Thursday, December 27, 2012

Holiday goodwill and the grammar police -- Dec. 27, 2012 column


Over brunch last weekend, nobody mentioned the political dysfunction in the nation’s capital, the jumpy stock market or the preposterous idea of turning schools into armed camps.
Everybody needed a dose of holiday goodwill.

Our lively conversation ranged from the Olympian who moonlighted as a high-rent call girl to questions of grammar. I know which topic interests you most, so I’ll go straight to pronouns.

No? OK, we’ll detour to track star Suzy Favor Hamilton, the 44-year-old wife and mom who led a secret life as a $600-an-hour escort for a year. She played by her own rules.
“I am not a victim here and knew what I was doing,” she tweeted.

I hope she can beat the depression she says prompted her risky behavior. Let’s leave her story there, although I expect news soon of a big, fat book contract and made-for-TV movie.

Nobody yet has discovered how to make grammar rules sexy and lucrative, but a lot of people care about how we use language, I learned this year.

In April, I wrote about the tweet from the Associated Press Stylebook announcing this update: “We now support modern usage of hopefully: it’s hoped, we hope.”

Granted, this wasn’t an earth-shattering event, but I was disappointed the self-styled “journalist’s bible” caved to popular misuse. Wrong is wrong. Emails started arriving from readers who shared my chagrin.

“I bemoaned your news that the wrong use of hopefully is now accepted,” Susie in Richmond, Va., wrote. “I feel betrayed.”

And Susie pleaded, “Please tell me that pronoun abuse is still a no no!” She couldn’t bring herself to write “between you and I” even as an example.

Well, Susie, “between you and me” is still correct, but people often make the “I” mistake. Even President Obama occasionally slips and says, “between Michelle and I.”
For a “recovering English major” named Dan, the line in the sand is using “none” as a plural subject.  It’s correct to say “none of the students uses this form correctly.” Many people incorrectly think “students” is the subject and say, “None of the students use this form correctly.” No.

Other grammar sticklers weighed in on dangling modifiers and the confusion between it’s and its, they’re, there and their and you’re and your.

If worries about grammar seem out-dated in a world of 140-character tweets, consider Kyle Weins, CEO of iFixIt, an online repair company in California. Weins wrote a blog post in August for the Harvard Business Review titled “I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why.”

“If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you,” wrote Weins, who requires all job applicants to take a grammar test.
Weins is no fossil. He and a friend formed iFixit in their college dorm room in 2003.

“Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in emails, and on company websites, your words are all you have,” Weins wrote.

Yes, but should standards be, well, flexible? E.B. White, the English usage guru, wrote in The New Yorker in 1937, “Usage seems to us peculiarly a matter of ear. Everyone has his own prejudices, his own set of rules, his own list of horribles.”

Did you notice anything about that last sentence? White correctly used “his” three times. “Everyone” takes a singular pronoun. He didn’t even think of using “their.”

At brunch, two men insisted that they use the gender-neutral pronoun intentionally out of respect to women. They know and deliberately break the rule to emphasize equality and inclusiveness.

Thank you, but for me that’s an unwanted present. Hearing someone say “their” instead of “his” or the clunky “his or her” doesn’t warm my heart; it makes me cringe.

Times and language do change, however. Sensitivity in how we talk to each other is important, especially now, and I know other women do appreciate the gesture.
Here’s more wisdom from E.B. White: “English usage is sometimes more than mere taste, judgment, and education – sometimes it’s sheer luck, like getting across the street.”

Here’s to luck getting across the grammar street in 2013.

© 2012 Marsha Mercer. All rights reserved.

1 comment:

  1. Excellent job, Ms. Mercer. I am glad to see that the grammar police are still at work.