Saturday, 19 April 2008

Guilty Secrets

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Despite being, as some would have it, an overly-picky grammar snob, I have to confess to several compulsions that frequently make me out to be a hypocrite. These guilty secrets are either mistakes that I have to take real care to avoid or perceived errors that I don't see any wrong in.

  1. I sometimes use 'less' when I mean 'fewer'.

I needed to get this one out of the way. Very occasionally, when I've been in a hurry, or under duress, or drunk, or being tortured; I have made this mistake. There is no excuse for this and a good few hours cilice-time were required afterwards. Moving on swiftly...

    2.   I have to fight the urge to write 'definately'.

This one annoys the crap out of me. I know how to spell definitely. I spot other people's misspelling of this all the time. Yet, if I'm not concentrating, I'll reread a sentence I've written and to my shame that horrible little 'a' will be grinning back at me. I think this is to do with phonetics. When I say, "definitely," I pronounce it  df-ntl and the urge to spell it so needs to be quashed when writing.

Elisabeth helpfully pointed me in the direction of the website when I confessed this sin via twitter.

    3.   I use they, their and them as singular pronouns when no gender is specified.

And I'd do it again in a heartbeat, a heartbeat I tell you! Unless one is writing a contract, using 'he or she', 'he/she' or (lord preserve us) 's/he' is just stupid. And unless one wishes to come across as a pompous twit, one might want to avoid using 'one'.

    4.   I treat collective nouns as plurals.

Being in the UK, this isn't really a problem. There are no hard rules and it's generally accepted that one can go with the pronoun that sounds appropriate. This only becomes a problem if inconsistencies creep in. I really get annoyed by a current BBC Radio 1 trailer for the Monsters of Rock festival, in which Daniel P. Carter says the following phrase.

...and the legend that are Kiss.

Damn it, Daniel! I don't care how 'rock' you are, you make sure that your verb, subject and object match. Either Kiss is legend or Kiss are legends.  Will Smith, on the other hand, makes crap films.

In the USA, all collective nouns are treated as singular. This can lead to some awkward constructions. Paul Brians, American author of Common Errors in English thinks the British way is sensible.

The British also quite sensibly treat collective bodies like governmental units and corporations as plural (“Parliament have approved their agenda”) whereas Americans insist on treating them as singular.

    5.   I use 'sat' in the present tense.
This is a regional thing. In north-west England, where I live and grew up, it's very common to say, "I'm sat outside the pub," instead of, "I'm sitting outside the pub."  I obviously try to avoid this when writing but I need to be extra careful. GrammarBlog's own Paddy pulled me up on this when I commented on his blog back in December.


There you have it. I feel better for getting that off my chest.

Blogger Paddy said...

Don't forget you also fail to punctuate your txt msgs.

Terry Wogan is a big fan of literally pulling people up (by their hair, usually) when it comes to being 'sat' rather than sitting. Of course, it can sometimes be correct to say you were sat somewhere, e.g. on those occasions when you have genuinely been placed in position by someone else. But I rarely see this happen, except when I'm sat on buses home after midnight.

20 April 2008 at 00:21  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I can sympathise with you - I like to think I'm quite good when it comes to grammar, and yet I find myself not even caring whether it's "less" or "fewer"! I also agree completely on the use of they/their when the gender of a person is not known. I don't care what Microsoft Office thinks of it! I definitely think there comes a point where you have to go with what sounds less stupid, rather than what is technically correct.

If you're interested, collective nouns such as sports teams and governing bodies are referred to as a singular in French as well. And since you have genders for them, you effectively refer to a football team as "she" if it is the subject of a sentence, for example, whereas in English I would always say "they". Perhaps it is an example of a grammar rule which has mutated in the UK, but remained in its original form since the settlers arrived in America?

20 April 2008 at 12:21  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I confess: I frequently write "it's" when I mean "its."

Also, I and about three hundred years of writing history support your use of the singular their. For Pete's sake, even Jane Austen used it. How long does a thing have to be in common usage before it becomes common usage?

20 April 2008 at 20:09  
Blogger Mantolwen said...

I think Lynn Truss turned me into a stickler.

I have to admit that I never notice the misuse of less and fewer. I make this mistake all the time.

But if something becomes such common standard usage (like 'their' etc. for he/she), then doesn't that mean it's become normal English and you're allowed to say/write it? Most people use less instead of fewer these days.

21 April 2008 at 08:40  
Blogger goofy said...

1000 years of English usage support your use of "less" with count nouns.

22 April 2008 at 17:03  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

but what about ending sentences in prepositions?

"These guilty secrets are either mistakes that I have to take real care to avoid or perceived errors that I don't see any wrong in."

19 June 2008 at 23:12  
Blogger Jake said...

The less/fewer distinction is one of my personal pet peeves, but I'm not sure why. I was recently delighted to see, at my local supermarket, that the "10 items or less" lane had become the "10 items or fewer" lane. It's catching on! We're winning the war!

24 July 2008 at 23:57  

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