Tuesday, October 11, 2011

peeves and passes





Recently, on a drive from Palmerston North to Auckland, I spent some time musing on which grammar issues bother me and which ones don't. Of course, the very fact that this issue was taking up space in my brain illustrates that I'm a Tragic Grammar Nut. I could have been taking in all the delicious signs of spring: the soft greens of newly unfurled leaves, spring lambs and calves, even little black piglets in one paddock. I could have been swelling with nationalistic pride; New Zealand is gripped by World Cup Fever so there were All Black flags everywhere, fluttering from cars, letter boxes, roof tops. One farmer had even filled a whole paddock with flags and black and silver balloons.

But no, I was thinking about grammar and punctuation.

What doesn't bother me? Well, I decided that comma splices in some situations (I recently read a PD James novel that was full of them) don't raise my blood pressure too much, especially if I can see the reason for them. Incomplete sentences don't worry me too much, again, if there's a reason for them. I can cope with some misplaced commas. And I'm very comfortable about starting sentences with conjunctions.

But what can't I live with? Sorry, I'm a stickler for apostrophes - even when the mistake doesn't really cause any confusion. I think this is a weakness in my character: I should be more forbearing, but there it is. I can't bear "should of" to such an extent that I would correct someone who uses such an expression, whether that person is a total stranger, a friend, a salesperson or my boss. But my biggest peeve is one that hit me in the face on this trip. We stopped in Hamilton for a meal at our favourite Turkish restaurant and there was a GIGANTIC advert which said, in letters half a mile high, "More data, less dollars". It was all I could do not to head to the nearest hardware store to buy a ladder, black paint and a paint brush and correct it. I was still yelling "FEWER dollars!!" as my partner bundled me hastily into the car, executed a swift u-turn, and headed back on to the motorway out to Auckland.

So what are the grammar errors you can live with? And which ones bring out the Grammar Nut in you?


Image source: https://mrswhitegsl.wikispaces.com/Words+to+the+Wise

18 comments:

David Cox said...

Ah - I too used to correct 'less dollars' until I read Henry Hitchings about it. I still do most of the time. But let's face it, this use of 'fewer' will probably have disappeared in 50 years' time. There is a logic to using 'fewer', but I doubt if it is a compelling enough logic for the usage to be retained. Language is not designed. It evolves as bits of it find hosts that will reproduce them, and 'less' clearly has a better reproductive strategy at present than 'fewer'.

Andrea Duff said...

'Yous'. It might be an
Australian conversational quirk, but I HATE (with the biggest hate imaginable), 'how are yous?'

Now ewes might be in plentiful abundance (that's a tautology but never mind) in New Zealand. But walking into a gathering and asking 'how are yous?' drives me NUTS!!!! (Perhaps, worse than this, is 'how are y's? [prounounced yaz]'.

Let's leave ewes in the paddock and yous at the footy (football) match!

Andrea Duff said...

'Henry Hitchings' has an almost Dikensean ring to it (imagine 'enry 'itchings). Love it, David.

I don't know this man, but on further reading it seems that he embraces the ephemeral nature of language and the ways in which it is constantly on the move. A man after our own hearts!

If you want to read more about 'enry's work, this is a nice interview:

http://www.independent.co.uk/arts-entertainment/books/features/a-way-with-words-lexical-wizard-henry-hitchings-on-the-crazy-history-of-our-language-1038141.html

Julia Miller said...

I want to jump up and down and scream every time someone uses a verb which doesn't agree with the subject in sentences like this: "The main reason for the lack of apostrophes are the growing number of Grammar Vandals." I hear this everywhere, even on the radio and television. People simply make the verb agree with the closest noun, instead of looking for the subject it relates to. Aargh!!!

Clyde Leland said...

It ain't easy being both a songwriter and a writing instructor. When I find myself singing the word "whom," I figure I need a drink or something.

I know I have poetic license, but what if a student heard me?

Allen said...

The use of "less" with count nouns is hardly a new phenomenon. It's been going on for well over a thousand years. The supposed rule that "fewer" always goes with count nouns, and "less" with uncountables, started as a mere stylistic recommendation, enunciated for the first time in the late 18th century. Sometime by the end of the 19th, it had become an absolute dictum in certain school textbooks, a rule that has never been strictly followed in any point in English history.

Look up Google books, in the 19th century alone. You'll find "X [count nouns] or fewer" occurs at a rate of less than 1% of the hits for "X [nouns] or less". This includes the literary corpus. Other instances where "less" far outnumbers "fewer" is the structure "less than". "Their team scored 5 points less than ours", for instance. Using "fewer" in either instance sounds decidedly "wrong" to most native speakers for a good reason.

In these cases, "more" pairs logically with "less", and "less" with count nouns dates to Anglo Saxon. This peeve is purely a shibboleth.

Anonymous said...

Sorry about this, but I have to say it: over use of upper case, for example, Grammar Nut. People just love using upper case letters when they're plainly unnecessary. I can understand saying Grammar Nut when using it as a name for an individual, but the context here is clearly one where use of lower case is correct.

Andrea Duff said...

Yes, Anonymous, this is true!!

Unless Lisa is part of that little known association called Tragic Grammar Nuts Incorporated. Then, I think, she may use capital letters in 'Tragic Grammar Nut' :-)

lisanz said...

Andrea - well spotted! I'm guessing you might be a member too??

But this is my point exactly, Anonymous. For me, the odd capital for dramatic effect in a light hearted piece of writing is no problem (though it would be, for example, in a formal report. I'm far more likely to get hung up on the punctuation in your opening sentence (would "such as" have been better, meaning you wouldn't need to use the comma....?). But of course that, too, is a matter of taste, impact, style.

I'm interested in those places where correctness and taste become blurred, and the way we react to those grey areas. Writing is so much more than a set of rules - and it is interesting that those rules so often bother us at a gut level. This week, on the Stuff website, one of the bloggers raised issues to do with correct use of punctuation and has received a deluge of passionate response. Yet I wonder why this matters so much when issues to do with audience and effect are, in many ways, more important. Not always, but often.

Anonymous said...

My peves has to do with the use of "yours" and "mines". Example:This one is mines,so leave it alone.

Andrea Duff said...

:-) Very funny!

T.A. Powell said...

My peeve is the improper use of "anxious" when someone means "eager." I just don't understand why someone is stressed about things they should enjoy remembering that anxious is feeling anxiety or stress while eager is excitement. I can understand, for instance, being anxious about getting your Christmas shopping done, but most people are eager for the season.

StephCo said...

I am far from perfect, but in the past week alone I have received emails from three different colleagues containing the words "Saturday's", "effect" when she wanted "affect", and "weary" when she meant "wary." I'm actually weary and wary from the mess of it all. (And YES, I know I mixed UK and US quotation mark rules. I'm allowed. Thirty-five years in the US, now on my fourth in the UK.)
Of course, you might think this is normal, seeing these sorts of errors running rampant through emails. Well, um, it might be forgivable if we weren't all ENGLISH TEACHERS.
I'm not sure how much longer I can take the ignorance or apathy in my own profession. Who is to blame? I just had to vent.
(My personal pet peeve list would be volumes, btw.)

Andrea Duff said...

Hi StephCo

Your post really made me smile.

I am not a grammarphile, but a journalist (and academic) whose attention to correct grammar is meant to be unscrupulous.

I would like to propose one reason for what seems to be a collective global tardiness. We are ALL time poor.

The volume of information we produce in the communication age does not equate with the amount of time we need to give our writing the due consideration it deserves.

When we dash off an email in haste, perhaps we don't proofread it in the detail we might have read an office memo. Maybe our eyes are tired from looking at the screen too much (I know mine are).

Are these lame excuses from someone who should be beyond reproach?

Hmmm....I wonder. What do other people think?

Andrea Duff said...

There! I made a mistake (which shows I do proofread, after all). I meant: attention to grammar should be scrupulous. Goodness gracious!

Sandy Zuehlke said...

I can't stand when people say 'Me and John went to the store'. It is like chalk on a board to my ears.

Katherine said...

Hello, I come from Hamilton (where I am a Learning Developer) and had to smile a little at your inauspicious exit from our town.

I am intrigued at how animated people become over their favourite language peeves. My interest in them is why they occur; what may be going on with the way we learn a (native / mother) language that we are losing the nuance of meaning that accurate grammar and lexical acumen might provide. Is increasingly inaccurate or imprecise language peculiar to English?

I'm going out on a limb here, but we've made a little online grammar product to try and help our learners, and I was wondering if your readers might be interested in offering positive and/or constructive feedback.

http://www.waikato.ac.nz/students/student-learning/grammar/
http://www.waikato.ac.nz/students/student-learning/grammar/

Anonymous said...

Hello,
I am a second grade teacher. The one rule I start drilling the kids with at the beginning of the year (and continue all year) is the proper use of MAY vs. CAN. "Can I go to the restroom?" a student will ask. "I assume so," I reply.