Monthly Archives: August 2015

Playing it safe is a dangerous game

Here’s an argument I sometimes hear:

Sure, some of the so-called “rules” of English that you hear about are silly and pointless – don’t split infinitives and so on. But there are still a fair few people who believe in these rules, so it’s worth toeing the line to avoid annoying them.

This sounds like a reasonable, pragmatic position: play it safe. But there are two problems with it.

First, playing it safe takes a lot of knowledge, concentration and time. If you want to keep the complainers happy, here are just a few of the imagined “common mistakes” that you’ll need to avoid:

  1. A/an: When the following word begins with an h sound but the second syllable carries more stress than the first, use an, not a: an historian, an horrific, an habitual, an heroic.
  2. Above: Do not use this to mean more than.
  3. Acquiesce: One acquiesces in something, not to it.
  4. Acronym: An acronym is not just any set of initials but a set that is pronounced as a word: NATO and AIDS but not BBC or USA.
  5. AD: Place it before the year, not after.
  6. Admit to: While confess may or may not have a to, admit never should.
  7. Aggravate: This does not mean annoy; it means make worse.
  8. Agnostic: To be agnostic is to believe that knowledge (typically about the existence of god) is impossible. It is not to be doubtful or noncommittal.
  9. Alibi: This is a legal defence based on having been elsewhere at the time of the crime. It does not mean any excuse that allows someone to escape blame.
  10. All of: The of is usually a redundancy (except when followed by a pronoun, e.g. all of them) and should be omitted wherever possible.
  11. Alright: Do not use. The correct form is all right.
  12. Also: Do not use also as a sentence-opening adverb.
  13. Alternative: There can only be two alternatives. Three or more are options.
  14. Among: Use whenever there are three or more objects; for two objects, use between.
  15. And: Never start a sentence with and.
  16. Anniversary: This means the date marking a number of years since an event. Three-year anniversary is redundant; three-month anniversary is just wrong.
  17. Anticipate: This does not mean expect; it means act in expectation of.
  18. Anxious Do not use this to mean eager where there is no sense of unease.
  19. Anymore: Do not use. The correct form is any more.
  20. Appeal: When appealing against a decision, the against is not optional.
  21. As: The use of as to mean because can be confusing and therefore should be avoided.
  22. As [adjective] as [pronoun]: The object form of the pronoun is wrong in he is as tall as me and similar comparisons. Use the subject form instead: he is as tall as I.
  23. As such: This means in this capacity. Do not use it to mean in principle or therefore.
  24. At about: The at is usually redundant; delete it.
  25. Attorney-General: The plural is Attorneys-General, not Attorney-Generals.

These “rules” are all opinions that are noteworthy enough to be discussed in usage guides by Bryan Garner, Jeremy Butterfield, Pam Peters or Merriam-Webster. I’ve been highly selective: those books’ A sections are on average 95 pages long. And the alphabet also has other letters.

This list is a mixture of exaggerations and misunderstandings, relics and myths, personal preferences and reasonable tips. Judged against the standard of usage, there’s not a single rock-solid rule among them.

There are maybe five of these “rules” that make me twitch with distaste when I see them broken. But so what? My personal twitching doesn’t define the boundaries of good English, and nor does anyone else’s; other twitchers could pick their own pet peeves from the list.

To keep us all happy, you must follow all the “rules”. You must find out all the things that various people believe are wrong and spend time restricting your language to fit.

But this leads to the second problem with playing it safe: many of the “rules” can cause offence when you follow them.

There are maybe eight on my list that I often or even always prefer broken. In a couple of cases this is because the “rule” is based on ham-fisted linguistic analysis. A treaty among the countries of Europe? No: it has to be between.

In most cases it’s because I find the “rules” make language stilted, archaic or prim. An historian? He is as tall as I? Sorry, but I’m twitching. And I’m not alone. You can’t satisfy the people who have reactions like this while satisfying the people who insist that a historian and he is as tall as me are wrong. You have to disappoint one group.

Don’t assume that the louder group is the larger. People who think they’re right are more likely to write angry letters of complaint; people who simply don’t like the tone usually just stop reading. And if general usage keeps ignoring the rule-mongers’ efforts, that suggests the other group is larger. If so, the “rule” is, pragmatically, a bad idea.

And that’s the danger of following every “rule” that has a clique of enforcers: by armour-plating your language too heavily, you weigh it down and make it weak.