1/03/2009

Grammar Nazis


Nothing is worse than a religious style sentinel, no matter what their particular passion. So why do they amuse me so much? All of us have different tastes and preferences, things that drive us mad. The problem is when that list is so long that there's no room for any colorful artform.

Following a recommedation from Language Log (a fantastic site for those interested in writing and language btw), I landed on this great article on arbitrary style rules.

And there it is: A new usage rule, fresh out of the oven and ready to feed to the unsuspecting masses. It reminded me of a recent e-mail from Kevin, whose high school English teacher had a similarly inventive usage theory. She rejected the sentence "The pitcher threw no strikes," he recalled: "She asked me to show her how to throw 'no strike.' She said the correct way to say it would be, 'The pitcher didn't throw any strikes.' "

This doctrine, of course, was just plain nutty. No in this construction means "not any," as it has since Old English. No grammarian or usagist has banned it. Yet Kevin was successfully browbeaten: "For years I avoided writing things such as "The store had no bananas," "I have no opinion," "I ate no onions," he wrote.

But a surprising number of the old, familiar usage rules are just as arbitrary as this one. When the idea of tidying up English caught on, usage guidance became a kind of sport, with grammarians trashing one another and pitching their own ever subtler refinements.