An American Editor

August 30, 2014

Worth Reading: Steven Pinker on 10 “Grammar Rules”

Steven Pinker is one of my favorite authors. I have many of his books in my library and have his forthcoming book, The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, on preorder (publication date is September 30, 2014).

A couple of weeks ago, Pinker wrote an article for The Guardian. The article, “10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break (sometimes),” is well worth reading. In the article, Pinker outlines the questions you should ask to “distinguish the legitimate concerns of a careful writer from the folklore and superstitions” and the questions to be asked — and if answered “yes” — to reject a grammar “rule.”

The 10 “grammar rules” Pinker addresses are:

  • and, because, but, or, so, also
  • dangling modifiers
  • like, as, such as
  • preposition at the end of a sentence
  • predicative nominative
  • split infinitives
  • that and which
  • who and whom
  • very unique
  • count nouns, mass nouns and “ten items or less”

I’ve saved the article for future reference. What do you think of it?

December 23, 2013

Faux Controversies and the Singular Plural

On another forum it was asked whether authors should “push the grammar envelope” and embrace the singular plural. I think the wrong question is being asked when you ask whether authors should push the grammar envelope for two reasons: First, because it ignores the purpose of grammar, which is to ensure that there is communication between author and reader. Second, because to push the grammar envelope assumes that there are firm rules to be pushed. The first reason far outweighs the second, but neither is ignorable.

Regarding the singular plural, it is neither pushing the envelope to use it nor a violation of a firm rule nor a distraction from communication (in most cases; there are cases in which it is clearly wrong because its use is confusing). In other words, I think that editors, writers, grammarians, usage gurus, etc., make the proverbial mountain out of the molehill when they oppose the singular plural.

Consider what makes a great editor. A great editor is someone who ensures that a reader understands the editor’s author; that is, ensures that the reader does not leave the book thinking the author is in favor of, for example, genocide, when the author intends the contrary. An average editor can cite chapter and verse of why x is not to be done, but cannot explain why doing x makes the author’s point unintelligible. The amateur editor either blindly accepts the singular plural or remembers having been taught that the singular plural is incorrect and thus blindly changes it.

However, if the singular plural is incorrect, it is incorrect because it makes the author’s point unintelligible, not because a group of self-appointed grammarians have written that it is wrong.

English is difficult enough without making it impossible. Editors constantly twist and turn to apply “rules” of grammar in the mistaken belief that there are rules of grammar. What are too often called rules are really current conventions.

Be clear that I am not referring to spelling and whether the correct choice in context is “rain,” “reign,” or “rein.” Equating spelling with grammar is another common mistake; spelling and grammar are companions, not a single entity.

English lacks the singular plural pronoun. In my schooldays, it was easy to lose points on an otherwise brilliant essay by using the plural pronoun as a singular pronoun. The convention (i.e., “rule”) was that the singular plural was forbidden. Instead, you were expected to rewrite the sentence to avoid the singular plural, even if it meant twisting and turning an otherwise coherent statement into a convoluted mess. Style was more important than substance.

Today’s argument between propluralists and antipluralists amounts to both a faux argument and making style more important than substance. This is not to say that the singular plural is always correct or that a particular sentence could not be made better by avoiding the singular plural. Rather, it is to say that when arguing over the singular plural, we lose sight of what really is important: How well does the sentence communicate to the reader?

The difference between editors, especially between the professional editor and the nonprofessional editor, is the emphasis each places on evaluating each word and sentence on their ability to communicate the point accurately to the reader. Because we use the singular plural in common speech and understand it in context, there should not be a problem in using it in writing when its use eases communication.

I suppose this controversy is just another in the grammar wars between traditionalists and modernists. Bryan Garner (Modern American Usage 3rd ed.) falls into the traditionalist camp. He sees the rise of the singular plural as an attempt to avoid sexism (which it is). As he writes, “It is the most convenient solution to the single biggest problem in sexist language — the generic masculine [also, I would say, feminine] pronoun” (p. 179). His answer is to avoid it whenever possible.

Modernists tend to think in unisexual terms; that is, if it can be applied to both males and females, we need to avoid picking one as the example. Thus the use of the singular plural. Over the past 50 years, as a result of the cultural war on sexism, English speakers have become so accustomed to the singular plural as a “normal” part of speech, it seems foolish to make all possible effort to avoid the construction.

In many ways, this faux controversy reminds me of the split infinitive “rule” and the twisting and turning we had to put language through to avoid splitting the infinitive. Had we instead focused on the communication aspects, we would have recognized that rigid application of the splitting rule was wasteful and illogical. That same recognition should be extended to the singular plural. We should recognize the limitations of English as a language and compensate for those limitations in the most logical manner, as long as clear communication is not jeopardized.

Which brings us back to what I consider the fundamental rule, the fundamental arbiter of grammar: Does use of the singular plural detract from clear communication to the reader? If it doesn’t detract from clear communication, then leave it be as long as it is otherwise properly used.

Editors need to remember that language is fluid. They also need to remember that there really are no rigid rules of grammar except the rule of clarity. Grammar rules, with the clarity exception, are merely conventions or suggestions upon which a large group of society have agreed. They are not intended, except by the fanatical few, to be blindly adhered to and applied. Garner says to use the singular plural cautiously “because some people may doubt your literacy” (p. 179), but I think use of the singular plural is so common today that very few would raise the question. As long as the material is clear, I see little strength to the argument to studiously avoid the singular plural. If the material can be made clearer by avoiding the singular plural, then it is the obligation of the editor to do so. Otherwise, relax and flow with its use.

November 6, 2013

On Language: Are There Rules?

A colleague wrote on another forum: “Yet these [rules of grammar] are elements of correct use of language (and key in quality editing/writing).”

What is correct use of language is arbitrary. “You and I” can be as correct as “you and me” — it just depends on the dominant grammar trend at the time of usage. Grammar “rules” are simply conventions that some self-appointed group of “authorities” has determined reflect current values in expression, which values many current writers and editors accept and agree with. If that were not true, then the rules today would be identical to the rules of 500 years ago and would be immutable, yet we know that grammar rules are always in a state of flux.

I am of the opinion that there is only one true grammar rule: The manner in which something is spoken or written must be such that the listener or reader can make no mistake about the speaker/writer’s intent and meaning. Aside from that, all so-called rules of grammar are here-today-gone-tomorrow rules of consensus.

Consider style manuals and usage manuals. If rules were universal and permanent, there would be no need for more than a single style manual, usage guide, or even dictionary, as there could be no difference and no room for interpretation. Yet we have many of each, and each has differences from the others.

Consider this example: “early rising people” versus “early-rising people.” Which is grammatically correct depends on which style manual, grammar book, and usage manual one looks at and applies. Or, better yet, consider the serial comma — now abandoned in British and Canadian English, except for when it would enhance clarity, and under assault in American English. Yet for decades, using the serial comma was the rule (and one that I think should be kept because its use improves clarity).

Correct use of language is neither a black-and-white proposition nor written in stone. Rather, it is more like silly putty.

The sibling proposition is that “to break the rules [of grammar], you must first know the rules.” In a sense, that proposition is true. But with the rules being in a state of  flux, it is difficult to nail them down so that one can know what rule one is breaking. I think that perhaps the rules being broken are less rules of grammar than they are rules of current consensus and spelling.

In discussions with colleagues, I have noted that when the talk gets to grammar, the discussion really becomes one of word choice. Grammar is the structure of sentence, word choice (and its companion spelling) is using the correct word spelled correctly (e.g., taught vs. taut). Yet sentence structure isn’t rigidly defined even though some grammarians would have us believe otherwise.

Sentence structure, like most things in editing, really revolves around understanding, communication, and clarity: Is the sentence written so that a reader can understand it? Does the sentence communicate the message the author wants to communicate or is it communicating a different message, even if only to a few readers? Is the sentence so clear that there is no possibility that a reader will misinterpret the sentence and what is being communicated by the author?

Rules of grammar are intended to promote those three principles without becoming so inflexible that either the meaning or the drama of the sentence is lost. How sterile is “to go boldly” compared to “to boldly go”? Ultimately, the rules of grammar boil down to this question: What is in charge?

If rules are in charge, then there is no room for flexibility; either the rule is met and satisfied or it is ignored and broken (consider, e.g., the “rule” against splitting infinitives). If the rule is ignored and broken, and there is no effective mechanism for enforcing compliance with it, then it is not a rule; at most, it is a suggestion based on past experience that has been created by a self-selected group. When was the last time you nominated and voted for someone to be part of the grammar rule-making board?

Today, we know that the rule against splitting infinitives was a misguided attempt to squeeze American English into a mold into which it could not fit. Yet the attempt lasted for decades. I remember losing points on essays in high school for not adhering to that rule. Not one English teacher questioned the rule or its soundness; every one enforced it by lowering a paper’s grade. Yet, inexorably, the rule met its death because it could not be enforced outside the classroom. Consequently, one must question whether it ever was really a rule with willy-nilly enforcement or just a suggestion.

Today’s rule in opposition to the serial comma is similar to the split-infinitive rule. Is it more deceptive to the reader to have the extra comma than to forgo it? What harm does the inclusion of the comma cause? Even in an economic sense, the cost of the serial comma probably doesn’t amount to even pennies on a print run.

The movement is afoot to minimize punctuation. The trend began in British English, which is where the trend to do away with the apostrophe seems to have also been born and taken root, and has spread. But the rule is not much of rule because it has the clarity exception: If clarity is improved, keep the serial comma.

The importance of this recently surfaced in a discussion I had with a client. My client complained that in a book that was to follow Canadian English, we used the serial comma, and Canadian English does not use the serial comma. As I noted to the client, such a broad statement is wrong. Canadian English would prefer not to use the serial comma, but accepts it where it enhances clarity. So, I asked my client, who decides the issue of clarity? The answer is the editor initially and the reader thereafter. Consequently, if the editor decides to include the serial comma, it is not wrong. “Which,” I asked, “is clearer: eats shoots and leaves or eats, shoots and leaves or eats, shoots, and leaves?”, making reference to Lynne Truss’ excellent book. “The answer,” I wrote, “depends on which is meant and that between the second and third option, the addition of the final comma makes a world of difference in clarity.”

My client, as is the right of clients, was unimpressed and instructed that Canadian English does not approve of the serial comma and, therefore, we were not to use the serial comma. To the client, this was a rule of grammar, and as a rule, not to be violated.

As editors, we fail our clients and public by referring to rules of grammar rather than to grammar suggestions. Today’s “rules” of grammar are simply reflections of today’s language fads. Tomorrow, different rules will come about that abrogate the former rules. Although I have yet to succeed, I continue to try to educate clients that there are no immutable rules of grammar except for the three principles of understanding, communication, and clarity. If those three principles are met, then the rules of grammar have been satisfied and how we structure the text to meet those three principles using grammar suggestions makes the text more conform or less conform to current grammar suggestions.

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