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. Folks, paraphrase is paraphrase. Two ways of saying something are not interchangeable, and there is much more to language than denotation. Anyone who objects to vulgarities but accepts clinical terms for the same acts demonstrates that fact, obviously. When, in one of the Harry Potter movies, Lucius Malfoy says to his son Draco “Touch nothing,” that may mean the same in that context as “Don’t touch anything,” but the tone and register are different – it’s more curt but also more elevated. And there’s a reason that the Grammar Girl said “That’s where it’s at” when she said it, rather than “That’s where it is.”

Try it yourself. In what context would you say “That’s where it’s at”? Would you really say “That’s where it is” to express exactly the same tone and attitude? Let’s try a few:

A: Hey, B, m’man, where’s the action around here?
B: Come with me to the pool hall. That’s where it’s at.

versus

A: Hey, B, m’man, where’s the action around here?
B: Come with me to the pool hall. That’s where it is.

Do you see a different level of speech and a different connotation? In a context like that, it makes specific reference to a set colloquial phrase. Let’s try another.

A: How are things coming along with the project?
B: We managed to get through the first two segments, but then regulatory stepped in and told us to suspend it pending their latest decisions, so that’s where it’s at.

versus

A: How are things coming along with the project?
B: We managed to get through the first two segments, but then regulatory stepped in and told us to suspend it pending their latest decisions, so that’s where it is.

In this sort of context, “That’s where it’s at” tends to localize as on a scale or a map, indicating the point that has been reached, whereas “That’s where it is” is more static and perhaps more literal.

In fact, generally, adding at in this context is like sticking a pin in a map, a marker on a scale, or your finger on a table. It adds a different flavour and type of emphasis. It can also lower the level of formality.

That’s not to say people don’t use words unnecessarily. Padding your expressions certainly can be a bad writerly habit. But there’s a difference between bad writing – or careless expression – and bad grammar. Bad writing can be entirely consistent with the grammar of standard English, and good writing sometimes breaks a “rule” here or there for effect.

The Grammar Girl has thus made the following errors: presenting a guideline for composition as a rule of grammar; failing to address aspects of linguistic expression beyond the denotative; and second-guessing herself. Second-guessing herself is an error? Oh, yes – any highly literate, proficient speaker of the language should always assume that there’s a reason something sounds or “feels” right to him or her, and if his or her grammatical analysis seems to exclude it, it’s probably the analysis that’s wrong.

So that, Grammar Girl, among others, is where it’s at.

*Addendum: As I admit in a comment below, it’s not really quite fair to lump Grammar Girl in with the grammar grumblers; she’s generally pretty practical and sensible. But occasionally, such as in this case, I must beg to differ with her.

21 responses to “Grammar Girl is not where it’s at

  1. You are so right, James, not to mention so right on!
    Will you be sending this to Grammar Girl?

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  3. I stopped listening to Grammar Girl years ago, after hearing her repeatedly giving out advice with this pattern: “the rule says this, but here are some exceptions”.

    It is not her fault. Grammar is not real. It is artificially created in attempting to explain language patterns and preserve uniformity.

    • More to the point, grammar is equivocal. As linguists use the term, it’s the set of patterns every user of the language implicitly knows, and linguistics attempts to describe it but (one hopes) always with the awareness that the finger is not the moon, so to speak. Many people through history, intuiting that such a thing exists and aiming to discern it, came up with rule sets that became prescriptions and that are, as you say, artificial creations.

      An added factor is that deviation from the way people of a given set in a given context usually speak is discernible and is subject to judgments, so there is value in knowing just how and why people of that set in that context speak. Ah, but a little learning is a dangerous thing; drink deep, or taste not the Pierian spring! Much of the attempts at such “knowing” are too shallow and lead to error.

  4. It looks as if you are lumping Lynne Truss in with the hidebound grammar-bigots. I find her relatively open-minded. For example, she generally disapproves of, but allows in some circumstances, something which you recently railed at, the “serial comma” (she calls it the “Oxford comma”, which is OK: I went to Cambridge). She has an example on page 87 where this kind of comma makes a lot of sense. I do not know the “Grammar Girl”, on the other hand, and it appears as tho’ ignorance is in this case pure bliss.

    • I recently railed at the serial comma? I use the serial comma preferentially most of the time (including in all of my blog postings), but in some documents don’t use it if I judge it not appropriate to the feel of the document. Do tell me what I wrote that came across as railing at it!

      My issue with Lynne Truss is mainly her effect of enfranchising grammar cranks. A “zero-tolerance” approach is not something I can agree with, and I have heard of people who have read her book taking marker in hand and altering grocery store signs, which is simply rude. I don’t mean to say that she’s wrong on everything; I simply think that the approach that she enfranchises can be brain candy for cranks.

      And maybe I’m a little resentful that people who write simplistic things or brain candy can get big audiences while people who write detailed, nuanced, more open-minded assessments tend to be Cassandras.

  5. In defense of Grammar Girl, her audience is people who are trying to write and who want to know what is socially acceptable. She generally seems to appreciate the flexibility of rules more than this particular example would imply. That said, I don’t blame you at all for crusading against arbitrary rules.

    • True, for the most part her advice is reasonable and sound. I may have been a little on the harsh side on her here. (And I do follow her on Twitter. She seems nice.) But she would do well to step back when she gets to something like this and ask herself whether she really wants to run at all with the superstitions or whether it wouldn’t be better to break clean.

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  7. I’m not fond of Grammar Girl’s advice either, but I hope you aren’t posturing yourself as some kind of grammatical authority. I can point out a number of usage problems in just this blog entry.

    – You’re splitting infinitives. Infinitives are a single word, despite being composed to two elements. “… someone to just tell them” should be “… someone just to tell them.” The placement of the adverb needs to be shifted in order to accompany the infinitive. If English were more like Latin, this wouldn’t be a problem. English, unfortunately, is a very incomplete language. On that note, we don’t have a true infinitive case. What we’re doing is tacking a preposition in front of verbs to emulate the function; instead, we should have created an inflectional rule.

    – You’re beginning sentences with conjunctions. This is especially problematic when you’re placing full stops between clauses that are directly related, and would normally be separated by commas. If you feel you absolutely need to begin a clause with a conjunction, then logistically, the preceding clause SHOULD be related; thus a comma or semicolon is appropriate – a full stop is not. If the resulting comma or semicolons feels truly awkward, then perhaps you misjudged the need to use a conjunction in the first place. Really, you’re just throwing them around like interjections.

    – The fuss over prepositional syntax isn’t some arbitrary nonsense. Prepositions are supposed to indicate a relationship that exists between verbs and substantives. Respectively, the preposition would be placed between them. Although one can gather this relationship despite the preposition being tacked on the end of the sentence, there’s no reason why it needs to be done this way. It might be more comfortable to you simply because you were raised in an environment where that type of usage is commonplace, but that’s a pretty weak argument for its continuance. The more flexibility we accept, the less patterns exist in English. The mind needs to observe patterns and consistent relationships in order to learn. We’re just making this language of ours needlessly abstract..

    – The exception with prepositions lies in phrasal verbs. If your sentence ends with a phrasal verb, then it’s unavoidable; it’s important to understand, however, that a phrasal verb functions as a single element – a verb. You shouldn’t think of the prepositional element as functioning like a preposition. Unfortunately, the mere existence of phrasal verbs is a problem in itself, as their usage typically confuses non-native English speakers.

    • Thank you for giving such a good example of mumpsimuses – in your effort to cling to grammatical superstitions, you compound the fault with misanalysis and invention. It’s rather amusing. You’re very much in need of a proper education in linguistics and the history of the English language; some decent university-level coursework or even a bit of actual directed reading on the subject will help free you from your fantasies. You may want to start with the quick run-down in “When an ‘error’ isn’t,” but given your evident propensity for inventing absurdities to justify absurdities, it may be a long slog. After all, you could have dispelled these misconceptions with a little foray into any of a number of authoritative usage guides, and you haven’t done so.

      To start with, it is true that infinitives in English are one word; that word, however, does not include to. The to is a particle that is used before infinitives in specific cases; it is a holdover from the Old English “inflected infinitive,” a special form of the infinitive that was used to express purpose. The regular infinitive in English lost any distinctive inflectional markings in the Middle English period and has come to us as a bare root form. It doesn’t function as in Latin. But why on earth should it? Latin is a very different language. Not better, not worse, but quite different. I have three articles on this site explaining the matter in further depth: “Whoever tells you to always avoid splitting infinitives is wrong,” “What’s the reason to not do it?” and “To be a preposition or not to be a preposition.”

      Secondly, there is also no rule against starting sentences with conjunctions. In fact, it’s time-honoured in English; indeed, such usages are enshrined in the King James Bible. Nor does it do any damage to the language. You are here simply trying to enforce your own sense of tidiness, without regard to the nuances that may be produced by different flows; you are following a pseudo-rule that was invented during the Modern English period by people who thought English needed to be “improved.” You need to read more widely and attentively; your suggestions (without specific examples, however) are evidence of a tin ear, or at least one that lets itself be overridden by a counterproductive compulsion to enforce specific order. Read “Why? Because it’s a complete sentence” for more on how it’s inconsistent to proscribe some kinds of thematic connectors and not others.

      When it comes to prepositions, you truly are all at sea. I find it funny that you justify your insistence on a needless adherence to an abstract imposition by saying the language would otherwise become needlessly abstract. There is actually less, not more, consistency in insisting that prepositions, and only prepositions, be raised syntactically with their complements. For raising is what is happening – the noun phrase complement of the preposition is being raised to a place earlier in the sentence, where it is converted, merged, or deleted, depending on the specific structure. A deletion for economy is no particular problem in English: “He knows it better than I” deletes the verb, but I have yet to hear any grammar grumbler complain about it. Nor is raising by itself an issue: “You’re the one that I want” moves the complement of the verb up and merges it with the relativizer (that) but no one complains about the verb not being moved with it. Strange that a person should think that a verb may be separated from its complement but a preposition may not be.

      Of course, in some languages – French, for instance – the prepositions do get moved; this is referred to in linguistics as “pied piping” – the noun phrase is like a pied piper getting the preposition to follow it. In effect, the preposition is subservient to the noun and is functioning as an external marker of inflection. English is not French; in English, prepositions are well established as separable from their complements. Our syntax is more modular and flexible in that regard. You may have been raised in an environment where arbitrary limitations to the expressive power of the language were made in order to follow a misguided sense of tidiness based on a misanalysis of the language, but that is quite insufficient as a case to justify imposing your unnecessary limitations on the great majority of English speakers, or declaring flat wrong many of the most respected authors in the language.

      Please do at least take a course in the history of the English language and one in syntax (I have a brief introduction to the latter subject in “How to explain grammar“). Your eyes will be opened, if you let them be, and you will stop saying things that have no basis in established English usage and reflect a woeful misunderstanding of how the language works.

      Now, repeat after me: language rules exist to serve communication, not the other way around.

  8. Your advice doesn’t help my students, who are grappling with learning English that is acceptable to employers and have been crippled in their basic educations by progressive theories so that employers reject them. Perhaps you think it is clever to suggest that students who have trouble competing with Ivy League graduates should thrive on messy English. In fact, you and the educators who agree with you cripple students from less-than-elite backgrounds. There is a vicious elitism in your and related progressive education theories which I struggle to combat. I notice that your own writing does not violate Grammar Girl’s rules. Hypocritical theories like yours have victimized my students, and I can’t help but suggest that your ideas are self-serving and bigoted. I’m willing to bet that your own children won’t be crippled the way the New York City school system has crippled my students.

    • It’s odd that you seem to think I endorse anything-goes approaches to teaching English, since that’s quite opposed to what I’ve said in this article and in the many other articles here on Sesquiotica. In fact, a point I stress repeatedly is that in order to use English well, you have to know exactly what effect a given usage will have in a given context. That also means knowing how “proper” English works, and what you can and can’t do – or, more exactly, what will produce good and bad effects – in its various versions: formal speeches, business communications, school essays, disquisitions on English usage on a blog, etc. It is very important for students to learn what kind of English employers will expect of them and how it works. It is also very important for them not to learn misconceptions about it that will limit their ability to express themselves.

      You may lack faith in your students’ ability to grasp subtle distinctions of usage. I certainly do not. (It is strange that you, who have an apparently lower estimation of their perspicacity than I have, would call me bigoted.) If you find that they question simplistic generalizations and rebel against arbitrary strictures, that is evidence that they are thinking and that you are not teaching them well enough. If you teach them baseless or overly rigid rules, you might as well teach them that grammar was handed down on golden tablets by Santa Claus – the moment they see that something you’ve told them does not match reality, they are likely to disbelieve the rest.

      And while we may justifiably question educational policies that give students the idea that anything goes, we should also question any approach that tells them that the version of English that they associate with their home and family and culture is garbage, useless, wrong. Small wonder that they would rebel against that! Such an approach is like saying “Your parents and friends and role models are idiots.” What they need, rather, is to know how to navigate the different levels of English that different contexts demand so that they know that they speak one way with friends, another way at home, another way at church, and another way in the world in which they seek employment – indeed, you’re teaching them what is almost a foreign language, and it will look more appealing to them if they see it in that light (like learning German to get a job in Germany) than if they see it as a tool of oppression and denial of identity by a culture that many of them already strongly resent and mistrust. When they understand that they control their linguistic destiny by knowing what kind of English to use where, and knowing how it works and how they can adjust the subtleties of the language in any context, then they will more likely be motivated to use “proper” English and will see how to use it most effectively in any context.

      It will help, naturally, if you have a suitably detailed and nuanced understanding of how the language works and how people use it. I encourage you to take some linguistics courses, especially in sociolinguistics but also in syntax. Without that level of knowledge you’re like a person teaching mechanics who has never taken apart and reassembled an engine.

      Another thing you need to teach them, of course, is how to read carefully and think critically and respond responsibly. In that, they will follow your example. Which means you need to start setting a good one.

  9. Thank you for fighting to maintain that linguistic rules are meant to serve communication. So many teachers become too set in their rules that they forget the whole point of speaking/writing– to communicate. I thought it was hilarious when nrom3881 tried to lecture you on the rules. It was clear that he/she has not picked up a usage guide in the past twenty years. I was especially surprised at the way he/she clings to the rule of not splitting infinitives. “To boldly go where no man has gone before,” versus “to go boldly where no man has gone before,” clearly shows why we should be allowed to break the rules in order to create flow. I also have a problem with Mitchell’s post. He is the more bigoted between the two of you, but your viewpoint is also problematic. You are telling him, an educator, that he does not have the proper knowledge of linguistics to teach his students how to write, but you are overlooking the fact that his students could not possibly have that level of knowledge either. So, if they can’t understand the nuances of syntax and language, then they cannot possibly read and write the way you suggest. I agree with most of what you say Sesquiotica, but you must open your mind to understand that everyone is not as intelligent as you are, and those people must write to attain jobs too. The way I have always explained it is this: rules are for the people who can’t be writers. The rules help them avoid mistakes and maintain clarity, whereas the rules might get in the way of a writer who is trying to express something in a certain way. It all comes down to one thing. Language is meant to communicate, so the best possible sentence is the one that most clearly states the intended meaning. If someone can express that meaning without the rules, great, but the rules are still needed for all those people who need patterns to maintain clarity of meaning.

    • It’s not that his students need to have that level of knowledge. It’s just that he needs to know enough not to teach them false things and give them inaccurate analyses. You wouldn’t have someone teaching introductory physics or biology without a more advanced knowledge of the subject – or you shouldn’t, anyway. The same goes with language.

      I know that at the basic level people want simple, clear rules, and we need to start students with fairly straightforward guidelines – I can’t disagree with you on that. It is not too much to ask, however, that these guidelines not be false and ultimately harmful. And there is no such thing as writing without rules. All language has rules, most of which we assimilate and use without being aware of them – though we might be better off if we really were more aware of them. There are also rules of formal English that people do need to learn. It’s quite true that you can’t succeed in many areas of life without being fluent in formal English, and you need to know what is expected in that form.

      But it is equally true that some of the “rules” that some people propound are not rules at all and never have been – are superstitions maintained not by the most respected writers but only by cranks; they are millstones around the necks of learners, ideas that constrain them without improving their writing or making it more viable.

      So start students with the basics of how it all really works and with basic guidelines for formal prose. As they get better at it, teach them more nuanced understandings. But we don’t start people in physics by teaching them phlogiston; we don’t start people in biology by teaching them Lamarckian evolution; we don’t start people in astronomy by teaching them geocentrism; we therefore should not start people in writing by teaching them fake rules that bear scant resemblance to the writing of anyone you would want to read – or hire. Those fake rules stick. The most elementary rules you teach people are the ones they cling to for life. I’ve seen this over and over. Those elementary rules had better be real rules.

      A person who is teaching a subject needs to know how things work in that subject. Then he or she can make appropriate judgements as to what level of nuance the students at hand can handle. Start them simple and clear, yes, and then move on. But, as the doctors say, primum non nocere. First do no harm.

  10. “language rules exist to serve communication, not the other way around.” well said.
    All the hotheaded, reactionary grammarians in the world are hilARious. just as you wear attire appropriate to the event, presumably most would understand there is a broad spectrum of acceptable language usage. I think intent is the key, though. just writing badly because you DON’T know what “rule” you may be breaking is far less sexy than purposely lowercasing your i’s in a poem because you know you can.

  11. Oh my God, you’re all a bunch of SNOTS! You people need to get laid… There, I wrote something,.. now go and mindfuck it for the next ten hours. Freaks.

  12. I beg to differ. I think Grammar Girl used her own “mistake” as a teachable moment. She has a sense of humor; she knows what she’s doing. She has, in other podcasts, addressed other nonstandard and colloquial terms, and she freely admits that there’s not one way to say anything. As a copy editor, I try to read and listen to all grammar related books and podcasts that I can get my hands on. (Or “on which I can get my hands.”)

  13. Reblogged this on Tech 'n' Edit and commented:
    An education in linguistics seems very beneficial. I’ve always like the term “language arts.” Guidelines for grammar, and other aspects of the English language, is necessary. We can’t all go around making up the rules as we go along! However, flexibility of these guidelines are also a must. English is, as James pointed out, is a crazy language with a lot of turns and twists. Grammar Girl, I think you’ve tried your best to answer all of English’s idiosyncrasies — it’s just not meant to be.

  14. Grammar Girl, in my estimation, strikes the right balance between descriptivism and prescriptivism. Nothing will ever change the fact that some common usage patterns just sound “wrong” to the large majority of influential, powerful, wealthy speakers of English; you defy their intuitions at your own risk. But Fogarty is very good at puncturing longstanding usage myths; she is almost always on the side of expressive, clear writing against overcorrection and pedantry. I take your point here — “that’s where it’s at” is clearly appropriate in some circumstances. But it’s also inappropriate in some circumstances, and the line between them is sometimes fine indeed. In cases of uncertainty, conflicting rules, or widespread disagreement, Fogarty errs on the side of caution, and I think she’s right to do so.

    So I really don’t think the comparison to “Touch nothing”/”Don’t touch anything” is very good*. Neither of those phrases runs afoul of any pedantic rules (as far as I can tell), but “that’s where it’s at” does. If you’re writing formal or even semi-formal prose — the register Grammar Girl writes in, I think — it makes sense to err on the side of caution.

    *However, that is a wonderful example of the kind of nuance you’re talking about, and I plan to steal that example for my writing class!

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