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
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.
- 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
- 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
- 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.
- 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
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.
- 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.
- 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
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