For Monday, December 21, 2015:
“Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its power.”
Joan Didion (Joan Didion: Essays and Conversations)
We all know the adage that we have to know the rules in order to break them, but we should also keep in mind that we have to be careful when we do so. I like Didion’s metaphor about playing by ear, because that’s how I operate sometimes. I was in school to learn the rules, and I have retained many of them, but there are times – especially when I have my editor’s hat on – when I need to refer to others who know more than I do.
One of the sources I consult is Patricia T. O’Conner’s Woe is I: The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English (NY: Riverhead Books, 2003). Unlike the thick, heavy tome I was raised on in school – Warriner’s – this paperback is easy to hold and easy to navigate.
It’s also far from dry. O’Conner’s style is breezy and conversational, sometimes funny. No sentences are diagrammed in this book – yay! – yet she explains most rules in a way that makes far more sense to me. She even has a chapter called ‘Let Bygone Rules Be Gone.’
The author writes that this is “a survival guide for intelligent people … Most of us don’t know a gerund from a gerbil and don’t care, but we’d like to speak and write as though we did.” There are one or two things I disagree with her on – though I’d need to read the book again to find them – but, as she says about colons in her chapter on punctuation, ‘Comma Sutra,’ some things are “a matter of taste, and opinions differ. Whatever your choice, be consistent.” That I agree with.
Woe is I is today’s answer to grammar. It’s fun – I read it as bedtime reading when the book was given to me as a gift! – and it’s enlightening. I recommend this for anyone who writes, especially if you can’t play the rules by ear.
Or should that be ‘take it on’?
My father was an old-style grammar purist, and his all-time pet peeve was when people said or wrote ‘bring’ when they meant ‘take.’ An example: I’m on the phone with my sister today and say, ‘I’ll bring potato salad to the cookout tomorrow.’
Technically, one can argue that I’ll bring it with me when I come to the cookout, but because I’m not now en route — and I’m planning to go — it should be ‘I’ll take potato salad … tomorrow.’ The cookout has yet to happen, so I’m planning to take the potato salad. If I’m on the phone with her right this minute and headed out the door, then I can say ‘I’m bringing the potato salad’ since the ‘with me as I come’ is understood.
When my sister and I were growing up, this became something of a family joke with our dad. Usually we were careful to use the right word if Dad was within earshot, but as we got older, we’d sometimes do the opposite to get a rise out of him. It didn’t take him long to catch on, of course, and my mother, sister and I all had fun baiting him just to see his eyes twinkle.
I confess that I’ve taken a less purist tack for some years now, even before Dad died, but only in spoken conversation. If I’m writing and/or editing, I pay much more attention and I’m careful to use the correct word in the appropriate context.
Would that I could take that to the bank, but at least I know it would bring a twinkle to my dad’s eyes.
For years I’ve suffered through Ford’s print and television advertisements. Today I finally did something about it.
If you’ve read my page about apostrophes, ‘Apostrophe Alert,’ you know the story of a late friend who was an apostrophe vigilante. Well, I’ve taken a page from her book and written to the advertising department at Ford Motor Company about their ads that proclaim ‘Go further.’
While there are no apostrophes in that tagline, there is a grammatical error. Simply put, it should read ‘Go farther,’ and that’s what I wrote today in an email to Ford.
If you think about it, it’s a matter of distance. I presume Ford wants their customers to drive far in their vehicles. So one should say ‘farther.’ One does not say, for instance, ‘You’ll go fur,’ but ‘You’ll go far.’ ‘Further’ is a philosophical construct — ‘I’ll have to think about that further,’ for instance, for ‘I’ll have to think about that some more.’
Of course, I have no idea if my one email will make a difference in Ford’s ads, but stranger things are known to happen. Since we’re talking about English here, it’s possible — even likely — there are exceptions to my assertion, but I’m pretty sure it’s safe to say that if we remember the ‘fur/far’ distinction, our writing will be correct — in this instance, anyway — and customers will send us letters of praise.