Unintended consequences

Pas de V.F., désolée.

So I’m quietly editing one of literally hundreds of overdue eggcorns — the lovely image of being in (a) high dungeon — when I come across a cite from an academic publication that so strikingly illustrates Hartman-Skitt-McKean’s Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation that I hesitate at first to believe my eyes. I read it once, I read it twice, but no, the writer sounds far from being punning and playful. The venue is the journal College English, the year 1983, and the topic a raging controversy over who is licensed to dispense advice on English usage, and what it should be. In a letter to the editor, Paul Kaser of Kings River College, Reedley, CA, writes:

Newsweek’s Educational Division’s inaccurate touting of their “Forty Mistakes” as the most common errors of English usage hardly justifies Suzette Haden Elgin’s shrill denunciation of their effort (CE, September 1982). Her article gives the impression that the Newsweek staff members (perhaps mere journalists!) have been caught poaching on the royal academic preserve and therefore deserve to be slapped down and mocked with name-calling and populist disdain.

Is this why Professor Elgin got into such high dungeon over the list? Clearly she wants to attack exaggerated squeamishness over English usage, but need she, in doing so, insist that “I Love to Refer Back to the First Time We Met” and “I Called You No Less Than Three Times a Day” are not usage errors? As James Thurber warned, “You might as well fall flat on your face as lean over too far backwards.”

Professor Elgin demonstrates in her first sentence that she is not concerned with such nit-pickeries as misplaced modifiers (”I only wish …”), but this unconcern hardly gives her leave to denounce as pedants and quibblers those who are troubled by such sloppy use of the language. […]

Two Comments on Suzette Haden Elgin’s “The Top Forty Mistakes”. Paul Kaser, Bertram Lippman. _College English, Vol. 45, No. 8 (Dec., 1983), pp. 824-826_

Just like this impassioned letter, the first pages of both Suzette Haden Elgin’s original article and her reply to the criticism are accessible on JSTOR.

Et tu, Grauniad?

Quand on donne des leçons de grammaire, il vaut mieux savoir ce qu’on entend par grammaire. Et quand on parle en tant que journaliste, est-il acceptable de faire de la pub pour ses cours d’expression écrite ?

  • 2007-06-02
  • Comments Off

On the front page of this Saturday’s Guardian’s “Work” section, an article of a familiar genre: Under the heading Bad education, Emma-Jayne Jones and Robert Ashton bemoan the decline of spelling, punctuation and “grammar” skills, and the disastrous effect this has on the employment prospects of young people:

Recruiters say grammatical sloppiness is depressingly common among young job seekers - but could you do any better? […]

Around half of all CVs received by recruitment consultants, says the Recruitment and Employment Commission, contain spelling or grammatical errors, and these are most likely to be made by those aged between 21 and 25. In this age group, graduates are twice as likely to make mistakes as those who did not go on to university.

Attaching moral judgements no conventions of writing isn’t helpful. The topic belongs to the realm of skills and employability, which the Guardian often has useful non-judgemental information about. And yes, I am in favour of this stuff being taught to all youngsters. There’s an interesting nugget of information in the excerpt, though: Apparently the rules of written English are still so much of a social differentiator that, if the REC is right, those going to university for 3 or 4 years have less of an incentive to improve or maintain these skills than those who enter employment right after finishing secondary school.

Be that as it may, the article goes on to present a text and invites readers to “spot the grammar, punctuation and spelling mistakes”. This is where things start to go awry. I am not convinced the authors are themselves all that clear on what grammar is.

Here is the first paragraph of the example passage — for the rest see the original article:

Management wants to introduce new measures to combat the noticable increase in sick leave. The average annual number of sick days has risen from five to 10 which is seen as a considerable embarassment to the new HR director. But I wonder if the responsibility should lay solely with her? And even if management does agree who’s responsibility the problem is they also have a seperate - and justified concern that any action taken should be carefully-considered. […]

Now no one will call this an example of brilliant writing. But what are the errors Jones and Ashton “find” in their 211-word fake business communication?

First of all, the authors distinguish between “misspellings” and “grammar and punctuation”. Why this grouping? I have no idea.

As for the first category, they only list five misspelled words. All of them (noticable, embarassment, seperate, arguement, accelarate) are easily caught by a spell-checker, and for most, a knowledge of word origins might help memorizing the correct form.

Under “grammar and punctuation”, we have 23 errors. Out of these, ten are purely about punctuation#[1], and most of the corrections are helpful. Not all the explanations pass muster, though. The admonition “The comma […] should not be used, as there is no natural pause” (”People have become more lethargic, since we started paying them more.”) is misleading. The problem isn’t the absence of a “natural pause”, but the risk of misinterpreting the temporal adjunct “since we started paying them more” as a causal addition. Worse, the criticism of the hyphen in “should be carefully-considered” is accompanied by the note: “never use a hyphen after adverbs ending in -ly” — sez who? Ever heard of adverbs ending in -ly as parts of compound adjectives, as in “the shoddily-written article”? Some reject these, too, but the adverb qualifies different things in the two cases.

We are left with 13 errors, which must belong in the category “grammar”. Three are, however, about spelling: principle vs principal and (twice) affect vs effect. Apparently, the authors believe that misspelling a word so that it coincides with a different word is a matter of grammar. Next, we are presented with the lie vs lay problem, which is not only not a matter of grammar but, as developed by Geoffrey Pullum, more complex than just a confusion between two related verbs.

Six “grammar” errors deal with the correct spelling (and punctuation, if you count apostrophes) of grammatical function words — there’s vs theirs vs their’s, whose vs who’s — and one more is about not leaving out the apostrophe in the possessive CEO’s: still nothing to do with grammar in the linguistic sense, but fair enough. And the remaining two?

Well, one is about less vs fewer — another word choice controversy only loosely related to grammar and less clear-cut than it looks. Though I agree that “less people than expected” is jarring. The last one is about the number agreement in the sentece (fixing other problems): “And even if management does agree whose responsibility the problem is they also have a separate […] concern that any action taken should be carefully considered.” The change from the singular “management does agree” to the plural “they have a … concern”, sounds quite acceptable to me. “Management” in its “agreeing” is apprehended as a unit, but as a collective of individuals in the second part of the sentence. Aren’t we here faced with stylistic advice masquerading as grammar lessons? And if we’re talking style, I’d rewrite a bit more of the text while I’m at it.

All in all, disappointing. The usual confusion about what grammar actually is, and an absence of any sensibility for aspects of style and variations of register. That knowing the conventions of business writing is useful for most is not under dispute. Robert Ashton, by the way, can help you there. He is chief executive of the business writing consultancy Emphasis (link in the Guardian article), and his one-day courses cost £495 + VAT (well over $1000). Information or infomercial?

[1]: That is, counting hyphenation as punctuation. Hyphens and apostrophes are strictly speaking better considered as orthographic markers, unlike sentence-level signs such as the period/full stop, comma, dash or semicolon.