If you’re not from the West coast you may not know that IT’S-IT is the name of a delectable ice cream treat created in 1928 when, according to the company’s web site, “George Whitney began what is now a San Francisco tradition. He placed a scoop of vanilla ice cream between two large old-fashioned oatmeal cookies and then dipped the sandwich into dark chocolate.”
I like the taste, texture, and high treat value of IT’S-IT as well as the next gal. But what I really love about IT’S-IT is that its [not it’s] creator knew where to put the apostrophe in the name, thus demonstrating that an early 20th-century ice-cream maker knew more about grammar than many self-proclaimed and professional writers of the early 21st century.
(Disclaimer: The rant part of this has nothing to do with ice cream.)
I will admit to always having been a bit of a grammar and usage prude, which is, perhaps, why I enjoy copy editing. But “proper usage” is something about which I feel a bit ambivalent. (Or, in more relaxed parlance, that I feel ambivalent about.)
Since jumping into the world of self-publishing and blogging, I have thought a lot about the responsibility of writers to adhere to grammatical standards. I fully understand that languages are living things. What’s accepted as correct today may fall out of use and be seen as archaic 100 years from now. New ideas, new technologies, new ways of thinking come into being and beg for new terminology and new ways to use words.
However, I don’t believe in a language free-for-all. I have seen enough poorly written [not poorly-written], error-riddled copy to know that a writer serves no one when he or she [not they] can’t put together a sentence that makes no sense. But making sense is the least I expect. Professional writers—whether publishing on their own or through a more traditional publishing route—have an obligation to uphold the minimum standards of their times. Or, if they are going to break a rule, they ought to do it knowingly and for good reason.
I understand that blogging is different from producing a finished piece of work, so I shouldn’t be too disturbed when I find grammatical errors in blogs. (I’m sure I could find a bunch of typos and some grammatical mistakes even on—gasp!—this very blog.) But I am disturbed by grammatical errors.
Education through osmosis
One of the problems is that people sometimes don’t know what they don’t know. I was lucky enough to study writing in college and graduate school and to have been introduced to the mother of all language guides, “The Elements of Style.” However, most of my knowledge about grammar and usage I absorbed from reading well-written books. This is one of the reasons you must read well-written books in order to write well—and it’s one of the few cases where you can succumb to the dream of obtaining knowledge through osmosis. Read enough well-written books and your ear will know proper usage from improper, even if you can’t explain the rules.
I read “The Hunger Games” during my week of vacation. I found it a real page turner, but I can’t say the language was scintillating. It served its purpose to advance the plot and paint a picture of the characters. Nothing wrong with that. However, I found more than a few grammatical errors (this was in the Kindle version, not the printed version, but still, it was disappointing).
How, I ask, will the learn-by-reading approach survive if current writers don’t make sure their books adhere to some level of “correctness”—however that is defined?
A few good sites about good grammar
My plea to all writers out there who consider themselves professional: pay attention to the language. Even when you’re blogging. Hold your books to a higher standard. If you’re unsure about something, visit a grammar site and try to get your questions answered. Or just spend some of your spare time reading about grammar. Then reward yourself with an ice-cream treat.
If you think your grammar and usage are perfect already, well, I hope it you’re right, because you’re training the fiction writers of the future.
- The New York Times FAQ on Style – A one-time compilation of frequently asked reader questions.
- Grammar Girl – I love the name, but she (?) is actually a member of the Quick and Dirty Tips family (which also, interestingly, includes Legal Lad and the Math Dude. Hmmm… a bit o’ sexism here? Why not Math Gal and Grammar Guy?)
- 50 Best Blogs for Grammar Geeks – Tip of the hat to them; I found some of the ones listed here through this exhaustive list.
- Motivated Grammar – The tagline says it all: “Prescriptivism Must Die!”
- Language Log – More than just grammar, with multiple contributors.
- Terribly Write – Focused on Web sites. I did a double-take on the entry for April 12 (“fewer” vs. “less”) because it’s something I thought I knew and realized I didn’t understand fully.
- The Chicago Manual of Style Online – By subscription, but there is a free Q&A section.
- Arrant Pedantry – Like Motivated Grammar, this one is written by a doctoral student in linguistics.
That should be enough to get you going. If you find others you like, comment and let me know.
I don’t seem to be able to remember to update on the designated days, Wednesdays and Sundays, so here we go, a day late. I have started tracking word count since April 1. Through my vacation and my period of malaise I managed to add 2,883 words to my manuscript in a little less than two weeks. That doesn’t put me at exactly the rate I’ll need to get to 90,000 by June 30, but some progress is better than none.
Audrey, it drives me batty what people do with apostrophes and numbers. That’s my big grammar pet peeve. Like 80’s instead of 80s when referring to the decade. I love that the old ice cream maker got his apostrophe right!
I am so with you on ’80s vs. ’80’s (I do use the apostrophe before because it’s something of a contraction… hope that’s right!)
I’m pretty sure the apostrophe in front is good. I tend to drop it but the apostrophe at the end makes me see red. Maybe that’s why I drop it actually. 😉
Love your blog Audrey, and this piece in particular. Not to mention that Terribly Write and Grammer Girl are always in my bookmark lists. Considering the topic, I do have to ask…did you really mean to say “…a writer serves no one when he or she [not they] can’t put together a sentence that makes no sense.” Somehow, I think not, but considering the amount of painkillers I’m on (foot surgery on Friday), I can’t be sure. As a knowledge base writer, I have no difficulty putting sentences together that make no sense (though that is rarely my goal, except on April 1st each year).
It does remind me of a pet peeve regarding the Americanized version of “I couldn’t care less”, with apologists and linguists alike trying to justify its modern morph to “I could care less”. Really? If you could care less, then why don’t you?
OK, off to eat the last It’s-It in the house.
Well, perhaps I wasn’t being as clear as I might have been (this is a blog, after all, not a carefully edited and proofread manuscript :-)). I was merely trying to point out the awkwardness that ensues when you start a sentence with the singular and end it with a plural… “a writer…they.” I usually just try to make the first instance plural to avoid the whole “he/she” business. Many people don’t even pay attention to it and it’s one of the things that bugs me.
I’m impressed that you have It’s-Its in the house!
Wonderful post. I learned relatively little grammar from formal schooling. My understanding comes from the way my own family spoke and from reading – as you suggest. I thoroughly agree. I’m sure I don’t do everything right, but at the same time, I see enough that I know is wrong to really make me wince sometimes. I’ll have to check out those grammar sites.
I have kids who are being taught grammar now in school and they occasionally ask me something about a part of speech or a particular rule, which they think I ought to know because of what I do. I usually have to tell them that I have no idea! (I’m sure this is not very motivating for them to study, but that’s another story…)
My favourite post of the year so far! I drive my family crazy with my punctuation passion – we’ll be walking or driving somewhere, and suddenly I’ll give a great big huff, and my husband says: ‘Oh, right, where’s there an apostrophe missing now?’
I can’t help it – and it does matter. I even punctuate all my text messages. OK, a little sad perhaps…
I love that you punctuate text messages… so do I! I just can’t help it.
What a refreshing post! Also, I appreciate the list of credible grammar sites. All of this is great information to share and to keep, another rarity. I look forward to following your blog.
As for your word count total, 2,883 words written say much more than any words within one’s head or so I always say.
Again, enjoyed your post.
Thanks, glad you enjoyed it. And I really enjoyed your recent blog post, which I just checked out. What a blessing that you can appreciate the gifts of your non-human companions.
Thanks for writing this. And for a rant, it is verrry forgiving and understanding! What a great combination of graciousness and high standards.
Thanks, I must polish my ranting skills, then :-).
Thanks for mentioning Terribly Write! The writers and editors at Yahoo provide the fodder for the blog, which attempts to entertain and inform using their writing as examples of what not to do. It’s a snark attack on professionals who should know better and the company they work for.
I definitely don’t envy daily news writers, having started out myself in weekly newspaper journalism when you still had to do layout with wax and rollers. Quick turnaround and all that. But much of what you point out in Terribly Write doesn’t seem to be due to haste! Here’s hoping we all can learn from others’ mistakes.
Of course, all of us reading this are now wondering just how many mistakes we’ve made in our own blogs…
But you report on an important issue. Thanks for the links–always nice to have more resources. I have finally decided to do away with the word “whom” on my blog. Many writers are claiming it’s passe, and at the risk of sounding hoity-toity, I’m ignoring the whom-who rule (on my blog). But in a novel, I’ll likely still use “whom” where appropriate–except in dialogue. Obviously, few people talk like that…
I’m prepared to be much more forgiving of blogs. Also, I find it’s a little like the good-looking friends rule (which says that one’s friends are always much better-looking than the general population). In this case, I’m much more forgiving of my friends’ blogs, so you are safe.
You’re right about who/whom and I like your willingness to be relaxed about it on the blog while preserving it for novels. Sometimes I find myself tripping all over my fingers on the keyboard to avoid having to make just such decisions.
Thanks for the link. One minor correction, though: I’m just a master’s student, not a doctoral student.
But you seem so authoritative 🙂 Thanks for the correction. I certainly wouldn’t want to press anyone into years more of schooling if they weren’t prepared for it. And thanks for a great site.