Not Just Another Grouchy Grammarian

Musings about language, books, grammar, and writing in general

Archive for the month “January, 2013”

Another Argument – This Time Over Punctuation

Ah. There is a vicious argument going on over at Linked In. It concerns whether to use one or two spaces after a period. The originator of the discussion, one Shereese , quotes Farhad Manjoo from Slate magazine, who says:

“Can I let you in on a secret? Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.

And yet people who use two spaces are everywhere, their ugly error crossing every social boundary of class, education, and taste.”

Mr. Manjoo’s entire column on this subject can be found here. I strongly suggest reading it, as it is well-thought-into. Unlike the young woman quoting him, Mr. Manjoo looks at both sides of the argument. He notes the arbitrariness of both schools of thought, and discusses the history of spacing, as well as why typographers prefer single spacing after periods.

Like many of us, I learned in school that when typing, one places two spaces after a period. Of course, I learned to type long before word processors and computers were common in offices. I first learned on a portable manual typewriter, then (in college) upgraded to an IBM Selectric typewriter. In fact, it wasn’t until the late 1970’s that the office I was in replaced typewriters — first with word processors, then a year or so later, with computers. And when we got the computers, no one ever said anything about changing how we typed.

A year or so ago, I began hearing that it was no longer considered proper to use two spaces after a period. (And, I note, that I still have not heard about using only one space after a colon.) I have checked with a few friends who are professional proofreaders, and they have told me the following: “It is no longer necessary to leave two spaces after a period because computers are designed to do the kerning that typewriters were not.” However, I have not, until recently, heard people assert that those who use the double space are just plain wrong and ignorant.

Again, the arrogance of the young raises its head — assuming that anyone who does not do things their way is wrong, and deserves derision. The truth is that if you learned to type using the double space, it is probably ingrained in your habits. And, just like any other habit, it takes time to break it and retrain yourself to do something different. Mind, the arrogance of the old is no bargain either. It amounts to, “This is how I learned; therefore, it is written in stone that I am right.” The style manuals are not much help either. Some say that both methods are correct; some favor one or the other.

If you are a professional content provider, I would suggest checking with your clients to see which method they want you to use. You would check the client’s style manual or writers’ guidelines before submitting work, anyway.

As I have said before, language evolves — even formal, written language. And, while I do not like some of the changes, I neither make the rules nor write the style guides. I am trying to ingrain this new convention, since the reason makes sense to me, but after 45 years of using a double space after a period, it may take some time.

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Tales of a Recovering Grammar Snob

by Susan Dennis

I was raised in the 50’s, in the southeastern part of the United States. Rules were everywhere, and those rules were king. According to my mother, breaking a grammar rule was a Class A felony. She never, ever let a grammar error go uncorrected.

“You will not sound ignorant while you are living in this house,” was her battle cry.

When I got to 7th grade and learned to diagram a sentence, I was fascinated to find out that she wasn’t just making stuff up. There really were rules! And they made sense and you could draw them out. I was a lousy student my whole school career except when I got to diagram sentences. If there had been a parsing Olympics, I would have been in the center on that stage every time. My ear and my eye were locked in then and have never recovered. They have not changed with the times, or even relaxed a little. And it’s driving me nuts.

Felonious assaults on language rules these days are everywhere. I’ve seen them in books published by major publishers. I hear at least one a night on the news programs of major networks. NPR stabs my ears with several every morning. I have friends who write and who consider themselves both good writers and knowledgeable about grammar rules, often ignore them. It turns out that people who are paid to write, no longer feel compelled to follow the rules of grammar at all.

The straw that broke this camel’s back turned out to be a blogger I’ve followed for years. I loved what she had to say. Her blog is not about writing, and she’s broken a rule or two over the years, but yesterday, in her first paragraph, I read “…a few cute pictures of Scott and I.” It was like stubbing my toe on furniture – a big ouch.

And I realized as soon as the pain ebbed that the problem is me. I am not the grammar police. I’ve seen and heard enough people make grammar mistakes to know for sure that not adhering to the rules is not a sign of ignorance any more than adhering to them is a sign of genius.

I need to get over myself. I am a grammar snob and I mean that in the most unattractive way. I need to focus on the message and not on the delivery system and quit judging those to whom grammar rules don’t matter.

It’s not going to be easy. I’ve spent a lifetime looking down my nose at people like my blogger friend, but I can do it. I know I can. And, I’m pretty sure the world will not end.

(Susan Dennis is a web producer, living in Seattle Washington. Her interests are knitting, computers, tv, and baseball. She is a web producer, and has an online journal at http://susandennis.livejournal.com/.)

Him or Her?

One of my commenters to another post remarked that her pet peeve was people who use “they” instead of “him” or “her” in writing.

I agree that it would be lovely if English had a gender-neutral, singular pronoun.  It doesn’t, however; so people try to figure out ways to work around the issue.

Sometimes, especially if one knows the gender of the person referred to, one can use the gender-appropriate word.  However, there are times when using “his or her” is the only way to construct the sentence, and there are times when that is just too darned clunky.

When possible, I use that construction, but I am increasingly drawn — at least in casual writing, like a chat room, or in the fannish communities I hang out in — to using “heesh.”  I first encountered this term in the apa (amateur press association) communities that were the way people in sf fandom communicated before computers.  It’s a simple, fairly elegant work-around, and it’s a term understood by everyone in the community.

In formal communication, however, I still opt for the clunkier but correct construction.  It’s like everything else in life:  There are places where changes are appropriate, and places where they are not.  The art of living with a constantly evolving language is knowing which places are which.

If you are amenable to language changing, what fora do you consider appropriate for enacting those changes?  What fora would you *never* bring changes to?  What changes would you consider good and useful?  What changes do you despise?

A Few Thoughts on Writing

My ex and I were in Family Dollar buying some storage bins (I’m reorganizing my living space;  if you are interested you can read about it in my other blog, The Dangling Conversation), and after I swiped my credit card, the clerk said, “And now I just need your autograph.”  I replied that I was more used to signing books than plastic screens.  He asked if that meant I was a writer, and when I replied in the affirmative, he asked how he could improve his writing.  The ex and I asked what was wrong, and he mentioned run-on sentence and a few other things.  He mentioned that he had been told that he needed to read more to be a better writer.

We both agreed that reading was good, but pointed out that the thing to do was to keep writing, and to find someone who could show him how to correct his errors.  We also pointed out a few books he could look at to improve grammar and construction.

I was reminded of Kurt Vonnegut, who said that if he were teaching writing, he would give each student a notebook and a pencil, and tell him or her to go and write until the end of the semester.

I agree that the way to improve one’s writing is, primarily to write.  In that regard, it’s like any other muscle or skill:  the more you exercise it, the more adept you will become at doing it.  And, yes, I agree that the more you read, the more your writing will reflect that.

However, I remain adamantly convinced that any person wanting to be a writer would do well to master the basics of the language he or she wishes to write in.

I know that stories can be compelling, even when they are not written in formal English.  When I was a school aide, the kids would recommend books that I never would have read on my own, and I read them (I I had a deal with them — I’d read what they recommended if they’d read what I recommended).  Invqariably, i found the stories compelling, even while wishing I had a red pencil in hand to correct the grammar (or lack thereof).  I’m not talking about the use of dialect or slang here, by the way.  I can live with those — they often make a character more vivid.  I am talking about plain old-fashioned misspellings and poor grammar.  The stories would have been even more compelling and would have appealed to a much wider audience (in my not-so-humble opinion) had the grammar been better.

This was pointed up to me nowhere more than reading Sistah Souljah’s excellent book, The Coldest Winter Ever.  The grammar was spot on, yet didn’t detract from the story at all; in fact, it made it much more readable.

So, yes, both reading and writing are essential for improving one’s own writing, but so is taking the time (and making the effort) to improve one’s grasp of the basics of grammar.

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