Last week we featured a video inspired by a McSweeney’s piece on brand videos, this week a wonderful piece of typographic animation from Matthew Rogers based on Stephen Fry’s essay on the true joys of language, and why grammar pedants are so particularly misguided. A bit of perspective for those (myself included) driven mad by misuse of there, their and they’re.

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David Crotty

David Crotty

David Crotty is the Editorial Director, Journals Policy for Oxford University Press. He serves on the Board of Directors for the STM Association, the Society for Scholarly Publishing and CHOR, Inc. David received his PhD in Genetics from Columbia University and did developmental neuroscience research at Caltech before moving from the bench to publishing.

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13 Thoughts on "Stephen Fry on Language and Grammar Pedantry"

Well, yes and no. Writing is all about communicating, and that demands clarity. Fry is very persuasive (as always) when he casually sideswipes the idea that clarity requires attention to which words are used, but all he brings in support of that idea is his own assertion that it’s so.

Sure, no-one ever misunderstood a sentence because an infinitive was split or because it ended with a preposition: those “rules” have never had any merit. And there’s no rational reason to object to neologisms only on the basis of their newness. But to discard valuable distinctions between imply/infer or your/you’re is an invitation to misunderstanding. “You can probably guess what they meant” is a poor substitute for their just saying what they mean.

No comment about Stephen Fry, but the remark that “writing is all about communicating” is simply wrong. Writing is many things: communication, interpersonal bonding (phatic communications), and even performance.

Communicating is about a lot more than words and words are about a lot more than communicating. Words can be interesting, entertaining and even surprising in their own write, right?

I understand the desire for accuracy, which is particularly important in scientific writing. The difference between “necessary” and “sufficient” for example, is crucial in describing a phenomenon.

The question here though is how much of a jerk one really needs to be in cases of much lower import. If someone uses “loose” instead of “lose”, should that be a hanging offense?

Lose/loose is an interesting example, because it’s hard to image a real-world situation where there could be much ambiguity when the wrong one is used. Yet it does make my skin crawl when I read “it’s a match they can’t afford to loose”.

I think Fry undercuts his own argument when he refers to the importance of context, using a job interview as an example when it is crucial to tidy up one’s language. But if one is constantly exposed to misuses like the supermarket’s misuses of “less” when “fewer” is meant, how is one to know which is the “correct” form to use in those more important and formal contexts? Fry does not pay sufficient attention to how many people acquire their language skills. The supermarket can be as effective (and damaging) an instructor in that regard as an English teacher in a classroom.

Well, less vs. fewer is probably not a good example here, since either is probably fine, even for a pedant. Isn’t most of Strunk & White pretty useless/wrong?

Nearly all of Strunk and White is both useful and correct. (Remember, too, that much of it is about style rather than “correctness”, and it’s generally right on target there, as well.) Of course that doesn’t people won’t misapply it.

By the way, those of you who do a bit of programming might be aware of Kernighan and Pike’s beautiful little 1974 book The Elements of Programming Style, which has an obvious Strunk and White influence. While the technical details are obviously way outdated, the principles in the book have aged amazingly well in forty years. I reviewed it on by non-palaeo blog.

Nearly all of Strunk and White is both useful and correct.

I should hope you’re excluding the inability to correctly identify passive constructions while warning against them. In any event, Elements is irrelevant to anyone trying to think seriously about the subject. (Distinguishing restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses with ‘that’ and ‘which’ is a good stylistic choice for some material, including the journals copy I generally work on. As you note, though, misapplication is possible – knee-jerk editorial blunders on this are so easy to spot and so common that I wonder whether attempting to enforce it does more damage in the long run.)

As for ECH’s suggestion that ‘less’ is interchangeable with ‘fewer’ “even for a pedant,” no. I’m also skeptical of the antiprescriptivist fondness of trying to pin the “blame” on Robert Baker (who was not a grammarian, W—pedia notwithstanding) in 1770. If one turns to the AUE FAQ, one finds that there were no modern attestations of ‘less’ for ‘fewer’ in the OED. It strikes me as unlikely that one popular grammar in a sea of them could have single-handedly wiped out the usage in little more than a century.

One also encounters observations along the lines of “If It Was Good Enough for King Alfred,” which bizarrely fails to note that it would be nearly 500 years before ‘fewer’ even appeared on the scene.

(And this too can be gotten comically wrong.)

Yes, I meant: “gotten”. Good grief, I can’t even copy-type any more …

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