Friday, January 31, 2020

I've found a kindred spirit

5 Grammar Mistakes that Make You Sound Like a Chimp

A fellow grammar Nazi! And the article doesn't undermine itself by being full of grammatical errors, either: it's generally very well written, although the dude has trouble with commas:

If you obsess over every grammatical and structural point, you can come across as stiff. But if you’re lax and make a bunch of simple errors, you’ll come across as stupid.

You make one mistake[,] and a lot of people will let it go. Two[,] and you’re making them suspicious. Keep that up, with your intelligence taking hits at each turn, and your reader will decide that you’re actually a chimpanzee — and not one of the smart ones, either.

I generally agree, but I also know that we grammar Nazis inhabit solipsistic worlds. If a sloppy writer's audience is a bunch of fellow chimpanzees, no one's going to notice any linguistic sins. In other words, the only people being rubbed the wrong way are the ones smart or savvy enough to see the errors. The hoi polloi? Not so much.

And what are the five peeves the author mentions in his piece?

1. Improper use of “myself”

Total agreement. I wrote about this problem in creating the Gravoca series of textbooks used at my company. Also: a question related to the misuse of "myself" appears in the "language obstacle course" that I'd co-created to help us screen potential hires.

WRONG: This problem is worrisome to Jones and myself.
RIGHT: This problem is worrisome to Jones and me.

Khan Noonien Singh, played by the great Ricardo Montalban in 1982's "Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan," says a line that contains this mistake:

Never told you how the Enterprise picked up the Botany Bay, lost in space from the year 1996, myself and the ship's company in cryogenic freeze?

Khan was awesome, but he was also wrong.

Use "myself" as a reflexive pronoun ("Why am I always shitting myself?"), as an intensive pronoun ("I myself will lead the attack on the butt-plug factory."), or even as an adverb ("I found her clit myself."). As the author says, don't overcomplicate the language because you think that'll make you sound more literate. This is the same problem we see with incorrect locutions like "between you and I" and "feel badly": people somehow think that "between you and me" and "feel bad" are improper because they "sound" unsophisticated when, in point of fact, they're grammatically proper.

2. Subject/predicate disagreement

Here, the author rails against the so-called "singular they." I'm against it myself, but I've conceded that it's a firmly entrenched part of everyday informal speech, so I feel little urge to correct it when I hear it. As I've averred before, I don't like being corrected when I'm not actually wrong, and that's an ethic I try to practice—avoidance of unnecessary corrections—when the opportunity arises for me to correct others.

I recently talked about CMOS's opinion on this topic.

3. “An historic”

This was an issue I admit I'd thought little about. I think the author's argument makes sense, and I may have been guilty of saying "an historic" myself on certain occasions. I'm pretty sure I'm inconsistent on this point, but it's one I want to look into more before I decide whether I fully agree with the author. To be sure, I'm leaning the author's way (how else can you form a noun like "ahistoricality"?), but I just want to make sure before I commit to anything.

The online Merriam-Webster comments:

Do you experience a slight pause before using either of these words [historic vs. historical] as you try to remember which one is correct and whether it should be preceded by an or a? If so, you’re not alone, for many people find this pair particularly tricky. Historic and historical are both occasionally found preceded by an, since the initial h in each word was formerly left unpronounced. Now this h is heard, and a is far more common than an (by a ratio of about 4 to 1 in American English).

4. Was vs. were

Total agreement here. This is clearly a matter of not understanding how the subjunctive mood works. It actually helps to learn other, more visibly conjugated European languages that more explicitly show inflections when the subjunctive is used. My chosen language, French, has a fairly sophisticated take on the subjunctive. I go into it in detail on my tutoring blog.

5. Incorrect use of “literally”

I agree with the author here, but I think this is one of those errors that gets beaten to death by every grammar scold out there, so it's practically a cliché even to mention it. Yeah, yeah—I know that "He literally exploded with anger" is a bad use of "literally." Yawn.

All in all, though, I was delighted to discover this kindred spirit out there in the wilds of cyberspace. I'm not one lone voice crying in the wilderness: I'm part of a baying pack. (Insert images of wolves tearing apart a person who writes in shoddy English here. Take pride in your mother tongue! Use it well!)


John Mac said...

Even though I get it wrong frequently, I enjoy reading about the errors of my way. The "I" and "me" usage usually gives me pause, as does the "a" and "an" situation. I'm a lazy bastard though so I usually just go with what sounds right to me and move on.

For what it is worth, I don't take offense at being corrected.

Charles said...

Yet another excellent post that will be very helpful to myself and all your other grammatically wayward readers. One might even go so far as to call this an historical occasion--although I think they might be pushing it a bit if they did. Still, if I was the type of person to get overly excited about this sort of thing, I would literally explode in ecstasy.

(Seriously, though, I have surrendered to the singular "they." "He or she," as the author points out, is awkward, but if you use "he" you're being politically incorrect and if you use "she" you're being too politically correct. This is one area where I sometimes wish English were more like Korean.)

Kevin Kim said...


Thank you. I'll be stealing and then using your comment in a "find the errors" section when I make my next language obstacle course.