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When "Common Grammar Mistakes" Are Not About Grammar

Grammar is not an easy word to pin down: it has several meanings covering many referents and phenomena. You could think of it mainly as the system or structure of a language, particularly its syntax and morphology, and sometimes also its phonology and semantics; and it is the areas of linguistics that study these.

We learn grammar through early exposure to (usually) our families' use of language, then by using language with them. The "grammar rules" we associate with school, and which we encounter in articles such as those mentioned below, are more often traditional conventions of spelling, style and usage, along with pet peeves and pedantic fancies.

The Internet is sadly sodden with pages that purport to list common grammar mistakes but are in large part a dispiriting and repetitive mishmash of misinformation, superstitions, anachronisms, and trivial, one-dimensional advice about spelling and style.

John E. McIntyre recently demolished one such list, calling it a "deeply depressing document." Mr. McIntyre, well aware that what people consider a language's rules are a complex bag of constraints from "different categories, with varying weights," has composed a helpful and practical taxonomy which I trust he won't mind my abridging here, with his examples in brackets:

unnoticed rules (the order of adjectives); explicit rules (subject–verb agreement); conventions (variable comma placement); superstitions (enforcing singular none); shibboleths (the old meaning of hopefully); house style, as dictated by a publisher; and individual aesthetic preferences, which are legion.

Grammar occupies, among other domains, the first two of these categories. They are what grammar books analyze — how words form, inflect, and function, and how they relate to one another.

It would be useful to keep the other categories separate, but lists of "common grammar mistakes" rarely stray beyond gripes in just these areas. They recast grammar as style, usage and even spelling. They collapse and confuse the principles governing language use, leading insecure readers to feel bound by linguistic rules that often don't apply to them or to anyone.

Last year, in a rant about the misnamed and misguided Academy of Contemporary English, I wrote:

Languages have many rules, most of which are understood implicitly by native speakers. Even if you've never studied the rules of syntax and morphology, you use them instinctively every day. The sham rules that get all the attention, like "Don't split infinitives," are not grammar rules but fossilized stylistic preferences. The popular appeal of grammar suffers because of bad-tempered insistence on these points, which were in many cases created by pedants decades or centuries ago and elevated through repetition to the status of pseudo-authority.

With this in mind, let's look at a recent example of so-called grammar advice.

LitReactor lists "20 Common Grammar Mistakes" that "some of the best authors in history" have made (this ought to have been a clue to their validity). It says since refers to time, not causation. Oh, Shakespeare, you fool! The truth is that since can refer to time or causation. Subtle, I know. We're told less is "reserved for hypothetical quantities." This is mystification. What if I want less sugar, and the sugar actually exists?

It goes on. Impactful "isn't a word." Yes, it is: it's right there, made of letters, and we all know what it means. It's non-standard and much scorned, but "not a word" is not an argument. The article also wades hopelessly into the that/which morass, claiming that which in "The house, which is burning, is mine" sets off a restrictive clause. It doesn't: the commas make it non-restrictive.

And this from an editor? It's no wonder confusion is so widespread.

Of Copyblogger's "Five Grammatical Errors that Make You Look Dumb," four relate to basic spelling (its vs. it'sthere vs. their, etc.). Here's the thing: spelling isn't grammarIt's for its (or vice versa) is a typo or a misspelling, not a grammatical mistake. This is a frequent misconception — Jan Freeman has shown that even professional grammarians get it wrong.

In another article, Copyblogger says "using the word ‘than' after different is a grammatical blunder." No: different than is grammatically fine. It would have taken two minutes to look this up in a few reliable modern references. The same erroneous belief appears in ZDNet's hostile and erroneously titled "10 flagrant grammar mistakes that make you look stupid," alongside a bunch of spelling rules and zero grammar.

A popular list of "errors" that rated high in Google's ranking says that "I'm not speaking to nobody in this class" is one of the "most annoying grammar mistakes in English." This kind of double negative isn't part of current standard English, but it's fully grammatical in other dialects. So it isn't a grammar mistake, and the annoyance may say more about the writer than the idiom in question.

If you search online for "common grammar errors" or similar, you'll see such lists in abundance. Many people are anxious about errors they might be making, so they're eager to learn The Rules. But these lists offer little more than unreconstructed dogma, banal advice on spelling and style, and the same tired old shibboleths that grammaticasters have been obsessing over for decades regardless of the evidence of usage.

It's easy to launch a linguistic peevefest predicated on spelling blunders, stylistic faux pas and hot air, and going by what's out there it's likely to be as fallacious as it is constructive. What sense these articles make tends to be thoroughly mixed with misinformation and myth dressed up as truth. Read them, if you must, with extreme caution, a policy of fact-checking, an awareness of what grammar isn't, and a healthy disrespect for the authority they assume.


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Stan Carey is a scientist turned freelance editor from the west of Ireland. He shares his fascination with language, words and books on his blog, Sentence first, and on Twitter. Stan has a TEFL qualification, a history of polyglottism, and a lifelong love of stories and poetry. He writes articles about the English language for Macmillan Dictionary Blog. Click here to read more articles by Stan Carey.

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Comments from our users:

Monday February 20th 2012, 3:39 AM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Truth is what I'm looking for!
Monday February 20th 2012, 9:27 PM
Comment by: Ferial E R (Woodbridge United Kingdom)
When I was in primary school, my father (a stickler for 'speaking properly') was always pulling me up for speaking badly. I was totally confused with what was bad grammer, slang or even regional accent. This was not a good way to teach me.
Language must flow. It is like a beautiful picture. One is a delight to the eye and the other is a delight to the ear.

Ferial
Tuesday February 21st 2012, 6:22 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Roger: Then beware the unsupported, superstitious assertion!

Ferial: Well said. I think it's normal for young people to grow up completely unaware of the subtleties of standard English vs. other forms, such as slang and dialectal varieties. The greater pity is that this can impede later understanding and appreciation of language's great diversity.
Tuesday February 21st 2012, 5:48 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
Not if our hearts and minds remain open!
Thursday February 23rd 2012, 11:23 PM
Comment by: Francisco P. (São Paulo Brazil)
I am brazilian and live in a portuguese speaking country, you have no idea how hard is our grammar and yet people communicate just fine even if they do it at times using wrong grammar. It is impossible to get it all right. I do not mean that there should not be rules but some mistakes in portuguese are just nit picking.
Friday February 24th 2012, 8:05 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
That's interesting, Francisco. Sometimes people think the conventions of formal prose apply equally to everyday speech and other informal communication, but this isn't a sensible expectation. And even in writing, much of what is considered "wrong grammar" is actually fine — at least in English. I have wondered what sort of grammar/usage arguments take place in other languages.
Thursday March 1st 2012, 3:35 AM
Comment by: Yue S. (New York, NY)
Hello Stan, I've been living and teaching in China for the past 15 years and have lived and worked in Singapore during the previous four years. Each has it own unique English which we call Chinglish and Singlish, respectively. The most notable "egregious" errors are the lack of the articles "the, a, and an," a misuse of the verb tense and the mixing of "l" and "r" depending upon where the person is from in China, "loom" rather than "room." In addition, the incorrect use of "its and it's," as well as "there and their," is prevalent.

However, rather than focus on these trivialities, we strive to encourage the learner to adopt language patterns, to emulate their foreign counterparts and become as fluent as possible. Perhaps I have lived in Asia too long, but I find these pronunciation "errors" almost like a new Chinese spoken poetry.

Since the British government was the first to set English standards and establish schools in Singapore and later bring the British curriculum to China, we discover a great many British colloquialisms in both countries. They prevail in Singapore but there is a noticeable shift to American English in China due to the heavy presence of US multinationals who bring their daily corporate language and jargon with them. Unfortunately, the corporate language becomes wedded to the Chinese employees' daily conversation, which renders them incapable of replacing the "set dialogue" pieces with standard English phrases and expressions. .
Thursday March 1st 2012, 3:51 AM
Comment by: Yue S. (New York, NY)
Hello Stan. This is further to my just posted comments under the name Yue. S, New York. NY. I don't want you or any reader to think I misled them about my recent experiences. I am sharing the Visual Thesaurus with my friend Yue. S, who lives in New York. My name is David Fieldman. I can be reached in Beijing at dfieldman@eastnet.com.cn.
Thursday March 1st 2012, 8:36 AM
Comment by: Stan Carey (Galway Ireland)Visual Thesaurus Contributor
Hello, David, and thanks for your interesting insights into international varieties of English. There's a lot to be said for treating trivial mistakes as just that, instead of getting all hot and bothered about them. In some cases I wouldn't even call them mistakes: different pronunciations, for example, might be virtually unavoidable given a speaker's linguistic inheritance.
I think another reason for the growing influence of AmE is its prevalence online.
Thursday March 1st 2012, 6:28 PM
Comment by: Roger Dee (Haslett, MI)Top 10 Commenter
To help illustrate the problem of communication with Chinese Nationals as English speaking progessionals in the US workforce, I mention the following.
I worked with a very intelligent, humorous, highly educated Medical Doctor at a State Psychiatric Hospital for three years. In spite of his many outstanding personal achievements, serious sharing of ideas and problems was almost impossible. He explained to me that in China (of the 1980's), the Government did not possess the resources to provide education in anything further than English grammar and how to read English.
As an example: the word "BEE-YIN" was said instead of "billing".
Ålthough, we all enjoyed his fine personality, it was never possible to understand what he was saying without a series of questions and a tedious process of interpretation of his "English".
Just a sad example of the importance of clear speech.
I know that what I am saying is rather obvious, and all too common, but what a shame that a person with his credentials, training, and opportunity in the USA, he was never able to rise to his obvious potential -- all because of a little "accent".
Not that most of the staff of 12 were from USA. There was only one other doctor that was a US native. Of the 10 Asians, Afrcans, etc. there were no others with that degree of difficulty. It was never a racial issue. Just a serious problem in being able to converse in English.

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