Wednesday, July 16th, 2008

Linguist vs Grammarian–The Fallout

j0401488.jpgWe said last time that we should examine some of the more far-fetched traditions of hidebound grammatical rules and march bravely into the future. But, there is one more thing about ignoring traditional grammar rules you need to be aware of before you go striding off into the unfettered future.

You have to be prepared for fallout.

If you decide, using linguistic history as your guide, that some of these rules are obsolete, you need to expect to hear protests from the people who insist that they are anaethema.

Which, to be fair, is understandable. If you’ve lived your whole life believing that split infinitives are evil, you’re not going to just casually shrug it off when some young whippersnapper starts splitting them left and right. It’s reasonable for you to rail at the younger generation for carelessly ignoring the grammatical values you’ve devoted your life to upholding.

Case in point: My first job out of college, when the ink on my Bachelor of the Arts degree was still damp, was working in the advertising/sales department of a local map publisher. I was walking down the castle hallway … (No, really, the company really was housed in what had been a mansion built to look like a medieval castle. Gothic doorways, stained glass, armor on the walls. They even had a secret passageway, but it was a publishing company. You can’t make this stuff up.) … Anyway, I was walking down the hallway and I heard the Sales Manager complaining to my boss about the draft of a letter I’d written for him.

Look at this,” I remember him saying, “She ended this sentence with a preposition. Even I know better than that. I thought she was supposed to know how to write?

I wasn’t in the habit of eavesdropping, so I didn’t lurk in the hallway to hear what my boss told him, but it wouldn’t have mattered. The Sales Manager had been in the business for decades and, even though he hadn’t gone to college himself, was able to put together a good sales letter. But he was self-taught on The Rules, and believed that when they said not to put a preposition at the end of a sentence, by God, that meant you never put one at the end!

I could have brought in leftover books from writing classes in college to show him evidence to the contrary. “See? Not necessary anymore.” But there’s no way I would have been able to convince him that he was wrong and that that rule was flexible.

So, keep that in mind. You and I might know that certain of these rules are optional these days, but other people may NOT. Some of these people might be of the old-fogey variety that you can kindly pat on the arm with a “There, there” while going about your business. But some of these people might be the people who pay your bills. The people who hire you. The people you are trying to impress. If they think that you don’t know what you’re doing, it’s going to reflect badly on you.

To go back to that clothing analogy–not everyone is going to understand the latest fashion trends. If you’re hanging out with friends and family, be as trendy as you like, but if you’re going on a job interview, or visiting your grandparents, remember that there are certain standards they are going to expect. You can choose to ignore them (“Grandma, you can wear jeans anywhere these days.”), but that doesn’t mean they are going to be happy about it. So, be warned!

11 Comments on “Linguist vs Grammarian–The Fallout”


  1. Love this post. It’s so difficult to explain these nuances–what you’ve been taught vs. what is reality–but you do it so well.

    SmallWorld Reads’s last blog post..Book Review: Briar Rose


  2. Thanks–it’s one of the things that I don’t recall seeing anywhere else, either. I’ve read experts’ opinions on which rules you NEED and how you can disregard others, but I don’t recall seeing anybody point out the inherent confusion when some people say, “Great, I won’t worry about THAT any more,” and all the other unenlightened (?) people shout at the horror… (grin)

    –Deb’s last blog post..Linguist vs Grammarian–The Fallout


  3. SO true! I have a few friends who are grammar snobs, and they argue vehemently the grammar points and from which book they are correct (notice how I buried that preposition! Yay!). I’ve actually had three different responses to one of my posts about a style point I posted. And I’ve had people argue that this style book is antiquated whereas this is the ONLY book to follow. Then the next person will say the exact opposite.

    I think the point here is I need new friends.

    Lori’s last blog post..The Sexy Side of Technical Writing


  4. It’s like the dirty little secret that nobody wants to warn you about–How to Make Grammatical Enemies and Threaten People!

    –Deb’s last blog post..Linguist vs Grammarian–The Fallout


  5. Exactly! Have you read Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies by June Casagrande? Fun read!

    Lori’s last blog post..What Kind of Editor Are You?


  6. @Lori–I haven’t yet, but it’s actually in my Amazon shopping cart, so … some day!

    –Deb’s last blog post..Linguist vs Grammarian–The Fallout

  7. Daniel

    Awesome. I personally choose to completely disregard the rule about split infinitives, because it was just made up in the first place by that man (whose name escapes me) who thought that latin was the perfect language that we should follow the lead of. Oh! A preposiiton at the end of a sentence! How ironic! I think that rule also came from the same guy, but I could be wrong.


  8. Great post! I love the story about overhearing your boss in the castle hallway. Working in a castle sounds awesome! I think that when it comes to deciding whether or not to bend the rules, we need to keep our audience in mind. When I write or edit a sentence that breaks a questionable rule, I always consider the client, then the audience. Seems to work.

    Melissa Donovan’s last blog post..When it All Comes Crashing Down


  9. the dictionary widget on my mac is where this is from.

    “There is a traditional view, as set forth by the 17th-century poet and dramatist, John Dryden, that it is incorrect to put a preposition at the end of a sentence, as in ‘where do you come from,’ or ‘she’s not the writer I’ve come across.’ The rule was formulated on the basis that, since in Latin a word cannot come after the word it governs or is linked with, the same should be true in English. What this rule fails to take into account is that Latin is not like English in this respect, and in many cases (particularly in questions and with phrasal verbs) the attempt to move the preposition produces awkward, unnatural-sounding results. Winston Churchill famously objected to the rule, saying ‘This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.’ In standard English, the placing of a preposition at the end of a sentence is widely accepted, provided the use sounds natural and the meaning is clear.”

    charlieomatic’s last blog post..Hiroshima


  10. Oh, and I just commented about my boss not liking my use of the perfect tense, and here you are reminding me where my bread is buttered. Thank you.

    I’ll confess that I do notice when a preposition is at the end of a sentence, but if it sounds better that when than when I ‘correct’ it in my mind, I do understand the difference. My pet peeve is when people leave out the preposition all together, rather than dealing with its placement. I see this more than I would like.

    J’s last blog post..I am my body


  11. I try to avoid prepositions at the end of sentences but don’t agonize over it. There ARE times when it’s better that way, no matter what the hidebound grammar police say, but I’m willing to comply the rest of the time. That’s what rules are for!

    (Yes, I deliberately ended that with a preposition.)

    –Deb’s last blog post..How to Be Convincing