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Australian philosopher, literary critic, legal scholar, and professional writer. Based in Newcastle, NSW. My latest books are THE TYRANNY OF OPINION: CONFORMITY AND THE FUTURE OF LIBERALISM (2019); AT THE DAWN OF A GREAT TRANSITION: THE QUESTION OF RADICAL ENHANCEMENT (2021); and HOW WE BECAME POST-LIBERAL: THE RISE AND FALL OF TOLERATION (2024).

Friday, February 10, 2012

20 common grammatical problems

This is great! As it happens, I don't get them wrong, but almost everyone else does. I do disagree with one of them: I don't have any objection to the usage of "since" as synonymous with "because", since I think this is now accepted (and used!) even by people who are otherwise very pedantic about such things. ;)

The explanations are very good. I especially like the explanation of the "which"/"that" distinction, which I actually do understand but always find very difficult to explain to others.

Finally, of course, euphony and simplicity trump pedantry. None of the rules set out should be followed when doing so forces clumsy, ugly-sounding, or unclear prose. Then again, they are often violated for no good reason that I can see. I hope all potential writers for the Journal of Evolution and Technology click on the link.

H/T Kenan Malik.


Chris Lawson said...

Actually, Russell, I think he's made several errors. He misunderstood "moot" completely (giving it an opposite meaning), sticks to an incredibly pedantic and essentially useless distinction between may and might while ignoring the important use of "may" to connote permission, and he mixes up stylistic criticisms by calling it them grammatical errors (I happen to agree with him that "impactful" is an ugly neologism, but it is far from the worst one out there [my vote goes to "finessed"], and it is rather pompous to call a matter of taste grammatically wrong).

On the other hand, it is nice to see someone who understands the distinction between uninterested and disinterested, fewer and less, and the proper use of nauseous.

Tony Lloyd said...

I disagree with you about since/because.

I've noticed an increse in the post hoc fallacy since we allowed a confusion of "since" and "because".

Peter Hollo said...

Agreed, Chris. Very very pedantic, and often wrong.
Most of them aren't grammatical mistakes at all - they're confusions of word meanings. Some of them he's right about, quite a few he's just intolerably old-fashioned about, and one or two (as pointed out in the comments) he's simply wrong about.

"Nauseous" for "nauseated" is a fight you've long lost, Dr Claw :P

Russell Blackford said...

Hmm ... I have to admit I read it quickly, so some of these may have slipped past me. Will have another look to see if I agree with y'all on the points you make.

This could turn into a long thread!

Russell Blackford said...

First - yeah, as a lawyer I do sort of agree with Chris about "moot". The more usual sense in which I'd use it is, indeed, something a bit like "superfluous". It really means "of only theoretical importance" (and hence something that a court will not want to decide). I think that legal usage has now penetrated the general language, and perhaps the guy is unaware of this having a perfectly good origin basis.

However, the meaning "open to discussion" or "cannot be assumed" or simply "questionable" or "controversial" also exists in ordinary English. Someone can put forward a proposition that she's relying on, and I can say, "Well, hang on, that's a moot point" ... meaning "Well, you can't just assume that point; it's open to discussion."

Back to other issues laterz.

Russell Blackford said...

Aaagh, typo. Maybe that should say "origin/basis" or just choose one or the other. ;)

Timothy said...


Why is it that people who are so educated on other matters (philosophy, science, politics, etc.) are so ignorant of linguistics? This piece is complete, factless bollocks in which Gingerich asserts, by fiat, that these words are to be used a certain way. Why should anyone care? We do not use most of these words the way Gingerich prescribes, and neither have the best writers of the English language.

See what an actual linguist has to say about the that/which distinction, for example. There is nothing "wrong" with using 'which' in integrated relative clauses. Full stop.

The claims about less/fewer, may/might, farther/further, etc. are also either oversimplified or false. There are fact-based sources of information on these subjects that anyone can check for free - Merriam-Webster's dictionary of English usage is available on Google Books in its entirety. There is no excuse for spreading this misinformation.

People who are unfamiliar with the linguistic facts on these matters should consider a few questions: Take a statement such as, "It is grammatically incorrect to use 'less' with nouns you can quantify."

What would falsify that statement?
What does its truth consist in?

J. J. Ramsey said...

"However, the meaning 'open to discussion' or 'cannot be assumed' or simply 'questionable' or 'controversial' also exists in ordinary English."

Maybe it does where you live, but I've never heard "moot" used that way. I've always heard it used in the sense of being superfluous or of no practical importance.

Russell Blackford said...

Really, JJ. You've really never had someone say, "Hang on, that's a moot point"? If you say so, I accept it, but I find it surprising. I had no problem finding that usage in an American dictionary just now, so it's not a British/Australian thing.

J. J. Ramsey said...

"You've really never had someone say, 'Hang on, that's a moot point'?"

No, never. Every time I've seen "moot point" actually used, it's always referred to something that doesn't matter. Judging from Wiktionary, the other definition of "moot" is described as "UK, or US dated," which seems to explain why I hadn't heard it before.

Russell Blackford said...

I do disagree with him about "may" and "might". I think I just assumed what he was going to say about this one and probably skimmed right over it.

It's "I may go to the movies tomorrow" but "I thought at the time that I might go to the movies." Other distinctions are pretty out of date and no longer widely accepted among editors, etc., as far as I can see. (Of course, there is also the use of "may" where it needs to be distinguished from "can". I.e. it suggests some sort of permission, as opposed to capacity.)

zackoz said...

It all depends so much on usage.

No matter what grammarians say, public usage - the popular vote - moves on, and the rules provided by pedants fall by the wayside.

Remember "It is I" rather than "It's me"? Fowler, a great authority then, years ago argued for the former, now noone says it.

Dave Ricks said...

Like J.J., I've only heard "moot" for something making no difference.

Kick drum on 2 and 4 for emphasis (0:52-0:59) -

You know I feel so dirty
    when they start talking cute
I wanna tell her that I love her
    but the point is prob'bly moot

Svlad Cjelli said...

Both senses of "moot" mean that something should be put aside, as it for one reason or another isn't currently useful.

His stuff on "might" looks an awful lot like a weird stylistic choice. Might is linked by etymology to matters of ability and possibility.

A "fewer" is a "lesser" amount, and a lesser amount is fewer instances.
Enough with that nonsense.

I'm glad he noted that "than" is either conjunction or preposition. Teachers frequently forget or don't have a clue.

"It isn't a real word" peeves me. It's one of the stupidest things to say about linguistic matters.

I approve of the section on irony.

Peter Beattie said...

And of course ‘nauseous’ does in fact mean ‘affected with nausea; sick’. (If it’s the first meaning in the COD, even, any complaint to the contrary is just silly.) Oh, and ‘whether’ does not introduce a condition.

This guy’s rant is just the typical arrogant assumption that one person’s prescriptive beliefs (as they are usually held uncritically) should be normative for the whole world—showing that he actually knows rather little about either semantics or grammar. Another wanna-be language maven hoist with his own petard. (Pinker’s Language Instinct is very instructive in this regard, btw.)