June 08, 2006

Zero for three on grammar, minus three, makes -3

On May 23 a user named "Bob" posted on the group blog of the left-leaning Blue Mass Group a brief attack on the grammar of a post on a rival right-leaning blog, Hub Politics. Said Bob:

Regressive blog Hub Politics offers a revealing post today titled "English Perversion." The piece, which blames the legislature for the poor English of some schoolchildren, begins: "We can thank the overwhelmingly liberal legislature for the poor fluency amongst the non-native English speaking students, after all, it was the Democrats on Beacon Hill who gave the axe to the voter approve English immersion program." (Screen shot here). A grammatically correct sentence, of course, would use the past tense of the word "approve." One might also question the author's use of the preposition "amongst" in this context, and the awkward use of the clause "after all," but let's start with spelling and grammar. With friends like these, do Massachusetts Republicans need enemies?

Bob makes three grammar points here. And guess what his record is for getting stuff right? It's beginning to be a familiar score. He's zero for three. In fact you could say he's actually at minus 3, because while he manages to be wrong on all three of the points he makes, he misses three actual errors in the quoted passage. Did you spot them?

Here is the detailed grammar fisking.

  1. Bob can't tell the past tense (preterite) from the past participle. It is true that approve should have been approved, but that's because it should have been a past participle. (For approve, as for all regular verbs in English, the preterite and the past participle have the same form in both spelling and pronunciation. But if an irregular verb like write had been used instead of approve, the correct form here would have been the past participle written, not the preterite wrote.) So he can't tell a tensed verb from a participle, or a finite clause from a non-finite one.
  2. It is quite unclear what Bob thinks might be wrong about using amongst here. He may be half-recollecting the old story about how between is wrong for more than two items and should be replaced by among or amongst, which is not true, but even if it were, amongst should be fine here. Perhaps Bob is one of those who think that amongst is just a pretentious alternative form of among, which should be avoided as an affectation. Arnold Zwicky tells me there are some people who believe this. But the belief is false. Merriam-Webster's Dictionary of English Usage cites clear evidence for this statement from the usage of a number of authors. Amongst is slightly less common than among, but both are correct. Bob thinks he has a possible nitpick, but he doesn't.
  3. Regarding the awkward use of the clause "after all", the awkward fact is that "after all" is not a clause. It's a preposition phrase (of idiomatic meaning). Bob doesn't know the difference.
  4. The first of the three errors that could actually be charged in this paragraph but are missed by Bob is that "English speaking" might reasonably be corrected to "English-speaking". The hyphen can be seen in this image of one edition of the book by Churchill that contains this phrase in its title. I would not insist on this intransigently — hyphens in compound attributive modifiers are not consistently used even in printed sources; but if Bob wants to be pedantic, then he would have been well advised to point out that it would have been preferable to follow Churchill and have the hyphen in this modifier.
  5. The second error Bob missed is that a hyphen is even more clearly needed in the compound attributive modifier "voter-approved", which means "approved by the voters". There are only two occurrences in the 1987-1989 Wall Street Journal corpus, but both have the hyphen.
  6. And finally, the comma after "students" marks the start of a clear case of an unacceptable run-on sentence. A semicolon or a period is needed after "students". The run-on sentence is a subtle matter (some apparent run-ons seem fine, like the sequence of them that begins Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities), but this is pretty clearly a case of the bad type.

The bottom line here is that people who are clueless about English grammar shouldn't be trying to humiliate others over grammar for political advantage. Those who feel grammar correction is something they want to discuss in the media should do just a little bit of work to prepare themselves for their calling. Not knowing a preterite from a participle or a clause from a phrase is like not knowing how to add small integers.

And in any case, as the Boston weekly Dig, in the Media Farm section on May 31, points out, "Blue Mass should be pointed to Rule 1 of Media Criticism: avoid ridiculing typos." (Then they immediately break Rule 1 by pointing out two typos from the Blue Mass blog from the previous few days. Sigh.)

The Dig also notes that "If anything, bad grammar actually seems to help Republican political campaigns"; but that may just be a Dig dig at Bushisms once again. (Renewed sigh.)

Posted by Geoffrey K. Pullum at June 8, 2006 02:45 PM