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Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Poll: Which grammar rules would you ban?

After an Oxford University professor questioned the continued use of apostrophes (to much alarm in response), a British newspaper asked readers about other grammar rules they would ban:
[T]he idea got members of the Telegraph Arts and Entertainment desks thinking – what grammatical and spelling pedantries would we like to rid ourselves of?
Below are the newspaper's eight suggestions. You can vote on them and see the latest results at the newspaper's website:
  • Never start a sentence with a conjunction
  • Never split an infinitive
  • Never use "like" as a conjunction
  • Always i before e, except after c
  • Always use "fewer" for plural, and "less" for singular objects
  • Always use apostrophes for plural possessives
  • Always differentiate between "which" and "that"
  • Never use "me" as a subject pronoun.

My comments (from Seattle in the United States) are not likely to sway a British poll, but here are my thoughts on some of the listed rules--and related items in Garbl's Editorial Style and Usage Manual.
First, though, the basic rules for using apostrophes are not that difficult to remember and follow. Here's the entry in my online manual:
apostrophe (') This punctuation mark has two main uses: First, it often shows possession: Dan Lindler's appointment. And second, it often marks the omission of letters in contractions and other words or numbers in years and decades: he'll, won't, finger lickin' good, the class of '68, the '90s.
Apostrophes never make a word plural, but they may be used to mark the plural of single letters and abbreviations with internal punctuation: Dot your i's. She got straights A's on her report card, M.A.'s Ph.D.'s. Don't use it in forming plurals of decades: the '70s, the 1980s, not '70's, the 1980's.

Second, highly respected language authorities, now and in the past, already consider the first two so-called rules to be myths--starting a sentence with a conjunction and splitting infinitives. I list those "rules" and others at Garbl's Myths and Superstitions of Writing

Here are my style manual items on those rules:

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.
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.
I realize the rule about using like as a preposition (and as as a conjunction) is often confused, but it's not a difficult rule to learn and follow. My style manual says:
as, like Often confused when comparing things. Both mean "equally" or "the same as." Use the conjunction as, however, to introduce a clause (a group of words with its own subject and verb), he should in this example: Jennifer saves her computer work as she should. Use like as a preposition to make a direct comparison of nouns or pronouns. It needs an object, an expert in this example: Jennifer saves her computer work like an expert. Memory tip: As is followed by a noun and a verb while like is followed by only a noun.

The "i before e" rule listed in the article is incomplete; the complete rule acknowledges exceptions  ("... Or when sounded as 'a,' As in neighbor and weigh"). Sure, that rule has other exceptions, but as a mnemonic tip, it's a good starting point before checking a dictionary.

The rule for using fewer and less is described incompletely in the article, even inaccurately. Here's a more complete description from my style manual that I think is clear and useful to readers:

fewer, less Fewer (or few) stresses number, and less stresses degree or quantity. Use fewer for plural nouns and individual items that can be counted, less for singular nouns and a bulk, amount, sum, period of time or idea that is measured in other ways: Fewer than 10 applicants called. I had less than $50 in my pocket. Fewer dollars, less money. Less food, fewer calories
Agreed, the rules about using apostrophes for plural possessives are not easy to remember, but that's why having access to a style manual is useful and smart. I think using them correctly aids reader comprehension. Here's an outline of related rules under possessives in my online guide:
  • Use only an apostrophe for singular proper names ending in sDrakes' decision. And add only an apostrophe to plural proper names ending in sthe Parkses' home.
  • Add 's to plural nouns not ending is schildren's passes, men's bike, women's rights, women's room.
  • Add only an apostrophe to plural nouns ending in sthe girls' books, boys' bike, plants' supervisors, families' cars.
  • When a plural noun is possessive but each person "owns" only one item, the item should also be listed in plural form. To confirm correctness, rephrase the possessive relationship as an of phrase: the children's brains or the brains of the childrenthe teachers' hands or the hands of the teachers.
  • When two or more people jointly own an item, put the apostrophe after the noun closest to the item: Gary and Gina's car(they jointly own car), Gary and Gina's cars (they jointly own more than one car). But when two or more people separately own items, put an apostrophe or an 's after each noun: Gary's and Gina's cars.
  • When writing about a family in the plural, add s and then an apostrophe: the Abernathys' Christmas greeting (but Bob Abernathy's Christmas greeting).
  • Add only an apostrophe to nouns plural in form, singular in meaning: mathematics' rules, United States' wealth.
Some writing authorities don't like differentiating that and which, but I agree with those authorities who believe making the distinction can aid readers. And it's usually not difficult to follow the rule. Here's the description in my style manual:
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."
Finally, I'm sorry (I guess), but I think using "me" as a subject pronoun makes a speaker sound careless and immodest at best, unsophisticated and illiterate at worst. It's just not that hard to remember and follow the basic rule correctly. I don't think this error comes up much in serious writing. My style manual:
I, me Often confused. the pronoun I (like he, she, we and they) is always the subject of sentences and clauses. And the pronoun me (like him, her, us and them) is always the object of verbs and prepositions. In other words, I is more likely to be at the front of a sentence or clause (typically before the verb). And me is more likely to be at the back of a sentence or clause (typically after the verb): I hugged her. He talked to me. She hugged him. We talked to them. They talked to us.
 Also, please remember these correct uses when the sentence has a conjunction (such as and or or): He talked to Linda and me. Linda and I talked to him. The horse carried Debbie and me. Debbie and I rode the horse. Incorrect: He talked to Linda and I. Linda and me talked to him. The horse carried Debbie and I. Debbie and me rode the horse. To be polite, me or I usually follows the conjunction.
To test for correctness: Remove the other person's name and the conjunction from the sentence, leaving the pronoun; if it sounds incorrect, it probably is. For example, you wouldn't want to be heard saying, "He talked to I" or "Me talked to him" or "Me rode the horse." 
The article from
The Telegraph is featured today, June 5, 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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