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Monday, March 11, 2013

Part I: Bogus grammar 'errors'--or not--and writing myths and superstitions

Author Ben Yagoda writes about 7 bogus grammar 'errors' you don't need to worry about in the March 5 issue of The Week. While I agree with most of what he writes, I can't hop on his bandwagon condemning all of them. I think a couple of these rules have value to clear, strong writing.

I provide a somewhat similar list at Garbl's Writing Myths and Superstitions.

Below, I've excerpted my related entries from Garbl's Editorial Style Manual, also noting my agreement or not with Yagoda. Since this blog entry is getting long, I'll follow up on Yagoda's It's okay to use... items in my March 12 blog entry:

Excerpts from my style manual (following Yagoda's order of comments):
[agree] split infinitives Avoid awkward sentence constructions that split the infinitive forms of a verb, such as to leave or to help, as in this sentence: Try to not awkwardly or incorrectly split infinitives. But splitting infinitives is grammatically correct--and even useful if it helps strengthen the meaning of a sentence by placing the modifier before the word it's modifying: He wanted to really impress the council. Unfortunately, split infinitives can distract some readers who think they're incorrect. 
[agree] prepositions A preposition is a word or group of words that links a noun or pronoun to a verb, adjective, or another noun or pronoun. The most often used prepositions are at, by, for, from, in, of, on, to and with. ...
It's correct to end a sentence with a preposition, but doing so could weaken the point of the sentence. Consider alternatives. ...
[disagree] that, which, who, whom That is the defining, or restrictive, pronoun for essential clauses: The camera that is broken is in the shop (tells which one). Which is the nondefining, or nonrestrictive, pronoun for nonessential clauses: The camera, which is broken, is in the shop (adds a fact about the only camera in question).
In the examples above, note the correct use of commas: Which clauses are always set off with commas (or sometimes dashes or parentheses), and that clauses aren't. Essential that clauses cannot be cut without changing the meaning of a sentence. Don't set off an essential clause from the rest of a sentence with commas.
Nonessential which clauses can be dropped without altering the meaning. Set off a nonessential clause with commas.
James J. Kilpatrick, The Writer's Art, 1984: "Rule of thumb: If the qualifying phrase is set off by commas, use which; if not, use that."
In addition, that is the preferred pronoun to introduce clauses that refer to an inanimate object: Greg remodeled the house that burned down Friday. Which is the only acceptable pronoun to introduce a nonessential clause that refers to an inanimate object: The house, which Greg remodeled, burned down Friday.
When an essential or nonessential clause refers to a human being or something with human qualities (such as a family), introduce it with who or whomThat -- but not which -- also may be used to refer to human beings, as well as inanimate objects. Don't use commas if the clause is essential to the meaning. Use them if it is not. 
Theodore M. Bernstein, The Careful Writer, 1977: "Which normally refers to things, who to persons, and that to either persons or things."
[agree] and, but Some teachers wisely taught us not to begin every sentence or fragment of a sentence with and (or but). And others taught us mistakenly not to begin any sentence with those conjunctions. Whatever the lesson, the result has been a common misunderstanding that it's incorrect to begin sentences with conjunctions. Ignore that myth!
And and but are simple, clear and correct transition words between related (and) and contrasting (but) sentences. Go ahead and use 'em--And instead of Additionally, Furthermore, In addition or Moreover, and But instead of However. But don't overdo it. They'll lose their punch. A comma is unnecessary following And and But at the beginning of a sentence. 
[mostly disagree] active vs. passive verbs A verb is active when it shows the subject acts or does something: The clown caught the bouquetThe board approved the contract unanimously. A verb is passive when the subject of the verb is acted upon: The bouquet was caught by the clown. The contract was passed unanimously by the board.
The active voice is simpler, more direct and more forceful than the passive voice. Passive voice may be acceptable when the person or thing receiving the action is more important than the person or thing doing the acting. ...
Rita Mae Brown, Starting from Scratch, 1988: "Avoid the passive voice whenever possible. University term papers bleed with the passive voice. It seems to be the accepted style of Academia. Dump it."
[mostly agree] collective nouns Collective nouns name a group or collection of people, places, things, ideas, actions or qualities, including board, class, committee, crowd, family, group, herd, jury, panel, public, orchestra, staff, team. Nouns that show a unit take singular verbs and pronouns: The board is electing its committee chairs. The crowd is eager to march. To stress individuals in a group, usemembers of: Staff members answered questions. Some members of the panel left before lunch. 
Some nouns are both singular and plural in meaning, including corps, chassis, deer, fat, fish, grease, moose, oil, public, sediment, sheep, soil, water and waste. The use of a singular or plural verb in a particular sentence conveys the meaning. Because these words are already plural, avoid adding s or es to make them plural: Scientists studied sediment from Charger Bay. The geologist took samples of soil from the site
When mentioning various types or species, however, plural spellings may be used: Scientists studied Fox Lake and Lake Roosevelt sediments. The site contained both glacial and sandy soils. ...
[agree] data Normally a plural noun, it takes plural verbs and pronouns when writing about individual items: The data have been analyzed thoroughly. Data may take singular verbs when the group or quantity is considered a unit: The data is accurate. Stick with the plural verb after data if you're not sure which one to use. ...
[agree] media Media takes plural verbs and pronouns when it refers to more than one medium of communication, such as TV, radio and newspapers: Radio and television are popular entertainment media. The Internet is now a major news medium. But it's becoming acceptable to refer to the mass media or communications media or news media as a singular entity that takes singular verbs and pronouns: He's convinced the local news media is out to get him
Yagoda's column is featured today, March 11, in my daily online paper, Garbl's Style: Write Choices, available at the Editorial Style tab above and by free email subscription.

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