Grammar Police: Making It Safe to Start a Sentence with a Gerund

Let’s eat, Grandma!
Let’s eat Grandma!
…Grammar Saves Lives…

Grammar-themed image
Grammar-themed images courtesy of someeecards.com

I am a rule follower. I also like to know what the rules are, so I can break them. Stealthily, of course. But rules are what keeps society from going to hell in a handbasket, right? Traffic rules keep cars from running into each other or over pedestrians *Rome coff* . Please wash your hands before cooking my dinner, Mr. Guano Salesman. No hitting below the belt. No cutting in line.

Which is why I was particularly torqued off when I came across a blog post–in my WordPress reader no less–disdaining “Grammar purity” as a Ponzi scheme.* The essence of the argument is that “we” (English speaking-society) came up with the rules…. (ergo “we” can break them?) Dictionaries are arbiters of such rules, but looking in dictionaries shows that there is flexibility (ergo they aren’t really rules). Manuals such as The Chicago Manual of Style and the Associated Press Stylebook are “style guidelines, not grammar rules.”

These “rules” have shown impressive staying power. From cocktail parties to kitchen tables, these seemingly fascinating bits of grammar trivia have been repeated over and over, in some cases for centuries.

Too bad they’re not true.
–June Casagrande

Standard Written English is not just a Style Guide

I beg to differ, Ms. Casagrande. There are written rules; they are true; they ought to be followed. Distinguishing between their, there, and they’re is not just “grammar trivia.”

Before dictionaries existed, there was chaos. Or caos. Or kaos. People spelled words however they fancied. Even as recently as 17th century England, spelling wasn’t standardized. Shakespeare is hard enough with all those archaic words–imagine if the ones we do know were spelled every which way. Dictionaries, even though they list etymologies, multiple-spellings, and flexible word usage, aren’t intended to be mere guides. Iff us spll wurds anny wy u wnt, its tuff two communnnica… comunic..say wot u mean.

It’s hogwash to dismiss grammar textbooks as “misguided” or “overzealous” because they’re laying down lane markers for future writers of America. It’s also a specious argument to claim the rules aren’t true because there isn’t a single textbook, no single Grammar Penal Code to which everyone refers. There’s no single algebra textbook either, but despite slight variations from book to book, students all learn the same distributive property.

It’s misleading to suggest to writers that they need not worry about rules to follow. Standardized testing to get into college and graduate school includes sections that explicitly test punctuation, usage, and sentence constructions. Readers prefer parentheses that come in pairs. Publishers may not care as much whether verbs are active or passive, but they do desire them to be in the correct tense. Writers don’t want their modifiers to dangle hopelessly. Just because texting, emailing, and business bullet-point presentations don’t always follow the rules of grammar and just because online journalists have gotten lazy about fixing typos or writing coherent sentences, doesn’t mean all writers have license to brazenly split their infinitives. We are not zombies. Yet.

Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style is the closest thing we have in America to the Grammar Penal Code. It’s often required or recommended by teachers because it doesn’t read like a penal code; it’s very straightforward and very short, containing fewer than 60 rules. It practices what it preaches.

Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.
— “Elementary Principles of Composition”, The Elements of Style

The Chicago Manual of Style is one of a small handful of books that the writing community uses to codify the rules. It standardizes, which is a good thing. In the same way that dictionaries clarify that you spell it “dictionary” and not “diktionary” or “dictionery,” TCMS lets you know that you are allowed to use the word “golly,” you should spell out numbers under 10, and you ought to hyphenate colors before a noun. (But if I wear mauve-colored shoes after Labor Day, is that a Fashion Violation?) Thank heaven for TCMS because really nobody knows exactly what to hyphenate.

Of Course Rules Have Exceptions

Light travels in a straight line, until it bends around a gravity well, like a moon or the Death Star. 2+ 2=4 unless you’re in base 4 in which case 2+2=10. Rules do sometimes have exceptions.

You pass on the left UNLESS the left is blocked by a Volvo with a Save Tahoe bumper sticker and the middle lane contains a delusional RV that seems to imagine it can go 75 up a steep grade, so that you have to go all the way around on the right weaving through the carnsackit! gardening trucks while avoiding the black Camrys trying to race each other at 85…UNLESS you’re in Hawaii, in which case , why pass bra’? Enjoy the view of the pineapple fields.

Grammatical rules can be broken, occasionally, if you know what you’re doing. I was weaned on Dickens, e.e. cummings, and Faulkner.  Great writers often break rules on purpose. That doesn’t mean there are no rules.

Grammar themed post card

Grammar Matters but Don’t Be a Jerk About it

I actually am not a grammar Nazi. I don’t correct my friend’s conversational speech or casual emails. Not out loud, anyway. Correct other people’s texting? That’s a waste of time. That’s not really written English.

The Invention of Grammar cartoon
The Invention of Grammar, cartoon of cyanide and Happiness at Explosm.net

I do have pet peeves. “Impacted” isn’t an active verb…That new product impacted our market share. *Shudder*. Impacted is what happens to wisdom teeth and meteors.  “Hopefully” means “full of hope” not “I hope.” I use “hopefully” wrong often,  so I even make myself cringe. “Comprise” is a synonym for “embrace” not “compose.”  Your list is not “comprised of” three items. Just writing that makes my fillings hurt. I don’t have to circle typos in library books to know what the rules are.

There Are No Real Rules, so Buy My Book which Is about Rules

I understand when someone tries to write a funny blog post to sell her book. (By the way, did you notice my book for sale… up there in the right-hand column?) More power to anyone attempting clever marketing.

But it’s really odd to make an argument that there are no rules, that grammar doesn’t count, that no one is in charge of those rules, and that there’s no book you can get that explains them. And then to say except my book, which is on sale at fine Amazons throughout the web. Yes, Ms. Casagrande has written several books on grammar.

This is probably my biggest beef with the underlying logic and tenor of this article. It taps inappropriately into the recent rise against basic rule adherence. The anti-vax movement. The anti-tax movement. Laws are for suckers. Rules are for other people. I don’t need no stinkin’ please and thank yous. Why can’t I park in a handicapped space? I was just stopping on the freeway briefly to take a picture, officer. People enjoy being told that they are free from interference from the overlords, be it The Government or their former schoolteachers.

But this is a snake oil sales argument. There’s a lot of fake medicine going on around there, so you better buy my medicine just in case. You’re probably not even sick. Still, my elixir will cure whatever you have.

Fiddlesticks!

(Does TCMS allow me to include an exclamation as a single sentence in a paragraph? My SEO checker is telling me my title is too wide, and the blog has too many words. Oh, heck! Rules? I don’t need no stinkin’ rules…)

 

 

 

*The most offensive part of this blog for me was that in the title, the writer called grammar a Ponzi scheme because grammar is based on a fictitious belief that there’s a set of shared rules. Aside from that claim being erroneous (there are rules and they are written down), that’s not the essence of a Ponzi scheme. A Ponzi scheme, by definition, has a pyramidal form; new participants are lured in with returns from the earlier partners. This comparison made no sense, clearly demonstrating that the writer didn’t understand the first thing about Ponzi schemes. Sincerely signed, The Metaphor Police.