Everything You Always Wanted to Know about Some Gnarly Grammar “Rules”

Catching up on my reading this summer, I recently finished Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. Pinker, a cognitive scientist and linguist, is not only the author of several previous bestsellers on language; he’s also the chair of the American Heritage Dictionary’s Usage Panel. So I believe we can regard his judgments on usage questions as sound.

Overall, his goal is to try to dispel the negativity that has come to surround “grammatical correctness” and to debunk many correctness myths. He distinguishes between “purists” (folks who naively believe that grammatical rules are like the Ten Commandments) and “experts on usage,” like himself, who understand that language and the rules that govern its use change over time.

Here’s what he had to say about the following issues that have caused me some confusion or consternation, and perhaps you as well:

–Questionable adverbs

We all know that modifiers of verbs need to take the adverb form . . . but is that always true?

The answer is no. Sometimes an adjective and adverb can have the same form, as in “a fast car”/”drive fast” or “a hard ball”/”hit the ball hard.” Pinker would also be fine with “drive safe,” “go slow,” “she sure fooled me,” “he spelled my name wrong,” and “the moon is shining bright,” since using the -ly form of these modifiers could seem “prissy.”

–Starting sentences with coordinate conjunctions

Pinker’s theory here is that grammar teachers of yore forbade starting sentences with “and” or “but” as a way to help students avoid fragments starting with these words. But that’s not a good reason to perpetuate the “rule,” in his view. He starts many sentences in this book with “and” or “but,” in fact, and sees nothing wrong with the practice as long as it seems stylistically appropriate.

–“Between you and I”

Pinker goes to great lengths to explain, on linguistic grounds, why this phrase is not grammatically wrong. But he concludes, still, that writers should avoid the expression, as it’s jarring to educated readers. Thank you.

–“Can” vs. “may”

Perhaps predictably, Pinker puts to rest the old rule that “can” should be used to refer to the feasibility of an action and “may” should be used to give permission to do the action. In his view, “the two words may (or can) be used more or less interchangeably” in the latter situation. (Pinker similarly skewer’s the distinction between “shall” and “will,” arguing that, except in a very few circumstances,” the former sounds “prissy.”)

–Dangling modifiers

Pinker asserts that “a thoughtlessly placed dangler can confuse the reader or slow her down,” invite “ludicrous misinterpretation,” and get the writer judged as “slovenly.” That said, he points out that, technically, the mistake is “not one of ungrammaticality but of ambiguity,” so his call would be to leave alone any unobtrusive danglers (as in “considering the hour, it is surprising that he arrived at all” or “looking at the subject dispassionately, what evidence is there for this theory?”).

–Use of possessives with gerunds

I’ve had students ask me if they need to use the possessive form of a noun or pronoun before a gerund (an -ing phrase acting as a noun), and I didn’t have a well-thought-out response. The answer, according to Pinker, is that the practice is based on spurious linguistic thinking—but that it has caught on enough to be appropriately applied, when possible, in formal writing. Hence, “I approve of Sheila taking the job” is fine in ordinary talk and writing, but “I approve of Sheila’s taking the job” would be the better version for formal writing.

He also advises that long and complicated agents are best left unmarked (as in this sentence: “I was annoyed by the people in line being served first,” not “people in line’s”), whereas simpler ones work well in the possessive form (as in “I appreciate your coming over to help”). I’m surprised, though, that, according to Pinker, the majority of the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel was ok with “I can understand him not wanting to go.” Ugh. I think I’ll keep recommending the possessive form in such cases, especially in more formal speaking and writing. (Perhaps, if pressed, the panel would agree with me.)

–Conditionals (if-then statements)

I’m guessing that your students, like mine, have all but lost the ability to use the conditional tense correctly. Pinker’s distinction between “open conditionals” and “remote conditionals” might help us help them.

Here’s an “open conditional”: “If you leave now, you will get there on time.” It refers to an actual possibility for action. The “remote conditional” refers to a remote or hypothetical possibility, as in “If I were a rich man, I wouldn’t have to work hard.” The formula for this kind of sentence is to use the past tense in the “if” clause” and “would” or some other kind of auxiliary verb in the “then” clause.

–Use of “like,” “as,” and “such as”

Only after I left graduate school did I become aware that using “like” instead of “as” to introduce a dependent clause, as in “The committee conducted a comprehensive survey like we did,” was considered incorrect. But Pinker largely debunks this “rule,” which he calls “the product of grammatical ineptitude and historical ignorance,” since “like” can be a subordinating conjunction as well as a preposition. He narrowly grants, however, that “as” is the favored term in cases when the situation is formal. As with many of the issues he discusses, the educated ear must make the final call on this one.

“A related superstition,” he says, is that one must write “Many technical terms, such as [not like] cloning and DNA, have become familiar to laypeople.” False, he says—though, once again, the formality of the situation can make “like” sound inappropriate.

–Use of “than” and “as”

So which is right: “Rose is smarter than he” or Rose is smarter than him”? “He could not surf as well as she” or “He could not surf as well as her”? Here again, the difference is one of style, not grammar; the first versions “are more suited to formal language,” the latter “to writing that is closer to speech.”

Speaking of “than,” is it ok these days to say “different than the rest” instead of “different from the rest”? You can tell that Pinker is essentially fine with that—but the American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel, by a slim majority, still stands by “from.”

Pinker also discusses split infinitives, prepositions at ends of sentences, who vs. whom, which vs. that, and issues relating to expressions of quantity, quality, and degree (e.g., is it ok to say “between the three of us”? “very unique”?). There are no surprises here. Essentially, as with the previous examples, he grants the importance of understanding what educated people prefer while also crusading against  “hypercorrectness.” Same with using “they” occasionally to refer to a singular antecedent (e.g., “anybody”). His short, spotty section on punctuation continues in the same vein, with the need for clarity and common sense winning out over excess rule-following.

After the long section on grammatical issues comes a section on diction. This section is especially interesting and useful in that it contains a 20-page table assessing various expressions (e.g., using aggravate to mean “annoy” or raise instead of rear) in terms of what purists think about them, how people commonly use them, and what he thinks. His solution for some of these disputes, here and in other places in the book, is simple: “Look it up” (in a respected, current dictionary).

I’m glad I read this book, but it’s not the kind of book you can take excerpts from to hand out to your class. The finer linguistic arguments get tiresome, and, as someone who grew up doing regular sentence diagramming, I find Pinker’s tree diagrams (the kind linguists use) not worth the effort it would take to understand them (he exhibits a bit of audience blindness here, as he seems to think these diagrams are a snap for laypeople to follow).

But I hope this post will help you feel more knowledgeable and confident when helping your students write well. You can also share with them the book’s central point about correctness: It is a constantly changing concept that depends, at any given moment, on widespread usage, not on the judgment of an anointed committee of grammar police. Yet the prevailing conventions should be heeded. As Pinker says, “Style still matters”; it “ensures that writers will get their message across,” it “earns trust,” and it “adds beauty to the world” in the form of pleasing use of language. I’m with him.

End-of-the-School-Year Resource Roundup

Yes, indeed, the end of another school year has arrived, and I am already thinking ahead to the next academic year. In planning ahead, I’ve also reflected on the past year and realized I have gathered a LOT of online resources related to business communication. I’m guessing many of you are like me in that you never really leave the classroom and are always thinking about the next semester, class, or lesson.

The articles below appeared in the news feed generated by my Zite app, and I then saved them to Pocket. (Zite and Pocket, by the way, are probably my two favorite apps.) You can also find more resources by following me on Twitter (@pjglentz) or viewing my teaching board on Pinterest. If you have any “must have” resources you’d like to share with us, please do!

Corporate Culture

Design & Typography

Email

Employment

Grammar

Interviews

Leadership & Teamwork

Persuasion

Presentations & Oral Communication

Research

 Rhetoric

 Technology & Communication

 

Celebrate Grammar!

Did you know that Wednesday, March 4, is National Grammar Day? If you’re looking for a lighthearted way to talk about grammar in your classes, you may want to observe this exciting holiday. Mignon Fogarty (Grammar Girl) hosts the 2015 National Grammar Day celebration. You can learn more about the history of the day and find tips for celebrating by visiting her Quick and Dirty Tips: National Grammar Day site.

Here at UW-Eau Claire, we have t-shirts and buttons we wear in honor of the day, a College of Business Facebook grammar contest (with really cool prizes), cookies decorated with punctuation marks, and an open house in our Business Writing and Presentations Studio. It’s a fun way to reinforce the importance of good grammar, and it’s just a great day all around. In my classes, we will also enjoy chocolate and a few grammar cartoons.

Do you celebrate National Grammar Day? If so, what do you do?

A Quick Number Use Review & Worksheet

Finally…It’s summer…For many of us, it’s time to slow down, take stock, and perhaps think ahead to the courses we will teach in the fall. If you teach standards for using numbers and are looking for a quick review for your next course, here you go.

The standards for number use in the table below are summarized from Rentz, K., and Lentz, P. (2014). Lesikar’s Business Communication: Connecting in a Digital World, New York: McGraw-Hill. If you use the table in your course materials, we’d be grateful if you’d cite our book accordingly. We hope you find this Number Use Worksheet helpful as well. If you have any creative activities or methods for teaching number use, please share them with us.

Spell Out Use a Numeral
The Rule of Nine: Numbers nine and below (except as noted in the “Use a Numeral Column”): I ordered six boxes of pens. Numbers 10 and above: I ordered 12 boxes of pens.
A number at the beginning of a sentence: Twelve employees were promoted. Numbers in a series that refer to related items, where one of the items is ten or greater: Last week 12 employees were promoted, 8 retired, and 3 left the company.
A day of the month that appears alone or precedes the month and is nine or less: I can meet on the eighth. Days of the month when the month precedes the day or when the date precedes both the month and year: June 12, 2014, or 12 June 2014. (NOTE: You don’t need the “th” in these cases.)

A day of the month that appears alone or precedes the month and is ten or greater: I can meet on the 12th.

Amounts of money when the unit of currency is also spelled out: I spent twenty dollars on my dinner. Amounts of money when the unity of currency is represented by a symbol: I spent $20 on my dinner. (NOTE: When the dollar amount is a round number, you don’t need the “.00” after the amount.)
Indefinite numbers and amounts: About three thousand people live in this suburb; over a million people live in the entire metropolitan area. Percentages: Sales increased 3 percent last quarter.
Units of measure: (1) My new desk is 5 feet long and 3 feet wide. (2) The package I shipped weighed 3 pounds.
Fractions that stand alone: Nearly one-half of our employees participate in the wellness program. Mixed numbers: Our new office building is 5½ miles from our old building.
Legal documents use both the numeral and the word: The contract will expire in 60 (sixty) days.
Time can be expressed in either numerals or words as follows according to the rule of nine: 2:00, 2:30, 10 p.m., 10 o’clock, two o’clock. NOT: 2:00 o’clock

Classroom Talking Point: Intercultural Communication Gone Wrong

Coca-Cola Apologizes for Offensive Bottle Cap Message” reports the story of an Edmonton, Alberta, woman who opened her bottle of vitamin water and discovered a French word printed on the cap that, when read as an English word, means something terribly offensive. Coca-Cola had printed both French and English words on bottle caps as part of a promotional campaign. Coca-Cola has apologized and discontinued the promotion.

While the story itself is interesting, more interesting to me is the commentary after the article, particularly the many comments wondering why the language is offensive. News stories such as this provide discussion points for our business communication classes:

  • Why was this woman offended? What is it about the language that makes it offensive?
  • How would you respond to commenters who question why the language in the bottle cap is problematic? Are people who submitted comments overreacting? Underreacting? Appropriately reacting?
  • What if the word disparaged race, religion, or sexual orientation? Do you think people would have commented differently?
  • Did Coca-Cola react appropriately? Should Coca-Cola have done anything differently in addressing the issue?

While it is unfortunate that the incident happened at all, it does present us with a great opportunity to help our students become more sensitive and respectful business people.

On another note…Today is National Punctuation Day. Enjoy!

The Interrupting Colon and the Singular “They”: Battles Still Worth Fighting?

As another school year begins and I gear up to help my students improve their writing, I find myself wondering if I should stop holding the line on two grammatical issues.

The Interrupting Colon

The first is the rule that a colon cannot come between a verb and its object or complement, even in the lead-in to a bulleted list, as illustrated here:

Highlights will include [no colon]

  • A wine-and-cheese reception.
  • A keynote by President Bob James.
  • Door prizes donated by local businesses.

If this sentence were formatted as a sentence, I believe most people would follow the rule by omitting the colon—but judging from current usage, it appears that most would now use the colon if the introductory words preceded a series formatted as a list. And I tend to agree that without the colon, the introductory words seem to hang there in mid-air, looking briefly like some kind of mistake. (In such cases, I often resort to the ellipsis—“. . .”—but used too often, this solution can be distracting.)

The Singular “They”

The second rule that I see being broken more often than followed these days is the rule that “they” has to be used to refer to a plural antecedent. But how often have you yourself said something like “Everyone who brings in an example will have two points added to their homework grade”? (Just today I read an NPR article saying that a good airport makes it “easy for a passenger to find their way.” Yes, “passenger” could be made plural, but I think the speaker wanted to emphasize the individual’s experience.) In such cases, which is more distracting: the use of “him or her” or the use of “they” to refer to a singular word? I’m beginning to think it’s the former.

Grammar changes as people’s use of it changes, and many rules from yesterday no longer apply today (anybody remember “we shall”?). Maybe it’s time to allow the colon at the end of an incomplete sentence introducing a bulleted list and the singular “they” to refer to an individual of either gender. What do you think?

Some Summer Grammar Fun

It’s a little early to be thinking about fall courses, but I’m sure some of us are already making a few plans. If you’re looking for a way to integrate a little grammar and mechanics instruction into your courses, check out the links below. Some are old favorites, and some are new opportunities for a little grammar fun.

I’ve used these sites in a variety of ways. For example, when students are drafting in class and finish before their peers, many will find their way to Facebook.  I’ve told students they can be on Facebook during this time as long as they are on the Daily Writing Quiz wall. Usually, students are on Facebook just to pass a little time, not because they have a pressing need to be there, so as long as they have a way to occupy their five free minutes and as long I know they are practicing their grammar and writing skills, we’re all happy.

Do you have favorite sites you’d like to share? Please tell us about them and about how you use them with your students.

General Business Writing Help

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