Riffs on Grammar

Back in 2019 I published a rant about how Grammarly was slowly destroying a generation of writers. In the same week, the idea of “Chat-GPT” had entered the conversation. Of course, the original bit about the writing software could use some updating, but the center idea holds true: I would rather be caught with a typo than deliver a vapid bit of writing that barely delivers upon what the headline promised.

The tech has centered us all onto one idea of “correctness” when it comes to language. “We think of English as a fortress to be defended, but I think a better analogy is to think of English as a child. We love and nurture it into being, and once it gains gross motor skills, it starts going exactly where we don’t want it to go” writes Kory Stamper in her book, Word by Word – The Secret Life of Dictionaries.

Dreyer’s English (which I learned a friend of mine had purchased and listened to as an ebook, which I cannot even begin to comprehend) opens with “The Life Changing Magic of Tidying Up (Your Prose”) (his book was written and published in the high times of Marie Kondo and the grand cultural decluttering) where he suggests:

“Go a week without writing

  • very
  • rather
  • really
  • quite
  • in fact

And you can toss in – or, that is, toss out – “just” (not in the sense of “righteous” but in the sense of “merely”) and “so” (in the “extremely” sense, though as conjunctions go, it’s pretty disposable too).

Oh yes: “pretty.” As in “pretty tedious.” Or “pretty pedantic.” Go ahead and kill that particular darling.”

-Benjamin Dreyer, Dreyer’s English

Dreyer’s point: there is a lot of stuff that makes it to the final cut that should have been cleared out by any decent writer. For a while I held myself to the rule of removing every instance of “that” I could find in my writing. 99% of the time, “that” could be removed with no consequence. For the remainder, the sentence could likely be rewritten to exclude “that” and it would read significantly better.

In grade school, when the home computer and Word was starting to make its rounds with the built in “spell check” tool, I remember forgoing the little red lines and correcting my spelling by doing the far less complicated task of hitting “add to dictionary.” The red line disappeared until my teachers underlined the misspelling with a red pen. I remember my dad spending far too much time trying to undo the changes I had made to the dictionary installed on the family computer.

Prepositions can be the end of it

The one steadfast rule generally applied to most early-grammar education is “never end a sentence with a preposition.” This meant a lot of time spent teaching what a preposition was, but not a lot of time explaining why.

In most cases of deletion, the preposition dangles. It is redundant. Other times the wrong preposition is used, or used wrongly. “The train is approaching to the station,” for example. Aloud, you can hear the redundancy.

By and large, keep terms together so we follow you in the right direction.

But for the grade school teachers saying “never end a sentence with a preposition,” where did you get off? Strunk and White’s Elements of Style claims that all commas should be serials and prepositions never conclude sentences. Then again, one should know the rules in order to break them. And the ruling of a preposition is an odd one.

Back to Word by Word, Stamper:

“So where do these rules come from, if not from actual use? Most of them are the personal peeves, codified into law, of dead white men of yore.”

Stamper goes on to cite how the preposition rule started with the 17th-century poet John Dryden. As he grew older, and undoubtedly snobbier, he gained an affinity for Latin – something he thought was “elite and egalitarian” compared to our lowly English.

Being of the Renaissance, Dryden held the classics high. He would translate his English poems into Latin to see how precise they could possibly be, only to translate them back into English with the Latin grammar. And in Latin, prepositions cannot come at the end of sentences (technically, linguistically, it isn’t done). Rinse and repeat over a century of classically trained writers, and you’ve got yourself a rule that needs killing.

Trouble is, Grammarly still highlights prepositions at the end of sentences often to the detriment of unknowing writers.

In today’s world, with today’s language, in a time when there are thousands of new words added to the English dictionary every year, grammar isn’t a measure of correctness or a measure of intelligence. Those who know versus those who don’t. Rather, it is a tool of consistency.

When it comes to legal documents or the literal letter of the law, grammar can sway an entire decision. Of course, precision matters until it doesn’t. A painting doesn’t require a schematic, but we still get the message.