New book for style, usage, and grammar nerds
Who decides whether it's acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition or to use the word "infer" as a synonym for "imply?" Who decides whether the phrase "free gift" is redundant and therefore incorrect, and whether it's proper to speak of a "mutual friend" since "mutual" refers to a relationship between two, not three? Most literate people still want these questions decided for them by some authority, whether H.W. Fowler, the usage notes in the American Heritage Dictionary or the guy in the next cubicle who knows a lot about grammar. This urge for clarity remains despite the efforts of academic linquists and other "descriptivist" grammarians who dismiss the notion of grammatical "correctness" and insist that "rules" are wholly determined by usage.
The trouble with descriptivism -- the idea that the grammarian's job is to describe the language, not to issue judgments about propriety -- isn't that it's theoretically unsound. Rules really are just conventions. The trouble with descriptivism is that it's inhuman. People will always want to know the right way to say a thing.
(Barton Swaim, "Grappling Grammarians," Wall Street Journal, November 23, 2011, reviewing Henry Hitchings, The Language Wars (2011)).
For the record, Mr. Swaim incorrectly characterizes most of his examples as issues of grammar. Except for the one about a preposition at the end of a sentence, they're really questions of style and usage, not grammar. But the book still sounds interesting.
But the couple fears [read fear] they will be forced to close their shelter . . . . (Cindy Horswell, "Homeless shelter trapped between needs and rules," Houston Chronicle, November 15, 2011)
Should couple be treated as a singular or plural noun? The Chronicle's answer is yes. In the same sentence, the verb fears is singular, but the corresponding pronouns they and their are plural.
Couple is always difficult. Logically, it is singular. Logically, we should say couple fears it will be forced to close its shelter. But what is logical is also awkward. Bryan Garner gets it right when he says "the plural construction is . . . far more convenient" (Garner 206).
When Herman Cain began singing "Amazing Grace" (read "He Looked Beyond My Fault") at the National Press Club . . . . (Harry Jackson, "The Churches of Cain and Obama," Wall Street Journal, November 4, 2011)
Lots of journalists mistook "He Looked Beyond my Fault" for "Amazing Grace," which bespeaks both religious and cultural illiteracy. What was amazing about Mr. Jackson's mistake, however, is that he is senior pastor of Hope Christian Church in Beltsville, Maryland. Did he not know? Or did he just take some journalist's word for it? Either way, where was the WSJ factchecker? A blogger at the Houston Chronicle got it right and pointed a finger at those that didn't.