A Grammar Geek’s Confession

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

Forgive me, dear readers: I have sinned against grammar and in thy sight, and, as I might have expected, you’ve caught me. I’m referring to the “Verbs” section of The Atlantic Daily newsletter, which includes a series of four links attached to four (hopefully) sonically pleasing predicates. For example, our February 7 edition:

Valentines vocalized, Earth’s surface visualized, mysteries mesmerize, Rosie rises up.

The problem is that they’re not always, technically speaking, verbs. As one reader, Ruby, explains:

With respect, the phrase “croissants uneaten” contains no verb. Rather, uneaten is a verbal, a verb form that acts as another part of speech. In the phrase “croissants uneaten,” uneaten is an adjective that describes croissants.

Michelle asks for “parallel structure, please”:

While I loved seeing the Verbs section reinstated, I was a tad dismayed when “add up” appeared alongside “unimpressed,” “soured,” and “swiped.”  As a former English teacher, I always impressed upon my students the importance of parallel structure to assist readers in following along, which is perhaps why I found the shift from past to present tense jarring: Why not “Press unimpressed, sugar scientists soured, identity swiped, figures added up”?  I realize there is a slight difference between the phrase “add up,” which connotes “making sense,” versus “added up,” which suggests “tallying.”  Perhaps you should have selected another example since the first three verb forms function as past passive participles (adjectives), while the last is definitely a verb.

And Joseph looks even closer: “Please note that ‘unimpressed’ is an adjective, not a verb.”

It’s true! It’s true! I throw myself upon your mercy. (Being also at the mercy of Merriam-Webster, I have verified that preposition.) But what’s a would-be wordplayer to do? The rules of grammar are many and rigid, the headline-pun options comparatively few. I reserve the right to rebel for rhythm’s sake. I must claim my freedom to conjugate! And, well, it’s the little things in life that keep us going, and on a grim news day something like “press unimpressed” can be too much fun to pass up.

Yea, though I walk in the shadow of stylebooks AP, MLA, and Chicago—though I am passionately pro-Oxford comma; though I get distressed by misplacement of hyphens; though indeed, I too have sometimes wondered if “Verbs” would be better titled “Past Participles”—I am only a writer and only human, and I persist in doubt.

As my colleague Joseph knows after fielding my not-so-correct attempt to correct him, I still have trouble understanding how the phrase “to jibe with” can reasonably signify agreement. My editor, Chris, can attest to my habit of putting commas in places where they are unwelcome, if not strictly prohibited (it’s for the musicality, I have oh-so-earnestly told him). And I know that it’s frowned-upon to start a sentence with “and” or follow a semicolon with “but”; but there are times when for reasons of cadence or tone it just feels right to do it. I know that “but it sounds good!” is not much of a logical argument for anything—but such is the logic to which I bow, time and time again.

I blame my education for the crisis of faith. In college, I divided my time between copy-editing jobs and creative-writing workshops, developing equal reverence for protocol and for experimentation. I also earned a degree in literature, which means I am now well acquainted with the glorious multitude of things one can do with the English language, extremely skilled at overthinking the meaning behind a particular comma, and—when it comes to my own writing—desperately confused. Forget grammar-Nazism: Communication is a kind of social contract, and there’s an egalitarian rightness to holding all writers to the same standards. On the other hand, isn’t language shaped democratically by those who use it? And art is a meritocracy anyway, and creativity means pushing limits, and where’s the danger and joy and intuitive magic in playing strictly by the rules?

I like to think I’m not alone in all this agita. So tell me: Are you a grammar geek who takes occasional guilty pleasure in splitting infinitives? Do you dare to dangle prepositions? Are your serial commas (however you feel about them) selectively enforced? Send your copy confessions my way: hello@theatlantic.com.