Tuesday, December 8, 2015

The Eagle Have Landed

This image shows an article that was published the other day in The New Republic. I noticed a grammatical error (circled in red) in the sentence just underneath the article title. Errors like this usually get fixed before too long, but this prominent blurb has been up for a while now.

Since I have a few posts up about grammar, I should clarify that whenever I comment about grammar, I'm referring to written language, not speech. That's because speech is usually less formal than writing. Also, speaking is a very personal and revealing sort of performance. For both of these reasons, and probably others, correcting an adult's grammar during a conversation would be an extremely rude thing to do, almost without exception. So when it comes to grammar, my subject is writing—and in particular, professional writing. Like, say, if you worked at a magazine.

Sometimes words mean more than what they say—other times, they mean less. Sometimes they mean something else entirely. Words are used not only to communicate, but to intimidate. Rather than a thesis, a string of words might convey an emotion, an identity, a desire, or some other unspeakable message.

I use language that way too, but mostly in my writing I try to use words denotatively. I have to, because I generally consider writing to be the art of producing propositions that are true of what they describe. So you can imagine how my mind jams when I feed it a sentence like 'The search have led to a new theory' in which the number of searches is simultaneously one and more than one.

Over twenty years ago, Steven Pinker wrote a good article in The New Republic about 'the fallacies of the language mavens.' There, Pinker explained that some of the mavens' favorite grammar rules are really just historical artifacts of recent vintage. Pinker also pointed out some weaknesses in the arguments of famous language writers, like William Safire. Pinker is especially convincing when it comes to certain specific grammar rules, such as the one about split infinitives. But I couldn't help thinking that Pinker's attack on grammar rules might have been more powerful if in his article he had actually broken some of those rules. Well, maybe he tried. Maybe The New Republic had more copy editors in 1994 than it has today.

Pinker, who is a member of the Usage Panel for my dictionary of choice, recently wrote a book about writing called The Sense of Style: A Thinking Person's Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. I haven't read the book, but I'll bet it's a worthwhile read. Here are reviews of it from the New York Times and the New Yorker. Here too is a list of grammar "rules" that Pinker invites us to do away with. I note that subject-verb number agreement isn't among them.

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