Tag Archives: grammar

Fear and Loathing of the English Passive

By Geoffrey K. Pullum, Linguistics and English Language, University of Edinburgh.

Abstract Writing advisers have been condemning the English passive since the early 20th century. I provide an informal but comprehensive syntactic description of passive clauses in English, and then exhibit numerous published examples of incompetent criticism in which critics reveal that they cannot tell passives from actives. Some seem to confuse the grammatical concept with a rhetorical one involving inadequate attribution of agency or responsibility, but not all examples are thus explained. The specific stylistic charges leveled against the passive are entirely baseless. The evidence demonstrates an extraordinary level of gram- matical ignorance among educated English language critics.

Click the link, then click again on the page that comes up for the full PDF: passive_loathing

Most of What You Think You Know About Grammar is Wrong

From Smithsonian Magazine—the introduction:

You’ve probably heard the old story about the pedant who dared to tinker with Winston Churchill’s writing because the great man had ended a sentence with a preposition. Churchill’s scribbled response: “This is the sort of English up with which I will not put.”

It’s a great story, but it’s a myth. And so is that so-called grammar rule about ending sentences with prepositions. If that previous sentence bugs you, by the way, you’ve bought into another myth. No, there’s nothing wrong with starting a sentence with a conjunction, either. But perhaps the biggest grammar myth of all is the infamous taboo against splitting an infinitive, as in “to boldly go.” The truth is that you can’t split an infinitive: Since “to” isn’t part of the infinitive, there’s nothing to split. Great writers—including Chaucer, Shakespeare, Donne and Wordsworth—have been inserting adverbs between “to” and infinitives since the 1200s.

Where did these phony rules originate, and why do they persist?


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The Comma Wars

From mental_floss

The Oxford comma, so-called because the Oxford University Press style guidelines require it, is the comma before the conjunction at the end of a list. If your preferred style is to omit the second comma in “red, white, and blue,” you are aligned with the anti-Oxford comma faction. The pro-Oxford comma faction is more vocal and numerous in the US, while in the UK, anti-Oxford comma reigns. (Oxford University is an outsider, style-wise, in its own land.) In the US, book and magazine publishers are generally pro, while newspapers are anti, but both styles can be found in both media.

The two main rationales for choosing one style over the other are clarity and economy. Each side has invoked both rationales in its favor….

One would think that there are more important things to worry about. Apparently not among the grammar police.

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“Well-chosen words”

The guardians of English may be unable to resist linguistic change but they do have the power to influence it.

A reference to books on grammar and spelling…and a poem:

I have a spelling checker,

It came with my PC.

It plane lee marks four my revue

Miss steaks aye can knot sea.

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Thoughts on the semicolon

One of my favorite authors, Elmore Leonard, doesn’t use semicolons in dialog. Kurt Vonnegut doesn’t like them at all. Paul G. Allen, cofounder of Microsoft, apparently likes to use them in a manner opposite of their purpose, which is to join related clauses. Kind of weird—from Throw Grammar From the Train.

Read the short piece to see what joining unrelated clauses looks like.

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Writers’ Favorite Punctuation Marks

From the Atlantic Wire—Goodness, am I supposed to have “favorite” punctuation marks? Sorry, I just write and try to use the correct punctuation to convey the exact meaning I want.

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The Most Comma Mistakes, from The New York Times; and Some Comma Questions, a follow-up article.

Plus, 11 Most Common Grammar Gaffes on Social Media from the brainyard.


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‘Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose – review’

From The Guardian, a review by  of Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for Those Who Want to Write Them, by Francine Prose.

Reading Like a Writer is a clarion call for aspiring writers to do that most simple, time-consuming but enjoyable thing: their homework.

That sounds like good advice (probably because I claim to do my homework). As for grammar, I do like to use sentence fragments, particularly in dialog.

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‘Why you should never, ever use two spaces after a period’

From Slate:

Can I let you in on a secret? Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.

And yet people who use two spaces are everywhere, their ugly error crossing every social boundary of class, education, and taste….

While I found the article mildly entertaining, I couldn’t help but wonder if its author has a fascinating life fretting about this subject.

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Scrapbook of Writing Styles Revisited

From Richard Nordquist: Sentence Structures and Styles:

In our Scrapbook of Styles, you’ll find over 100 short passages from writers ranging from Abbey, Amis, and Angelou to Welty, White, and Wolfe. Each passage illustrates one or more syntactic structures, rhetorical strategies, or methods of organization.

Enjoy this sampler of sentence structures and styles, and then visit the complete collection.