Thursday, February 03, 2005

A good grammar fight

I just love it when the "phrasal prepositions," "inflected forms" and other invectives start flying (DUCK!!! Incoming commas!) as they are between linguist Geoffrey Pullum at Language Log and the gang of commenters over at A Capital Idea.

Nicole Stockdale at ACI linked to Pullum's panning of Bryan Garner's grammar chapter in the new Chicago Manual of Syle. (She also linked to Mark Liberman's panning of the new SAT grammar test.) Now, Garner is a hero on many copy desks. His A Dictionary of Modern American Usage is often cited to settle nettlesome copy-desk disputes, and to the endearment of many a journalist, he uses examples from real newspapers. Pullam might just as well have stomped on the "Dont Tread on Me" flag.

Peter Fisk, whom I also respect as a well-versed practitioner of this craft of copy editing, shot back over at ACI: Moreover, if “with reference to” isn’t a phrasal preposition, what is it? (I just love it when we talk dirty.)

And so Pullum launched a lengthy tirade back at Fisk, a piece that is worth reading for its analysis, but debased by Pullum's resort to discredited debating techniques (sample: Let me wrestle with my rhetorical demons (they whisper in my ear in red, "Call him a loony! ") and provide a civil response to Peter's very reasonable question.).

But here's the bottom line. In journalism, we don't practice grammar. We practice a pidgin grammar that usually hews to the real thing but veers when it suits our circumstances and needs. Examples abound -- to use or not use the Oxford comma, none and everyone as singulars, etc. And don't get me started on hyphenation or "they." (For the record, I am resigned to the eventual use of "they" as the universal donor pronoun; I'm just not willing to accept it yet. And so I disagree with Liberman's first example in his analysis of the SAT and, no, I don't think it pedantic, as the Oxford dictionary folks say, to suggest that "The members of the committee have now taken their seats" is better than "The committee have now taken their seats." (Yes, I did switch from the UK to U.S. view). But I also support "I have invited my family to tea and they are coming on Friday," because the alternative really is inelegant. (And should there be a comma after "tea"? Lately, we seem to be shedding them.))

I am no linguist, but my somewhat limited study (compared with Pullum, for instance) has convinced me that were we to write in true, big-C Correct, big-G Grammar, it would be largely unreadable under journalistic conventions. And then would be the question of what Correct Grammar would be in an age where the changing notions of the same are incredibly speeded up by our digital communications system. (Just as an example I've cited before, in E.L. Callihan's well-respected reference of the 1950s through 1970s, Grammar for Journalists, he clearly states that "so" is a conjunctive adverb that should be preceded with a semicolon when joining two clauses. My Webster's of that time also lists so only as an adverb. But if you did that in a newsroom today, you'd get at best weird looks as the copy desk substituted a comma. And Webster's clearly now allows so as a conjunction.)

This is one reason we have stylebooks -- to provide quick and dirty answers in a time-starved business. Were we to exhaustively research many of these grammar points that come up hourly on a desk, we'd find many of our choices to be wrong or at least a tad askew. The choices made in those stylebooks are arbitrary, but not capricious. Ipso facto, why does the New York Times prescribe none as plural but the AP chooses singular? We make our choices; we live with them. And we spend a lot of effort trying to defend them.

Pullum, in his panning of Garner, refers back to Liberman's as a "masterful critique of the College Board." I have reference books that say he should have used "masterly." I'm sure he has some that say that's balderdash. Have his books call mine, and they can do lunch.

In the meantime, let's be realistic about what we are about here. I will continue to use my Garner (and my Follett, and Fowler, and Broadview, and Brians, and a dozen others), but I think Pullum should be given his due when he writes:

My point is that things have been discovered about English grammar in the last hundred years. I'm not pressing for new names for time-worn concepts. I'm objecting to the fact that people treat English grammar as if it were a frozen collection of eternal truths like Pythagorean geometry. The analogy is inapt: Pythagoras's theorem about right-angled triangles is true, and his proof of it is sound. It's very different with grammar. Mistakes were made in the analysis of English syntax in the 18th and 19th centuries. Bryan Garner's presentation (and yes, I agree absolutely that on usage matters he strikes a very reasonable balance between prescriptive and descriptive approaches) sadly reflects none of the progress that has been made to correcting those mistakes. Everything about his description of English morphology and syntax is the same as what you can read in J. C. Nesfield's Outline of English Grammar, published in February 1901, exactly a hundred and five years ago. I'm saying, very respectfully and civilly, that we can do better in the matter of grammatical description, and it's about time major publishing houses and dictionary makers started trying to.
But let's not do that too fast. I just love a good food fight.


At 2/4/05, 7:13 AM, Blogger Peter Fisk said...

Aw, it wasn’t a fight. Best to just let it go, before we all start having nightmares of McLaughlin Group panelists heaving unabridged dictionaries at one another. But thanks for the nice mention.

At 2/4/05, 1:40 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Now that's an image I can identify with. Once saw a phone book go whizzing by my head across a newsroom.

At 5/17/05, 6:57 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Before making comments about grammar, I think you should look at yours and try to correct it first. That last "to" at the end of this paragraph, if you knew any better, would have the verb to complete its infinitive construction. Seriously, how can you write criticism about grammar books when you are incapable of writing well yourself? It's the same thing with music (cf. Beethoven's 9th Symphony) - you can't break the rules until you know what they are first.


At 5/17/05, 2:55 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

I'll admit to being a tad confused. So you would have me alter quoted material to add the verb after "to" in the cited work when it was not in the original? That seems to me a greater sin than the alleged one you propose.

And the writer did not commit a sin. In fact, I'd suggest he knew the rule -- and broke it deliberately and correctly. "To" need not be followed by a verb. In English, we call it "elliptic writing," and it is done quite frequently. (She is more of a chocoholic than I. -- drops the implied "am." I am going to the store and then [to] home, etc.)

In this case, the second "do better" is implied and understood, a perfectly acceptable form in modern English grammar.

At 6/11/09, 12:21 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

I believe that you, and this isn't simply the singular you, lack a real understanding of what grammar is.

At 6/12/09, 10:12 PM, Blogger Doug Fisher said...

Oh, I have a very good idea of what grammar is. And I have a heck of a time keeping people from confusing it with things like spelling, punctuation and usage.


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