Posted in Grammar, Writing

Mourning the death of the adverb

“Think different.”  Apple ad

“Drive safe.” Everywhere

“Eat healthy.” So many ads.

“Come quick.” What everyone seems to be saying

grammar copyMost writing style gurus who mourn the passing of the adverb seem to do so on the basis that we’ve been told to eliminate adverbs and adjectives from our writing.  I, on the other hand, see the death of the adverb not as death-by-overuse, rather death-by-misuse.  In other words, the way I see it, adverbs are only dying because so many people are grammatically challenged: they seem to think an adjective will work when and adverb is required. Or you change the meaning of a sentence.

I’m not a stickler for precise grammar in every instance if breaking the rule adds to the meaning: sentence fragments, for example, can be used for effect. Really. And beginning a sentence with a conjunction…well, sometimes it works given the pacing you’re looking for. (How about that preposition ending a sentence there?) However, when a grammatical mistake seems to muddy the meaning – making it impossible to avoid miscommunication – then it needs to be fixed.

Here’s are some particularly egregious examples that illustrate the trend:

  1. When Apple started using as an advertising tagline the exhortation: “Think different,” precisely what did they mean? Did they mean that our thinking should be different?  If so, then it should say think differently.  If they mean that the thoughts that we think should be different from previous thoughts, then that is a nuance of difference.  They should have said, “Think different thoughts,”  or maybe even, “Think something different,” different then being the adjective modifying “something.” There is a difference between the thinking process being different and the outcome – the thoughts – being different.  Although I’d accede to the fact that these two may be related.  And, oh, it just sounds bad. Not badly.
  2. Then there’s the “Drive safe” exhortation. If one more person says that to me as I leave somewhere to get into my car, I just might smack that person. The advice is for me to “drive safely,” or just shut up.
  3. And what about the “eat healthy” catchphrase? Isn’t there something missing here? Eat healthy what? Eat a healthy dinner? Snack? Oh, or do you mean to heat healthily in general? The meaning is as clear as mud.

Every day I mourn a little when I hear those radio advertisements that are rife with grammatical errors – and the loss of the adverb seems to be the most common. Is it really so difficult to figure out what you want to say and then say it clearly? NOT clear!

Posted in Grammar, Writing craft

“Grammar is important”…really?

I was listening to the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation) noon-time ‘open-mouth’ show on the radio as I drove from one appointment to another on Monday.  The guest ‘expert’ that day happened to be a grammar expert: I missed the introduction, but I inferred that he was a high school English teacher.  He and the host discussed various aspects of grammar,  and people called in with their grammar-related questions, as well as their pet peeves.  In his attempt to avoid the jargon as he put it, his explanations of why certain English grammar rules are what they are lost something in the translation making it difficult to view his explanations with much credibility.

The show ignited my inspiration to write this blog post and then, oddly (is grammar in the air this week?), colleague Alison Delorey wrote a blog post on our students’ newsletter on the very same topic.  Truthfully, though, her post is on grammar as style and you should read it.  She suggests that “Grammar can be creative, interesting and exploratory…” and I agree with her; my concern in response to the call-in show, though, is that grammar is first and foremost a framework or structure for verbal communication in general.  Grammatical mistakes frequently result in failure to communicate, and so your message, whatever it may be, is lost.

A caller to the radio show guest asked him the simple question: What is the difference in usage between ‘bring’ and ‘take’?  It was his answer to this particular question that started to get me riled up about over-simplification of the rules.

His response was to tell her that “I bring” and “You take.”  I started thinking about this as the caller also tried to process this new information.  I was thinking that this couldn’t possibly be right since you can also bring clarity to a situation (you wouldn’t’ ‘take’ clarity to a situation), and I can take action on something (I wouldn’t ‘bring’ action).  Clearly you can also decline both of these words:  I bring, you bring, he brings etc.   So, it sent me flying to Margaret Shertzer’s The Elements of Grammar (a kind of companion to Strunk and White’s classic  Elements of Style, and my bible for all things stylish (although not my wardrobe!).

According to The Elements of Grammar the difference between the two words is this: to bring means to convey toward (the speaker); whereas to take means to carry from (the speaker).[1]  There, now I feel better.  He had over-simplified it and muddied the ability of the speaker to convey a message.

Although messages can be the victim of the grammar-challenged among us, for me it’s often more of a simple stylistic issue – which takes us back to Alison’s point.  In fact, most of the grammar mistakes that I find particularly annoying (somewhat like the sound of fingernails on a chalkboard in my world) are personal peeves.  So, now it’s my chance to rant a bit.

For the love of god, let us stop turning nouns into verbs!  It’s beginning to get out of hand.  One curmudgeonly grammarian on the internet came up with examples that even I haven’t even heard.  “I’m going to suicide,”  “after I enema it all out”, for example, then this grammarian questions when we stopped “writing” books and began “authoring” them.  Hmm.

Now if I could just banish the word “impact” used as a verb in my students’ writing, I think that I will have had an impact on (not impacted) their style!

But that’s just me.

[BTW The title “Grammar is Important” is the title of my grammar text from elementary school – other books have come and other books have gone, but I still have this one on my bookshelf from about grade four.  What does that say about me?]

[1] Shertzer, Margaret. 1986. The elements of grammar. New York: The Macmillan Publishing Company, p. 144.