Book Discussion: Accidence Will Happen, by Oliver Kamm

Right off the bat, let me say that there isn’t a typographical error in the title. I wager most of this blog’s followers know that, but some might not. My college-student stepdaughter winced when she saw my copy of this lying on the table, and said, “That typo on the cover, though.” I set her straight immediately.

Accidence is that portion of grammar that deals with inflection. Inflection is the way a word changes to denote a specific grammatical category. For example: “Sang” is the past tense of “sing.” We know that because it changes form. It changes again for the past participle “sung.” Of course, that’s an irregular form. The same process happens with regular verbs, like talk/talked/talked, but by adding a suffix instead of altering the spelling of the root form. It happens with nouns, too: cat/cats, goose/geese. Now you know, if you didn’t before.

Now that I’ve concluded the brief grammar lesson, on to the discussion. Continue reading “Book Discussion: Accidence Will Happen, by Oliver Kamm”

“Feelin’ Alright”

If you’ve been following me on any platform for any length of time, you know I’ve been a staunch adversary of “alright.” I have stated as clearly as I know how that I would never reconsider that stance: “alright” would never become all right in my worldview.

You also know the saying “Never say never,” don’t you?

I’ll wait while you all recover and fetch smelling salts or whiskey or whatever you need to help you get through this. I understand entirely.

Rather than rewrite the book, so to speak, I’m providing a link to the article that changed my mind. As I tweeted earlier this morning, reading about the English language as it is actually spoken and used (descriptive grammar and linguistics, mostly) can lead to changing opinions. And I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing, at all.

My last blog post here was about how I’ve mellowed. Even I never expected to mellow this much. I’m rather curious to see where I’ll go from here. Now I have one more item for my “ask the author” list, when I start a project with a new client. Added to the usual “Do you like serial commas?” and “UK or US conventions, for the most part?” will be “Do you care about ‘alright’ and ‘all right’?”

Clarification (October 13, 2014): I am still opposed to “alright” in narrative text. This sea change is purely for dialogue, and only if it’s appropriate for the setting and the character. A 16th-century nobleman will not say “all right.” He may well say “very well” or “excellent,” though. (A 16th-century peasant won’t say “all right,” either. Perhaps just “right” works for him. “All right” is a very American phrase (not that the English don’t use it, but it smacks of American speech–“Right” sounds more English to the non-academic ear), “attested to from 1953” according to Online Etymology (

And if they say they like “alright,” that will be all right with me.

The Pragmatic Grammarian

If you have any familiarity with grammarians, you probably know there are supposedly two types: prescriptive and descriptive. The former is obsessed with knowing all the rules and exceptions, and with forcing all writing and speech into compliance with those rules and exceptions. The latter is also obsessed, but not with rules. Rather, the descriptivist focuses on usage in the living language, which is always in flux. Rules? Bah. How people use the language is more important than whether they follow the rules. Reductionist thinking, you cry. Yes, for my purposes that is exactly how I’m describing the two types. Keep reading, okay?

Therefore, I posit a third type: the pragmatist. You may ask, What does that mean? And well you should. It acknowledges that most grammarians, whether they care to admit it or not, blend prescriptivist with descriptivist and make the writing or speech fit the purpose, the audience, and the subject matter as required. I know the rules. I am quite fond of most of them, actually. I also know how “real people” use the language. I am often less fond of this, but as I am also one of these “real people” I try to cut some slack, as the saying goes. If someone’s speaking casually to a friend, I won’t leap in to correct their subject-verb agreement or their use of a reflexive pronoun instead of a simple objective one. It’s just not that important under those circumstances. It’s really not. However, if I’m asked to copyedit someone’s work, you can bet your boots I’ll take at least these three things into account: the type of work, the subject matter, and the intended audience. Once I’ve determined those things, and the extent to which I need to mold the work into a particular shape, I’m off to the races.

This poses a problem for new writers who ask grammatical questions in an open forum where I am far from the only professional editor. At times I simply don’t answer. My views are sufficiently fluid that I can easily cause more problems than I solve with my “well, it depends” answers. If I can tell that the questioner is more likely to be confused than helped by my answer, I withhold the information. I wait, instead, to see how the others respond; I watch the interactions, watch the wording and the behind-the-scenes body language (c’mon, you can tell when someone’s hunched over the keys stabbing at them with pudgy—or bony—fingers while blood drips from their brow), and take my time deciding whether I need to interject my opinion. Often the answer is no. When the answer is yes, I take even more time and care crafting the response. I’m not out to denigrate any of my fellow professionals, nor am I out to make a new writer feel stupid for asking a grammar or usage question. (They’re pretty good at doing that to themselves, from what I can tell, without help from anyone.)

Things become muddier still when the question is about US vs. UK conventions. I have a very basic working knowledge of UK grammar, spelling, and mechanics. That doesn’t make me an expert on it, but it does provide a basis from which I feel mostly safe answering simple questions (which tend to be about terminal punctuation with quotation marks). Even so, my simple answers—which I self-edit to remove words and concepts that tend to answer unasked, tangential questions—usually invite others to chime in with “But she forgot this” and “Of course, there’s also this over here” and the occasional “Yeah, what she said.” From my pragmatic grammarian view: If you’re writing for the US market, use US grammar/spelling/usage/mechanics/style. If you’re writing for the UK market, do what’s expected from the UK. Don’t fuss over which one’s better, or more correct, or easier, or looks prettier to you, or whatever. Just don’t. Write using the rules for the market you’ve chosen. And if you don’t know those rules, guess what? I’ll tell you not to write for that market. That whole debate (US vs UK style and whatnot) grates on my editorial senses, frankly. There’s nothing to debate from where I sit. Use the rules for the country where you grew up, or use the rules for the country’s market you’ve chosen (after you’ve learned them or teamed up with someone who can guide you through them), but don’t trouble your pretty or handsome head over which set is superior. The answer is both and neither. They are what they are, for the reasons they are, and that’s really all you need to know. It’s what I will tell you if you hire me to work on your project. And I will ensure that your work conforms to US rules to whatever degree is expected.

I don’t think I’m breaking any new ground with this pragmatic grammarian stance, except perhaps by naming it. I know prescriptivists who sometimes relax the rules, and descriptivists who break out in hives when someone says “Anyone can do whatever they want.” All I’m saying, folks, is let’s be honest about the situation. Let’s admit that neither approach can stand entirely on its own. People aren’t going to speak to their friends and family in the formal language of a doctoral dissertation. They’re not going to write their dissertations with contractions and dialectical figures of speech (unless the dissertation’s on linguistics, focusing on dialects, and they’re providing examples).

Let’s be pragmatic, shall we?

A little rant for a Sunday forenoon

It’s a bit too late to call it “morning,” so “forenoon” it shall be.

When I see a post/article/tweet/what-have-you from someone purporting to be “professional,” and it contains one of my peeves (which may admittedly be dogmatic, pedantic, petty, and so on–but these are my peeves so that’s all okay), I twitch. Now that I have somewhere to vent about those occurrences, I can share my twitching with all of you.

Or not. If you’ve stopped reading, that’s ok.

Just today I found this: “We are comprised of college grad English Majors who are extremely proficient in writing, copy editing and proof reading.”

As they say on teh intarwebz: O RLY?

The zoo comprises the animals. The animals compose the zoo. “Comprise” denotes inclusion. “Compose” denotes–well, composition. (That’s why the words are so similar, after all . . . I will refrain from a lecture on etymology, however.)

So–first of all, “We are composed of” or “We comprise” would both be correct. (Note the lack of “of” in the second form. It’s unnecessary.) The reason we have two different words is they have two different meanings. Improper usage has been the death (slow, unkind, and agonizing death) of many a perfectly good differentiation over the life of this living language we speak. I fight to keep such words on life support because I think they’re important. The differences in meaning are important. If we hadn’t felt the need for different meanings to start with, we’d not have two different words. (And actually, “we are composed of” gives me a fit in this case for an entirely different reason. That’s another rant for another time, perhaps.)

::breathes deeply and evenly::

Second, what’s with that capital “M” on “Majors”? It doesn’t lend an air of importance; it only lends an air of . . . well, incorrect capitalization, to be honest.

And finally: “Proofreaders” is a closed compound word. “”Proof readers,” I suspect, are adept at reading liquor bottle labels. (And that could well be true of this group, I suppose. Not that that’s a bad thing. Sometimes we really do need 151, instead of 80.)

I hear grumblings out there among you (all two of you, I hear you, y’know) about my use of informal styles in a grammar-oriented blog. Get over it. It’s MY BLOG, and this is MY RANT (ooooh, I must be upset, I used ALL CAPS), and while I clearly am discussing grammar and usage, I’m doing so informally because I’m not writing an academic presentation. I’m blogging. That’s like talking to you on my front porch. It’s informal. Deal with it.

Or don’t. Your choice. I write this stuff anyway.