13 March 2012

We, ourselves, have grammar pet peeves: a Blog Off post

Every two weeks, the blogosphere comes alive when bloggers of every stripe weigh in on the same topic. The current topic is "Grammar pet peeves." Here's my take:
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I have too many grammar pet peeves to list, so I'll pull out a few that work my nerves the most. As an intro, I pride myself on my knowledge of the English language. I'm not a grammar purist and I don't correct other people, not any more at least. I love English because it's so flexible and it allows its speakers to take all manner of liberties with its structures and norms. However, in order to break a rule of grammar, one has to know the rule he's breaking and do so intentionally in order to avoid looking like an illiterate clod.

My knowledge of English grammar is a direct result of my studying other languages. I never "got" my mother tongue until I learned how to compare it to other languages. It's a bit of a paradox, but the best way to understand English grammar is to study another language. A good grammar handbook helps too.

I still have my copy of the Little, Brown Handbook from college and I say it's the best guide to English there is. Pick up a copy, it's worth the investment.

On to the pet-peeves. (Yes, I know that's a sentence fragment.)

The first one out of the gate is the blatant misuse of reflexive pronouns. Modern English has eight reflexive pronouns. They are: myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves and themselves. Reflexive pronouns refer the action of a verb back to the subject of a sentence. A few examples:

I saw myself in the mirror.
You drove yourself crazy.
He worked himself into a frenzy.
She grew that rhubarb herself.

You get the picture. The use of a reflexive pronoun is only correct when it's used in similar ways to the examples above. Reflexive pronouns have to have a verb between them and their antecedents.

I hear reflexive pronouns being massacred all the time and the one that gets beaten up more than the others is the first person singular reflexive pronoun, myself. It's usually misused thus: "I, myself, think that this is the best rhubarb pie I've ever tasted." Wrong, wrong, wrong; and using a reflexive pronoun that way makes the speaker sound like a boob. Don't do it. "I, myself..." doesn't add emphasis in the least; that's why English has adverbs and other parts of speech. "I think this is the best rhubarb pie I've ever tasted." is already making a statement. If you want to drive your point home even further, just add another clause to the end of the sentence. "This is the best rhubarb pie I've ever tasted and I've had some of the best."

Next out of the gate is the misuse of the first person plural pronoun "we." We indicates that the speaker is including other people in the statement he or she is making. For example, "My family and I were on vacation, we went to Paris." See how the first clause of that sentence limited the scope of the second person pronoun in the clause that followed it? It's imperative that a speaker limit the scope of second person pronouns to avoid dragging in innocent bystanders.

Writers from independent blogs to the New York Times misuse that all the time and it goes through me like a knife. When Sarah Palin's not putting her foot in her mouth, she's always making statements like "We're sick of President Obama." Who the hell is we? Please don't include me in your delusions.

If you have an opinion or a statement to make, stick to the first person singular and stand up for yourself. Say "I'm sick of President Obama." Use plural pronouns only with clearly defined groups. If you can't define a group clearly, then use an indefinite article and a noun. Here's an example, "Some people are sick of President Obama." Using an indefinite article in this way is not only correct, it's polite and it's a more accurate description of what's so.

The last one I'll get into here is a disregard to English's subjunctive mood. Modern English has four moods: indicative, imperative, infinitive and subjunctive. I've you've ever studied a Romance language, you know that those languages make ample use of the subjunctive. English reserves it to a handful of uses.

A quick primer:
Indicative is the default mood in English and example is "The dogs are barking."
Imperative is a command, "Don't  just stand there!"
Infinitive mood describes a state of being without referring to a subject directly. Infinitives always have the word "to" in front of them, so a statement such as "He came to see you." is using the infinitive mood.
Subjunctive is a whole other animal and it needs a bit more explanation because it requires a different conjugation.

A verb uses its subjunctive mood when it expresses a condition which is doubtful or not factual. It is most often found in a clause beginning with the word if. It's also found in clauses following a verb that expresses a doubt, a wish, regret, request, demand, or proposal.

The most obvious example is when someone is expressing a thought that's contrary to fact. "If I were a rich man, I wouldn't have to work hard." Collectively, wishes such as this one are called "if clauses." By starting the sentence with "if," the speaker is setting the stage for a statement that's not true.

The subjunctive comes into play in other cases too. If someone asks to you come into his or her office but doesn't specify a time, the correct response would be "Is it necessary that I be there at ten?"

Did you catch that? It's not "Is it necessary that I am there at ten?" Because there's an element of doubt involved in the interaction, the sentence calls the subjunctive mood. In the subjunctive, "I am" becomes "I be."

The subjunctive mood is a lonely thing in modern English and many speakers are all to eager to ignore it. On behalf of the subjunctive mood, I will vouch for the fact that it likes company and it misses the attention it deserves.

English is a remarkably nuanced and flexible language and everyone who speaks it bends it to his or her own will. That's a good thing and I take liberties with it all the time. However, English is a language that's capable of incredible precision. That precision's only possible with a thorough understanding of the many, many rules of English's grammar and the widespread agreement that its speakers abide by the same rules.

I have been studying and trying to master my mother tongue for most of my life and it'll always a work in progress. I'll never have it fully mastered and that's one of the things that makes English so appealing to me. English has as many exceptions as it does rules and I have an incredible respect for anyone who studies it as a second language.

Native speakers have no excuse however. Grammar rules and guidelines are easy to find and though it takes a bit of effort, a facility with English isn't so difficult. If you're someone who writes, speaks or thinks for a living; you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of the Little, Brown Handbook.





Your audience will thank you.

These are my top three and rest assured, there are plenty more. If you're not participating today, what are some of your pet-peeves?

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As the day wears on, the other participants in today's Blog Off will appear today in a table. Click on their links and leave a comment.



27 comments:

  1. Oh Paul - now I'm afraid to show you anything I've written! My pet peeve? Overuse of modifiers (objects cannot be 'truly' unique -- either they are, or they are not.)

    Excellent primer and I am always happy to learn and to be reminded of a few things. J

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  2. The misuse of possessive "'s" makes me cringe. It's not difficult, yet people can't figure it out and I see it used improperly even in the media. It's lazy and sloppy.

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  3. Rufus talked me into reading "Eats, Shoots & Leaves" a little while back. Looks like I will have to add this one to the list.

    I really enjoyed the educating post, Paul!

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  4. Joce: Thanks for the truly unique comment :)

    Melody: That drives me crazy too but I ran out of space.

    James: The Little, Brown Handbook is a great resource to have around. It's the reference book I refer to more than any other.

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  5. You wrote a very in depth post! I loved the stuff about "power".

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    1. Oops! I posted that comment on the wrong blog! :( I really liked your post, though! great refresher course! ha!

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  6. I missed the Blogoff this week but it might be a good thing. I'm so scared I might never write again. ; )

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  7. I don't judge Saucy. Well, not too much.

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  8. I think I may have to read this again, especially the "we" section.

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  9. Thanks for the comment Bridgit, this was a great excuse to let my inner stickler shine.

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  10. My personal Grammar Bible is a Tenth Grade English book that was first published in 1948. It was republished a number of times; mine is the 1965 edition. When I got out of the Army, I knew I wanted to write. I had a high school diploma, but I’d been out of school for several years, so when I went to a junior college, the first class I took was bonehead English. When I read the preface to the textbook we used, I knew I was in the right course. It began like this:

    “In the six-year secondary school program, the tenth grade is generally considered the year for catching up loose ends and imposing new and stricter academic disciplines. Teachers of tenth-grade classes, while sympathetic toward their students’ obvious difficulties in adjusting to adolescence, recognize the importance of firmness in insisting on standards, especially in written work. In a cumulative subject like English, review is invariably necessary at this level.”

    I took that class in 1968. Since then I have moved any number of times, but that book always made the move and still occupies a prominent place on my bookshelves, as I still refer to it.

    I spent a good share of my life in offices, the more wretched part, and one of my pet peeves was secretaries with poor English skills. As a foolish young man I sometimes corrected them on their errors. The operative word in the preceding sentence is “foolish!” People’s English skills are worse these days, but I’ve long since learned to keep my own counsel on the subject. People do NOT want you to do them the favor of pointing out the error of their ways!

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  11. I learned a long time ago to reserve my grammar corrections to myself. People have always abused the language and people like us have always been around to police them. It's no ticket to universal popularity however.

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  12. When you’re right, you right, Paul! I once worked for a small start-up loan broker. Everything was new, so I helped name the company and design their stationery. At one point I even wrote a number of technical pieces for them to explain various services. In that context, and understanding that any piece of mail that left the office was really the company itself, it just seemed to me that letters to prospective customers should use proper English. I got along famously with the company secretary, so I thought there’d be no harm in giving her some pointers from to time. She was actually fine with it, but I caught hell from one of the company owners!

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  13. Bad grammar is bad grammar, no matter whose mouth is spouting it. If it were up to me we'd have an academy to police the language the way they do with Spanish, French and Italian. But alas...

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  14. Nice post!
    I grew up in a house insistent on speaking "proper English" so I internalized most of the rules and it was not until I learned another language that I understood the rules more clearly. The process of learning has continued in my pursuit of an English degree and in the process of my daughter learning to read, write, and speak another language alongside her own.
    I consult my Little Brown guide occasionally, but I have had to update it. When I returned to college after a 10 year break, a Writing professor informed me of a few changes that were made. He was my age, so we smiled over the errors in my paper. However, it is rare to see an error from some new rule in grammar. The ones you point out, as well as the homophones others have highlighted seem time-worn and unintentional.

    ~L

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  15. Wow, I don't usually comment on blogs but you struck a cord! The worst use of reflexive is, "He gave it to Bill and myself." It ranks above "He gave it to Bill and I." What do people have against the objective pronoun. Oh, I know they use it to say, "Me and my friends went to the mall."

    Sue

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  16. The Little, Brown Handbook is a godsend, even when lags being the way English is spoken.

    And Sue, the misuse of reflexive pronouns is a grammatical error I'll correct every time, even if I have to disrupt the flow of a conversation.

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  17. Good post! I'm going to get the book you recommended.

    One of my peeves is when people use "less than" when they should use "fewer than." e.g., "There are less people here than there were yesterday." No! "There are fewer people here than there were yesterday" is correct.

    I tell my kids that if it's something you can count individually, use the word "fewer." If not, use the word "less." So... "There is less water in the pool and fewer people swimming."

    If fewer people mix those up, I'll be less crabby. ;)

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  18. Katie that's my rule of thumb too. If there's a countable quantity it's fewer, if not it's less. File that next to each other and one another. Man I love English grammar!

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  19. Carol VanderKloot14 March, 2012 11:19

    Paul:

    Indeed, you have struck a CHORD (note: proper spelling) here! Yipes, I'm forever indebted to the grammar police.

    The violations that irk the most:
    not knowing the difference btwn "it's and its" as well as "your and you're"
    when to use "that" or "which" (especially when most think that throwing in which sounds fancier than that)
    the made up verbs: pronounciate and orientate or loan and not lend
    ouch--irregardless
    and, always, who came up with this one: My Bad--what are you four year's old? I hear this in business and it shocks me to NO END.

    My favorite books on grammar, the first, perhaps because it's a mastery of the beauty of restraint: Elements of Style; the second, a GREAT, clear handbook, Bedford Handbook by Diana Hacker, truly helpful and spells out the why that leaves so many of us flustered.

    Oh, I'm calm now. Thank you for the great post!

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  20. Thanks for the comment Carol. How on earth are you? We're going to dinner the next time I'm in New York.

    Confusion over that and which strikes a chord with me too. Hello? Ever hear of a restrictive pronoun? Mastery of English grammar isn't difficult, it just takes some time and persistence. Typos I can understand, but when I receive a press release with grammatical errors in it I bristle. How can someone write for a living without a fundamental grasp of grammar?

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  21. Great post, Paul and I agree with all that you say. Do you remember how Margaret Thatcher got into trouble for saying, "We are a grandmother?" In Britain, she was accused of using the "royal we"! I love the subjunctive and Americans use it more often than we do - music to my ears!

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  22. Do we use the subjunctive more than Brits do? That's good to know. I think of American English in less than polite terms for the most part and your comment made me see it in another light.

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  23. @James And have you read the book yet? A panda walks into a cafe....

    I have many pet peeves but I have adopted a "live and let live" policy for most speakers. Most people now take an Omarosa approach when corrected and who has the time for that crap.

    The grammar clobbering I find most entertaining is when people try to speak above their pay grade, especially cops on TV or trailer-dwellers when trying to sound smart. The transgressions are far too numerous to list here so I won't even try. At least they recognize their English grammar skills may be lacking. People like Sarah Palin are blissfully unaware.

    Great piece, Paul. I'm feeling myself inadequate right now, but, that, too -- shall pass!

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  24. I think you should have summed up your comment with "I'm feeling myself TO BE inadequate. You need the infinitive mood to go along with that reflexive pronoun. :)

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  25. I may never post another comment on your blog Paul. :)

    On a more serious note, I find that since Canada is Officially Bilingual (English and French), all aspects of both languages are going down for the count. Whether it is oral or written, translation does have its flaws. -Brenda-

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