When I published The Power of Six, my first collection of short stories, a reviewer said that the book had grammatical errors, albeit small ones. This shocked me, as the book had been professionally edited and proof-read. So, I reached out and asked her for an example. “You start a sentence with a gerund,” she said. “So?” I asked. “So, that’s wrong.”
I was baffled by this. Surely, that’s a matter of style, right?
This seemingly innocent question actually led me into a minefield. As The Economist points out, for half a century, language experts have fallen into two camps. Most lexicographers and academic linguists stand on one side, and traditionalist writers and editors on the other. The question that defines the to camps is deceivingly simple: should language experts describe the state of the language accurately? (Webster’s Third New International Dictionary, in 1961, shocked the world by including common but disparaged “ain’t” and “irregardless”.) Or should they prescribe how the language should be used (“Irregardless ain’t a word”)? Over the decades, the two sides have traded insults: prescribers are authoritarians in denial about the real world. Describers are permissivists with no standards.
Both camps were ill-served by their respective standard-bearers. Many clueless prescribers really did push dud rules: the ban on split infinitives, the ban on ending sentences with prepositions, the notion that “since” cannot mean “because” and so many more. These were passed down from teachers to students over generations. When academic linguists began systematically investigating English by looking at texts and listening to speakers, they found that many such “rules” were anything but, and some began taunting the rule-promoters. They also sought to defend non-standard dialects, where for example double negatives (“I ain’t got no”) are ordinary, not ignorant.
Reaching a Common Ground
In the pushback against a history of prejudices, prescription represented authority and tradition, and description represented democracy and progress. But sensible writers on both sides have come to agree, however tacitly, that there is a variety, called standard English, with rules that can be found by looking at large volumes of the stuff. Two authors epitomize this new, balanced approach. Steven Pinker is a describer, a linguist and cognitive scientist. But in 2014 he published “The Sense of Style”, a guide to good writing that ended with a section of prescriptions: do this, not that. They were grounded in description, not dogma—but prescriptions they were nonetheless.
Now come two new books by Bryan Garner, a proud prescriptivist who reaches the same point from the opposite direction. Mr Garner has called himself a “descriptive prescriber”, and this is clearer than ever before in the fourth edition of his masterly usage dictionary, “Garner’s Modern English Usage”, and a new book, “The Chicago Guide to Grammar, Usage, and Punctuation”. These new books rely not on mere clippings, but on big data: millions of books scanned by Google. This lets Mr Garner compare “he pleaded guilty” with the upstart “he pled guilty” (“pled” is gaining ground, but “pleaded” is still three times as common in books). On this basis, Mr Garner prescribes: stick with “pleaded”. But he allowed Google’s data to change his mind, too: “run the gantlet”, however traditional, has long been outnumbered by examples of “run the gauntlet”, so he has accepted the newer usage.
A sensible consensus emerges on most usages. On some issues, reasonable people can disagree: The Economist’s own Johnson is one of those who will reserve “He literally exploded laughing” to refer to a bloody scene requiring a mop, even though he knows many great writers have used “literally” figuratively. And on a more personal level, I still start sentences with gerunds.
English is used by too many people in the world, this is the issue.
Doesn’t that add to its richness?
exactly, but this is why few people can “prescribe”… this Language is too alive, and what is not regular or acceptable today, could become normal in the next future. I accept this. better this than our Accademia Della Crusca in Italy. it is a pity to lose some idiomatic expressions or words, but… the show must go on, life goes on, so must Language.
I wonder why some idioms perish while others persist. For example, there are plenty of ancient Greek proverbs still used in Greece. As they’re over 2,000 years old, I find that fascinating!
They are still used because they are still true, Maybe…
Don’t many modern literary stylists tend to write as they speak, Nick? Which can mean that dialect takes over and rules regarding gerunds and their sisters are about as relevant as washboards. On the other hand, some people just have waaaaay too much time on their hands, don’t they?
Yes, we do, Tara. And that’s no waaaaay to spell way.
Interesting piece Nicholas. I am actually reading Pinkers book! Yes, we can go back to Strunk and so many who seem to have old and new schools on writing rules. If I want to start a sentence with a gerund, well then I will, lol. 🙂
As well you should 😀
Thanks for sharing your experience and references. Wow! I’ve read best-selling authors who begin their sentences with gerunds or start a sentence with a conjunction (i.e. but). Fiction is usually from a character’s point of view, so it seems natural the writing should roll-out in a similar manner to how one thinks, as long as a reader does not stumble over the grammar.
As I always say, don’t let your writing get in the way of your story 🙂
You got whammied by the grammar police! 😀
Lol – I made bail, though 😀
Kali yiorti kai hronial polla! Me ton Ayi Nikola embros!
Thank you so much 😀
So interesting! It’s hard to keep up with what’s currently acceptible, so I just try to go for moderation. I’ll hear a “rule” like avoid gerunds and then I read a GREAT book that’s full of them. Or using gaze instead of eyes, or NO adverbs, NO telling, etc. etc. I got feedback on a book that my sentences were too long and too short. Same book, different readers. That was weird. Just gotta laugh sometimes.
Lol – you ask 10 readers, you get 11 opinions 😀
I read to enjoy not dissect. 🙂
And I love you for that 🙂
Why can’t people just enjoy a book (or not) without the need to dissect the grammar?
I loved ‘The Power of Six’ myself, and didn’t pick up on any grammatical flaws. Why? Because I was reading it and enjoying it. And what if I had done? They may well have been intentional. It could be a ‘writing style’, after all.
Let’s all get back to basics, and try to stop being so clever.
Best wishes, Pete.
“Try to stop being so clever” – what a great way of putting it, Pete!
I keep thinking about how I was constantly being told that ‘present tense’ is wrong. Though something else came to mind as I read this. Languages change and shift as time moves on. Maybe there being more flexibility and less ‘stick up bum’-ness is what helps this happen. I’m on a big adaptation and evolution kick, which has me thinking that everything related to humans needs to have this option of change. The basic rules are fine, but the more nuanced stuff is where things get fuzzy, especially since your average reader won’t know stuff like gerunds.
I’m with Catherine Mackay on reading for enjoyment more than grammar knowledge. If I’m noticing all the spelling and grammar issues then it’s either 1) they are really really bad or 2) the book is boring.
Or (3) you forgot to take your writer hat off 🙂
It comes off?
No idea. Let me know if you make it!
I would, but I need it for a bit longer. Coming to the end of the line.
Lol, I haven’t noticed you using gerunds Nicholas – maybe that’s because when I review a book my focus is on whether or not I enjoyed the book not the author’s grammar knowledge – as long the sentences make sense, are descriptive and pull me into the story, I’m not overly concerned about minor errors. I guess I’m just not that pedantic about grammar rules to begin with and those that are, don’t seem to understand that English – written and spoken – is evolving all the time thanks to such things as social media. Of course, even in the best edited ebook, I have noticed the occasional proof-reading/grammar errors exist – maybe this is human or computer error, either way, does it matter in the long run? I guess the answer to that, is going to depend on the reviewer’s focus and there are some out there who expect authors to have perfect grammar….sigh…if only people would realise we don’t live in a perfect world – maybe we need to be a little more flexible in our thinking and a little less judgemental and rigid regarding grammatical rules.
Excellant and thought-provoking post Nicholas 🙂
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: you’re the perfect reader 😀