Grammar: A Few Modernisms I Accept. And a Few I Am Not Yet Ready For.

by Pitt Griffin on July 1, 2015 · 0 comments

in Language

“If you have any young friends who aspire to become writers, the second greatest  favor you can do them is to present them with copies of The Elements of Style. The first greatest, of course, is to shoot them now, while they’re happy.” ― Dorothy Parker

To insist that people use may instead of can when they are asking permission is pedantic. Everyone knows what is meant. The same is true for less and fewer. The check-out sign demands “10 items or less” and the grammar purist stands fuming with ‘fewer’ rattling in her head. Too bad. It is interesting that while ‘less’ is increasingly substituted for ‘fewer’, ‘fewer’ is never used when ‘less’ is correct.


The would/could distinction should be honored. Most of the time. ‘What would you have said?’, does not mean the same as, “What could you have said?” However, use either in the phrase: “Would/could you go to the store for me?”.

Enormity meaning ‘vastness’ is here to stay, having long shed its definition of pure evil. Part of the problem is that there are no short or elegant English synonyms for largeness or immensity.

There exists in English no third person singular pronoun for use when the sex of the person is unknown. So we have dragged the plural – with its sex free form – into service. That is to say, they/their is used when we don’t know if it’s he/his or she/hers. I say use it.

He/his was once the only pronoun form used, but custom now dictates that women should be shown greater linguistic respect. The US Supreme Court solves the conundrum by alternating between he/his and she/hers in its (here the pronoun is neuter, not a fudge) opinions as needed. But that seems forced.

He/his is not as sexist as it seems at first blush. Unlike Latin, English has no word meaning ‘person, sex unknown’. Let me explain. In Latin, woman is femina, man is vir, and person, sex unknown, is homo. Which gives us feminine and virile, but which does not give us homosexual. There, homo- is from the Greek meaning ‘same’ – as opposed to hetero- meaning ‘other’.

The name of our species, Homo Sapiens, is from the Latin. Here ‘wise man’ did not imply that it was just males who were wise – the taxonomic name includes both sexes of the species. So the English word mankind actually connotes the human race. But you can understand why women would be pissed.

Implied and inferred have two distinct meanings. Let’s preserve the distinction. When you say something, you can imply, and I can infer, but not the other way around. The distinction extends to implication and inference.

Who, which, and that. Don’t use who with things. Don’t use which with people. That is a particular case. Who and that are both grammatically correct when used for people. Let the sound of the sentence dictate your choice. I prefer, “He was a man that was going places” and “He was the man who was wearing the hat”. But it’s only personal preference.

Which and that do have different usages. That is used when introducing essential information: “It was cholera that killed all the children”. Which is used when introducing supplementary information: “Cholera, which largely kills children, will soon be cured”. (Note also the comma usage.)

However, do not be a slave to rules. Writers alternate to keep their prose fresh. And even great writers will change it up if they think it sounds better. So let’s just call it a guideline.

Also, be careful with that. Its use is often unnecessary. Excising it when appropriate will crisp up your writing without changing your meaning.

An apophthegm in English grammar has it that (necessary here) sentences shouldn’t end with prepositions. Churchill pithily skewered that pretension. “Ending a sentence with a preposition is something up with which I shall not put.” Amen.

Another chestnut prohibits splitting infinitives. Pish posh. “To boldly go where no man has gone before” was the USS Enterprise’s mission. A perfectly noble – and grammatically correct – endeavor. Although “no man” did morph into “no one” (See his/hers above).

This is not strictly a modernism – but watch out for adverbs stressing adjectives. They rarely do what the writer wants. Take the phrase: “She was absolutely beautiful”. If she’s beautiful, call her beautiful – then call it a day. If her pulchritude is of a higher order then use ‘gorgeous’ or ‘exquisite’.

And lastly, don’t use words like pulchritude (or apophthegm). It’s pretentious. Although William F. Buckley Jr. would disagree.

who me



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