The Grouchy Grammarian: A How-Not-To Guide to the 47 Most Common Mistakes in English Made by Journalists, Broadcasters, and Others Who Should Know Betterby Thomas Parrish
Are you tormented by the lie/lay conundrum?
Do you find yourself stuck between floaters and danglers?
Do your subjects and your verbs refuse to agree?
If so, you're not alone. Some of the most prominent professionals in TV broadcasting and at major newspapers and magazines-people who really should know better-are guilty of
Do you commit apostrophe atrocities?
Are you tormented by the lie/lay conundrum?
Do you find yourself stuck between floaters and danglers?
Do your subjects and your verbs refuse to agree?
If so, you're not alone. Some of the most prominent professionals in TV broadcasting and at major newspapers and magazines-people who really should know better-are guilty of making all-too-common grammatical errors. In this delightfully amusing, clever guide, Thomas Parrish points out real-life grammar gaffes from top-notch publications such as the New York Times and the New Yorker to illustrate just how widespread these errors are. With red pen in hand, Parrish's fictional friend the Grouchy Grammarian leads the charge, examining the forty-seven most common mistakes in English and imparting the basics of good grammar with a charming mixture of fussiness and common sense. All of which makes The Grouchy Grammarian the most entertaining, accessible how-not-to guide you'll ever read.
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The Grouchy GrammarianA How-Not-To Guide to the 47 Most Common Mistakes in English Made by Journalists, Broadcasters, and Others Who Should Know Better
By Thomas Parrish
John & Wiley SonsISBN: 0-471-22383-2
The grouchy grammarian instructed me to tell you at the beginning that he can't teach anybody every individual thing and neither can I, but that we can "damn well" try to hound you into THINKING. Hence I begin with his fundamental rule:
Think about what you're saying- know what it means and where it came from.
Though this rule is general rather than specific, discussion of it gives us the chance to take a sort of overview of our subject. Besides, the principle suffers from such frequent violation, as the grouch likes to say, that it unquestionably belongs among the forty-seven topics: "You can't stress it too much, Parrish!" But too busy to heed it, you say? No time? Well, surely you're not too busy to wish to avoid appearing ignorant in public, are you? And maybe tomorrow, or one day soon, you'll have a boss or a teacher who doesn't believe that mediocre is good enough and will therefore expect more from you. In any case, spend some time with the following examples.
* * *
During a TV travelogue showing the wonders of a Utah ski resort, the commentator informed us that forty years ago "the population had dwindled to 1,000 people." Discussing an incident of urban unrest, an AP reporter noted that"blacks account for 43 percent of Cincinnati's population of 331,000 people." But what else could a population dwindle to or consist of besides "people," since that's what the word means? In each sentence, simply omitting "people" would have taken proper care of things.
The late evening news once declared that a certain luckless convict had been "electrocuted to death." Now that's true overkill, since electrocute means to execute by means of electricity. As the old grouch likes to say, pay attention to what words mean, and if you don't really know, look them up. Don't just take a stab at it. And, as noted above, don't plead lack of time as an excuse.
Don't forget daylight savings time, of course. A columnist commented in the Sarasota Herald Tribune: "Some may question how Daylight Savings Time contributes to the disintegration of our American Way of Life." Regrettably, however, the writer isn't bothered at all by the expression "Daylight Savings Time"; he seems to be using it without thinking about it. He's simply objecting to what he professes to see as the undesirable social effects of "fast time," as people used to call DST.
And what about rate of speed? "The car smashed into the fruit stand while traveling at a high rate of speed." Anybody who has had junior high science or math should remember that speed is a rate, and in such sentences one rate is enough. Merely say "while traveling at high speed." Think! commands the grouch. He also suggests, in his own special style, that you remember what you once knew but have allowed to slip away.
A TV reporter informed us one evening that in 1938 "the country was in the grips of the Great Depression." She didn't mean, of course, that Americans of that era found themselves confined inside some set of giant economic suitcases-grips-but was simply referring to the Depression's strong grasp, or grip. As is often the case, she seemed to be employing a word without really thinking about its meaning-it was just a word. Sober narrators of historical programs dealing with that same era often tell us that something took place "at the height of the Depression." Such a sentence, of course, completely demolishes "Depression" as figure of speech; what the narrators mean is the depth of the Depression.
A Knight Ridder columnist, writing in the early days of the Clinton administration, observed that the president's "softer" management style was "viewed with suspicion by those who don't ascribe to it." But ascribe is a word we use to make an observation about somebody else, and so it must have an object; you could, for example, ascribe softness to Clinton, but he himself must subscribe to a management style, an idea, or anything else.
Several years later, when management style had become the least of the Clinton administration's worries, Rev. John Neuhaus of the magazine First Things delivered himself of a uniquely ghastly comment on the president's personal problems: "It would be an enormous emetic-culturally, politically, morally-for us to have an impeachment. It would purge us" (Washington Post). As my grouchy friend responded, rather in the style of Samuel Johnson, "Americans may well offer profound thanks that we were not simultaneously hit by an emetic and a purge-both ends, so to speak, against the middle. The poor body politic might not have survived such a double assault."
In making points in relation to time, writers often fall into redundancy or even simple silliness. In a profile of the British writer-politician Jeffrey Archer, the New Yorker observed that as a young MP, Archer "seemed to have a promising future ahead of him." NBC-TV in Los Angeles produced a neat counterpart by telling viewers that an advertiser who had used Martin Luther King's "I Have a Dream" speech in a commercial (and thereby had stirred up quite a flap) planned to do more such ads and the audience should therefore "look for more historic figures from the past." That, of course, would be a likely place to find historic figures, just as the future, for everybody, does, reassuringly, lie ahead.
A third member of this group is a photo caption bearing the information that FDR was "rarely seen in a wheelchair during his lifetime." Nor, one cannot resist adding, has the situation changed much since his death. (A curious phrasing often occurs in relation to death. The writer will assert something like "Before her death she wrote her re.ections on changes she had seen during her lifetime." Well, this person could hardly have written these reflections after she died. A writer usually means in such a context "in the last year before her death," "shortly before her death," or something similar.)
The word favorable carries the idea of success, of moving toward a desired result. That's why a radio listener was startled to hear a fuddled disc jockey interrupt his music to warn his audience that "conditions are favorable" for the development of a tornado-favorable, perhaps, from the point of view of the incipient tornado.
"Two people were killed when a U.S. helicopter prepared for search-and-rescue duty crashed accidentally in neighboring Pakistan." Commenting on this tragic incident, the grouch wondered who could have supposed that the chopper might have crashed purposefully.
The arrangement of words in a sentence requires thought, too. You may need them all, but if you don't have them in the right order they will turn on you. Note this example from the Tampa Tribune: "Shortly after 3:30 p.m. Friday, Tampa Fire Rescue officials said they responded to a call from a resident at the Cypress Run Apartments ... who said she heard a child crying after falling from the second-story window." "I see this kind of thing every day," the grouch had written in a snarly little note clipped to the paragraph, "but I have to admire anybody who's falling from a window but still can think about something besides his immediate fate."
A Web entrepreneur who marketed men's shirts embroidered with the words WIFE BEATER, thus offending the operators of women's shelters and the members of women's rights groups, declared that he had hatched this great idea after watching the TV drama Cops, which he said often shows people "in sleeveless T-shirts" being arrested for domestic violence. While shaking his head in disgust at this particular blend of commercialism and folly, the grouchy grammarian snorted that if it's sleeveless it's not a T-shirt, because the name comes from the shape; it's just a plain undershirt or, in some parts of the English-speaking world, a singlet. He conceded, however, that this point probably had not been of much concern to the saddened and infuriated women.
In a discussion of out-of-office U.S. presidents who decided to take up residence in New York, the Times observed: "Former presidents and vice presidents thinking about putting down roots in the Big Apple might do well to read E. B. White's famous essay, 'Here Is New York.' It divides the city into three quadrants" (lifers, commuters, and those who come to Manhattan in search of something). Three quadrants? E. B. White, one of the most urbane and graceful of writers, the creator of the New Yorker's original style and tone, had said three quadrants? A quadrant is a fourth, not a third. How could he have done such a thing? "Is that the Times's error," I asked the grouchy grammarian, "or did E. B. White really say that?" "I can't tell you," he said. "I couldn't imagine that White could do such a thing, but, you know, I was afraid to look it up and find out." I couldn't blame him.
"Over the last five years, the Casino Queen ... has brought 1,200 jobs to this predominately black city of 42,000 people [East St. Louis] just across the Mississippi River from St. Louis." Or, "Hyaline membrane disease is a dangerous condition, found predominately in premature babies." These sentences, one from the New York Times, the other from a syndicated medical column, are hardly likely to confuse a reader, but the grouch nevertheless clipped them. The craftsmanly writer, he would say, prefers predominantly, which pairs with the adjective predominant; predominately he considers a slovenly impostor, since it has no counterpart adjective but is merely -ly hooked to the verb. He sees it as a second-class word.
My friend also detests such scramblings as the substitution of the adverb somewhat for the noun something, as in: "I have long been acknowledged as somewhat of an expert on sleep" (Fort Worth Star-Telegram). You may be somewhat sleepy, but you can hardly be somewhat OF an anything. The Los Angeles Times committed the same blunder in informing us that "polo shirts have become somewhat of an American uniform," and the newspaper supplement American Profile joined in by describing the development of the proposed World War II memorial as "somewhat of a bureaucratic quagmire at times." Even the imparting of colorful personal information cannot cure this error: "I'm somewhat of a student of U.S. Cabinet secretaries. I have a tattoo of Elliot Richardson on my buttocks" (Tony Kornheiser, a columnist). Somewhat sloppy, all those items!
Metaphors and other figures of speech often do not receive the respect they deserve. For instance, a headline in the New York Times says: WRITING ABOUT RACE, WALKING ON EGGSHELLS-that is, proceeding warily in a delicate situation. This is nonsense. The real expression is walking on eggs. The idea is to tread so softly that you avoid turning those fragile eggs into nothing more than useless eggshells. Regrettably, an office supervisor in Texas showed no likelihood of making such an effort. Responding to complaints about his excessive cursing, he fired back with both barrels: "I'm tired of walking on (expletive) eggshells, trying to make people happy around here." Unfortunately, perhaps, even the expletive cannot rescue the metaphor; to save it, the boss needed undamaged (expletive) eggs. Just be kind to metaphors, the grouch likes to say, and they will repay you richly.
A radio news report described a certain government project as an overwhelming failure. But overwhelm means to turn over, to overcome by superior power. You can overwhelm something if you're being successful, but never if you're failing.
Old strong ("irregular") verbs continually cause trouble. Speaking of President George W. Bush's actions in relation to an electric-power crisis in California, an AP writer observed that "Bush has tread carefully." That brings to mind the possibility of a chorus enthusiastically giving us "Onward, Christian Soldiers" with the line "Brothers, we are treading where the saints have tread." Doesn't sound quite right, does it?
Sometimes writers don't seem to have paid full attention to their own sentences. Bringing us up to date on the Dubai Open, a reporter told us that Martina Hingis "overcame some bad moments in the first set, then recovered to beat No. 7 Tamarine Tanasugarn of Thailand in the semifinals." This seems to be setting up a contrast between overcame and recovered, as if the writer meant to say that Hingis suffered or experienced the bad moments and then recovered from them. But, of course, these two words are on the same side of the fence, with the overcoming creating the recovery. It would have been better, probably, to say that Hingis overcame some bad moments to take the first set and went on to drub Tanasugarn in the second (she won it 6-1).
An NPR report on a horrible accident in Nova Scotia included the sentence: "Four schoolchildren were killed when a bus lost control." The bus went out of control, as reporters used to take pains to say to avoid any possible charge of libel, but if anyone or anything lost control, it had to be the driver. The bus, after all, was inanimate.
My friend seems almost to have chuckled, however, over a surprising statement in an advertisement bearing the byline of the president of the National Education Association. "Last month," wrote the educator, "we published 'Making Low-Performing Schools a Priority.'" Extreme conservatives have sometimes seemed to accuse the NEA of such anti-intellectual purposes, but one hardly expected to hear agreement from the president of the organization. "Think about what you're saying," my friend likes to say, "and say what you mean."
A little more thought might have kept the Washington football team's publicist from boasting on the organization's Web page that REDSKINS READ CHILDREN'S BOOKS. And further cerebration might have kept a Washington Post headline writer (for the on-line edition) from declaring: SALVADORANS LOOK FOR MORE VICTIMS. It wasn't that these Central Americans had suddenly turned bloodthirsty-they were simply trying to find survivors of an earthquake.
Those preparing an ad for a Los Angeles store also could have profited from the advice to think and think again; it might have kept them from producing this blaring headline: SLIP-COVERS-A NEW LOOK FOR MOM. One recipient of the mailer noted, "Somebody has a big mama."
One of the best contributions here came from the popular National Public Radio program All Things Considered.
Excerpted from The Grouchy Grammarian by Thomas Parrish Excerpted by permission.
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Meet the Author
A longtime editor of books and magazines, THOMAS PARRISH is the author of a number of highly respected contemporary histories, including Roosevelt and Marshall: Partners in Politics and War; Berlin in the Balance, 1945-1949; and The Cold War Encyclopedia. He also created and edited The Simon and Schuster Encyclopedia of World War II. Parrish lives in Berea, Kentucky.
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