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
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
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
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Do you use apostrophes properly?
March 5, 2014
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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
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