Steven Pinker: 10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break (sometimes)

Steven Pinker: 10 ‘grammar rules’ it’s OK to break (sometimes)
You shudder at a split infinitive, know when to use ‘that’ or ‘which’ and would never confuse ‘less’ with ‘fewer’ – but are these rules always right, elegant or sensible, asks linguist Steven Pinker
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Steven Pinker
Steven Pinker
The Guardian, Friday 15 August 2014 22.00 AEST
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Chief Justice John Roberts had Obama ‘solemnly swear that I will execute the office of president to the United States faithfully’. Photograph: Timothy A Clary/AFP/Getty Images
Among the many challenges of writing is dealing with rules of correct usage: whether to worry about split infinitives, fused participles, and the meanings of words such as “fortuitous”, “decimate” and “comprise”. Supposedly a writer has to choose between two radically different approaches to these rules. Prescriptivists prescribe how language ought to be used. They uphold standards of excellence and a respect for the best of our civilisation, and are a bulwark against relativism, vulgar populism and the dumbing down of literate culture. Descriptivists describe how language actually is used. They believe that the rules of correct usage are nothing more than the secret handshake of the ruling class, designed to keep the masses in their place. Language is an organic product of human creativity, say the Descriptivists, and people should be allowed to write however they please. Continue reading

Bad comma: George Brandis sweats the small stuff

Among the pile of laws introduced on Wednesday in preparation for next week’s “repeal day” – the so-called “bonfire of the regulations” – was the statute law revision bill (No 1) 2014, under the name of the attorney general, Senator George Brandis.

It reveals the minister seems to have a previously hidden talent as a very particular subeditor, which some might conclude has produced less “bonfire” and more “sweating the small stuff”. Continue reading

Do you use apostrophes properly?

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Do you use apostrophes properly?
March 5, 2014
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Kate Jones
Sadly, too many of us don’t.

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What’s the Prowl? And who’s Tiger?
Mexican food-lover Rachel Brodsky has an eye for detail. So much so, that when she saw glaring grammatical errors in the advertising for her local Mexican restaurant she was turned off.

“Advertisements are like businesses’ résumés and I won’t spend my money at a venue because of these errors,” she says. Continue reading

Grammatically Speaking


Have You Got a Grasp of Grammar?

Whether you’re a stickler for good grammar or just curious about your punctuation prowess, test your grammar know-how with the Grammatically Speaking quiz.

Use the dials to select the correct answers and then challenge your friends to beat your score.

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    Our obsession with grammatical correctness

    Our obsession with grammatical correctness

    ByDr Albert P’Rayan – CHENNAI

    Published: 16th September 2013 08:19 AM

    Last Updated: 17th September 2013 08:31 AM

    A week ago, I curiously went through a Class IX English test paper. One of the questions was this: How many types of pronouns are there? Explain reflexive pronouns and interrogative pronouns with examples. With even more curiosity, I talked to the students. It was a feeling of surprise when students parroted the answer to the question and gave examples of reflexive and interrogative pronouns. A great shock followed the surprise. None of the students could use their knowledge of grammar effectively in ordinary communication. Their spoken as well as their written communication was rather mechanical and they were not able to use the language creatively.

    I don’t understand why teachers bombard students with grammatical terms. In my two decades of English language teaching career, I don’t remember having used the terms ‘interrogative pronoun’ and ‘reflexive pronoun’ even once in the classroom. It doesn’t imply that I’m not good at teaching grammar. It has been proved that grammar can be taught contextually and effectively without using all these grammatical terms.

    There are two kinds of grammar teachers: prescriptive grammarians and descriptive grammarians. Prescriptive grammarians are obsessed with grammatical correctness, fond of using grammatical terms and emphasize the rules of the language. Descriptive grammarians are fond of the usage of those who speak the language, discuss how native speakers of English actually use the language in their day to day communication and they don’t give importance to the norms of correctness. In India, most teachers of English are obsessed with the rules of grammar. Continue reading

    On a not very bright grammar test

    On a not very bright grammar test

    An English-teacher correspondent in the UK writes to tell me a very worrying – but totally to be expected – story emerging from the Key Stage 2 grammar test marking earlier this year. Question 16 asks children to complete the sentence ‘The sun shone ________ in the sky.’ and the mark scheme reads ‘Accept any appropriate adverb, e.g. brightly, beautifully’.

    A child presented the answer ‘The sun shone bright in the sky’, and this was marked wrong, on the grounds that it is ‘not an adverb’.<!–more- Continue reading

    Do grammar and spelling matter anymore?


    Two of the three Rs are just not a priority anymore.

    Here’s the great thing about Microsoft Word. That coloured squiggly line – the one that appears below words and sentences – is a useful warning sign, letting people know they’ve screwed up something. Sure, the software gets it wrong sometimes, but mostly it gets it right. Which is why it’s astounding errors in grammar, spelling and punctuation still saturate business communication.

    Continue reading