Monthly Archives: October 2013

Tread with care in the grammar war zone

Being a grammar scold is dangerous business. Pointing out other people’s flubs can make the scold a target of even more aggressive purists.

There’s also the problem of definitions. “Grammar” is a technical term having more to do with being understood as opposed to “usage,” a clumsy moniker that has to do with the use of words and punctuation. Usually, grammar scolds say they’re correcting (or objecting to) someone’s grammar when they’re really referring to usage.

For example, “You ain’t got no class” can, arguably, be called grammatical in that the person reading or hearing the sentence can decipher what it means, even though it’s a usage nightmare, at least in what’s called “standard” English.

On the other hand, “The find do chimp job the to” isn’t grammatical because it’s difficult or impossible to figure out what it means. It might say, “Find the chimp to do the job,” but, then again, maybe not.

Recently, a newspaper columnist for The Kansas City Star made the mistake, while criticizing someone else’s grammar/usage, of identifying an adverb as an adjective. The other grammar scolds came out of the woodwork, and he had to devote another column to apologizing. This situation encourages a few questions for the scolds, such as, “Just how many cats do you have?” and “How long has it been since you stepped out of your house?” and “Have you considered the possibility of life beyond the crossword puzzle?”

Tempests in a thimble like the one just described recall to mind what Winston Churchill thought about the ridiculous pseudo-rule that bans ending a sentence with a preposition. It is, the old statesman is reputed to have said, something “up with which I will not put.”

Winston’s phrase is grammatical, and the usage is correct, but the pomposity of it makes it a slappable offense to the English-hearing human ear. (Yes, there is no such word as “slappable.” Live with it). Yet the preposition battle is still being fought wherever grammar scolds are found. There are other recurring skirmishes, equally silly, that will be dealt with in later posts.

Does all this attention to other people’s use of language make this a grammar scold’s blog? Heaven forfend.

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