functional, not-open-to-opinion or conjecture w/ its universally accepted strict "counting and calculation" --your designation---- rules), and, conversely, the wider realm of open-ended theoretical mathematics, then I guess the aforementioned balancing of my check book in my earlier post has virtually nothing whatsoever to do w/ the theoretical branch(s) of mathematics, per se, but everything to do w/ the basic, cut-and-dried domain of arithmetic?

Hmm........ so when I have a difference of opinion over my existing credit card balance, or certain phantom fees that suddenly appear on my monthly statement w/ say my Chase Visa folks, I can't really cloud, (or clarify) the issue w/ a bunch of made up theoretical mathematical mumbo-jumbo, or personal opining, but alas, must adhere to the immutable principles of basic arithmetic------- addition, subtraction, long division, decimal points and percentages-----the unflinching application of which the wily Chase Morgan professional bean-counters know only too well.

Thanks JD for your incite. Further, I can now see more clearly what P. J. O'Rourke was driving at w/ his sarcasm-tinged joke. Talk about dry humor.

I knew I could 'count' (HA!) on you to set me straight, JD.


P.S.: JD, I really liked your "arguing w/ your calculator" bit. For some reason I picture Brit actor John Cleese as hotelier Basil Fawlty, of "Fawlty Towers" fame, going completely ballistic, literally strangling his balky, senior-sized-calculator-in-hand, and his ever frustrated wife shouting, "Basil! Did you put that flea-bitten moose head up in the lobby yet?........Basil?" (HA!)

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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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