Mighty Red Pen

May 27, 2008

A tyranny of style

Filed under: Grammar goddess,Wordsworthy — mighty red pen @ 7:38 pm
Tags: , , , ,

Well, Jan Freeman chimes in on the issue of “grammar nazis” with “No to Appeasement: Pushing Back against the Grammar Cops.”

Unfortunately, most usage writers also counsel submission. So your boss, or teacher, or editor thinks “over” can’t mean “more than” – why not humor the knucklehead? Why ask for trouble? So cowardice perpetuates the usage folklore. And one day you find the Usage Big Brother installed on your laptop, messing with your head.

Bad enough to kowtow to a misinformed boss or professor, but obeying a half-witted grammar checker – surely that’s not the American way?

None of this (I suppose I must say) is an argument against teaching standard English. But writing is a complex and difficult craft; by focusing on trivia (mythical or not), we only reinforce the silly notion that writing well is mostly a matter of avoiding mistakes.

Read Freeman’s entire essay here.

Freeman’s comments called to mind a recent post by the Typo Eradication Advancement League. You may remember the “Typo Hunt Across America” guys who traveled across the United States not just documenting, but correcting, typos. They had an interesting post the other day, “What Is Not a Typo.” One thing that is not a typo is:

Variations from one’s own Style Manual.  You may have memorized the Chicago Style rule that lists must contain a comma before the “and” (e.g., “I purchased rifles, bandoliers, and grenades at the military surplus store”), but that doesn’t mean that a sentence by someone operating under AP Style (”… rifles, bandoliers and grenades …”) is wrong.  Even if you’ve always used the AP Style fashion for s-ending possessives (Indiana Jones’ stubble) in your own writing, you still can’t declare that somebody going by Chicago (Indiana Jones’s stubble) is incorrect.  Often the problem with this one is that many people are unaware that more than one accepted approach exists.  They would be surprised indeed at the subtle wars that are waged among the adherents of the various manuals.  . . . But no one manual can lay claim to, say, a random sign in a storefront window.

Read the rest of “What Is Not a Typo.”

I’ve been known to call my editorial style — where it applies to my job — slash and burn. It’s my job to ruthlessly apply the house style guide and Chicago Manual of Style to pieces that I’m editing. But in my day-to-day existence as a word nerd, I prefer a kinder, gentler approach, so no, I didn’t send you a copy of the Chicago Manual of Style as a Memorial Day present just because you failed to use serial commas in your last e-mail to me. Not that I noticed . . .



  1. As someone whose writing has benefited from MRP’s editing, I would say that your style is less “slash and burn” and more “slash, giggle, and watch bleed.” But, you know, perceptions vary.

    Comment by David — May 28, 2008 @ 10:55 am | Reply

  2. I got kicked off EtiquetteHell.com for getting into a snit fit w/ someone over the split infinitive (me defending)–surely you’ve seen LanguageLog’s “Crazies Win.”

    Comment by TootsNYC — May 28, 2008 @ 11:54 am | Reply

  3. TootsNYC, Go split infinitives! I’m sorry if I’m a little giggling over the fact that you were kicked off for a snit fit about grammar 🙂 Thanks for the heads-up about Language Log — I can’t believe I missed this debate!

    Comment by mighty red pen — May 28, 2008 @ 4:45 pm | Reply

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