Wednesday, January 28, 2009

Notes from an unrepentant grammar nazi, redux

Clark's comment on Monday's post made me think I should clarify what I mean when I say I am a grammar nazi. I am a stickler when it comes to proper punctuation. I have special shortcut keys programmed into my computer to keep minute and second symbols from turning into inverted commas in Microsoft Word. I know that ¶ is called a pilcrow. I only use one space after a period because that's what the Chicago Manual of style says. I always use the subjunctive tense properly. I even use semicolons on a regular basis. So, yeah. you could say I am a grammar nazi (nb: this does not mean that you need to start pointing out my typos—I don't claim to be a good typist or a good writer of HTML code). But there are two grammar "rules" that I refuse to follow, and I will openly mock anyone who tries to tell me that they are rules: the split infinitives rule and the rule against preposition stranding. Let's take these in order.

As a review, an infinitive is the plain form of a verb, and it is invariably preceded by to—to be, to do, to live, to die, are all infinitives. These exist in other languages, too, except in most other languages infinitives are one word rather than two. Well, someone got it in his head one day that since infinitives are not split in Latin (not a surprise, since they are one word), they should not be split in English as well. This rule would declare that the Star Trek motto, "to boldly go where no one has gone before," is improper English, preferring "to go boldly where no one has gone before." Strict compliance with this rule leads to situations where it is necessary to play a verbal game of Twister to salvage the meaning of your sentence. For instance, try to recast this sentence without losing the meaning: We expect our output to more than double in a year. I like Bill Bryson's take on it myself:

I can think of two very good reasons for not splitting an infinitive. (1) Because you feel that the rules of English ought to conform to the grammatical precepts of a language that died a thousand years ago. (2) Because you wish to cling to a pointless affectation of usage that is without the support of any recognized authority of the last 200 years, even at the cost of composing sentences that are ambiguous, inelegant, and patently contorted.*

The second "rule" I openly mock is the rule against preposition stranding, or ending sentences with prepositions. Again, this convention comes from Latin; again, this rule bears no relationship with the way English is used; and again, following the rule strictly will lead to verbal Twister (see, e.g., What did you do that for?). To quote Churchill, this is errant nonsense up with which I will not put.

In the end, grammar and punctuation are all about communicating ideas effectively and artfully. There are no rules of grammar, only conventions that you can use to be understood by your audience. If I am called pedantic, at least let me be called pedantic in service of functional language.

* Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue 144 (1990).

4 comments:

Chris said...

Nate, have you read this?
http://www.nytimes.com/2009/01/22/opinion/22pinker.html?partner=permalink&exprod=permalink

Gilberts' Fridge said...

Oh, "Mother Tongue" is one of my favorite books of all time. It has been lovingly read and re-read at our house, and the pages are all warped and stained with food due to bath time and meal time reading. I was going to recommend it to you, but it seems I don't have to! Hooray for good taste!

Anonymous said...

Martin here. What the crap is a pilcrow? apart from a back to front 'p' with the middle filled in, with an i l next to it. please help

Nate W. said...

A pilcrow indicates a paragraph. On legal documents, for example, I will often refer the court to a statement on paragraph such-and-such, and it looks something like this: "See Def's Answer ¶¶ 7-9." A pilcrow is also used in typesetting and proofreading to indicate the insertion of a paragraph or hard return.

One thing that will never change--I will always be a wealth of trivia.