More Grammatical Than Thou

Gabe Doyle, the linguist behind the Motivated Grammar blog, put up a good post a couple weeks ago about the fine-for-me-but-not-for-thee attitude among some grammar peevers.

Thus we see Salon’s Mary Elizabeth Williams writing a screed against sentential hopefully*, but then absolving herself for using stabby and rapey… When she says rapey, she sees it as the considered usage of a professional writer, an improvement on the language. When you write sentential hopefully, it’s because you can’t be bothered to think about your usage and the effects it could have on the language.

I, too, have been frustrated beyond words with this phenomenon, which I think might be related to the correspondence bias—when someone else messes up, you tend to think of it as a sign of their fundamental character, but when you mess up, you tend to think the causes are all circumstantial. So that guy made a typo because he’s an ignoramus of the highest order, but you made a typo because you were working fast to meet a deadline, because the cat jumped on your head at 5 a.m. and you’re exhausted, and because that stupid keyboard is set up weird. And maybe all those things are true! But they could be just as true for that other guy, yet people often don’t see it that way.

I’ve also noticed that the people most eager to issue a grammatical smackdown are often peddling some of the worst grammatical advice. “Never split an infinitive, you nincompoop,” they may sniff. “Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction, you ninny,” they might huff. “Really? Ending a sentence with a preposition? I thought you were smarter than that,” they may sneer. And all too often, they look to me for support, thinking that copy editors must be the grammar judge and jury to their volunteer police force. But I take a much more moderate path, as do most copy editors I know. Really, most of us are quite sympathetic to writers and their errors. I mean, we spend 40 hours a week for years mastering all these rules, refining our ear for language, and weighing the irreconcilable edicts of multiple grammar authorities. It’s complicated! No one can know it all. But it’s our job to know as much as possible so that writers can concentrate on writing. It’s OK for writers to slip up sometimes. That’s why we’re here.

I did that on porpoiseSo for whenever you need a response to these peevers and moaners, I’ve created this all-porpoise graphic. When they snottily point out an error you made? When they get holier-than-thou about a mistake that’s not a mistake? When they try to claim their errors are not really errors? “I did that on porpoise,” you reply. It’s useless to argue with someone who just wants to feel superior—even if you win the argument, you lose at life. Instead, just tweak them a little. You’ll feel better.

*The phrase “sentential hopefully” refers to when you use hopefully to modify a sentence, so that in context hopefully is understood to mean “it is to be hoped,” rather than “in a hopeful manner,” which some people claim is the only correct definition. Compare:

  • Sentential hopefully: Hopefully, it won’t rain today; I forgot my umbrella.
  • Regular-adverb hopefully: “Can we go for ice cream after?” she asked, hopefully.

Even the AP Stylebook, which is usually pretty stodgy, has decided this is acceptable now, so I wouldn’t worry too much about it.


4 comments on “More Grammatical Than Thou

  1. Great post. I will be borrowing that graphic in the future.

  2. I just finished reading a blog about grammar with a post about the split infinitive. The writer (who claims to be an editor) simply gave an example of a split infinitive and said it is improper and you must never, ever split an infinitive. I wonder where some of these people get their information and how they can be so sure of themselves.

    • Eesh, I really hate that I’m-right-because-I-said-I’m-right attitude. I don’t know exactly where this person got their information, but I do actually know where this particular myth comes from. I think I’ll post about it.

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