Does Grammar Pedantry Perpetuate Ignorance About Language?

Editor’s Note: This article previously appeared in a different format as part of The Atlantic’s Notes section, retired in 2021.

That’s the charge leveled by one reader, J., who responds to my grammar confession from earlier this week by advising me to “battle the misinformed pedantry of the peevers”—and points out a number of ways in which I’m guilty of misinformation myself. But first, two more readers offer their defenses for linguistic laxity.

Knox, a self-described “ambiguity ally,” says her attitude to English was shaped by growing up in a family of dyslexics:

In my younger years, I thought I had missed out on the family superpower. Today, we’ve come to terms with the differences: Acute writing skills are as much of a wieldable power as the extraordinary three-dimensional thinking that can make reading more difficult. But in the name of intellectual stimulation, debate around the importance of grammar and spelling still arises at the dinner table.

My youngest brother has a favorite defense; he likes to define “a word” with a sly smile and a hefty dose of side-eye. “Well. Don’t you know the definition of a word?” (He’ll pause for dramatic effect.) “According to the dictionary,” a stab at my English degree, “a word is a unit of language that functions as a principal carrier of meaning. The purpose of a word is not grammatical accuracy but a mode of conveying meaning. So, if you understood what I meant, then my mastery of language is intact.”

I’ll argue with him in the name of a good dinner debate, but truthfully I can't help but agree. The English language for me is less a network of rules and codes and more a tool for impact. However, the upshot here: It’s always the combination of the two—the codes and the meaning—that will craft the highest-impact message.

George takes a similarly laissez-faire approach:

Years of teaching both English and French as second languages has convinced me that when it comes to usage, the bottom line is getting the message across. All languages (except dead ones) are in a constant state of flux and there is nothing any of us can do about it. It may seem at times that a language is “deteriorating,” but those who are most knowledgeable about language know that no language has ever “deteriorated.” All languages evolve.

I love to quote—perhaps not totally accurately—the inimitable “Mr. Language Person” (Dave Barry of the Miami Herald—retired) who reported an overheard conversation between Eileen and her friend. Eileen was complaining about being unable to go to the church social for lack of a ride. Her friend replied: “Eileen, ’f I’d a know’d you’d a wanna went, I’d a see’d you’d a got to get to go!” This is 100 percent wrong grammatically, but the message comes across perfectly. Why correct it?

But another defense of what I’ve described as “rule-breaking” lies not in rejection of grammatical rules, but in a more precise interpretation. Here’s J., whose point-by point response to my post begins by unpacking Ruby’s critique of the Atlantic Daily verbs:

In “croissants uneaten,” uneaten is indeed a verb—specifically a passive verb—not an adjective. A “croissant uneaten” is a croissant that no one has eaten. That is, the verbal sense is clearly intact.

Although it appears in many of the same syntactic positions as adjectives, uneaten does not meet most of the criteria for adjective-hood (an asterisk indicates that something is ungrammatical):

  • It is not gradable: *more uneaten, *most uneaten

  • It cannot be modified by words like too and very: *very uneaten croissants

  • It doesn’t work with a verb like become: *The croissants became uneaten.

To get a better sense of all of this, compare uneaten to a past participle that has clearly become an adjective, like embarrassed. To be sure, when we’re discussing past participles, the line between verb and adjective is sometimes hazy. All we can do is look at the evidence.

***

I too have sometimes wondered if “Verbs” would be better titled “Past Participles”

The past participle is one of the six forms that every lexical verb has. The title "Verbs" encompasses those six forms. Don’t let a few misinformed peevers cause you to change the name.

In this example

Walking Dead autopsied, croissants uneaten, scare machine terrifies, diva reigns Supreme.

You have what are clearly four verbs. Despite some readers’ desire for parallelism, there is nothing wrong or inelegant about having two past participles and two present-tense verbs.

In this example

Press unimpressed, sugar scientists soured, identity swiped, figures add up.

You have four clear verbs. Does unimpressed straddle the line between verb and adjective? Probably. But isn’t there a verbal meaning there, i.e., that the press was unimpressed by someone or something, that someone or something did not impress them?

***

And I know that it’s frowned-upon to start a sentence with “and”

But it’s not. The “don’t start sentences with conjunctions” is a zombie rule. It has never been an actual rule of English grammar, and it’s easy to find examples of it in all levels of formality, from Supreme Court decisions to essays in The Atlantic to newspaper articles to fiction to social-media posts.

***

On the other hand, isn’t language shaped democratically by those who use it?

YES!

***

So tell me: Are you a grammar geek who takes occasional guilty pleasure in splitting infinitives? Do you dare to dangle prepositions?

With all due respect, this is the kind of stuff that perpetuates zombie rules. It perpetuates ignorance about the way our language works.

There is no “guilty pleasure” in “splitting” infinitives because it has never been ungrammatical in English. And anyway, “split infinitive” is a misnomer, one borne of early grammarians’ attempts to apply the grammatical rules of Latin (in which is is impossible to split an infinitive) to English. A to-infinitive clearly comprises two parts: the infinitival subordinator to and the plain form of the verb. This is clear in sentences like “I need to eat and sleep” and “We could go to the dance, but Cozznester doesn’t want to.” Nothing is being split in a “split infinitive.”

As for preposition stranding: That too has never been ungrammatical in English. Its proscription is another zombie rule, this one borne of an offhand comment by poet John Dryden hundreds of years ago.

When you suggest that splitting infinitives and stranding prepositions is something that only grammar renegades do—especially when you do it in a widely read publication—you’re adding fuel to people's misconceptions (and their nervous cluelessness) about English. There’s no guilty pleasure in doing these things: They’re a natural part of English grammar. There are conventions that formal writing must adhere to. But conflating stylistic conventions with grammar leads people to believe that those conventions are actual rules.

I’m aware that this piece is trying to be light, to adopt a cheeky tone. But people who write about language need to battle the misinformed pedantry of the peevers. They need to strive to show readers how English actually works, not how those peevers want it to work.

Point taken. And gauntlet thrown.

Searching for further insight into stylistic peevery, I followed one of J.’s links to discover Britt Peterson’s 2014 Boston Globe column “Why We Love the Language Police.” Here’s Peterson’s central question:

It’s long been recognized that language is culturally contingent and constantly evolving, rather than being a strict, logical system that can be frozen in its 16th-century state, as [grammarian N.M.] Gwynne would have it.

And yet the enthusiasm with which people read Gwynne suggests that, outside academia, there’s some continuing appeal in being lectured about split infinitives and misplaced apostrophes. In fact, for hundreds of years, English-speakers have reveled in scolding each other and being scolded about language. Gwynne’s little book is just the latest to put the spotlight on an enduring conundrum: In a world where hundreds of millions of people use the language effectively every day, why do so many of us love to hear that we’re doing it wrong?

Proud pedants and peevers come forward: What’s so great about your usage rules? Can you defend against the charge of spreading misconceptions? If there’s no grammatical case against (for instance) a split infinitive, what’s the aesthetic one? Send your best case for conventions to hello@theatlantic.com.