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A Word, Please: A digital daisy train of drivel

By June Casagrande

7:16 PM EDT, June 12, 2013

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I've said it before and I'll say it again: There's a lot of bad information out there about grammar. But seldom does it come bundled in a veritable value pack of linguistic baloney like the one I found in a link on Slate.com.

The link, which promised to reveal "The 8 Most Common Grammar Pitfalls in Professional Writing," brought me to a blog on the website of EmpireCLS, a limousine service. And when that didn't prevent Slate from publishing the link, some cursory fact-checking should have.

Of the eight grammar "facts" that comprised the list, all eight were wrong. Some were more wrong than others. A few that were rooted in kernels of good advice were just worded so badly they crossed the line between right and wrong.

The author had handpicked the eight items from a list by Jon Gingerich, an editor at O'Dwyer's magazine, who had posted on the Lit Reactor website 20 such grammar "errors" (many of which were — you guessed it — wrong).

This digital daisy chain of drivel is a fascinating study of the staying power of language superstitions.

And it demonstrates how people are inexplicably eager to pass along any language prohibition they hear, never questioning the source.

Take, for example, alleged grammar pitfall No. 1: "If something can be quantified, the correct word choice is either 'few' or 'fewer.' If it can only be talked about hypothetically, 'less' is a better choice. If you have fewer travel assignments next year, you'll be spending less time in airports."

Where to start? By pointing out that time can be quantified? By noting that the author was trying and failing to repeat the oft-cited rule that the difference is that of "count" vs. "mass" nouns, which itself is not exactly right? By pointing out that "less" and "fewer" can sometimes be synonyms?

Here's the real guideline: To the extent that we want to give distinct jobs to "less" and "fewer," the difference is that "less" applies to singular things and "fewer" applies to plural things: The express lane is for 10 or fewer items, and if you remove the bread from your cart you'll have one less item.

Trying to explain the difference between "affect" and "effect," the blogger writes that "effect" can never be a verb. It can, as in "to effect positive change."

The list says that "nauseous" can't be used to mean "nauseated." It can. It says that "since" can't be used to mean "because." It can. It suggests that "further" can never mean "farther." It can. It says that "disinterested" is never a synonym of "uninterested." It is. And it suggests that "anxious" can't mean "eager." It can.

Finally, the list says that "impactful" isn't a word — an assertion easily debunked by anyone who understands how to use suffixes.

Ironically, many of the eight dead-wrong rules were rooted in good advice. "Since" can mean "because," but often it's a poor substitute because it can lead to confusion. You can say you're anxious for something good to happen. But "eager" is probably better because it lacks the negative connotation you get with "anxious."

Below the blog post, about two dozen readers posted comments. Some thanked the author for the great information. Others seized the opportunity to rant about their own favorite grammar peeves, many of them wrong.

Had any of the writers or editors involved opened a dictionary, they could have averted a minor tragedy of errors. Instead, they provided a lesson they never intended: Grammar superstitions feed on blind faith.

When someone tells you that it's wrong to use certain words certain ways, don't believe it. Just open a dictionary.

JUNE CASAGRANDE is the author of "It Was the Best of Sentences, It Was the Worst of Sentences." She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.