16 Things Grammar Pedants Get Wrong
Pedants are always telling us about the “grammar mistakes” we all make, such as saying “nearly unique” or using “impact” as a verb. But the pedants are wrong.
1. "Anticipate" can mean "expect".
The use of "anticipate" to mean "expect" drives grammar pedants insane. Instead, they say, "anticipate" should be used to mean "acting in expectation of".
"Anticipate does not mean expect. Jack and Jill expected to marry; if they anticipated marriage, only Jill might find herself expectant," says the Economist style guide, sounding pretty pleased with itself. Daniel Hannan, the Telegraph blogger and Conservative MEP, once complained about the great pioneer of linguistic science Noam Chomsky using the word "wrongly".
But who gets to say what the correct meaning of an English word is, if not the people who use the English language? Academic linguists who study the way the language is used have found that native speakers and writers of English – including some of the greatest writers in the language – have been using "anticipate" to mean "expect" for centuries. Oliver Kamm, author of the newly released Accidence Will Happen: The Non-Pedantic Guide to English Usage, says that "anticipate has long had the sense of 'expect' as well as 'forestall'", and points out that Charlotte Brontë ("Do you anticipate sentiment, and poetry, and reverie?") and H.G. Wells both used it like that.
2. "Between you and I" is completely fine.
This really grates on some people's nerves. Usually, pronouns after a preposition take the "object case", so we write "between us" (not "between we") and "under him" (not "under he"). By analogy, most people prefer "between you and me".
That's fair enough, but "between you and I" isn't wrong. It's been used for centuries – Kamm notes the line "all debts are cleared between you and I" from Shakespeare's The Merchant of Venice – and is still used by educated speakers of the language (Kamm quotes Barack Obama saying "Between Michelle and I..."). It will jar with some people, and is probably worth avoiding in formal writing, but it is simply not true to say that it's wrong.
"Though pedants denounce this phrase as a barbarism, it's perfectly grammatical and has a long tradition of usage," says Kamm. "The mere fact that lots of fluent English speakers make this 'mistake' show how unreasonable is the sticklers' denunciation of it."
3. "Bored of" is also fine, although it's quite new.
You can't be bored of something, say sticklers. You can be bored by it; bored with it; bored near it, perhaps. But you can't be bored of it.
The prepositions that follow a verb are largely arbitrary. You can be "tired of life", but very few people would say "tired with life". One can be "worried about", but not "worried around". No one would ever have to tell you that it was wrong, you just wouldn't say it. There's no logical reason for these conventions; it's just how the language has evolved.
Until fairly recently, "bored of" was just as ungrammatical. But it's become more common in recent years, and will, Kamm believes, be entirely standard and unobjectionable soon.
"You can be tired of something and you can be wearied of it," says Kamm. "You can assuredly also be bored of it."
4. There's nothing wrong with "comprised of", despite that Wikipedia guy's opinion.
A Wikipedia editor made headlines recently for having made 47,000 edits to the website, almost every single one to change the phrase "comprised of" to "comprises" or another alternative. Grammar sticklers everywhere applauded his efforts. But "comprised of", as the Merriam-Webster dictionary points out, has been in use for more than 100 years.
"I'm liberal-minded and have no objection to someone spending his leisure hours altering every appearance of 'comprised of' on Wikipedia," says Kamm. "But there's nothing wrong with the phrase."
5. Yes, "decimate" can mean "devastate".
As every schoolboy used to know, this was a punishment meted out to Roman legions, in which every tenth man was killed. Its correct sense in English, therefore, is the reduction of the strength of a body of people by 10 per cent. Thus it is absurd to say that 'the workforce was decimated by 20 per cent'.
This is called the "etymological fallacy": thinking that, because a word used to mean something, it always does. No one thinks "hysterical" means "suffering from discomfort in the womb" any more. As it happens, "decimate" has been used to mean "devastate" for centuries: "Typhus fever decimated the school periodically," Charlotte Brontë wrote in a letter in 1848.
"If you insist it must mean 'reduce by a tenth', you'll presumably also want to treat December, which has the same etymological root, as the tenth month of the year," points out Kamm.
6. Using "disinterested" to mean ''bored": also fine.
Despite what pedants claim, 'disinterested' doesn't only mean 'impartial'. It is perfectly reasonable to maintain a distinction between "disinterested" and "uninterested", but it's a personal preference: You can't claim that your preference is the "correct" one, although the "impartial" meaning is more appropriate in formal writing.
"The first recorded use of the word in the Oxford English Dictionary is in the sense of 'not interested'," says Kamm. "An established meaning has come back into common usage, and there's nothing wrong in that."
7. Lots of English dialects use double negatives, and they're completely grammatical.
"I can't get no satisfaction." "So you mean, Mr Jagger, that you do get some satisfaction, because you can't get no satisfaction?"
But while standard English doesn't use double negatives much, lots of English dialects do, for emphasis. No one is seriously going to think that Mick Jagger was unable to not get satisfaction; in African-American vernacular English, for instance, that is an entirely grammatical construction. The fact that well-off people in southeast England don't tend to use it doesn't mean it's wrong. "Perfectly grammatical, used as an intensifier; just not the grammar of standard English," is Kamm's verdict.
8. "Enormity" can mean "bigness".
Grammar sticklers prefer that "enormity" only be used to mean "great wickedness": "the enormity of his crime became apparent", that sort of thing. Using it to mean "enormousness" is frowned upon.
But, as Kamm explains, it has had both meanings for well over a century. "Those who insist that it can only mean 'wickedness' and that the proper word for something of great size is 'enormousness' are ignoring usage," he says. "Almost nobody says 'enormousness'." And lots of words have multiple meanings, so the "wickedness" meaning won't necessarily disappear any more than the word "wicked" itself lost its "evil" meaning when it gained its "cool" meaning. All natural languages have words with lots of meanings, a characteristic called polysemy.
9. "Ten items or less" is good, grammatical English.
This might be the one that makes grammar pedants angrier than any other. The claim is that "less" should only be used to talk about amounts (mass nouns), while "fewer" should be used to talk about numbers (count nouns): less beer, but fewer pints. There have been actual campaigns to make supermarkets change signs from "10 items or less" to "10 items or fewer".
But why? It's not as if there's any problem with ambiguity: "More" works perfectly well as the opposite of both those words. And, more importantly, actual English speakers use phrases like "I'm less than 50 pages into War and Peace and I've given up already." "Fewer" is more formal, and if you're writing a thesis or a newspaper column, maybe you should use it. But in conversation there's nothing wrong with "less".
"This is a really tiresome shibboleth," sighs Kamm. "Yes, 'fewer' usually sounds more idiomatic for count nouns, but not always, and especially not when used of units of measurement. 'Fewer than 10 miles' sounds ridiculous."
(Amazingly, there are some people who are so pedantic about this false rule that they'll actually write "one fewer thing to think about".)
10. "Irregardless" is a real word.
This is a useful example of the difference between "correct" and "stylish" English. Very few educated English speakers would use "irregardless" in writing. But the word has been around since 1912, according to the American Heritage Dictionary, presumably as a blend of "regardless" and "irrespective". It's a "real word". Just not a very useful one, and one that will jar with some readers.
"It's a real word, and I can prove it," says Kamm. "It's in the dictionary. Whether it was coined inadvertently or jocularly makes no odds: It's still entered the language. If you don't like it, no one will force you to use it."
11. Yes: "Literally" literally can mean "figuratively".
And you're just going to have to accept it. "Literally" has been used to intensify non-literal statements for more than 150 years. in Nicholas Nickleby, Dickens wrote "His looks were very haggard, and his limbs and body literally worn to the bone" and "'Lift him out,' said Squeers, after he had literally feasted his eyes in silence upon the culprit." In her 1868 novel Little Women, Louisa May Alcott wrote: "The land literally flowed with milk and honey..."
That doesn't mean you have to use it, or even that it's a good idea to use it in formal writing. But it's not wrong. Also, since both "really" and "very" began life meaning "in actual fact" and mutated, just as "literally" has, to become intensifiers, it's hard to see what the big fuss is about. "You can easily tell the difference between literal and figurative 'literally' from the context," says Kamm.
12. Prepositions are perfectly reasonable things to end a sentence with.
There's a great line in Beavis and Butthead Do America. In fact there are several. But the relevant one is an exchange between an FBI agent and his boss:
"Chief. You know that guy whose camper they were whackin' off in?"
"Bourke! You are a federal agent! You represent the United States government! Never end a sentence with a preposition."
"Oh. Uh. You know that guy in whose camper they… I mean, that guy off in whose camper they were whacking?"
Lots of people were taught not to end sentences with prepositions by horn-rimmed-spectacle-wearing English teachers in the 1950s, but the rule was entirely made up by a couple of 18th-century grammarians who were trying to apply the rules of Latin to English and has never represented how our language is actually used. "Who are you waiting for?" is entirely grammatical English, as Kamm makes clear; it sounds bizarre and affected to say "For whom are you waiting?" unless you're writing a bad BBC period drama featuring stovepipe hats and repressed longing.
"One place for a preposition is before the noun that it modifies," says Kamm. "But that's only one place. The idea that it can't end a sentence is the second-silliest bogus rule in the history of usage punditry." (The first being the injunction to never split infinitives, he says.)
13. You can stop worrying about the subjunctive mood. "If I was" is fine.
The "subjunctive mood" is usually used to talk about hypothetical scenarios, things that haven't actually happened. And grammatical sticklers insist that the verb "to be" should be conjugated differently in the subjunctive mood to the way it is in the indicative.
That sounds terribly jargony. What it means is that for grammatical sticklers, "If I was a younger man, I'd have hit him" is wrong, and it should be: "If I were a younger man…"
As Kamm points out, these days, if you're over-keen on the use of the subjunctive, you'll make some people think you don't know how verbs work in the plural. Use of the subjunctive has been on decline for decades (Kamm records Fowler writing that it was "almost meaningless to Englishmen, the thing having so nearly perished" in 1906), and while it's not dead yet, nor is it wrong to ignore it.
"Best not to worry about it, but to say what comes naturally," says Kamm, reassuringly.
14. Of course "they" can be singular. Even God used it, in the actual Bible.
Grammar pedants insist that "they" can never refer to a single person. Simon Heffer calls the practice "abominable" and says it is a relatively recent invention. But it's very much not – Kamm points out that it was regularly used by Jane Austen (from Northanger Abbey: "With whomsoever he was, or was likely to be connected, his own consequence always required that theirs should be great"). Similarly, the linguistics blog Language Log records the repeated use of singular "they" in the King James Bible (e.g. 2 Kings 14:12: "And Iudah was put to the worse before Israel, and they fled euery man to their tents.").
More importantly, as Kamm says, it is simply standard usage among modern English speakers. Most people would use phrases like "Nobody thinks the rules apply to them" or "Whoever lost that is going to be so angry when they find out" quite happily.
"They as a generic singular pronoun is completely standard in English usage," says Kamm. "It is no longer credible to treat 'he' as a generic pronoun that just happens to be spelt and pronounced the same way as the masculine singular pronoun."
15. Something can in fact be "very unique".
"Absolute adjectives" such as "perfect", "unique", and "eternal" cannot be modified, according to some pedants, notably Nevile Gwynne, author of Gwynne's Grammar. But – and you'll have got the hang of this by now – no one gets to say that except for actual users of the language, who, as it happens, do exactly this, and have done for a while (Kamm points to Brontë again: "'A very unique child,' thought I", she wrote in Villette).
The objection sticklers have is that it is illogical to be more or less perfect or unique. But languages aren't logical, and even if they were, "unique" clearly has degrees: Each of two peas in a pod is, in fact, unique, in that they are not identical, but it is clearly not as unique as the proverbial snowflake.
"Pedants insist that it's an absolute adjective that can't be modified. They're wrong," says Kamm. "It's idiomatic and entirely legitimate to say 'very unique'. Would you baulk at saying 'very full'?"
16. For "whom", the bell tolls…
"Whom" is dying. It holds out in a few very specific phrases – "To whom it may concern", and other places after a preposition – but it is becoming less common. "'Whom' holds on but there's no reason to stick to it," says Kamm. "I expect it to die out eventually with no loss in meaning."