Friday, August 22, 2014

Trying not to sound stupid

Reviewing an English grammar and usage book that he doesn't really like ("...a poor stylist with a propensity to gross overstatement probably shouldn’t write a book on English grammar and usage"), Barton Swaim explains the appeal of such guides based on his own experience as an "authority":
.... Nearly every day my phone would ring and someone would ask, “Is it ‘none is’ or ‘none are’?” or “Can you use ‘impact’ as a verb?” or “Do you capitalize ‘judicial branch’?”

At first I tried to respond with nuanced explanations about how this rule wasn’t followed much anymore or that usage was pretty common but best avoided. But I sensed impatience. All my questioners wanted to know was what was right and what was wrong. They didn’t care what was “generally accepted” or defensible; they wanted to know what they should say in order not to sound stupid. So I gave it to them on my own authority: “none is”; “impact” is never a verb; “judicial branch” is lower case. That seemed to satisfy.

And that’s all most readers want from a book on English grammar and usage. They want to know what to write and what to avoid—not because they want to follow arbitrary rules set down by the anonymous rulemakers of the past, but because they want to express themselves in ways that don’t cause distraction. ....

It doesn’t matter how many academic linguists tell us that language changes over time and that what’s accepted today was considered ungrammatical a century ago. .... All of this may be true, but none of it matters. Educated people still want to know whether they should write “amuck” or “amok,” “between” or “among,” “flounder” or “founder,” “infer” or “imply,” “it’s he” or “it’s him.”

The market is constantly ripe, therefore, for any book that will flout the fashion for permissiveness and explain to readers in direct, unfussy prose how they should construct sentences and what mistakes they should avoid. .... [more]