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Remember when Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots and Leaves was the big thing? Surely you remember the heady rush when our society realized it was alright to publicly shame someone for their grammatical, punctuative, or spelling errors because a humourously mean British woman said it was, right? I sure do, because it was this blossoming of societal unpleasantness that definitively kicked me off the rolls of peevers and into my current role as a shamer of the shamers.

If there was anything new about Truss’s book, it was the philosophical stance of Zero Tolerance toward errors. Sure, previous writers had been intolerant; reading through Bierce’s Write it Right or Vizetelly’s Handbook or Partridge’s Usage and Abusage will provide ample examples of small errors treated as signs of complete illiteracy. But Truss’s Zero Tolerance policy took off among non-professionals in a way that these previous books hadn’t.

The true indicator of a best-seller is finding it years later in a $1 clearance rack at a used book store. Same with best-selling albums at a record store.

It’s been eight years since Truss’s book hit the scene, and while it’s no longer as prominent as it once was, the Zero Tolerance philosophy remains influential. Witness Kyle Wiens’s post on the Harvard Business Review’s blog from earlier this week. Wiens has started his own company, where he demands that any potential employee pass a grammar test before being hired, regardless of whether the position involves any substantial writing component.

His argument isn’t without merit. Basically, Wiens argues that attention to grammar is an indication of attention to detail in general. Of course, it’s a noisy indicator — especially when he’s hiring programmers, I imagine — but is it any noisier than the fashion-based or etiquette-based decisions that we already expect employers to use in their hiring decisions? If we tolerate employers using whether our shoes are shined or whether we hold the handshake appropriately long as indicators of future job performance, then surely there’s nothing strange about them using our grammatical competence. At least grammar shows up in every interaction, face-to-face or electronic. So if I may damn with faint praise, a grammar test probably isn’t worse than most of the other assessment methods employers use.

Thus I’m not going to condemn his use of a grammar test, but rather his method of using it: he’s an adherent to Truss’s Zero Tolerance approach.

Zero Tolerance might be a valid enforcement approach to matters like murder, where the delineation between “okiedokie” and “not okiedokie” is obvious.* But grammar simply isn’t one of those things, or at least it isn’t when you’re talking about what most people mean when they refer to “grammar”. I think we can all agree that The CEO are mistaken is wrong, but no native speaker is going to say that’s okay. Instead, what Wiens appears to be concerned with is pretty much just spelling, as Geoff Pullum notes. That’s fairly settled if you assume that all test-takers use Standard American English spellings (so no favourite, cancelled, etc.).**

But Wiens undermines his own intolerance in his post, where he uses some “debatable” constructions and includes links on each of them to justify their use. They’re things that any reasonable person ought to know are fine, like starting a sentence with a conjunction or ending a clause with a preposition.

Good for him, I say, but Zero Tolerance doesn’t accept explanations for deviations from its norm. That’s kind of the definition of Zero Tolerance: when confronting a possible error, don’t seek out explanations or rationales, just mark it wrong. There is no excuse that can justify deviation from the norm. Anything less than that is playing fast and loose with the term “Zero Tolerance”. And if we’re doing that, then I’m Zero Tolerance, too, in that I only accept usages that are standard or that can be reasonably justified as a dialectal difference or a reasonable/useful extension of current norms.

A real Zero Tolerancer wouldn’t be interested in the facts that Wiens marshals in favor of his choice; everything is black-and-white. If questions about split infinitives or final-prepositions were on such a test, Wiens would fail. It doesn’t matter that he’s right, he’s justified, and he’s seeking out relevant information to explain his decision-making. These all sound like good qualities for an employee, yet Wiens would be, to the Zero Tolerancer, inattentive and unemployable. Quite simply, Wiens is aware of a grey area even as he’s arguing for a black-and-white view.

Lastly, though it’s downright hackneyed to point out when a Zero Tolerancer makes a mistake, it is at the same time essential. As Dan of Our Bold Hero notes, Wiens failed to put a hyphen in the compound verb grammar test, and he falls into the same unhyphenated trap as Truss did by not hyphenating zero tolerance as a prenominal adjective. Were we Zero Tolerancers, his post would already be in the dustbin.

*: Even this isn’t clear enough, as evidenced by the distinction between murder and manslaughter and the various levels of each. As you might have guessed, I don’t believe in Zero Tolerance for anything.

**: Though in both of these cases, typos and thinkos still happen, and Zero Tolerance is unwilling to forgive this. As a result, employees of a philosophically-committed-to-ZT company will have to waste a lot of time proofreading even the quickest correspondence to make sure that not a single mistake makes it through.

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It was early Saturday morning and I had woken up in someone I’d never met’s guest room. With nothing better to do, and not wanting to wake them with my preferred morning activity of singing along to The Go! Team, I pulled out the ol’ laptop and went off in search of grammatical ranting, figuring that would be a nice silent activity.

It was, but just barely. For it was that morning that I found the perfect grammar rant, and it was hard to keep quiet with the confounding mixture of disgust and glee it created within me.

I knew from the title that it had potential: what I’m hating (grammar edition). It starts off, as you might expect, with the ABCs of grammar rants: ad hominem attacks, belittling, and contempt. The author lists 11 things she wants writers to get through their “very thick and probably misshapen skull[s]”. And, as you again might have guessed, some of these supposedly important errors are neither important nor errors. The first three are:

  1. putting punctuation outside quotation marks (non-standard but acceptable in American English, standard in British English)
  2. using anyways (discussed here; non-standard but grammatical)
  3. using alright (discussed here; standard informal English, reviled by a vocal minority)

It continues like this, with each piece of the advice also containing that trademark prescriptivist viciousness toward people who dare to have a different idea of English than the author does. The point that the author hopes to convey is that writing is — to borrow a phrase from Lynne Truss — a zero-tolerance business. She even makes it explicit at the start:

“Also, don’t give me any horsey about how you’re lazy or in a hurry. If you expect people who read your work to take you seriously, you need to extend them the courtesy of proper grammar. Unless you think your readers are stupid. DO YOU THINK THEY’RE STUPID? DO YOU?”

Strangely, this rapidly escalating castigation is quite nice by prescriptivist standards. Normally, a prescriptivist accuses someone making a grammatical error of being an idiot themselves, rather than merely mistaking their audience for idiots. But it still carries that no-tolerance attitude. Any error is indicative of a moral failing, of being discourteous to, if not contemptuous of, one’s readers. It’s a very common opinion amongst amateur grammarians. But like so many others, including Lynne Truss (who famously left out a hyphen in her book’s subtitle despite railing in the book itself about people who do just that), today’s author has a double standard about these errors. No tolerance for you, but for me, well:

“*Inevitably, there are dozens and dozens of grammar, spelling and punctuation errors in this post. If you email me to tell me about any of them, I will eat your face.”

And there was an update:

“Well, I called it. Spelled a word [grammar, no less –ed.] wrong in the title. If you were one of the exalted few who read this before I corrected it, consider yourself lucky. […] it will probably happen again tomorrow.”

That, unlike all the rest of the post, is a fair position to take: errors are inevitable, and while you must strive to avoid them, you’re never going to be completely rid of them. But in the post itself, the author declares unequivocally that any errors in a piece of writing are discourteous to one’s readers and a tacit insult to their intelligence.

It was this contradiction that made me think that the writer thinks I’m stupid, not the occasional grammar errors. (Errors plural, because there’s another one that I’ll get to in a moment.) I agree wholeheartedly in forgiving errors, because we all make them. I agree as well that editing and trying to minimize the number of errors in your writing shows that you care about what you’ve written and you care about your readers.

But errors are inevitable, and they come from many different sources. Some are from a writer’s ignorance of the standard forms of their language, some are from a lack of careful attention (typos and homophones especially), and some are due to differences of opinion in standard usage between the writer and the reader.

To sit there and paint all grammar errors with a broad brush, as indicators of a lack of intelligence or couth, and then to excuse oneself for the same thing? That’s simply illogical.

To return to the error mentioned above, it’s a particularly detested one — one, in fact, that I’m surprised didn’t make the list of 11 errors. I’ve helpfully bolded the mistake, which occurred in the middle of berating anyways for sounding childish:

“Unless your a Brit, in which case we’re all just staring at your teeth rather than listening to you anyway.”

Actually, wait. Maybe the author is right and errors like that really do show that an author thinks their audience is stupid. That would explain the belief that we would find a Brits-have-bad-teeth joke fresh 13 years after Austin Powers ran them into the ground.

You know how prescriptivists are always on about how kids these days lade their speech with hedges like like or kinda or sorta?  (Of course, adults do the same thing, but that’s neither here nor there.) I wrote about this a while back and, like a moth to a flame, a prescriptivist flew through and commented on the travesty that is kids’ speech today.  Why don’t these dang kids just come out and say things categorically and unequivocally?

Well, if kids will permit me to take up their mantle for a moment, I’ve got to say, the kids are right to do what they do. Prescriptivists don’t hedge nearly enough. Witness Josh Abraham’s open letter to Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation:

[…] you recommend punctuating as follows:

4   Though it is less rigorously applied than it used to be, there is a rule that when a noun phrase such as “stainless steel” is used to qualify another noun, it is hyphenated, as “stainless-steel kitchen”. Thus you have corrugated iron, but a corrugated-iron roof. The match has a second half, but lots of second-half excitement. Tom Jones was written in the 18th century, but is an 18th-century novel. The train leaves at seven o’clock; it is the seven-o’clock train.

*Ahem.*

Therefore, crazy lady who does not practice what she preaches, one has zero tolerance, but a zero-freakin’-hyphen-tolerance approach. Where the bloody blazes is the dang hyphen betwixt “Zero” and “Tolerance” in your stupid title, you daffy bird?!?

This isn’t out of the ordinary for prescriptivists; hardly a month goes by without the Language Loggers pillorying some foolishly certain prescriptivist for breaking the very rule the prescriptivist was trying to impose.  For goodness’ sake, guys, learn how to hedge!  We descriptivists appreciate you making it easy for us to show that your advice is poorly-thought-out, but c’mon — we do like a challenge every now and then.  Offering up such obvious hypocrisy makes it like shooting fish in a barrel.

[hat tip for the Abraham letter to Justin Moss]

***

Also, a dispatch from the “I majored in math and therefore find patterns in everything” portion of my brain: If you’ll be so kind as to direct your attention to the Blogroll to your left, you’ll note that I finally (only, what eight months after the fact?) got around to re-naming “Notes from the Copy Editor” to “Language is the People’s“.  This means that the blogroll now has an unintentional linear separator.  All of the Language Blogs come before “lively” in the dictionary, while all of the Not Language Blogs come after. Unfortunately, this means that it will be very difficult for me to add a new blog to the blogroll if it does not fit this scheme.  I wish I could say I was joking.  Please adjust your blog names accordingly.

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A lot of people make claims about what "good English" is. Much of what they say is flim-flam, and this blog aims to set the record straight. Its goal is to explain the motivations behind the real grammar of English and to debunk ill-founded claims about what is grammatical and what isn't. Somehow, this was enough to garner a favorable mention in the Wall Street Journal.

About Me

I'm Gabe Doyle, currently a postdoctoral scholar in the Language and Cognition Lab at Stanford University. Before that, I got a doctorate in linguistics from UC San Diego and a bachelor's in math from Princeton.

In my research, I look at how humans manage one of their greatest learning achievements: the acquisition of language. I build computational models of how people can learn language with cognitively-general processes and as few presuppositions as possible. Currently, I'm working on models for acquiring phonology and other constraint-based aspects of cognition.

I also examine how we can use large electronic resources, such as Twitter, to learn about how we speak to each other. Some of my recent work uses Twitter to map dialect regions in the United States.



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