Everywhere I’ve been over the past week, people have been sharing this list of ‘grammar mistakes’. You don’t need to click on the link to know the sort of thing: a list of errors that are terribly egregious despite the fact that everyone makes them all the time. I am fascinated by the mindset that is unmoved by the prevalence of such ‘errors’. The pleasure of being right when everyone else is wrong seems to be so great that it obscures any sense that we should view the prevalence of a particular practice as relevant.
I generally try to avoid linking to things that I find as unhelpful as this list; you surely don’t need my help finding shoddy advice on the Internet. But I went ahead and did so because I want to point to two key issues with this list. First, very little on this list is grammar (and the bits that are grammar are either wrong or dismally explained). This observation is more than just a quibble. The perception among students that their writing problems primarily involve grammar means that they often view their path to improvement as both narrow and fundamentally uninteresting. Not to say that grammar is actually uninteresting (obviously!) but rather that students might engage more readily with the task of improving their writing if they conceived of the task as having a broader intellectual basis. Improving your writing isn’t just fiddling with technicalities and arcane rules; it is a matter of thinking deeply about your ideas and your communicative intent. Calling it all grammar can be both dismissive and uninspiring.
The second—and more important—issue is the reasoning that underlies this list. A list like this says ‘all educated people should know these things, so avoid these errors lest you seem uneducated’. This edict misses an opportunity to talk about better reasons for avoiding certain usage patterns. For example, should you say ‘impactful’? It is meaningless to say that it isn’t a word: it is so obviously a word (if you aren’t sure, contrast it with ‘xsxsjwcrt’ and you’ll see the difference). But that doesn’t mean the world needs more instances of ‘impactful’. Use it at your own risk: most people find it icky and its presence in your writing may make them think unkind thoughts about you. Moreover, if something is having an impact on something else, you can likely convey that more effectively with a clear subject and a strong verb. Your writing will improve much more decisively if you disregard unnecessary discussions of legitimacy and instead think more about why certain usage patterns are so widely disliked.
After I had written this, I found a great roundup on this topic from Stan Carey. He discusses a range of these sorts of lists and provides his usual insightful response. He concludes with an excellent warning about grammar pet peeve lists: “Read them, if you must, with extreme caution, a policy of fact-checking, an awareness of what grammar isn’t, and a healthy disrespect for the authority they assume.”
Lastly, I really enjoyed the inaugural episode of the new language podcast from Slate, Lexicon Valley. The highly entertaining and wide-ranging conversation about dangling prepositions ends with an amusing discussion of Paul McCartney’s famous double preposition. A preposition at the end of a sentence is generally permissible, but it is probably best not to split the difference in this fashion: “But if this ever-changing world in which we live in/Makes you give in and cry/Say live and let die”.
I was flabbergasted to discover recently that the lyric is actually “But if this ever changing world in which we’re livin’/Makes you give in and cry/Say live and let die.”
Thanks for reading, Carlotta! I think some would say that those lyrics are just revisionist history–that the original sheet music does say ‘in which we live in’! The second episode of the Lexicon Valley podcast goes into this topic in more hilarious detail.
love it. another great post. such an informed voice. BTW, i wonder if you’d ever feel like holding forth on the sort of “flow” experienced writers use. you know, how strong writers are tacitly raising questions and then answering them in a sort of forward-moving dance. i try to show my students how to read a sentence and pause at the period for a “catch breath” . . . so then notice what question was just raised . . . and thus what the following thought is likely to be. –this is all very subconscious for both writers and readers, but it perhaps comes out most explicitly with metadiscourse, sign posting, “direction words,” verbal bridges, and so forth. anyway, love your blog!!!
Thanks for the idea–I like the image of writing as a forward-moving dance. The closest I have come to discussing the issue of flow is the post on scaffolding phrases.
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Thank you sooooooo much for pointing me back to the Scaffolding Phrases post. I think I read that post back in march, but I RELATE to it so much more now. I’m dealing with disconnected thinking a lot more given the current college where I teach now. The whole idea of temporary verbal bridges was so spot-on. BTW, one thing that I see a lot of my students do is take “stay on topic” too literally. They have been taught to start a graph with a topic sentence (great idea) and then make sure to not to veer toward an unrelated idea (another great idea). But the problem is (and tell me if you ever encounter this) that the students are so AFRAID to go off topic that they just say the same thing for 5-8 sentences. Rather than developing an idea, they circle the drain of generality . . . for fear of going off-topic.
Circling the drain of generality is another great image! In my work with graduate student writers, I rarely encounter that sort of issue. They generally have so much to say! Focus and flow can be problems, but rigid adherence to an assigned topic tends to be a thing of the past for them. Thanks for commenting, Ari!
“The pleasure of being right when everyone else is wrong seems to be so great that it obscures any sense that we should view the prevalence of such a particular practice as relevant.”
I particularly identify with this statement because I sometimes fall into the category of the senseless. As a first-time teacher’s assistant in a college Technical Writing course, I find it very difficult to separate myself from the haughty grammar scholars that exist so prevalently across higher education campuses. Assignments in a technical writing course are so often mundane and unimaginative (cover letters, manuals, proposals, etc.) that an inexperienced grader and English fiend like myself can’t help but focus in on the misplaced commas and incorrect adverbs. It helps to have a great instructor peeking over my shoulder to make sure I’m addressing broader (and much more interesting) aspects of writing like organization, language style, and idea development, but it’s still so easy to say bad grammar = bad writer. The idea many students have (including those in my class) that bad grammar = bad writing just destroys the joy they might have in crafting something original.
So many students in my section identified grammar as their only issue with writing in a pre-semester survey (which is definitely not the case, as evidenced by their first two assignments) that it seems impossible to improve their writing without first climbing over the grammar wall- not easy and certainly not accomplished in one semester. So, I praise them for things well done that are NOT related to punctuation and spelling to feebly and briefly take the attention away from the grammar monster, but it inevitably rises to center stage again!