Thursday, June 26, 2014

Stylistic Fetishes

Recently one of my "e-mail pals" (if that's what we have nowadays instead of pen pals) told me about a poetry writing teacher she'd had who banned the words "huddle" and "ooze." I can understand objecting to "ooze" if that word had been beaten to death because she was teaching a horror-themed course, but that wasn't the case. And what in the name of the Great Horn Spoon is wrong with "huddle"? The same instructor also maintained, against all established conversational practice, that books can't sit on shelves, chairs in corners, etc. because only living creatures "sit." Since when?

I've run into several examples of such quirks—"rules" that spring from nowhere, as far as I could tell, insisted on by editors or other writing authorities. One of my editors declares that "stand up" and "sit down" are always redundant and deletes the preposition whenever it sneaks into those phrases. I believe sometimes a legitimate distinction needs to be made between the static position of sitting or standing and the process of moving into one of those positions. Another editor (different publisher) forbids inanimate possessives, holding that only people or animals can support an apostrophe followed by S. That "rule" came as a shock to me, in view of our habitual use of inanimate possessives in casual conversation and numerous literary counter-examples. What about the rockets' red glare, dawn's early light, the twilight's last gleaming, the church's one foundation, Land's End, a stone's throw away, New Year's Eve, and a Midsummer Night's Dream? Yet another of my editors disallows the S on the end of "backwards," a perfectly legitimate word sometimes more colloquially fitting than "backward." In fact, the two words can have a substantive difference in meaning, as when "backward" signifies a lack of mental capacity.

More widespread is the notion that one shouldn't start a sentence with "and" or "but," despite countless sentences beginning with "and" in the Bible and Shakespeare. That "rule" makes no grammatical sense, because these are coordinating conjunctions (not subordinating), so of course they can introduce an independent clause, which can stand alone as a sentence. Like any other stylistic device, starting a sentence with these conjunctions shouldn't be overdone, but it's absurd to shun them altogether. Similarly, by now everybody probably realizes there's no legitimate rule against splitting infinitives in English (that prohibition was borrowed from Latin, in which an infinitive is a single word, as in modern German or French). It's usually best avoided because of awkwardness, but sometimes splitting the infinitive is the only way to construct a smoothly flowing or clearly understandable sentence. Would "boldly to go where no one has gone before" sound as impressive as "to boldly go"?

Too many contemporary American published books contain enough cringe-making grammatical and stylistic errors to occupy us usage purists for a lifetime, without piling on additional "rules" of dubious validity.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

1 comment:

  1. More on the same topic: By chance, I came across this article just today, listing alleged "errors" we shouldn't worry about:

    7 Bogus Grammar Errors

    I agree with most of these points, with the possible exception of the "that" - "which" distinction. I cringe at the sight of "which" used (without a comma) to introduce a restrictive clause (signaled as such by the absence of the comma), especially after following that rule for many years in my former day job as a legislative editor. Such fine distinctions are useful and shouldn't be discarded. And I can't stand "I could care less" as a substitute for "I couldn't care less." That monstrosity should appear in writing only in dialogue spoken by a character who would plausibly use it.