Sunday, 18 February 2018

The grammatical errors that drive me mad... by the man in the grammatical glass-house (glasshouse?)

This tweet by a Conservative MP contains what is currently my least favourite mistake:
"Less" youngsters? Fewer. FewerFEWER! After all, you is like talkin bout edukashun innit? This is a bit hypocritical of me, I know (or, if you prefer, a bit Brendan Cox of me)...



...because there are many points of grammar which I have failed to master, despite repeatedly refreshing my memory of the rules. Areas of uncertainty include:

Initial capital letters: I keep checking the rules, and yet I'm aware of spraying capital letters around like a 19th Century (century?) German philosopher. No sooner have I written about the political Right than I read some massively-educated commentator talking about the right. Isn't Right right? As for "the right wing" - is that right, or should it be "the Right Wing"?

Hyphens: I tend to use these as if I'm on a retainer from the World Hyphen Corporation. Is it addle-pated - or is addlepated acceptable?

Quotation marks: Just look above - should the question, "Isn't Right right?",  have read, "Isn't 'Right' right"? And - yes, I know I shouldn't start a sentence with "and", but I've consciously chosen to break that rule - is it better to use single quotation marks throughout, only doubling up (or doubling-up? Or "doubling up"? Or 'doubling-up'?) when using quotation marks within a phrase or sentence  which is already enclosed within quotation marks (or quotation-marks)?

Italics: As for using quotation marks when discussing the question "Isn't Right right?", would italics have been equally acceptable, as in Isn't Right right? (or, indeed "Isn't Right right?")

Titles: the Sunday Telegraph - or  The Sunday Telegraph? The Today Programme, the Today Programme, The Today Programme? Or would it be easier just to opt for Today. 

Dashes: dashed if I know! (Or should the initial d - or "d", or d - of "dashed" - or dashed - be a capital?And am I allowed four dashes in one sentence, or is that two too many?)

Commas: no, don't get me started on commas! I'm so addicted to the little blighters, I may be a trifle OCD. (See? - I stuck one in after "blighters"/blighters/blighters: couldn't help myself.) I've even started using the Oxford comma, but I'm trying to wean myself off it.

Colons & Semicolons: I'm currently so hooked on both, I'm seriously thinking of trying to do without them altogether.

Were/Was: if I were to tell you conditionals are hell, would you agree? ALL AT SEA! I'm forever was-ing when I should be were-ing, and vice-versa - but I can't bear the thought of opening any of the four relevant reference works on the shelf behind me yet again to try to fix the rules in my head.

Quotations within a sentence: I never know whether the comma which separates the quotation from the next part of the sentence should appear before or after the closing quotation marks - ditto the full stop if the quote appears at the end of a sentence. I used to stick the comma or full stop after the quotation marks - but now I've flipped to doing it the other way: now, neither alternative looks right.

Those aren't the only areas of concern, of course, but that's enough to be getting on with. I probably need to admit defeat and simplify my style by cutting out as many commas, hyphens, dashes, colons, semicolons, italics and quotation marks as possible. I should take a leaf out of Kingsley Amis's book - (damn, another dash!) when faced with the who/whom conundrum, he decided to banish the word "whom" and stick with "who" throughout. I've read a lot of Kingsley Amis's stuff, and I'd never noticed. I suppose the way to judge whether a grammatical rule matters is if ignoring it causes a  reasonably literate reader to wince. In  my case, a misplaced apostrophe almost causes me pain - but I'm not aware of ever being particularly upset by too many (or two few) brackets, hyphens or semicolons. Either that's simply because I've never really understood the rules governing their use - or they're not actually that important...

...No, no - that won't do! I've taken my copy of the 1998 The Times Guide to English Style and Usage, compiled by Tim Austin, off my shelves and stuck it on my desk, and, from tomorrow, I'm going to do my best to refer to it whenever in doubt, and bloody well do whatever it tells me to do.

I'm not even sure if mistakenly using "less" when one means "fewer" is a grammatical or a linguistic mistake - but where does that leave using "your" for "you're", which strikes me as a grammatical error? Whatever, they both drive me nuts. But the one that really sends my blood pressure soaring is the age-old confusion over imply/infer. One goes out, the other comes in - what could be simpler? And yet I even encounter it in articles by respected political commentators who've had the best education money can buy. Mystifying. Using apostrophes to signify a plural is another one - it's wrong! Every damned time! Who started this horrible trend? Some confusions over usage strike me as understandable (mainly because they confuse me) - but anyone who imagines that "should of" is an acceptable substitute for "should have" needs more schoolin'.

I could go on. And on. And on. I'm sure we all could. But I'll end with a word that reduces me to a frothing rage: complimentary. What, in the name of God, is a "complimentary gift" when it's at home (or, more usually, when it's in a hotel room or an aeroplane). What, exactly, is "complimentary" about a box of frigging chocolates? What is a hotel guest who finds a bouquet of "complimentary flowers" in their room being complimented on? Her beauty? His wealth? What? At a stretch, these meaningless extras could just about be "complementary" - but the one thing they cannot be is complimentary. And yet this is now accepted usage (I've just checked the Times guide). How did this foolishness happen?


23 comments:

  1. My personal hate (as in raging red mist) is the almost ubiquitous misuse of the word bias. The letters pages of most newspapers and comments sections of many blogs seem filled by numbskulls who do not realise that one is 'biased' one is not 'bias'.

    Not long ago I got into a mild argument about electrocution, which apparently no longer means causing death by means of a short sharp shock. Likewise, decimate no longer calls to mind stricken Roman legions.

    It has to be Blair's doing.

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    1. When in doubt, I blame George Soros.

      I must admit, GCooper, that I'd never made the connection between "electrocution" and "execution". One feels such a fool!

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  2. I currently have three rants:
    1. Nucular.
    2. People who think "disinterested" means the same as "uninterested" but sounds posher.
    3. People who have never mastered the correct use of "I, you, me" and consequently think they can get round the problem by saying "yourself" and "myself". Which, again, they may feel sounds posher.
    Or am I just a snob, and should allow that language changes over time, just as Chaucer remarks?

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    1. The trying-to-sound-posher words which annoy me are 'generic' when they mean 'general' and 'definitive' when they mean 'definite'.

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    2. People who think "substantive" is a posher version of "substantial".
      Any use of the word "resile".
      People using "lay" for "lie" (one of my wife's particular bugbears).
      Gummint, sektery, "prostrate" cancer, damp"squid", a business that "flounders".
      I'm not good on "I, you, me", Helen - there, I've admitted it!
      Language changes, and that's fine - for instance, "lunch" has almost entirely engulfed "luncheon" over the years, and I don't see that as a problem. I'm cool with some slang, and I'm fairly relaxed about neologisms (unless used to signal how trendy, inclusive and plugged into the Zeitgeist the user is). What riles me is journalists, broadcasters, teachers and politicians debasing the language because of ignorance. I know I've mentioned this before, by why, for instance, do so many broadcasters emphasise the wrong syllables in commonly-used words? Why don't they know better? Why doesn't anybody tell them?

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    3. I was once in hospital in the same ward as a man who said he was there because he had a prostrate problem. I said I hoped he wasn't going to take it lying down.

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    4. I once met a father at a parents' evening who, on hearing that his daughter's work was unsatisfactory and often late, said "I can't understand it. She is in her room every night entirely at her own violation."

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  3. Yes but there is much enjoyment to be had from politicians who think that 'fulsome' means the same as 'full'.

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    1. I admit it can be amusing when a broadcaster informs us that someone has issued a "fulsome" apology, or given "fulsome"praise. But what's depressing is that the journalist cares so little about the language he uses that he hasn't bothered to wonder what's wrong with just using "full".

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    2. In the sports section of the Daily Telegraph to-day a journalist Sam Wallace has an "Exclusive Interview" with somebody called Brian McClair and states: " At 54 he sports a fulsome grey beard..." That is the clumsiest misuse of the word I have read to date.

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  4. Outside of the issues around orthography I have to say that the distinction between grammar and syntax needs to be addressed. Here of course Quine reaches out to us in his typically diverse and inclusive way and says forget it, don't bother looking, there isn't one. No distinction, that is. Between syntax and grammar. Coming from an intersectional member of the LGBTQuine+ community that carries a lot of wait.

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    1. I felt ever so proud of myself last week when the answer to one of the questions on University Challenge was "Willard van Orman Quine" - none of the contestants got it, but I did. Especially as this usually only happens when the questions are about '60s politics, '50s music or pre-1975 films. At last - proof that those three years studying philosophy weren't entirely wasted!

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    2. It was a moment to savour, wasn't it. Next week, referential opacity?

      The "Van" is upper case, by the way. Remember, when he visited Cambridge and lectured us, Bernard Williams called him "Van".

      I read his autobiography. Weird chap, Van. Used to hop on freight trains and just go wherever they were going, just to see. Never had any money. (As a young man, at least). In his youth, wherever you fetched up, you could drop into the sheriff's office and ask for a cell for the night, free.

      Who wouldn't benefit from reading Two dogmas of empiricism?

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  5. Which is always worth weighting for.

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  6. And of course there is always the widespread belief in the verb "to of", as in "should of".

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  7. Do any others who have too much time on their hands, as I do, think that the one-dimensionally illiterate spell-check and auto-correct online are leading our children to accept alternative and incorrect spellings and pronunciations?

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    1. Auto-correct drives me potty. I can't figure out how to switch it off for emails, so I have to spend twice as long as I used to checking what I've written in order to correct the miscorrections. I don't mind the discreet underlining of potential mistakes - I'm glad of the help, which I need - but, yes, I do worry that I no longer bother to learn correct spelling and grammar because of the omnipresent digital subeditor. And, yes, I also worry that young folk no longer bother to memorise facts, because they can check them instantly online at any time - for instance, my new Kindle allows me to hover over a name and go straight to the relevant entry on Wikipedia: dead useful, of course, but will this plethora of instant knowledge mean nobody has to retain any of it in their heads? (Mind you, it doesn't seem to be a problem for contestants on University Challenge, where standards don't appear to have dropped._
      The world today!

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  8. The rot set in in schools in the 1970s, when teachers were told to value creativity over accuracy. I think predictive spelling and spell check continued the problem, and texting followed. Though I am ashamed to say my own texting is full of "thx", "wd you", "pls" etc, because it is so much quicker and easier.
    However, I do derive a great deal of amusement from the subtitles in the TV News. One of the benefits of slight hearing loss, I suppose.

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    1. Thank you, Helen - I have spent the last 15 minutes looking at screen-grabs of great subtitling mistakes, and will post a selection soon.

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  9. When Nixon appointed Walter Annenberg as the US Ambassador to London he decided to redecorate the Embassy. When HM the Queen asked him how it was going he famously replied: "We're in the embassy residence, subject, of course, to some of the discomfiture as a result of a need for, uh, elements of refurbishment and rehabilitation." The Queen, for once, was nonplussed. The Ambassador also insisted that any journalist who asked him a question identified themselves by name because "all human beings were entitled to their rightful nomenclature." Laugh if you will, but he was a generous philanthropist and a great patron of the arts.

    A year or so ago Russell Brand was never off our screens spouting expressions like "paradigmatically", "holistic", "gestalt" and "zeitgeist" on various BBC political gabfests and generally talking gibberish. The commentators ridiculed Annenberg and treated the sleazy Brand seriously.

    One was a clumsy communicator and the other an uneducated big-mouth who tried to use words he did not fully understand. Both misused the language. Now, about that Frederic Raphael.....

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    1. Please don't tell me you've never heard of a paradigmatically holistic gestalt zeitgeist!

      I'm reminded of George W. Bush's defence secretary, Donald Rumsfeld, who was widely ridiculed for the following statement:

      "Reports that say that something hasn't happened are always interesting to me, because as we know, there are known knowns; there are things we know we know. We also know there are known unknowns; that is to say we know there are some things we do not know. But there are also unknown unknowns – the ones we don't know we don't know. And if one looks throughout the history of our country and other free countries, it is the latter category that tend to be the difficult ones."

      Perfectly sensible and comprehensible, and yet the wankerati, rather than engaging their brains for ten seconds, hooted in derision because (a) Rumsfeld was an American, (b) he was a Republican, and (c) he worked for Dubya, who - obviously - was stupid, so everybody who worked for him had to be stupid as well.

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  10. My pet hate is, "At this moment in time", as opposed to "at this time", or "at this moment". Quite often said when the speaker, often union leaders when they were on the TV more than they are now and police chiefs, playing for time while they are thinking about what they are going to say next.

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    1. The correct version would undoubtedly be, "In this current time-stage." Or, indeed, "Now."

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