Hand writing poetry

Hand writing poetry (Susan Trigg, Getty ImagesVetta / March 30, 2013)

I recently read David Quammen's "Spillover," a scary, brilliant book about zoonotic diseases. Quammen is a marvelous stylist. But I was dismayed to discover, on page 506, this sentence: "One of the things that makes influenza so problematic, Webster said, is its propensity to change." If you're unoffended by that construction, or have no idea what's wrong with it, you're probably less obsessed with usage manuals than I am.

"One of the things that" followed by a singular verb is one of the things that drive me crazy. If you rephrase Quammen's sentence, it's easy to see why, logically, a plural verb should follow "that": "Of the things that make influenza so problematic, its propensity to change is one." (Of course the noun doesn't have to be "things.") The "one" is throwing off Quammen (and the billion other writers I've catalogued who make this error). "One" jumps over the prepositional phrase to connect with the verb "is"later in the sentence. The plural noun "things" requires a plural verb: "make." 


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But what does logic have to do with how language works? With that question, we are plunged into the bloodied waters of the prescription/description debate. Should we prescribe usage or simply describe it? Before he began to believe that every single cultural phenomenon, from table manners to "The Iliad," can be explained as a reproductive stratagem, the linguist Steven Pinker, in "The Language Instinct," nicely spoofed our desire to "correct" one another's (not "each other's") grammar. He imagined a nature documentarian arguing that "the song of the humpback whale contains several well-known errors, and monkeys' cries have been in a state of chaos and degeneration for hundreds of years."

Point taken: We're animals, and language is a biological function as well as a cultural tool. But surely human language is in important ways not analogous to whalesong and monkey cries. Whales might sing for the sheer pleasure of it — I suspect and hope they do — but they do not write novels or constitutions or laws or books about whalesong. They do not keep records of their most gifted and profound singers. "The world will little note, nor long remember what we say here" is not a sentiment that would occur to a whale, nor is a whale likely to appreciate the irony of that sentiment's being carried by such extraordinary cadence.

My favorite usage manual is Bryan A. Garner's "A Dictionary of Modern American Usage" (now in its third edition and retitled "Garner's Modern American Usage," which yields the unfortunate construction "Garner's 'Garner's Modern American Usage'"). David Foster Wallace reviewed the first edition for Harper's and expanded that review into one of his most entertaining and most obnoxiously footnote-laden essays for "Consider the Lobster" (2006). Wallace knows that too strict a concern for "proper" usage contains some ugly implications, which can land a writer in hot water (consider the lobster). He explains that he justifies his insistence that "certain black students" learn the rudiments of Standard Written English by telling them that they're studying a foreign dialect, one whose mastery will be expected of them and will be one of several yardsticks by which they are unfairly judged.

Wallace acknowledges that this can seem condescending and racist, but he stakes out a sensible position on usage:

Some of the cultural and political realities of American life are themselves racially insensitive and elitist and offensive and unfair, and that pussyfooting around these realities with euphemistic doublespeak is not only hypocritical but toxic to the project of ever really changing them.

Fair enough, but was this why Wallace himself used standard English? He was dedicated to the project of changing the elitist political realities of American language? Me, I can see the appeal of loosening standards in the name of a democratically minded anti-elitism. I don't care if someone uses "ain't" or double negatives. I say "Who are you talking to?" And when the Clash sing "exactly whom I'm supposed to be," I cringe.

But there is also a fascist inside me, and he cannot abide a person who says "between him and I" — that is, someone who goes out of his way to get it wrong (I'm OK with "Let us go then, you and I," but that's a special case). This fascist is most nonplussed by the more abstruse solecisms — often ones, make of this what you will, involving subject and object confusion. The nominative "whom" trips up even many professional writers. Garner gives this example: "Many people criticized him for fraternizing with a man whom they thought was the enemy." Like the confusion in Quammen's sentence, this error is caused by proximity — in this case, of the relative pronoun ("who" or "whom") to another pronoun ("they"), which often signals the objective case: "He was a man whom they thought the enemy" would be correct. But the relative pronoun is serving as a subject here, of the verb "was," so "who" is required. Take out "they thought," which is a subordinate clause, and you have "a man who was the enemy." I once heard a police officer, during a press conference, say, "We don't yet know who — or whom — was responsible." Covering his bases, I guess.

Most infuriating are the bogus rules people pick up from God knows where, rules invented by pedantic dons that have nothing to do with aesthetics, logic, history or context.

So for the record: All grammarians and linguists, whether prescriptivist or descriptivist, agree that split infinitives are just fine and you can end a sentence with a preposition. (What you should not do is write a usage manual with sentences that exemplify these rules in a cutesy way: "It's OK to boldly split an infinitive!" That is annoying.) You can start a sentence with "because." If you condemn "hopefully" as a sentence adverb — on the grounds that, as Garner puts it, "it can't be resolved into any longer expression involving a corresponding adjective (hopeful)" — you should be prepared to avoid "really" and a number of others as well. Ditto "more importantly" versus "more important."

And with regard to the putative distinction between "uninterested" and "disinterested," I am both.

If you're a writer, you should care about these questions. Garner's dictionary and "The Chicago Manual of Style" are favorite bathroom books of mine. (Strunk and White's "Elements of Style" is elegant, unlike Lynne Truss' "Eats, Shoots and Leaves," but both contain plenty of advice that is flat-out wrong.) In most people, an understanding of usage and style indicates an attainment of a certain level of education, which of course translates into cultural capital. But in cases like mine, it also translates into capital capital.

Precisely for this reason, however, it's also important to remember Mr. Antolini's warning to Holden Caulfield in "The Catcher in the Rye" not to become the sort of person who picks up "just enough education to hate people who say, 'It's a secret between he and I.'" Pick up more education than that.

What, then, is the proper attitude to strike with regard to usage? For my money, H. L. Mencken got it right: "For every subtle and complicated question, there is a perfectly simple and straightforward answer, which is wrong."

Michael Robbins is the author of "Alien vs. Predator."

Style manuals

"The Elements of Style" by William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White and "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" by Lynne Truss may be among the most popular grammar reference books, but both contain bad advice.* Consider these style manuals instead:

→A Dictionary of Modern English Usage by H. W. Fowler.

→Garner's Modern American Usage by Bryan A. Garner

→The Chicago Manual of Style by University of Chicago Press staff

More suggested reading:

→The Language Instinct: How the Mind Creates Language by Steven Pinker

→Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace

→Preface to the Dictionary by Samuel Johnson

* On Strunk and White, see Geoffrey K. Pullum, "50 Years of Stupid Grammar Advice," The Chronicle Review (April 17, 2009); on Truss, see Louis Menand, "Bad Comma," The New Yorker (June 28, 2004).