Bad grammar, bugbears and dæmons

Dafne Keen as Lyra with Pantalaimon, from the BBC adaptation of Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials.

Susan McDonald, an experienced subeditor at the Guardian, has written an article that appears to be about grammar and usage but is really about everyone’s favourite topic: how annoying other people are.

McDonald doubtless knows more than a thing or two about whipping ungainly sentences into shape. Her daily work involves tweaking punctuation, replacing clichés, shepherding stray verbs towards their subjects, and making all sorts of other small changes that smooth the path from the writer’s brain to the reader’s.

But she says she doesn’t nitpick for the sake of it, instead using common sense to decide when rules can be bent. I agree with that as a broad principle, but the thing about common sense is that it’s never as common as you think. What strikes one person as sensible flexibility will strike another as sloppy inconsistency; one person’s high standards will be another’s restrictive dogmatism.

McDonald gives some examples of things that definitely do matter (to her):

Some of my personal bugbears come up more regularly than others.

“Compared to” is different from “compared with”. Use the first if you want to liken one thing to another, the second to contrast.

And that reminds me: in my book “different from” is correct, “different to” and “different than” are not.

“Who” and “whom” are both needed but not interchangeable. The same goes for less/fewer, like/such as and imply/infer.

As a copyeditor, I think I would be absolutist about only one of these six. For moderately formal pieces, I’d probably apply three or four more of them across the board and the other one or two depending on context.

But I would also usually avoid using ‘regularly’ to mean ‘frequently’, as McDonald does here – so on that point I’m more of a stickler than her. And there are people who would scorn both of us for beginning sentences with ‘and’.

There’s no objective way of telling which ‘rules’ are the ‘correct’ ones. Any of us can talk about what’s right ‘in my book’ – but each of our mental rulebooks is different.

Some people respond to these differences by saying that the safest thing to do is always follow all the rules – that way, you won’t annoy anyone. But a lot of these (alleged) rules are, to put it politely, stupid. Picking every conceivable potential nit would be enormously time-consuming and make prose awkward, stiff – even annoying. McDonald rightly points out that, for instance, split infinitives and sentence-ending prepositions often produce better results.

A lot of these decisions are judgement calls. You have to think about audience, medium and desired effect. You have to keep abreast of how people are using the language and how they expect it to be used. You have to estimate which fine distinctions are too fine to be reliably clear, and you have to have a nose for what might be likely to cause a stink.

You also have to remember that the people who complain about ‘broken rules’ are far louder than those whose reading is eased by a certain breakage – but that doesn’t mean the loud ones are anything like a majority.

Sometimes there’s no right answer. Language isn’t like mathematics; it’s like life.

McDonald describes her linguistic gripes as bugbears, and many people talk semi-fondly of having pet peeves, but really these attitudes are more like Philip Pullman’s dæmons – they’re aspects of ourselves. They are changeable during childhood but become fixed as we grow up. They might cause us annoyance, but they are a dear, cherished part of who we are, and any attempt to separate them from us causes terrible pain.

The last line of McDonald’s piece is:

Language reflects – and can even define – who we are. So a little respect, please, for its rules.

It’s not just language but also our attitudes to language that are part of our identities. But the ‘rules’ we get the most righteously angry about don’t belong to language in itself. They belong to our personal conception of it. And when we meet someone whose internal rules are frustratingly different, we have two options: banish their dæmon or pacify our own.

Neither is easy.

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