A Grammarian’s Lament

 

In their appeal to the common reader, grammar books probably fall somewhere between the little pamphlets with a list of warnings that come with power tools (“Don’t put your hand into the path of the bandsaw”) and the stapled pages of how-to instructions for crocheting penises (“Knit one and purl two, perv!” See postscript.)

About fifty years ago when I still had ideals and ambition, I put my heart and soul into writing a grammar book.  My sole surviving copy is a bit worn and shabby, but here’s what it now looks like.

Yes, I can conjugate the hell out of verbs and you can’t. (Ok, what’s the past participle of lay? How about the future perfect continuous of sidle? OK, I don’t know that one, but I think I knew it once.)

You may spend your days emulating the spirituality of St. Francis of Assisi, but that will not save you from grammarians. We lay waste to all ambitions, moral and otherwise, and only find our true selves in pettiness.

You may have written a brilliant essay in which you prove, once and for all, the existence of God, but a grammarian can ruin your feeling of accomplishment by pointing out that you used I when you should have used me. How can a writer prove that there is a God, the grammarian asks rhetorically, when Mr. Would-Be Theologian doesn’t even know that I is a nominative pronoun and that me is an object pronoun and therefore follows a transitive verb or is the object of a preposition? (The misuse of I for me is sometimes termed, by grammarians, a case of pompous over-correction. The word I always sounds more refined than the humble me — and therefore seems correct, even when ungrammatical, to the linguistically challenged.)

Enough of that. I sense your eyes have already begun to glaze over. Here follows a few solicisms that harsh this grammarian’s mellow. (Thanks again, Doc Jay, wherever you are, for that mellifluous phrase.)

Mrs. She always writes rings around me — and most everyone else —  but I caught her using disinterested for uninterested on her last post. Yes, yes, I know, that particular usage has been violated so often in these modern days of loose morals and lax standards that it now shows up — mon Dieu! — as standard usage in dictionaries and grammar books.

But not mine. In the good old days when real men still drove big, American, eight-cylinder Detroit iron, disinterested meant unbiased, not uninterested. Alas, we now drive little Japanese cars and write, “I was totally disinterested in playing marbles when I was a kid.” So we’ve lost a useful distinction between two words that were once disparate but which have now, unfortunately, merged. Shape up, She.

Here are a few other solecisms that frost my cookies:

•  The confusion of lie and lay. Your purse lies on the table. It doesn’t lay there. When you place it there, you are laying it there. I corrected my wife Marie a few times on this, but I could see that she was becoming annoyed. So before I think about correcting her these days, I first tell myself that discretion is the better part of valor. And that keeping one’s mouth shut is the better part of a marriage.

•  It’s used for its. It’s is a contraction, not a possessive pronoun. This error shows up with some regularity on Ricochet.

•  A semi-colon used as a colon. A semi-colon is related to a period, not a colon. It’s also not a small intestine.

I’m also annoyed by sportscasters who say, “There was a huge differential between the two scores.” In their pomposity, sportscasters have a fondness for differential over the simple and direct difference. Howard Cosell used to set my teeth on edge.

Grammar is a noble undertaking. At its most basic and useful, it describes standard language usage. I think W.B. Yeats was thinking about the decline of a knowledge of grammar when he wrote these famous lines:

Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world. . . .

Whenever you write a post for Ricochet, I silently (except for my comments on Mrs. She) take note of your grammatical, rhetorical, and lexicographical failings. For the time being, you’re safe — I would not be so crass as to point publicly to your errors — but you will be punished for them in the afterlife.

Postscript: Crocheted penises are apparently a thing.  Etsy, the website full of handmade goods, contains page after page of crocheted penises — from penis toothpaste holders to penis hats, from penis masks to penis cat toys, from penis pillows to penis potholders.  It’s easy to imagine a circle of women sitting around giggling as they crochet these various iterations of penises. I came across a pair of penis slippers that are so handsome that I thought I’d share the above photo with you.

I found a few crocheted penises that were to be used as a faux phalli, one of which was designed for transsexuals as young as five. With a little crocheted penis strapped on, your little trans toddler can walk around confidently with a stylish bulge in his/her little trousers.

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  1. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Utilize instead of use. Means exactly the same thing. 

    Comes up in business all the time. Bleh.

    • #1
  2. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    KentForrester: Mrs. She always writes rings around me — and most everyone else —  but I caught her using disinterested for uninterested on her last post.  Yes, yes, I know, that particular usage has been violated so often in these modern days of loose morals and lax standards that it now shows up — mon Dieu! — as standard usage in dictionaries and grammar books…Shape up, She.  

    LOL. 

    KentForrester: grammar books probably fall somewhere between the little pamphlets with a list of warnings that come with power tools (“Don’t put your hand into the path of the bandsaw.”) and the stapled pages of how-to instructions for crocheting penises (“Knit one and purl two, perv!”  See postscript.)

    Yes, the last thing one needs in life, whatever gender one happens to identify with, is a crotchety penis.  (I hope I didn’t set you off on this tangent with my “Giant” post from last week.)

    Still, I feel compelled, in a disinterested, but not uninterested way, to correct you by pointing out that you’ve confused “knitting,” for which you give a short burst of instruction, with “crocheting” which is the subject at hand, so to speak.  That portion of your post should more properly read: “and the stapled pages of how-to instructions for crocheting penises (“Ch 20, Sl St to form round, HDC until the desired length is achieved, perv!”  See postscript.”)

    For the record.

    • #2
  3. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    One of my most valuable texts when I was in college was The Literate Naval Architect by Harry Benford, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. It was a handy guide on grammar and writing. It was given, free, to all of us grubby freshmen in the Naval Architecture program. (I still have my copy somewhere, along with the Strunk and White I bought at the book’s recommendation.)

    Alas it is now out of print. As is your book. Have you considered republishing it via a platform like Amazon? Books like that have real value. 

    • #3
  4. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    I was hoping for Bob, and I got pictures of what? Oy!

    • #4
  5. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    She (View Comment):

    That portion of your post should more properly read: “and the stapled pages of how-to instructions for crocheting penises (“Ch 20, Sl St to form round, HDC until the desired length is achieved, perv!” See postscript.”)

    ______________________

    You wouldn’t be pranking me with gibberish, would you, Mrs. She?  Just kidding.  I trust your expertise. 

    • #5
  6. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Seawriter (View Comment):

    One of my most valuable texts when I was in college was The Literate Naval Architect by Harry Benford, a professor at the University of Michigan’s Department of Naval Architecture and Marine Engineering. It was a handy guide on grammar and writing. It was given, free, to all of us grubby freshmen in the Naval Architecture program. (I still have my copy somewhere, along with the Strunk and White I bought at the book’s recommendation.)

    Alas it is now out of print. As is your book. Have you considered republishing it via a platform like Amazon? Books like that have real value.

    Seawriter, in the fifty years that have passed, language has moved on and I haven’t. Besides, I no longer have the energy to do a complete rewrite. 

    • #6
  7. Stina Member
    Stina
    @CM

    When I was in 6th or 7th grade, I had to take sunshine state exam where i scored the only perfect score on grammar.

    And yet, I am the absolute worst in speech and off the cuff writing. I know a lot of the rules, I just don’t apply them.

    I need a sentence to end in a preposition because I want it to.

    • #7
  8. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    Seawriter, in the fifty years that have passed, language has moved on and I haven’t. Besides, I no longer have the energy to do a complete rewrite. 

    You could pass it off to someone else, like Strunk & White.

    • #8
  9. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Arahant (View Comment):

    I was hoping for Bob, and I got pictures of what? Oy!

    Bob was napping upstairs, so I had to use a photo of these slippers instead. Oy vey!

    • #9
  10. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Arahant (View Comment):

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    Seawriter, in the fifty years that have passed, language has moved on and I haven’t. Besides, I no longer have the energy to do a complete rewrite.

    You could pass it off to someone else, like Strunk & White.

    Arahant, funny you should mention Strunk and White.  Both were wonderful writers, especially White, but I’ve always found Elements of Style woefully inadequate as a guide to writing.  All of their advice is great advice, but there just isn’t enough of it. It’s a very quirky guide, and I like it for that reason. 

    • #10
  11. JustmeinAZ Member
    JustmeinAZ
    @JustmeinAZ

    One that grates on my ears is the constant use of “myself” for “me” or “I”.

    “John and myself were called to the crime scene.”

    “The chief called John and myself over to the crime scene.”

    (So I watch a lot of true crime shows on TV. )

    I hate writing and I’m not good at it so Strunk and White was always at my elbow during HS and college. It was good enough to get me through.

     

    • #11
  12. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    I, for one, am fully ready to boldly split infinitives. There is no reason not too. English is not Latin. 

     

    • #12
  13. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    JustmeinAZ (View Comment):

    One that grates on my ears is the constant use of “myself” for “me” or “I”.

    “John and myself were called to the crime scene.”

    “The chief called John and myself over to the crime scene.”

    (So I watch a lot of true crime shows on TV. )

    I hate writing and I’m not good at it so Strunk and White was always at my elbow during HS and college. It was good enough to get me through.

     

    Myself gets used because people don’t know what to use and punt. 

    • #13
  14. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    I, for one, am fully ready to boldly split infinitives. There is no reason not too. English is not Latin.

     

    Exactly so.  Winston Churchill had the last word on this matter, didn’t he?

    • #14
  15. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator
    @TheReticulator

    KentForrester:  Here follows a few solicisms

    Mr. Grammar Nazi, shouldn’t that be, “Here follow…?” And if not, why not? 

     

    • #15
  16. Mark Alexander Coolidge
    Mark Alexander
    @MarkAlexander

    Yes, I may tremble in fear, since I am not the grammarian you are. BUT…

    I did create The Underground Grammarian website, and thus I am judging in ways that…, well,  I’ll have to think about it.

    EDITORIAL POLICIES

    The Underground Grammarian is an unauthorised journal devoted to the protection of the Mother Tongue at Glassboro State College. Our language can be written and even spoken correctly, even beautifully. We do not demand beauty, but bad English cannot be excused or tolerated in a college. The Underground Grammarian will expose and ridicule examples of jargon, faulty syntax, redundancy, needless neologism, and any other kind of outrage against English.

    Clear language engenders clear thought, and clear thought is the most important benefit of education. We are neither peddlers nor politicians that we should prosper by that use of language which carries the least meaning. We cannot honorably accept the wages, confidence, or licensure of the citizens who employ us as we darken counsel by words without understanding. And so, to the whole college community, to students, to teachers, and to administrators of every degree, The Underground Grammarian gives

    UG01-1b

    • #16
  17. Mark Alexander Coolidge
    Mark Alexander
    @MarkAlexander

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    Utilize instead of use. Means exactly the same thing.

    Comes up in business all the time. Bleh.

    How about the now pervasive loose for lose, and lead for led? ARRRGH!!!

    • #17
  18. 9thDistrictNeighbor Member
    9thDistrictNeighbor
    @9thDistrictNeighbor

    Straight grammar isn’t taught much any more, and if it is taught it’s done so in a mind-numbing way.  For the few years I homeschooled our son we used Shurley English.  I appreciated that it was totally scripted (because my mind does not work the way an English major’s does).  It was a straight grammar and writing course that taught parts of speech through “jingles” read aloud at the start of every lesson, diagramming sentences using systematic questions and a straightforward progression from a sentence to a paragraph to an essay.  I believe that foundation enabled our school-hating son to earn an A- in British Literature. (Mom brag, there….)

    It’s amazing how easy it is to dismantle a faulty argument simply through knowledge of the rules of antecedents.

     

    • #18
  19. John H. Member
    John H.
    @JohnH

    I hope next week’s Portuguese test has lots of the future subjunctive, because I totally know the Portuguese future subjunctive. ‘Course every native speaker knows it. Its use is precise, and if misused or missed, everybody can tell. Brazilians may err, but not with the future subjunctive.

    But quite apart from error, obnoxious as it may be, there may be staleness, which is to me at least more obnoxious still. I just heard someone on a Brazilian radio station speak of the country’s getting more inclusivo, social, e sustentável. The sentence’s grammar was fine, but its substance was nil. A goof would’ve at least made it more memorable.

    • #19
  20. Hang On Member
    Hang On
    @HangOn

    Does Bob growl at you when you correct his grammar?

    • #20
  21. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    That is a fascinating contraption on the cover of your book @kentforrester . How was that illustration selected?

    • #21
  22. Full Size Tabby Member
    Full Size Tabby
    @FullSizeTabby

    Bryan G. Stephens (View Comment):

    I, for one, am fully ready to boldly split infinitives. There is no reason not too. English is not Latin.

     

    Aargh! in the middle of my lawyer career the company’s general counsel (a couple of layers on the organization chart above me) had a strong objection to split infinitives. After he harangued me a few times about the problems they can cause in legal documents, a split infinitive became one of my pet peeves. Unfortunately, my church uses every couple of months a “statement of faith” from the denomination that includes many split infinitives. When we recite it, I find myself inserting the missing “to”s.

    • #22
  23. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Mark Alexander (View Comment):
    How about the now pervasive loose for lose, and lead for led? ARRRGH!!!

    Don’t loose your mind over it or you might be lead to do something desperate.

    • #23
  24. Arahant Member
    Arahant
    @Arahant

    Full Size Tabby (View Comment):
    When we recite it, I find myself inserting the missing “to”s.

    Don’t forget the “boldly.”

    • #24
  25. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Mark Alexander (View Comment):
    How about the now pervasive loose for lose, and lead for led? ARRRGH!!!

    Don’t loose your mind over it or you might be lead to do something desperate.

    Or maybe even disparate!

    • #25
  26. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    JoelB (View Comment):

    That is a fascinating contraption on the cover of your book @ kentforrester . How was that illustration selected?

    Joel, if I remember, I was casting about for a cover and came across this curious 19th-century drawing.  I can’t remember where I found it.  

    • #26
  27. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    JoelB (View Comment):

    Arahant (View Comment):

    Mark Alexander (View Comment):
    How about the now pervasive loose for lose, and lead for led? ARRRGH!!!

    Don’t loose your mind over it or you might be lead to do something desperate.

    Or maybe even disparate!

    Did you know that the introductory paragraph of a news story is called the “lede”?    It’s also called the “lead.”

    • #27
  28. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    KentForrester (View Comment):
    Did you know that the introductory paragraph of a news story is called the “lede”?    It’s also called the “lead.”

    Yup. I had to explain that to an editor once.

    In a book review I observed the author was “burying the lede” his book. It was about a shipwreck in which the author spent so much time on background, and the foreshadowing and aftermath of the shipwreck it was hard to find the discussion of the actual shipwreck.

    The editor thought it should be ” burying the lead.” I explained why “lede” was both accurate and less ambiguous. He agreed.

    • #28
  29. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    The Reticulator (View Comment):

    KentForrester: Here follows a few solicisms

    Mr. Grammar Nazi, shouldn’t that be, “Here follow…?” And if not, why not?

     

    Retic, if “here” is the subject and “follows” is the verb, then perhaps the phrase is correct.   Is it short for “Herein follows”?

    I found a poem by Anne Bradstreet’s poem that reads, “Here Follows Some Verses Upon the Burning of Our House.”

    I’m a bit confused. 

    • #29
  30. KentForrester Moderator
    KentForrester
    @KentForrester

    Hang On (View Comment):

    Does Bob growl at you when you correct his grammar?

    Hang On, Bob fears making a grammatical error so he never utters a word. 

    • #30