Not Just Another Grouchy Grammarian

Musings about language, books, grammar, and writing in general

Archive for the month “February, 2013”

Required Reading

First, a bit of administrivia: A “Required Reading” post will be about a book (or books) I think is noteworthy, and want to pass on to others. Your Grouchy Grammarian is nothing if not an avid reader.

Also, if you all have any books you want to recommend to me, please feel free to do so. I totally acknowledge that the list of books I want to read will a) never be finished, and b) can always use additions.

Oh, and I apologize for being a day late with this entry. I plead being brain-dead from cold medications for much of Saturday.


I can think of no better book to start the “Required Reading” series than the one I am currently reading, Dick Cavett’s 2010 book, TALK SHOW.

TALK SHOWI had picked up the book, on loan from my local library, as something to dip into before falling asleep. I should have known better. I have not slept. I have only stopped reading to type this column.

I am old enough to vaguely remember Mr. Cavett’s talk shows. My mother and I were avid fans of his, pegging him as being among the more literate and intelligent talk show hosts of the era. We were genuinely sorry when his how ended, but lost track of him after that — not surprising, given that we were busy living our lives.

However, a friend on Goodreads recommended the book, so I reserved it at the library.

I’m glad I did.

The first essay in the book, “It’s Only Language,” dates from February 4th, 2007, but will still ring true for those of you who consider themselves language lovers. His other essays are equally fascinating, dealing with a wide variety of subjects related to his show, some of the celebrities who appeared on it, his columns for The New York Times, and reader reaction to those, his analysis of the television show, The Sopranos, and tidbits about himself.

It’s written in the wonderfully chatty style that both Mr. Cavett and Johnny Carson (for those of us who are old enough to remember them) brought to the screen, which makes for great reading. It’s intelligent, literate, pointed (on occasion), and totally disarming.  Small wonder that so many people felt comfortable baring themselves on camera when he was the host.

Anyway, this is a wonderful book, with a lot in there for those of us who love language, and I highly recommend it.

What are some of your favorite writing, reading, and language books?

Most of us who play with words, whether for a living or for fun, love books about words, about writing, and about language. From the grammar books we grew up with, to the histories of language tha pique our interests, we are, indeed, “people of the book,” although the “book” in question may vary.

When it comes to writing, my go-to book is The Chicago Manual of Style, followed closely by Lawrence Block’s books on writing, by the Writers’ Digest series of writing books, and by almost any book that explores how English developed.  I also love books about journal-keeping (whether online or on paper).

Since I have read most of the books *I* have found on the subject, I am asking my readers to let me know what some of their favorites are, so that I can hit the library (my favorite resource of all) and expand my knowledge base. I know that a lot of the books we lean on for our grammar depend on what was being taught as we were growing up, and I also know that grammar has changed since I was a young’un.  Therefore, I am primarily interested in seeing what books are being taken as grammar gospel by those whose schooling was after mine (I graduated high school in 1970).

What books are your touchstones when it comes to grammar, language, writing and reading? What books would you recommend to someone trying to learn more about English and how it developed? What is your favorite reference resource?

Sigh – I HATE Political Correctness

Your grammarian is particularly grouchy this morning.

I was reading the current issue of Time (which had finally dried out enough that it could be picked up without falling apart)  when a small “sidebar” type article caught my attention. Written by Katy Steinmetz, the article is about how states are trying to replace gendered language with gender-neutral terms.

It’s an interesting article, and the comments are kind of amusing, but…. We have not been able to come up with a genderless third person pronoun (I tend to prefer”Heesh”; others use “zir”). To me, that would be much more effective than the traditional, but somewhat cumbersome, “he or she.”  However, the legislatures trying to deal with this issue seem to think that using “he or she” (alternated with “she or he”) is a relatively easy fix. What they are having problems with are words, like “manhole,” “penmanship,” and “ombudsman.” They have come up with fixes for “penmanship” (“handwriting”) and for “ombudsman” (“ombuds.”), but are somewhat stymied over what to do with words like “airman” and “manhole”.

To me, this is almost as stupid as the insistence back in the 1970s that women needed a separate language. Is our language sexist? Yeah, it is. Then again, our society is still sexist to a large degree. Will changing the language to a more gender-neutral one change that? I don’t think it will do a lot – at least not in our lifetimes. Yes, the language you use informs the way you think. But I think that if a society really becomes less gender-biased, the terms that are needed will develop naturally, rather than being legislated into effect. After all, changes in language did little to improve bigotry – it just meant that people gave lip service to equality, while thinking whatever they thought before.

Then again, I think that much political correctness, like much diversity training, is bullshit engendered by those with good intentions. When I worked for $MajorFinancialServiceFirm, they were really big on diversity training, but the upshot of most of it was that there are certain things you can be sued for publicly admitting to, and it would be nice if you didn’t do or say those things, so we don’t get sued for millions of dollars. The haters still hated, regardless of how many seminars or workshops they attended, and those who didn’t hate were forced to spend hours of time that could be better spent doing their jobs in seminars that they were already well beyond in terms of actions and feelings.

And, I don’t notice them making a fuss over words like “charwoman,” “nanny,” or “cleaning woman.” I guess it’s only male-gender-specific words that matter enough to these people, which kind of begs the question about how pure their motives are, nu?

How do you feel about political correctness, especially as applied to language? If political correctness in language should, in your opinion, be addressed, what issue would you want to see addressed first? Do you think that using gender-neutral language will have any real effect on how the average person thinks?

Usage Peeve Bingo

Stan Carey, in his blog Sentence First, has a wonderful post about “Usage Peeve Bingo,” including a wonderful bingo card.  Mind, as an American, I would change the square marked “Americanisms” to “Oxford Comma,” but otherwise I think it’s a wonderful idea!

One thing that would definitely be on a “Usage Peeve Bingo” card I would create would be my personal favorite: “As per.” I cannot tell you how many times I have  run into that in business correspondence, and it makes my skin crawl every time. I know it’s common usage, but it’s a redundancy. (It really is.  Look it up.) The proper usage (in business communications, anyway, should be “Per your request…” and not “As per your request….” However, this is one of those errors that people continue to make. In fact, many business people insist that it is the correct usage, and that “Per your request…” is wrong.

As I have said before, I know that language evolves, and that usage changes. But, like many of us, I tend to remain loyal to what the usage was back when I learned to read and write. Then, again, even the way language is taught has changed. I remember parsing and diagramming sentences, which is – increasingly – a lost art. Come to think of it, I also remember that it used to be common practice to double a final consonant (see “diagramming” in the previous sentence) when adding a suffix such as “…ing” or “…ed” to a word, which also seems to have largely fallen by the wayside.

So, what would you change on a “Usage Peeve Bingo” card? What would you include? Exclude? Accept as the evolution of formal, written language? Reject?

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