Why it’s best to leave grammar advice to experts

A company called ePly Online Event Registration has, on its website, a page on common errors of grammar and word choice that people make when creating web forms: “Are You Making These Common Wording Errors on Event Websites and Registration Forms?

It’s such a pity they didn’t get someone who had any expertise on the subject to write it. You see, some of their recommendations are good, but it’s all couched in a muck of ignorance and rubbish. It does no favours to the company – nor, for that matter, to the reputations of those who give grammar advice.

Let’s have a look at what I’m talking about, point by point.

First they tell people not to use insure where they should use ensure. I actually have no factual disagreement with this point; it’s a correction I make all the time. They give an example of correct use: “Ensure you register on time.” This is indeed grammatically correct. However, it’s also a bit stilted. Depending on the tone you want, “Make sure you register on time” would be better; giving the exact time might be even better (e.g., “Make sure to register by 11:59 pm on December 23”).

Next they hop onto the which/that distinction:

“That” refers to the noun in the sentence and gives essential information about the noun. “Which” introduces a qualifier that is non-essential.

Hm. First of all, the restriction of which to nonrestrictive clauses is not a grammatical law; it is a stylistic recommendation and does not have to be followed, even in North America (let alone in Britain). Secondly, their grammatical explanation is no good: “refers to the noun in the sentence” – most sentences have more than one noun; the subordinate clause beginning with that refers to the noun right before it… when it refers to a noun. It can also be the complement of a verb: “I think that you’re wrong.”

Then there’s their use of “essential” and “non-essential.” This is not really a clear way to put it. If I say “My car, which is older than I am, is not yet 50,” it is an essential trait of my car that it is not yet 50, though the “which is” clause is not essential to the sentence structure. The real difference is that the which-clause is nonrestrictive: that is to say, it’s not further specifying which car I’m talking about; I have only one car. Were I to say “My car that is older than I am is not yet 50,” it would imply that I have more than one car, and I am restricting the scope to the one older than I. But it is actually the commas, not the which or that, that make the difference. I could say “My car which is older than I am is not yet 50” and that would in fact be grammatically correct – though against a common North American practice.

They next pick on whether versus if:

“Whether” is not interchangeable with “if.” “Whether” expresses a condition where there are two or more alternatives.

Hmm. I don’t know if that’s true. Which is to say I don’t know whether that’s true. Which is to demonstrate that I actually know it’s not altogether true: although use of if in place of whether is considered less formal, it is possible in many (though not all) places.

One example of where it’s possible is their example. This is their example of correct use: “Indicate if you are attending the dinner.” Yes, that’s right, they seem to be saying that “Indicate whether you are attending the dinner” is incorrect. This is actually gobsmackingly off-base. The formal standard would actually be “Indicate whether you will attend the dinner.” The problem with the if version is not simply its reduced formality – which can be a good thing – but the fact that in some cases it may be misread: “Do X if you will do Y” can be taken as “If you will do Y, do X” and by implication “No need to do X if you are not doing Y” – an unlikely misconstrual in their specific example, but a possible one in some cases.

Next they dive into the less/fewer matter. Now, I’ve covered this in “When an ‘error’ isn’t”; the use of less for countable items dates back a millennium and a half and has been seen even in journals of science and philology. It’s true that if you use less to refer to countables you will provoke the ire of the peevers, and thus you do well to stick with fewer in contexts with any formality. But it’s not the iron-clad rule they make it to be. And what’s really bad is their explanation for it:

“Less” is for hypothetical amounts, whereas “fewer” or “few” refers to a number that is quantifiable.

OK, now I know for sure that this was written by some underpaid drudge with no real knowledge of the subject who looked up some stuff on grammar advice on the web and didn’t really process it well. For the record, less refers to mass objects: things that can’t be counted – be they real or hypothetical. Fewer refers only to countables. (Few is not a comparative and should not even be in that sentence unless we also bring in the non-comparative words for mass objects: little, not much, and a few others.) “A number that is quantifiable” is a head-desk phrase. All numbers are quantifiable. Oh, ePly, would you hire a non-expert to write about any other thing? Perhaps they would. I don’t know. Well, what they have here is rubbish. Browbeating, grammar-peeving rubbish that has some facepalming mistakes in it.

Just to prove further that their author is desperately ignorant in matters of English words and grammar, they move on next to this:

Impactful simply isn’t a word – “The keynote speaker will give an impactful presentation…” is grammatically incorrect. Sorry to take that one away from you.

First: impactful is a word, and has been for a long time. You don’t have to like it, but if you think it’s not a word, you have no understanding of what is and isn’t a word. Take a linguistics course, for heaven’s sake. One intro course in linguistics and you would stop making all of these dreadful errors.

That includes the error of saying that using a non-word is grammatically incorrect. No, a sentence such as “The vulks spanged the gromple” is not grammatically incorrect, it just uses lexical items for nouns and verb that are not attested in the lexicon and have no agreed sense. On the other hand, “The clowns spanks the dog” is grammatically incorrect because we can see it has an improper conjugation, and “Spanks the dog clown the” is grammatically incorrect because the word order is all wrong.

Next they talk about affect versus effect. This is in fact an important distinction to make. The advice they give is also generally true:

Remember, “affect” is a verb while “effect” is a noun.

However, they should effect one little change there: add a word such as normally or usually after each is. There is a noun affect referring to emotion, but it is uncommon; there is a verb effect, which is a silk-shirt way to say “cause to happen.” Still, this is not as bad as most of their slip-ups.

Next is the it’s/its distinction, also one worth maintaining. The only mistake they make is to say this:

“It’s” refer to a verb, whereas “its” is a possessive.

First, refer is conjugated improperly; it should be refers. Second, refer is not the right word either. It’s doesn’t refer to a verb; it contains a verb – one of two possibles: is and has. They should just say “It’s stands for it is or it has, whereas its is a possessive like his.”

Next they talk about the difference between then and than. They actually pretty much don’t say anything wrong about this. For once.

They follow this, however, with another example of a stylistic recommendation presented as an absolute law:

“Farther” refers to measurable distance, “further” should be used for an abstract length.

This is a distinction you can make but don’t have to. You can talk of going farther in a relationship and further down a road if you want; it’s just more common to do the converse. On the other hand, you can go far but not fur, and you can further an aim but you can’t farther it.

Oh, yes, by the way, their sentence has a comma splice in it. These people who tell you to proofread your forms (in their tips below their grammar advice) haven’t managed to catch a comma splice. Now, many nice people make comma splices – but I would recommend against making one in a screed of grammatical prescriptivism. Or, if you do, hire a proofreader to catch it.

They inveigh next against “misconnecting verbs”:

Wrong: You should try and register before the price goes up. Right: You should try to register before the price goes up.

The “wrong” version is informal – I wouldn’t recommend it in formal businesslike prose. They don’t really explain what’s up (the first is two imperatives presented in a colloquial idiom; the second is an imperative with an infinitive complement – but that’s more technical than most people would understand), but I’ll give them a pass on this one.

They cap off with this injunction:

“Cannot” should always be written as one word. Not “can not.”

In many cases, it’s actually better to write can’t, but that does depend on the formality of the document: many web forms suffer from excessive formality: “Upon completion of the registration process” rather than “When you have finished registering,” for instance. With cannot, though, they’re making too hard a rule again. Consider the distinction between can not do it (“am able not to do it”) and cannot do it (“am not able to do it”).

It’s not that there’s no value in reminding people of some common usage errors and some things that may seem excessively informal. It’s just that it can be done without overstating cases, saying inaccurate things, and making errors of one’s own.

How does one do that? Get an actual expert to write about it. There are many available, often at shamefully low rates.

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7 responses to “Why it’s best to leave grammar advice to experts

  1. And, to top it off, it appears that much of their list was cribbed from this post, which I discussed in my recent post. (It was the bit about further being for “hypothetical” distances that tipped me off; it seemed too strange a choice of words to be coincidence). So I guess plagiarism’s okay, just as long as you don’t make one of those other errors.

    • Dang, you’re right! It’s not simply a question of poorly processing stuff they read on teh interwebz; they’re swiping stuff whole cloth that’s crap in itself.

    • I am so glad that Mr. Owen showed up here, as I was ready to link to his (Mr. Owen’s) recent Meta-Pedantry post about the errors that writers of “Your Doing Grammar Wrong!” articles often make. Is there a linguistics club? How may I become a member?

  2. Query:

    In “The vulks spanged the gromple,” how does one pronounce “spanged”?

    One wants to use a hard “g” as in “hanged.” But one could use a soft “g” as in “flanged.”

    Some folks I’ve known have winged it. But I prefer the folks who have not binged on impulsive pronunciation.

  3. The concept behind the email made sense: 1) Improving grammar in ePly user written emails, 2) increase response rates, 3) make people more willing to use ePly.

    I liked the idea.

    But being no expert in the content of the email, I left that to folks like you.

  4. Pingback: Between you and I, could you take a picture of my friends and I? | Sesquiotica

  5. I need some grammar help. Please tell me if there is any mistake in the following sentences, also elucidate.
    1) We discussed the problem thoroughly on the eve of the examination that I found it very easy to work it out.
    2)The wise father told him that the mangoes had gone bad as they were in contact with the one rotten mango.

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