Daily Archives: February 4, 2011

Grammar Girl is not where it’s at

One of the problems that I and other linguistically trained, open-minded writers run up against in building an audience is that people really seem to want someone to just tell them “Do this and don’t do that.” And they want nice, simple explanations. So they turn to people like Strunk and White, Lynne Truss, and Mignon Fogarty – the Grammar Girl* – who give them nice, reasonably simple answers and guidelines to live by.

Folks, if you want nice and simple, speak Esperanto. English is fun precisely because it’s, not to put too fine a point on it, crazy. English is not like one of those old ’70s video games with one level of play. English has more variations and levels of play, more nuances and negotiations, more little subtleties and twists and turns, than any computer game anyone’s ever devised. By orders of magnitude.

Yes, there is a version of English that is standard. (Actually, within that standard, there are quite a lot of variations.) Yes, that standard is generally susceptible to description – though, in fact, some of its structures are still subject to argument and further research even at the highest levels of linguistic enquiry. No, that standard does not involve nothing but simple, clear, consistent, one-way-for-all-times rules. Some rules are consistent. Some are not. There is no great merit in imposing rules that add complications without benefit or that restrict the expressive potential without adding some other virtue (other than defining an in-group of self-appointed cognoscenti).

I write this because I was just looking at Grammar Girl’s site because someone had sent me a link to an article of hers. Among her top 5 tips is one on ending a sentence with a preposition. To her credit, she starts off by saying that, contrary to popular belief, there is no firm rule against ending a sentence with a preposition. This is true: the supposed proscription on sentence-ending prepositions is nothing but a grammatical superstition, a mumpsimus, an invention that adds nothing to the expressive potential of the language.

She also says that you should not add a preposition on the end of a sentence when you could leave it off and it wouldn’t change the meaning. “Really,” she says, “I can’t believe anyone would make such a silly mistake!” Oh, indeed. Why use any more words than you absolutely have to? Other than for reasons of flow, sound, expression, emphasis, you know…

Then she notes that someone has called her out for saying “That’s where it’s at” on one of her episodes. She immediately goes into mea culpa mode. Does she say, “Oh, actually, there’s more to the expressive value of a sentence than just the denotative value of the words?” Nope. She completely disregards or forgets any motivation she might have had for saying it that way and declares, “But if I did say, ‘That’s where it’s at.’ I’m so sorry—the horror—because that is one of the instances where it’s not OK to end a sentence with a preposition! . . . The problem is that the sentence That’s where it’s at doesn’t need the preposition. If you open the contraction ‘it-apostrophe-s’ and say ‘That’s where it is,’ it means the same thing as That’s where it’s at. So the at is unnecessary.”

Nope. Continue reading