Ranting at Grammar Ranters, Continued

I think I could write a blog that is just responses to BuzzFeed articles about grammar pet peeves. Though at least a few more of this Adam’s peeves actually present more of a problem in communication.

  • 1 and 2 both seem legit, but the example for two is so nit-picky it borders on insane. Do you listen to people talk? It does not sound like a spoken version of written English.
  • I’m about to say something drastic: if you hate the split infinitive, you hate English. English, to my knowledge, is the only modern language that actually has two word infinitives. We use the “bare” infinitive without to in ways that many other languages use infinitives. Some linguists actually debate whether we should even count to as being part of the infinitive verb form. In fact, Old English infinitives were just one word, like  in modern German. In Middle English, to started to count as part of the infinitive because the single word infinitive and gerund now had the same inflectional markers. Middle English writings from the 1300s contain the first recorded split infinitives in English. They fell out of use in early modern English (Shakespeare’s time), but not because of any stylistic bans. To put this in confrontational Internet terms, this means opposing split infinitives would be like complaining about the loss of Old English’s much more complicated verb system. On a more semantically-focused note, splitting the infinitive almost never results in a loss of comprehension and actually allows for more precise modification of phrases. Making grammar rules that actually prevent accurate expression of ideas is like the opposite of the goal of language.
  • Evidently Davis really cares about the subjunctive. Which is great. But I can find no explanation for why was can’t be used as the helper verb to start a subjunctive phrase. Wikipedia says were is the subjunctive form of (to) be, but again, modern English doesn’t really mark for these things in language so it’s not like this causes confusion.
  • 5 is reasonable. 6 is reasonable, if super nitpicky.
  • I’m going to combine 7 and 9, if only because I learned a fairly helpful mnemonic that helps describe both. The way to remember whose and its are the possessive words in their homophone pairs is that no possessive pronoun uses ‘s. That is, whose and its better fit into the pattern set by his, her, and their.  (This is also my main problem with grammar ranters: most don’t offer a way to remember the rule, which tends to lead to the hypercorrections they hate. See the whom/who problem. As a side note, the Grammar Girl is a grammar blogger who does typically try to give helpful ways to remember many rules.)
  • I do sort of sympathize with lay/lie defenders because it is a distinction that allows for more precise meaning, like the ability to split infinitives. But again, it’s hard to distinguish in modern English. Grammar Girl gives a good mnemonic, but admits lay/lie becomes confusing when we consider other tenses.
  • Virtually no one uses double negatives in formal written English. If you’re worrying about them in informal conversation, I feel bad for you.
  • I realize who/whom and subject/object are simple distinctions, but grammar ranters seem unbearable about this after the whole wave of whom overusage they tend to cause. Grammar Girl gives another good mnemonic in case you get tripped up: if you can use him either to answer the question (Whom did you see? Him.), then use whom.
  • Virtually everyone accepts singular they. I don’t get why people fight this battle anymore.
  • I feel like participle dangling typically falls under the more general rule of communication: avoid ambiguous sentences.
  • I feel like the author actually kind of ruins the distinction between less than and fewer than. It’s not really the plurality of the noun that’s important so much as what kind of noun you’re talking about. Fewer is used for nouns that can be counted (“12 items or fewer”). Less is used for mass nouns that you cannot count (“Can I have less sugar in my coffee?”). But again, that can be muddled if we use units to describe nouns (“Can I have fewer sugar packets?). However, the idea of whether or not the word being described is plural is a good mnemonic.
  • I/me is another distinction that I do think is important, but it’s also another hypercorrection people do.

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