Thursday, December 07, 2017

Stylistic Superstitions

There are a couple of too-prevalent over-corrections often seen in published writing that especially bug me. "Lay" as the past tense of the transitive verb "lay" particularly makes my teeth grind. As in, "He picked up the book and lay it on the table," instead of the correct past tense "laid." It's as if the author thinks "laid" sounds too crude. Likewise, many people overuse "whom" because they seem to think "who" is incorrect everywhere except when clearly the subject of a main clause. The tricky kind of sentence that trips them up goes something like this:

That's the man who I believe robbed the store.

Often someone will write "whom" instead, under the impression that it's the object of "believe." In fact, the object of "believe" is the entire relative clause (of which "who" is the subject). A lucid illustration of this point that I read not long ago rearranges the sentence this way:

That's the man who robbed the store, I believe.

By "superstitions," however, I'm referring to a different phenomenon, usages people think are grammatically or stylistically wrong even though they're perfectly innocuous. By now everybody probably knows that there's nothing evil about splitting infinitives or ending a sentence with a preposition. Those "rules" were invented in the eighteenth century by grammarians determined to make English conform to the structure of Latin.

We still hear stern admonitions, though, not to start a sentence with "and" or "but." As a pupil of the strictest old-fashioned English teachers imaginable, in the 1960s, I never heard of such a "rule." It seems to be a relatively recent invention with no rational basis. "And" and "but" are coordinating conjunctions, used to introduce independent clauses, so there's no reason to forbid them to introduce sentences. And if you want to find numerous examples of such usage, take a peek at the King James version of the Bible.

I once had an editor who insisted the possessive case couldn't apply to inanimate objects. Quite aside from the grammatical fact that the possessive ("genitive" in Latin) has other uses besides indicating literal possession, substituting an unnecessarily clunky "of the" phrase for apostrophe-S with all non-living nouns contradicts both normal conversational English and venerable precedents in formal writing. For example: The dawn's early light. The twilight's last gleaming. The church's one foundation. New Year's Eve. Numerous familiar phrases such as "the year's best books" and "the world's oldest person."

Another editor of my acquaintance had what I consider an irrational objection to "stand up" and "sit down." On the grounds that the "up" and "down" were redundant, she made me delete them everywhere. In many contexts, plain "stand" or "sit" sounds abrupt and/or stilted. When inviting someone to take a seat, we say, "Sit down," rather than barking "Sit" as if addressing a dog. Also, we often need the preposition to distinguish between verbs of position and verbs of action. "Stand up" and "stand there" mean different things. If you write, "She sat on the couch," do you mean she was already sitting there (using the simple past "sat" to avoid the past progressive "was sitting," another construction many people irrationally condemn, with the mistaken idea that it's "passive") or that she was in the process of taking a seat?

Too much contemporary published writing, alas, is riddled with more than enough genuine errors, without muddying the waters of correct style by imposing groundless prohibitions on top of the established standards.

Margaret L. Carter

Carter's Crypt

No comments:

Post a Comment