On the Difference Between Ability and Priority

Miri at Brute Reason has a guest post from CaitieCat, in which she asks us liberal heathens not to harp on spelling and grammar in place of meaning:

Particularly in a US context, where educational options are very strongly influenced by class (and race, in an intertwined manner), riding the xenophobes for misspelling ‘illegals’ as ‘illeagles’, or “Muslim” as “muslin”, what we’re saying is, “You should have been smart enough to get yourself born to the right kind of parents, who’d give you access to the best education, who were educated themselves enough to teach you ‘proper’ English, and who were rich enough to make sure you never had to work after school instead of studying!”

I agree with her position, up to a point. And it’s possibly hypocritical of me to even share her post at all, as I’m given to writing up entire blog posts just to tell people how to use better grammar, but here’s the thing: I’m a writer, and I hang out with other writers. I think writers should know how to spell. I think writers should know their punctuation and conditionals, or be actively trying to improve their skills. And I tend to focus on giving advice on how to do it right, rather than simply declaring, “You don’t know how to spell ‘socialist’, so your argument is invalid,” because I actually do have some awareness that learning the finer points of the English language takes more work for some people than others. I think being able to do things like keep homophones straight and use apostrophes appropriately is an end unto itself, if you’re going to make a habit of writing things which you expect large numbers of people to read.

So that’s where I diverge from CaitieCat’s position: I think writers should have a solid grip on the spelling of whatever language they’re using, and in the examples that I’ve pasted above, we know that these are errors some people make because we’ve seen them on protest signs.

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Patience is overrated.

“Thank you for your patience” has become one of those expressions that makes me cringe whenever I hear it.

The idea itself is not bad. The problem is that it’s invariably used to refer to situations in which the “patient” person didn’t have a choice about being patient. Like, when the Metro operator says “thank you for your patience” while pulling the train into the tunnel after being stuck at the platform for 20 minutes, that doesn’t really make sense. We weren’t being “patient” by sitting nicely in the train cars while going nowhere. We were taking what was given to us. The alternative would be to get out and walk, which tends to be a net loss in terms of getting to work on time.

The question is: “If I were not patient, would you do anything differently?”

If the answer is “no,” then “patience” is a meaningless concept. If you’re not going to move any faster regardless of someone else’s ability to stay calm while they wait, then there’s no meaningful communication in saying thank you for their patience. The sentence boils down to, “Well, look at that, you’ve been caused some inconvenience.” I’m aware that we Americans tend to say “thank you” compulsively, but we could still stand to be honest about what the phrase actually means.

Apostrophe abuse that makes my eyes bleed.

There are apparently some people who think they’re supposed to insert an apostrophe before ANY USE OF THE LETTER “S” AT THE END OF A WORD. Including a PROPER NOUN.

(And by “proper noun,” I mean someone’s NAME.)

You assume the error in question was at least attempting a possessive, right? No! It wasn’t even a possessive!

There is just no excuse for this. How much longer until someone writes out my last name as “Mier’s”? Come to think of it, I think it’s already happened, but then at least it was someone trying to use the possessive.

If you’re overwhelmed by the rules of apostrophe usage, here’s a handy rule of thumb: when in doubt, don’t use an apostrophe. It’s not error-free, but it’s a step in the right direction. Better to neglect than to abuse.

If you like independent fiction and care about halfway-decent grammar, please check out my Challenge.

We now return to our regularly scheduled snark.

I’m all finished talking about Iggy (or at least I’ve posted all the pictures I ever took of him), and there’s another 5 days until the next Sunday afternoon. Unless you want to see me use this blog as therapy and talk about how I was harassed almost daily by some of the neighborhood kids for more than half of my Peace Corps assignment (and you probably don’t want to hear about that), I’ll just have to go back to making fun of ignorant bigots.

For example, there’s this little nugget on Microaggressions, aka The Daily WTF:

“I hear these Spanish and Oriental kids speaking and I think they must speak English because they go to school and have to communicate with their teachers.”

Oh, for Pete’s sake.

First, there’s the matter of vocabulary. Do we still need to say this, in 2012? RUGS are Oriental, people are ASIAN. And when the perpetrator labels kids s/he obviously doesn’t know as “Spanish,” you should assume that most or all of the youngsters in question are not actually from Spain.

More importantly, this is the kind of complaint one only hears from monolingual Anglophones who’ve never visited another country. The issue is not that the Asian and Latin@ kids in question can’t speak English and therefore are not integrating into American society. The issue is that they can sometimes be heard speaking languages other than English.

It must be so, so difficult, to have to live in a country that allows people from non-Anglophone countries to immigrate and doesn’t force them to give up their native tongues altogether. It must be so uncomfortable to hear young people saying things you don’t understand, and demonstrating abilities that you don’t have. (I mean, they speak more than one language. Scary.) It must be so confusing to be reminded that other countries with other languages exist, and that people do not always stay where they were born.

How dare they.


I reject as false the distinction between prescriptivist and descriptivist approaches to grammar.

How is that I never heard of The Oatmeal before? They come up with the most amazing example sentences!

First we have How to Use An Apostrophe. Their ultimate rule is, “When in doubt, DON’T use an apostrophe.” I appreciate this. Apostrophe abuse is so rampant nowadays, I’d rather see one missing than used inappropriately. We have this discussion here to show us that writers are not immune to the scourge of apostrophe abuse, either.

Then we have 10 Words You Need to Stop Misspelling, in which they remind us that “If you put an A in ‘definitely,’ then you’re definitely an A-hole.”

I’ll make a confession: I tend to abuse commas. My last revisions on Charlinder’s Walk involved a lot of hunting down and excising unnecessary punctuation. Also, I genuinely love adverbs. It is, admittedly, a sickness.

We’re Amurrkins, and we tawk funny, m’kay?

The linguistic superiority on display from BBC readers is really quite funny. Some highlights:

2. The next time someone tells you something is the “least worst option“, tell them that their most best option is learning grammar. Mike Ayres, Bodmin, Cornwall

It’s less cumbersome than saying “the least of several evils” and more nuanced than calling it the “best option.” I won’t apologize for using the phrase.

9. “Touch base” – it makes me cringe no end. Chris, UK

Keep on clutching those pearls and you’ll break the string.

11. Transportation. What’s wrong with transport? Greg Porter, Hercules, CA, US

“Transport” is a verb. “Transportation” is a noun.

15. What kind of word is “gotten“? It makes me shudder. Julie Marrs, Warrington

We use a different participle for “get” here in America. We looked at all those verbs with irregular participles and decided that “get” would make a nice addition. It’s totally sound grammar here.

22. Train station. My teeth are on edge every time I hear it. Who started it? Have they been punished? Chris Capewell, Queens Park, London

You mean you call it something else?

23. To put a list into alphabetical order is to “alphabetize it” – horrid! Chris Fackrell, York

Oh, we’re such horrible, renegade Anglophones, with our using two words to do the job of six!

29. I’m a Brit living in New York. The one that always gets me is the American need to use the word bi-weekly when fortnightly would suffice just fine. Ami Grewal, New York

“Fortnightly” is one of those words we gave up when we told King George III to go fuck himself. We don’t need to pick it up again. “Bi-weekly” is much clearer.

32. Going forward? If I do I shall collide with my keyboard. Ric Allen, Matlock

It’s called an idiom, and our language is full of them. You might want to look up the concept some time.

36. Surely the most irritating is: “You do the Math.” Math? It’s MATHS. Michael Zealey, London

Here in America, we say “math.” No one here says “maths.” It’s just one of the ways that Americans’ use of the English language has changed since we ceased to be an English colony. We think “math” is a perfectly suitable abbreviation of “mathematics” and we tend to see it as a non-count noun. It saves us a tricky set of consonants.

42. Period instead of full stop. Stuart Oliver, Sunderland

Perhaps because “full stop” sounds like a driving instruction?

48. “I got it for free” is a pet hate. You got it “free” not “for free”. You don’t get something cheap and say you got it “for cheap” do you? Mark Jones, Plymouth

Actually, we talk about getting things “for cheap” all the time.

I’m aware that the complaint was originally supposed to be about how US English is affecting UK English, but some of the list items are really just comments on the way Americans talk. Unless the British still speak exactly the same way as they did in the late 18th century, they shouldn’t be surprised to hear some different words coming from our mouths.

Incorrectly spelled idioms

Man, I just stopped reading in the middle of what was probably a very decent blog post on the recent anti-immigration law in Alabama when the author used the phrase “by in large.”

I’m sure it’s a mark of irrational bigotry on my part that I react so badly to spelling/grammar errors, but, fuck it, I’m letting my freak flag fly. Especially since the blog post in question was posted on a social network for writers. We should know better.

The phrase is “by and large.”

“By in large” makes no sense.

And don’t even get me started on using “of” in place of have. Perpetrators of would of/could of/should of, I am glaring unpleasantly in your direction.

In which I am nonplussed.

To be quite honest, I don’t care how many spaces you put after a period nearly as much as I care about how you use apostrophes.

Why, you ask? Why do I care about the senseless abuse of apostrophes? I care because apostrophes actually mean something. Two spaces vs. one space after a period doesn’t affect the meaning of the sentence before or after that period. It just makes the page look different.

Meanwhile, there is such a thing as using an apostrophe where there should be none, omitting it where there should be one, and placing it at the wrong place in the word. Why couldn’t Slate feature an article about that?


Where’s the crap?

Jezebel is apparently scraping the barrel for Crap Email from Dudes of late:

Hi kc,
I do apologize for not speaking. I’ve been mentally and emotionally taxed these past two weeks, and allowing our new relationship to languish was a regretable but simple choice. Our connection had the unsteady seating of mirrors and physical pleasure. I enjoyed seeing a writerly life in another, but im too egotistical to mix it with real romantic admiration. I suppose all this explaining is dwarfed by my recent inaction. I wont be willing to make up for this offense beyond an apology. Im sorry kc. Im still a bit in the dumps and am just looking out for myself right now. With what little foresight I have today, I don’t see sharing correspondances or adventures anymore. I wish you the best and please consider the book a gift.

She dated him for two months, then he didn’t contact her for a week, so she sent him a quick email to break it off. This was his reply.

The problem here is not that I’m horrified at his asshattery. This problem is that I’m not horrified. His writing style says a lot about his intellectual and artistic assets (and none of it good), but this is not a terrible way to approach a breakup. Perhaps it’s an especially galling message after KC’s experiences in her two months of dating Mr. Seating of Mirrors plus one week of silence, but since the Crap Email series isn’t designed to delve into those experiences, this entry is simply not getting the job done.

Two of my last three girlfriends said far more hurtful things to me than this when they dumped me, and in the grand scheme of breakups, I think mine were pretty tame. And when the first of these three dumped me after I lent her a book, I made sure she gave it back. Granted, this breakup seems a lot more mutual than any of mine, but telling her to keep the book is a decent way of making a clean break. Suddenly not talking to your girlfriend for a week is a fairly crappy thing to do, and it’s not wrong of him to think he owes her a little explanation for his silence. He admits that an apology is all he has to offer. He says something weird about the quality of their relationship, but he doesn’t blame her for anything. This is shitty writing, but not bad manners.

Grammar Lesson: Commonly Confused words

Populace: Noun. Refers to the people living in a certain area.

Populous: Adjective. Refers to the state of having a lot of people in a given area.

They are pronounced the same way, and are both related to population, but they are not used interchangeably. Anywhere that people live has a populace, but some places are more populous than others.