Everything You'll Ever Need to Know About Language

My last couple posts were about a woman named Barbara who pounced on my "errors" of using a so-called split infinitive and a sentence-ending preposition in a column. The posts elicited this comment from Leslie:

<<I am a professional editor who has a great ear for the language and can turn anyone's writing into gold. My gift is not precise knowledge of grammar but flow, aliveness and clarity and assuring that the reader will not put it down. I have no formal training and don't know a split infinitive from a split log. My authors rave about my work, but I live in terror of people like the one who emailed you... any advice?>>

Oh, yes. I have some advice. It's not just for professional editors but for anyone aspiring to use the language better while fending off uninformed attacks from people like Barbara. Here it is, long form.

1. You know who has formal training in grammar, syntax, usage issues like split infinitives, punctuation, and all other matters language-related? Almost no one. There are a couple of copy editing programs (including a great one I teach for at UC San Diego Extension) that teach this stuff. Linguistics majors learn a lot about these matters, too. But they're a tiny minority of folks in the writing and editing professions. Most professional wordsmiths, including a lot of editors and copy editors, started with an innate flair for language and picked up their knowledge in bits and pieces - much of it on the job. Tragically, pretty much every writer or editor I've ever met felt he or she was at a disadvantage because they didn't "learn" such things in school. So they all feel like the lone dunce in the class, not realizing that everyone else in class feels the same way! The innate ability to make poor writing sing can't be taught. But facts about prepositions and infinitives can be easily looked up. Which brings us to ...

 2. My second piece of advice for Leslie and anyone who shares her desire to get a better handle on language can be summed up in two words: usage guide. Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, Garner's Modern American Usage, Fowler's Modern English Usage -- these books look like dictionaries, but they're not. They're goldmines. They list, alphabetically, answers to every language question their authors could anticipate, including whether it's okay to start a sentence with "and," which you'll find listed right under the letter A, and the truth about "split infinitives," listed right under S or I. Thumb through one of these for an afternoon and most of your grammar insecurities will melt away.

 3. Get a copy of either the Chicago Manual of Style or the Associated Press Stylebook. They are essentially playbooks offering guidelines to help you consistently write numbers, hyphenate prefixes, use words, and on and on. The Chicago Manual focuses on book and magazine writing. The AP guide reflects popular standards in news media. But be warned: neither is an absolute authority. If Chicago says you can't use "nauseous" to mean "nauseated" that just means you can't do so according to their style. It doesn't mean it's wrong to, as any modern dictionary will tell you.

4. You know that little section in the front of your dictionary that explains how to use the dictionary? Read it. Really read it. There's a lot more help in there than most people realize. This section can actually solve mysteries like how to choose between "indexes" and "indices," whether "propertywide" should be one word or hyphenated, why the entry for "smart" mentions the comparative form "smarter" but "intelligent" doesn't mention "intelligenter," why after the entry for "think" you'll see "thought" but after "walk" you won't see "walked," and why the following is correct: "Today I lie on the bed, yesterday I lay on the bed, and in the past I have lain on the bed." Merriam-Webster's Collegiate Dictionary (not to be confused with Merriam-Webster's usage guide) even posts its guide online here.

 5. In the more than 10 years that I've been getting e-mails about grammar, I've never once plugged one of my own books -- not even when people ask me to recommend books for their reference library. But for anyone who wants a basic primer on sentence structure, phrases and clauses, and the parts of speech, I recommend Appendix 1 of my book It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences.

 6. Know this: Those grammar snobs -- the people who leap to tell you some usage or construction is "wrong" -- they're full of it. Most of what they say is pure superstition that they never bothered to fact-check. Most grammar "rules" that begin with "you can't" or "it's wrong to" are myths. There is no enormous tome called the Grammar Penal Code on a shelf of some hallowed archive of the Grammar Legislature. Anyone who tells you something is "wrong" and can't provide at least two credible sources doesn't have a leg to stand on.

 And that, in a nutshell, is most of what you need to know to write clean, edit well, and take down those bullying grammar snobs.

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2 Responses to “Everything You'll Ever Need to Know About Language”

  1. Thanks June! I would write a longer comment, but I'm rushing off to buy a usage guide. I've never even heard of them before. You just made my Monday.

  2. To which we might add, Strunk & White is very definitely not a credible source.