When grammar isn’t grammar, but something else

(And a digression at the end)

I’ve been involved in several discussions over the years about this particular issue, and I remain unmoved. I hold to the belief that it does no one any good to continue to conflate “grammar,” “usage,” “mechanics,” “syntax,” and “style” into one big blob called “grammar.”

Because it’s not true, it’s not accurate, and it’s not helpful in the long run—to anyone who wants to truly understand their language. (I won’t say “English,” only because how rude is that? EVERY language has grammar and syntax.) Continue reading “When grammar isn’t grammar, but something else”

Ginger Page? No thanks.

Pursuant to a discussion with Google+ user Fiber Babble about proofreaders and grammar checkers, I looked into Ginger Page, a free grammar and spelling checker (and supposedly much more) that I heard about on Twitter.

What follows is an edited version of a series of posts I made at G+ earlier this morning. You can read the original here. Continue reading “Ginger Page? No thanks.”

Superannuated Syntax: Fast Might Not Mean Quick

“Tight Times at Ridgemont High”?

“The Tight and the Furious”?

Karen, what in tarnation are you on about now? Those titles make no sense.

Nope, they don’t. I’m playing with words to introduce today’s topic: “fast,” in the sense of “tight” or “secure.” As in “hold fast,” or “steadfast,” or even “a fastener.” Continue reading “Superannuated Syntax: Fast Might Not Mean Quick”

Superannuated Syntax: Say what, now?

In the last week or so I’ve had conversations around the ‘net with people about syntax, word choices, and usages that confound many “modern” readers and writers and speakers of English (native and otherwise). One such usage is “suffer” in the sense of “allow.” “Suffer the children” does not mean “the children are suffering.” It means “allow the children” (“suffer the children, and forbid them not, to come unto me,” in context as attributed to Christ in Matthew 9:14, KJV). Anyone who says otherwise has fallen victim to superannuated syntax.

I deliberately avoided calling this series “Outmoded Syntax” because that’s associated with programming, and this ain’t that.

In any case, this series is meant to talk about phrasing we don’t hear much anymore and wording that confuses “modern readers,” and maybe even to provide some tips and suggestions for strengthening historical fiction by using appropriately outdated choices (in appropriate ways, of course). I’ve not yet decided on that part of it, but know I’m thinking about it.

To kick things off, here’s a link to a post at Vocabulary.com from 2012 about the language of Christmas carols. Chock full of superannuated syntax/usage/vocabulary!

Let’s chew some GUM.

Grammar, Usage, and Mechanics. And we’ll throw in Syntax and Style for good measure. And no, those won’t be capped for the entire post. That’d be silly. First use is plenty, because now you readers know what the Important Terms are going to be for the rest of this discussion. (That’s a style thing. You’ll learn more about it later.)

We can’t write or speak—we can’t use language—without at least four of those things. Grammar tells us the rules that explain how our words work. It tells us about nouns, verbs, adverbs, adjectives, pronouns, prepositions, and more. It tells us what we need for a complete sentence (a subject and a verb). It tells us how to form a question. Grammar is a set of rules. Not suggestions, not guidelines. Rules. And you know what? Most of us learn these rules by osmosis. We absorb them from hearing other people talk; we are exposed to them when we read. (Sadly, we may read poorly-written material and learn the wrong things, but that’s another post for another time.) Continue reading “Let’s chew some GUM.”

Creating a “fusion usage”: Blending UK and US (mostly) seamlessly

This is a bit of a departure from my usual types of posts, but I think it’s worth writing about.

I’m in the middle of editing the final book in a wonderful fantasy series by a UK author. I’m in the US. I’ve read a lot of UK authors, though, both historical and modern, so I feel I have a fair grounding in what “sounds British” to American ears. (Thank you, all you UK authors along with Monty Python and “Masterpiece Theatre,” for your parts in my media education.)

In particular I want to focus on one structure: the infinitive verb form + [noun or pronoun, nominative or possessive] + [preposition for the US] + the participle verb form. Like this:

stop Kevin going to town

stop Kevin’s going to town

stop him going to town

stop his going to town

stop Kevin from going to town

stop him from going to town

Standard US usage says we should write one of the following:

stop Kevin’s going to town

stop his going to town

stop Kevin from going to town

stop him from going to town

 

Here’s where I note that the New Oxford Style Manual is precisely that: style. There is no grammar section, as presented in CMoS. Therefore, I have no printed UK grammar reference. What I have discerned from reading, listening, and editing is the following:

In the UK, one says or writes:

stop Kevin going to town

stop him going to town

I’m honestly not sure whether UK usage employs the [preposition + participle] structure. I’ve not seen it, but that means nothing aside from I’ve not seen it.

In order to achieve the “fusion usage” this particular author and I have worked toward, I’ve settled on splitting the difference when this structure appears. Rather than the dreaded “rewrite to avoid,” I simply do not use the prepositional version; I substitute the possessive form of the noun or pronoun and call it finished.

The author and I have discussed this from the very first book. It seems to us that this option maintains most of the sound of the UK usage, and adheres to one of the accepted US forms. We keep the UK spellings, but phrasing that stops a US reader cold is something we work to avoid.

No one’s complained so far.

The notion of “notional concord”

I know, I know. You haven’t a clue what I’m on about. Take a deep breath, get a drink, and have a seat. It will all be clear in due time.

Why, when we’re talking, do we say “Eight hours of driving is more than enough for one day” when grammar would seem to dictate we’d say “are more than enough” instead? (And if you say “are,” well . . . I don’t. You’re not wrong, but neither am I. It’s cool.)

My mom would use the word “notion” to mean “idea or inkling,” as in “If you get a notion to wash the cat, don’t.” (As if I ever would have. I know better than to attempt to wash a cat.) Webster’s says it means “an idea or concept.” Perhaps you’re seeing where I’m going with this.

When we’re talking about “eight hours of driving,” we have a notion (a concept) that that phrase indicates one concept, a single idea. Because we have that notion, we automatically and unthinkingly use a singular verb with it. That, folks, is “notional concord.” The grammatical number of the subject (five hours of driving) and the verb (is, for this argument’s sake) are in agreement, or concord, because we have the notion that the subject is a single concept.

If you’re like me, you had subject-verb agreement pounded into your skull from about fifth grade on. Miss Thistlebottom made sure we knew our singular and plural forms and how to make sure they always matched.

That old biddy. I got along with her all right, but in the back of my mind I always wondered: “If that’s so, why does everyone I know say it differently?”

Because everyone I know knows about notional concord, without knowing it’s A Thing. (Frankly, I bet Miss T. knew it too but was afraid to say so.)