This post has been banging around in my head for a few days. I’m going to try again to get it out of my gray matter and into pixel form so I can stop thinking about it.
Perhaps I’m a bad editor, but I refuse to read the local papers’ columns by “grammar experts.” (When I say “local,” I mean local to anywhere; the tiny burg I live in has little more than a broadsheet filled with want ads, for-sale/giveaway ads, and minutes of the local school board and PTO meetings. However, the power of the internet lets me access papers from all around the country. But I digress.) Why don’t I read them?
Because those so-called experts are, nine times out of ten, little more than frustrated teachers (or ex-teachers) or readers or what have you, with little formal grammar training, who spend the first couple of paragraphs burnishing their credentials. You know what I mean. “I’ve been a teacher for [choose a number between 10 and 40, usually] years. I was the editor in chief of my high school [newspaper, yearbook, class newsletter] beginning in my freshman year. In college, I was the star TA for the entire English department. Upon graduation, I worked in the newsroom of the local paper and was often praised for my superior grammatical prowess.”
Whatever. You’re still a goon who refuses to accept the plain truth about English, which is this: the way you learned it is probably wrong, because your teachers weren’t properly grounded in actual grammar, because their teachers weren’t, either. The way you learned it is filled with misconceptions, tombstones, zombie rules, and flat-out wrongness. The way you learned it might have won you kudos in your home town, but I can pretty well guarantee that your usage, your word choices, and (yeah, I’ll say it) your grammar are not any more correct than mine–and in many cases, are just plain wrong/outdated/biased. You are, in the words of the inimitable John E. McIntyre (of the Baltimore Sun), one of the peeververein. Your peeves are just that: peeves. You don’t like to see certain things, you believe them to be wrong, and you thrust your opinions on the masses because the local paper gave you a pulpit.
The way I learned English turned out to be wrong, too.
The difference is, I sought out sources and educators and colleagues to help me correct my misconceptions almost as quickly as I realized I had them, and I’ve since taken those to heart and used them to become a better editor.
One of the best choices I ever made was to start reading/listening to/chatting online with linguists. I have learned volumes (that’s hyperbolic, but stick with me, please) from them about how English is actually spoken/written. That knowledge, combined with self-study from such texts as Greenbaum’s Oxford English Grammar and Huddleston and Pullum’s The Cambridge Grammar of the English Language (albeit the student edition, because it’s far more affordable for a churchmouse like me), has vastly improved my skills and ability to make and suggest changes to clients’ work that are actually, y’know, correct. I’m no longer perpetrating nonrules like “never end a sentence with a preposition” (with the exception of the most formal registers, like a master’s degree thesis) and “never split an infinitive” (it can’t be done in Latin, but there’s no reason on this planet not to do so in English).
Talking to such folks, as well as to other editors around the world (behold, the magic of the internet and Twitter), has shown me that constructions I once railed against are absolutely normal and correct in idiolects other than my own. One such is “needs [verb]ed,” such as “the floor needs mopped.” When I started working as an independent editing contractor, I cringed every time I saw it and changed it, if it occurred in a project (which has happened twice, if memory serves), to “the floor needs to be mopped” or perhaps “the floor needs mopping.” Both of those forms are “normal” to me.
Little did I know at the time that in some areas of the US (shoutout to Philly!), the “needs [verb]ed” version is wholly common, and that my own construction is odd. Twenty-some years ago I was asking people on Facebook or on private forums if they could explain this to me, and of course none of them could. I didn’t have the right connections, the right resources.
Now, I do.
And you know what? I blog about these things and more, and I don’t feel the need to spit shine my background to write about them. I just write. The information about me is out there (see my CV here on the blog, as one example); if you want to know my credentials, they’re available. Or you could, y’know, just ask me. Politely. I won’t claim to have degrees I never received, and I won’t lay claim to experience I don’t have. I’ll tell you my education, training, and experience.
Then you can decide whether I’m worth listening to.
And if you don’t feel the need to ask or research, that’s cool, too. I know what I’m talking about, because I do my research and I have experience. And when I’m wrong, I own up to it and make corrections as needed.
That’s how the pros do it.