Giving grammar advice? Whatever you do, don’t check it

Jim Baumann writes a column in the Chicago Daily Herald under the title Grammar Moses, in which he dispenses (mostly bad) advice on grammar and usage.

This week, Moses has crowdsourced his tablets.

One of his contributors writes that we should use ’til and not till as the short form of until. Till, he says, “can be a noun, meaning a cash drawer, or a rather inexact verb describing what growers do to the soil so as to produce crops or decorative plants”.

No.

Any dictionary you bother to check will confirm that till is a legitimate word in its own right. It’s not a short version of until. Things are the other way round: till dates back to the ninth century, until only to the twelfth, when it was derived from till (compare the relationship between unto and to).

As for ’til, Merriam-Webster says that it is “a variant spelling of till used by writers who do not know that till is a complete, unabbreviated word in its own right”.

Baumann’s correspondent offers more advice.

We should say “the expressed written permission” and not, as is common, “the express written permission”. This is why:

One needs to use an adjectival form, and ‘expressed’ is it.

In contrast, while there is certainly a verb ‘express’ meaning to ‘render one’s thoughts,’ such does not fit the bill herein. Likewise, the adjective ‘express,’ as in reference to a fast train that doesn’t stop at all stations, does not fit, either.

No.

Any dictionary you bother to check will tell you that express can mean “explicit and clearly stated”, which is what it means here. Expressed would be quite the wrong word: writing is a form of expression, so anything that is written is by definition expressed.

This use of express is venerable. The OED cites Chaucer around 1386: “Wher can ye seen… That highe God defended mariage By expresse word?”

A final contribution comes from Baumann’s colleague Jim Slusher, a tormented fellow who beats himself up for using sentence adverbs. Amazingly, he doesn’t realise that they’re a standard and well-established way of expressing the writer’s view of a statement, such as: “Just as importantly, they should care about their constituents.”

Sadly, he thinks: “In that construction, the adverb ‘importantly’ describes how they should care about their constituents. I’m not sure how one cares importantly. But that’s what it means.” The poor chap.

Disappointingly, this time I only have four dictionaries to confirm the sentence-adverbial use of importantly (meaning “it is important that”). The other two say only that it’s the adverb form of important.

(The dispute about hopefully is a different matter: you can’t paraphrase it as “it is hopeful that”, which discombobulates some people. But even they are generally content with other sentence adverbs.)

This tripe is what passes for expert commentary on grammar. Hazy ideas, tendentiously rationalised, boldly stated, never checked.

And it’s often so, so easy to check these things. But if you do, you may find that you don’t have anything left to complain about.

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Comments

  • phil795  On January 4, 2016 at 9:49 pm

    Reblogged this on Slattery's Art of Horror Magazine and commented:
    This article is not only good advice on the usage of specific words, but it also serves as a good example of how to meticulously research word usage.

  • JAKA  On January 4, 2016 at 10:20 pm

    Oh, I was almost certain it was ’til — it ‘feels’ right…

  • Matthew Burchell  On January 5, 2016 at 12:01 pm

    Surely you can paraphrase “hopefully” as “I am hopeful that”?

    • Tom Freeman  On January 5, 2016 at 5:23 pm

      Absolutely. But some people, for some reason, think we shouldn’t.

      • Peter  On January 5, 2016 at 5:55 pm

        “I hope”.

  • Phillip Blanchard  On January 5, 2016 at 2:43 pm

    A city editor told me early in my “career” that I should write “More important,” rather than “more importantly” at the start of a sentence. It wasn’t until a couple of decades ago that I realized that “more importantly” is just fine.

  • Lev  On January 5, 2016 at 5:06 pm

    Is “more important” at the start of a sentence even acceptable? Sounds weird to me?

  • popegrutch  On January 5, 2016 at 6:12 pm

    I had the idea that the standard form in American English was “expressly written.” I wouldn’t claim there’s any logic in that, I can certainly believe that “Express written” is the original British English phrase it derived from.
    Interestingly, when you plug these three phrases into Google N-Gram, “expressly written” is the winner by a long-shot, but it’s use has been declining since the early 19th century. By contrast, “expressed written” has picked up since 1960, and “express written” is almost a flat line for the past 200 years.

  • Gavin Hodgkinson  On January 5, 2016 at 6:30 pm

    I wrote this in my forum December 26th:

    We brought ’til’ with us to Bretland from Northern Germany. Years later, a stronger cousin ‘undtil’ (right up to) was born. The two existed side by side. Just as ‘bil’ (beak) changed its spelling to ‘bill’, ’til’ changed to ’till’. ‘Till’ is not a child of ‘until’; it is an elder cousin. Similar is true of ‘unto’ and ‘to’, ‘although’ and ‘though’, ‘altogether’ and ‘together’, etc. If ”til’ is the abbreviation of anything, then ‘undtil’, and the spelling ‘un’til’ is equally justifiable.

    ‘Til’ is a very interesting word. As a preposition it was also used where we would use ‘into’: “We could turn the cellar into a guest room.” and ‘as’: “You can use this as a hammer.” Therefore, it is pretty logical that as an adjective its essence was ‘suitable’, ‘condusive’. In general, ’til’ was used to describe anything which was good. The meaning of the German names Til(l) and Til(l)man(n) are obvious. ‘Tilian’ meant ‘to strive to achieve a desirable state of something — ‘to good’, if you will. Tilling the land was ‘making it good, suitable, ready’. Its German cognate ‘zielen’ is still used and means ‘to aim’.

  • Kory Stamper  On January 5, 2016 at 11:17 pm

    I will testify: your parade of sentence adverbs made me laugh out loud.

  • Sweet Nan  On January 7, 2016 at 9:06 pm

    All them adverbs! Jim, they’re SO confusing!

  • toniwrites  On February 3, 2016 at 1:49 pm

    You *are* stroppy! And, also, my spirit animal🙂

  • Cecilia Mary Gunther  On February 14, 2016 at 12:26 pm

    Aha – you are a smith of words! I am from New Zealand and live on a farm in the Midwest of America and CRINGE at the mash of English out here. Sometimes i even open my mouth to correct them and then shut it very fast again. (You never know who has a gun in their pocket!) But it will be interesting to follow your blog for a while i think – very interesting.

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