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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.