Punctuality Rules!



I was visited by the Language Log yesterday, and it was not a friendly visit. Back in 2007, I wrote about the venerable Strunk and White grammar book, and in that post mentioned in passing that the authors were against split infinitives. Geoffrey Pullum, in his post yesterday, was apparently saddened by this since that was not, in fact, one of the rules Strunk and White insisted upon. Then he implied that I was professing admiration for a book that I hadn’t actually read–or had not read carefully.

050108-007.jpgWith all due respect to Mr. Pullum, I have read the book, many times. However, the last time I read it through, cover to cover, was on August 5, 1996. (Yes, I keep a reading list.) I have about 100 grammar, usage, style, and writing books, and can’t always remember where I’ve read a certain rule–especially when it’s one like split-infinitives that crops up over and over again. (One example of such, from Karen Elizabeth Gordon, is pictured to the left.)

Now, I’ve never claimed to be an expert on grammar. I write about it, yes, and I try to be as precise as I can be because I love the subject and don’t want to pass along misinformation. You don’t need a Doctorate of Writing to be able to write, though, nor do you need to be an Ansel Adams to recognize a great photograph–or to take great snapshots. I realize that blogging about grammar therefore opens me up to criticism by the experts when I make a mistake.

What irks me, though, is that he took one, small, relatively unimportant element from a review and used it as a focus for an entire post about people (in this case, me) not knowing about split infinitives. If the post had been about split infinitives (which I’ve also written), this would have been entirely fair, but it wasn’t. This was like reading an article praising the Beatles, detailing all the reasons their music was so ground-breaking and definitive, but then tearing it apart because the author mistakenly said that “Hey Jude” was on the “Sergeant Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band” album. A mistake that should not have happened, but one which hardly negates the rest of the article. I might have mistakenly used an incorrect example in my list, but that doesn’t mean that I was wrong about everything–just that I attributed a statement to one book that was made in (many) other books. To continue that example, it’s like that imaginary writer being lambasted for not understanding that “Hey Jude” was inspired by Paul McCartney’s efforts to cheer up Julian Lennon … when that had nothing to do with the original article about the Beatles as a band.

So, the lesson learned from this? Well, I could stop blogging about writing altogether, but that seems extreme. I could have left a protesting comment over on the Language Log, but the comments on that post were closed. Not to mention the lesson of the importance of taking things in context. Really, though, the best decision is just to shrug it off, right? Because that’s what civilized people do. And, at least Mr. Pullum acknowledges that I am, “…truly concerned about usage and punctuation and so on.” I suppose that’s something.

Am I being too thin-skinned here? Or am I being too nicely magnanimous? Opinions?

18 thoughts on “Context

  1. Pingback: Chappysmom » Lilacs

  2. SmallWorld

    Ohhh! What a mean guy! What a persnickety fellow! I guess he’s feeling all happy about himself. Well, just so you know–I’ve used your grammar lessons SEVERAL times in my English class this year. So there.

  3. Lillie Ammann

    There’s a difference between providing useful information and using the guise of educating to be rude and insulting. None of us like to be criticized, but often the criticism reflects more on the person criticizing than on the person being criticized. You aren’t being thin-skinned, but my suggestion is just to ignore this and continue providing helpful information that your readers appreciate. You write your posts for people who value your advice and your personality. This was just read by the wrong reader.

    Lillie Ammann’s last blog post..RSS Day

  4. --Deb Post author

    Okay, feeling better…. I try to always be fair (note that split infinitive!) and, in fact, my mother tells me it’s downright annoying how I’m always willing to see the other side of an argument, but to me, that’s the POINT. Not to mention supreme irony, since Mom raised me to be fair-minded and now gets irritated by it (grin).

  5. Marsha

    Differences of opinion are fine. But it seems rather discourteous to publicly* criticize someone’s post yet close comments so that person cannot respond to the criticism in the same forum. And in such discussions, snarkiness is never appropriate.

    A friend of mine once told me another version of “just let it go”: “Like water rolling off a duck’s back.” So start quacking, Deb, and don’t worry about it. 🙂

    *My own writing style tends to keep infinitives intact, but I just couldn’t resist splitting one here. Heh.

    Marsha’s last blog post..An early celebration

  6. Patty

    I would have said what Lillie did. I am glad, though, that she wrote it first because she put it more succinctly than I would have. Also, Tiffany and I have referred back to several of your posts for examples for some of her English Comp homework. Gee, you’re there for us even when you don’t realize it! But, then agian, that is why you have this blog – to help others.

  7. Melissa Donovan

    I would just blow it off but let’s take a closer look.

    First of all, the blogger behind Language Log posted a negative review and closed the comments, which means he is not open to receiving feedback or allowing others to voice their opinion on the matter. This is poor showmanship.

    Secondly, he’s wrong and you are right. In his fourth paragraph he blatantly contradicts his interpretation of Strunk & White:

    the construction [split infinitives] should be avoided unless the writer wishes to place unusual stress on the adverb

    So the rule, according to Strunk and White, is to avoid split infinitives but they do grant exceptions. I think then, that you are more correct in claiming that Strunk and White say “don’t split an infinitive.” While the Language Log guy has a point in that S&W demonstrate how this rule may be “violated” (and that quote is from S&W), when discussing grammar, I think it’s perfectly valid to emphasize the rules rather than the exceptions.

    Deb, you are obviously stressing the rules while this guy is using the exceptions to try and discredit you. It’s not working.

    Never mind that he took one minor line from your post and used it to go off on a tirade. No Deb, you are definitely not in the wrong here. Language Log looks pretty new. Let’s hope he learns.

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..The Free-Lance Muse

  8. J

    I agree with Melissa, that he took one bit and misinterpreted it.

    The fact that the post has been around awhile might be the reason for comments to be closed. I close mine after a few days, not because I don’t want good comments, but because spam appears on things that are OLD, and freak me out.

    J’s last blog post..The Life Before Her Eyes

  9. --Deb Post author

    Actually, MY post was old (October 2007), but HIS was written the other day, 4/30/08.

    It’s still frustrating, but I’m letting this go now… (grin)

  10. Andrew Carnie

    Geoff Pullum may be mean, but he knows what he’s talking about. He’s the author of the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, and a professor of Syntax at the University of Edinburgh. His book is worth a read, and is a far better grammatical description of English than S&W.

  11. --Deb Post author

    My main objection was that he based that entire post on a minor clause in a sentence in a book review. He wasn’t criticizing the review, but implying that I hadn’t read the book very carefully. Had he used my actual post on split infinitives as the springboard, that would have been fair. If he had disagreed with the actual review, that would have been fair as well. It was the tangental quality of his response that irked, like a driving instructor criticizing that your car is red rather than giving you his opinion on your K-turn…. (grin)

  12. tim

    Too magnanimous. Advice about writing should only be given by people who write for readers who may choose whether to read their output or not. Academics have a captive audience. Ignore the man.

  13. Shira

    It’s an interesting thing… at least to me. I came here because of this post. Actually, I came by it the long way, from http://weblogs.baltimoresun.com/news/mcintyre/blog/2008/05/splittists.html

    … where this tempest in a teapot is further discussed.

    So, are you too thin-skinned. Yup. You have set out here to point at examples of unclear usage and outright errors in the writing of people who aren’t usually in a position to defend themselves. That makes it really easy to take pot shots at your errors. I could do that, but I refuse.

    Why? Because holding up the efforts of other people for your readers to criticize is NOT being too “nicely magnanimous,” as far as I can tell. If you want to be magnanimous, I suggest you find some people with actual difficulties with the language — difficulties that are holding them back from some of their goals — and help them improve.

    THAT would be an interesting topic for a blog…

  14. Pingback: Splitting hairs « Mighty Red Pen

  15. pj

    Updates have been made, in reply to this (yes, sorry, Deb, thin-skinned and unnecessarily defensive) post, and comments are now open on the Language Log entry in question, by the way, if anyone really wants to take it up there.