Monday, June 16, 2008

Grammar and its Discontents

Who loves grammar as much as me I? Martha Brockenbrough seems to, as she has collected twelve grammar rules she finds unhelpful. On "that" and "which":

I fed the dog that barked.
I fed the dog, which barked.

...[Y]ou can say "I fed the dog which barked" and still be correct. It sounds a bit more pompous, but it's not wrong, not if we're to go by the example of many accomplished writers.

That said, it's not correct to write, "I fed the dog, that barked." "Which" can go both ways, but "that" can't.
To me, "I fed the dog which barked" sounds wrong, whether or not it sounds pompous. I try to avoid "which" in every case where "that" will serve. On split infinitives:
The ban on split infinitives--those "to-plus-a-verb phrases"--owes its existence to the idea that Latin grammar is superior to English.
Agreed. This holdover from Latin grammar has deranged so many otherwise readable English sentences that it ought to be drawn and quartered, its sections flung to the far corners of the English-speaking world and denied a proper Christian burial. Old school! I really dislike this rule. But lest anyone accuse me of holding to the principle of readability above all:
It Ain't So No. 5: Don't say "hopefully." Say "I'm hopeful" or "It is hoped."
I agree that "I'm hopeful" and "it is hoped" can be disruptive and awkward, but I would like to see "hopefully" go the way of common decency. It doesn't make sense, and how dare an idiom not make sense when unpacked into its literal constituents!!! I would hope we can find alternatives.

The use of "like":
It Ain't So, No. 9: Don't use "like" as a conjunction.

Is it wrong to say, "I feel like a million bucks"? Or is it better to say, "I feel as though I am worth a million bucks"? If you were to say the latter, anyone in earshot would be perfectly justified in making fun of you. It's been used as a conjunction since at least 1200, according to the Oxford English Dictionary [OED].
We have to be careful here. If we insist on dropping "like," either as a conjunction or as an all-purpose conversational gap-filler, large swaths of the English-speaking world will fall silent: much of California, the campus of Reed College, every last hippy. And don't fool yourself -- if the hippies stop talking, they'll just make up for it by playing bongos, and, like, no one needs that.

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