Thursday, May 4, 2017

My Own Struggles With Grammar

Articles on grammar seldom feature the author's own mistakes or shortcomings. The genre typically delivers advice, not confession. But in order to balance my other posts on the topic, I thought I'd list some areas where I tend to struggle.

Words That Give Me Trouble
  • Embarrass is hard for me to spell (one r or two?).
  • There's a dead neuron in my brain where the proper spelling of maybe is supposed to be stored: sometimes I write mabey the first time!
  • Are dubious and doubtful synonyms? I can't tell.
  • I only recently learned the distinction between masterful (done in a domineering way) and masterly (done in the way an expert would do it). Almost nobody marks you down for using the words interchangeably, and the third definition of masterful in the American Heritage 4th Edition makes masterful and masterly synonymous. However, the conceptual distinction itself is real, and I generally favor making distinctions so I'll give this one a try.
  • The word publicly just looks wrong to me! We don't write mysticly, franticly, or graphicly…. It should just be publically, a spelling I see in online writing from time to time.

Rules I Refuse To Follow 

  • Some of the classical rules (or "rules") of grammar. I split infinitives, occasionally end sentences with prepositions, and often use who for whom. (On these and some other matters I'm with Steven Pinker.) 
  • The rule about capitalizing words in titles. It's absurdly intricate…there's an entire website devoted to figuring it out! It also leads to typographic ugliness, as in

In the early years of this blog, I tried to respect the classical rule; an example would be "Reverie on the Principle of Equivalence" from 2007. Later I gave up and adopted the simple rule of capitalizing every word in the title. See for example the recent post "In Honor Of William Wootters On The Occasion Of His Retirement." This might be wrong, but even so I prefer the simplicity of my rule.

Emerging Usage I Have Embraced

  • Internet abbreviations. In informal email I'll use IIRC, BRB, nvm, and others.
  • They as singular pronoun. A few years ago I began losing patience with the construction "he or she." In email, I started abbreviating this to "s/he." Finally I gave up and started allowing myself to use they as a singular pronoun. (If I can easily revise it away then I do, but I don't work as hard at that anymore.) The big news in copy editing so far in 2017 is that the Associated Press style guide will now allow for limited use of the singular theyHere is Grammar Girl with the story.


Bill McCallum said...

I'm with you on they as a singular pronoun. What a relief it was. I find myself capitalizing kindergarten all the time. #thankscommoncore.

Jason Zimba said...

Edu-speak probably deserves a post of its own someday!