Reader Wail


A few years after discontinuing my weekly grammar column, the Daily Pilot newspaper in Newport Beach, California, started running it again. Not long after, I got this e-mail from a reader, which is reprinted here exactly as it was written.

“When I first read that you are back I was briefly excited about your column because I weep for the lack of the proper use of our language. Then, as I read your column my excitement that at last, someone was going to do something about the horrible use and abuse of our language I read your phrase ‘Even professionals have to look these things up.’”

The reader, whose name is Barbara, didn’t like that one bit: “You do that thing that raises the  hair on the back of  my neck -- you split an infinitive! Excuse me just a minute while I walk out to the patio just off my office space and scream!

“It's done all  the time and I really should get used to it, but I can't. Somehow I thought that a column about English usage might help a little to perfect the language we use every day. If professional writers can not be correct then who in the world can be.

“So, be aware that I will continue to read your column and we may become fast friends because I am going to sent a message to you every time I read something awful that you  have written. Someone has to do it and it is apparent that the newspaper doesn't have an editor for such stuff although one might expect that someone edit a column about language usage so that it doesn't begin with two huge errors at first printing. That would be terribly offensive not to say embarasing to the person who hired you.

“In case you can not find the second error ---- look above when I quote your offense of splitting the infinitive and you will see that you committed that old rule about ending a sentence with a preposition. The funny thing about all this is that if you hadn't split the infinitive you might not have gotten yourself in the position of ending the sentence with a preposition.”

There are a number of mistakes in Barbara’s e-mail:

There’s no rule against splitting an infinitive.

Even if there were, I didn’t split one.

There’s no rule against ending a sentence with a preposition.

Even if there were, it wouldn’t apply to the sentence Barbara took issue with.

She says I committed a rule.

And, some mistakes I believe should be overlooked in an e-mail: Her second sentence was ungrammatical, “embarrassed” is misspelled, and she uses “to sent” instead of “to send.” (Those are typos anyone can make, even a sane person.)

I’ll cover, in several installments here, her charges that I split an infinitive and ended a sentence with a preposition. But this week I wanted to point out what, to me, is the biggest problem with her e-mail. Her “excitement that at last, someone  was going to do something about the horrible use and abuse of our language.”

Tell people you’re interested in grammar and a lot of them will jump to the conclusion that you, like them, bemoan the horrible demise of our language and you consider yourself part of the resistance against the tragic erosion of language standards.

I get this all the time from readers of my column. They’ll say straight up stuff like, “I, like you, am appalled at the demise of proper English.” Yet I’ve never said any  such thing. I’ve never implied it, either. My columns often debunk the myths to which these people are victim.

I don’t believe the language is eroding and I don’t believe in telling people how they should speak or write. Yet so many people assume that, if I have any interest whatsoever in grammar, surely I’m part of some prescriptivist crusade.

It boggles the mind.


Next week: my “split infinitive.”

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4 Responses to “Reader Wail”

  1. Oh June! 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?

  2. Leslie: Thank you for the great question. I'm going to address it fully in a future blog post, probably the week after next. But here's the condensed version: 1. Buy a copy of Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage or Garner's Modern American Usage (or both) and spend some time flipping through it/them. 2. Do the same with one of the two major style guides: the Chicago Manual of Style if your writers are more book/magazine types, the Associated Press Stylebook if they're news media/PR types. 3. Sit down and read the "Guide to the Dictionary" or "Explanatory Notes" section in the front of one of the major dictionaries. Many, many mysteries revealed in here! 4. If want a primer on sentence structure, I put one in appendix 1 of my book "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." 5. Remember: Whenever anyone starts a sentence about grammar with the words "You can't" or "It's wrong to," tell them to prove it. 99 out of 100 times they can't because they're just spouting myths! And by spending some time reading the above-mentioned resources, you'll never have to live in fear of people like that again! More soon ...

  3. "We may become fast friends because I am going to sent a message to you every time I read something awful that you have written."

    Gee, I can't think of a better way to become friends with someone.

    It's sad when someone equates defense of the language with following a bunch of superstitious pseudo-rules. It's sadder still when they can't even properly identify when someone has violated them.

  4. : )

    Jonathon: It's funny. Ever since my reply ran in her hometown newspaper she's not returning my e-mails suggesting we rent some old movies, make s'mores, and do each other's nails.