Skip to main content

Not every grammatical peeve is a useful one. Readers write to me about perceived errors which I don't always see as errors myself. They tend to be class-related uses (such as "no problem" instead of "you're welcome"), or British versus American uses, or popular idioms (such as "Did you want fries with that?"). People are often annoyed by new uses or styles of speaking that don't reflect the way their parents taught them to speak. This irritation is not as much about clarity or elegance as it is about a kind of nostalgia. New styles of speech around us provide concrete evidence that the society itself is changing, and this fact gets harder to take as one grows older. (I say this with genuine sympathy, believe me.) The lack of consensus illustrates the fundamental problem in talking about grammar prescriptively. The language changes as usage does. So what's a part of this evolution and what's a teeth-grinding solecism? How do we decide what's a silly quibble and what's a genuinely nonsensical usage?

My criterion is this: in written English -- and note that I am particularly concerned with written rather than spoken words, as speech is naturally more fluid and colloquial -- if prose deviates in certain crucial ways from standard written English, a style agreed on almost unanimously by various guide-writing authorities, then it becomes confused and unclear. I'm thinking particularly about issues of logic, such as mixed up verb tenses, plurals and singulars, and dangling modifiers. These deviations usually lead to ambiguity. And I'm irritated by inconsistency: If someone says "You invited me," I'm troubled if he also says "You invited Jane and I," because he doesn't seem to have a system of cases worked out for his pronouns.

In other words, my criteria are quite practical. I'm not troubled at all by new English vocabulary, by neologisms and slang and new idioms. In fact I'm delighted by them.

So here's an end-of-year attempt to sort out the recent quibbles from the genuine problems: the year's best and worst of grammatical nit-picking.

People get awfully uptight about turning nouns into verbs, as in "to impact." I wouldn't use impact as a verb myself (at least not meaning to affect or influence), because I'm conservative that way, but the usage is so widespread now that it would be silly to call it an error.

Furthermore, as a general principle, the practice of turning nouns into verbs is well-established and accepted in standard written English. No one complains any more about the verb "to fax:" It is a useful and precise word that describes a specific action. Ditto for "to microwave," and "to Google." (Interestingly, "to Google" has come to mean looking up information using any search engine, even a competitor's -- say Yahoo -- just as "Kleenex" has come to mean any brand of tissue.) I was uncomfortable about "to task" for a while (as in "we tasked him with hearts-and-minding the Shia village"), but it is so widespread now that my conservatism just looks silly. (And I made up the hearts-and-minds verb, so don't worry.) For sure, turning nouns into verbs (or "verbing" them -- and there's an example right there) does tend to be the specialty of the gobbledygook-speaking bureaucrat. Only insecure people who want to dress up simple ideas with technical-sounding language would talk of "actioning" or "contexting" a problem. But if those words were ever to become widely used, dictionaries will plunk them in right away. We have to admit that highlighting and foregrounding are already common practices in academic essays, right?

Okay, on to the "write me/write to me" debate. It is common in the U.S. for editors to allow "write me." The first time I encountered this phrase in print was in a Hemingway short story, and I was sure it was a typo, until I saw it repeated throughout his writing. To my amazement, I found it was in common usage in the U.S. And now it's common across Canada, and a lot of people can't stand it and say it's incorrect.

Well, I'll admit my residual snobbery and confess I don't use it myself. Why not? Because it doesn't make sense. The verb "write" can have both a direct object (the letter) and an indirect object (the recipient of the letter). So why not add this nuance, if we can? I write a letter to George. I do not write George. (Unless I mean to say I am creating a fictional character called George.) It's a useful distinction to make, no?

I suspect the confusion has arisen because of this odd English structure: "I write George a letter." This is quite common and correct. We use the same structure when we say "I gave George the book" (instead of "I gave the book to George.") But even in these sentences, George is still the indirect object of the verb. If you reverse the order of the direct and indirect objects in the sentence, you need to add a preposition. Let's keep this subtle distinction, and stop "writing" people as if they were themselves letters.

(By the way, Americans like to omit prepositions much more often than we do. They say "I graduated West Point," for example, which makes no sense to me: It sounds as if the speaker caused the entire establishment to graduate. But this verb does not take a direct object: We don't say, as part of the ceremony, "I graduate you.")

Alas, I hear the creaking and clanking of the lid of my box - I have been out of it far too long already - and I still haven't got to my own top irritations in media usage. So I will have to list them very briefly. They have not changed over the past six months. They are still (1) verb tense anarchy, particularly with past conditionals. "If I had past participled, I would have past participled" is a good and simple structure to remember. You don't need any prepositions in there (as in "If I had of went"). Remember that the past participle of "go" is "gone" (not "went," which is the perfect). (2) Dangling modifiers. ("Turning to the weather, British Columbia is in for some more rain.") No one seems to care if their verbs have subjects or not any more. (3) Lay and lie (look it up - the lid is closing!) (4) Its and it's (getting worse and worse!) (5) Discrete and discreet. One's encounters with a meth-selling male prostitute may be both discrete (separate) and discreet (unobtrusive), but let's not think they are synonyms. (6) "Going forward." This one just reeks of corporatese. Let's say "in the future," and we will all, I promise, have a happy new year.