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List With Legs

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

In March 2013, I wrote a short article for an online publication called The Week. Following the current mode, I composed it in the form of a list: “7 Bogus Grammar ‘Errors’ You Don’t Need to Worry About.” I explained why the following “rules” are no longer supportable, if they ever were:

  • Don’t split infinitives.
  • Don’t end a sentence with a preposition.
  • Don’t use “which” as a relative pronoun.
  • Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
  • Don’t use the passive voice.
  • Don’t neglect to use singular verbs. (By that I meant that it is OK to use singular verbs with data and media, as well as a plural one in a sentence like “A number of my friends are coming over.”)
  • Don’t use words to mean what they’ve been widely used to mean for 50 years or more. (Here I dismissed  shibboleths like using like to mean “such as”; decimate to mean “kill or eliminate a large proportion of something”; liable to to mean “likely to”; over to mean “more than”; and since to mean “because.” I didn’t mention the shibboleth against shibboleth, but will do so here, prophylactically.)

That seemed to work well, so a week later, I wrote a follow-up listicle for The Week, “7 Grammar Rules You Really Should Pay Attention To.” (And by the way, I’m well aware that some of the bogus “rules” and the actual rules in the lists don’t have to do with grammar—I was using the word loosely.) In it I recommended:

  • Using the subjunctive in a sentence in hypothetical or counterfactual sentences, e.g.,  “If Hillary Clinton was were president, things would be a whole lot different.”
  • Avoiding bad parallelism like, “My friend made salsa, guacamole, and brought chips.”
  • Being careful with a few tricky verb tenses, such as “I’m tired, so I need to go lay lie down” and “Honey, I shrunk shrank the kids.”
  • Watching out for pronoun use that will earn you calumny, such as “It was a great vacation for my wife and I me” and “They gave special awards to Bill and myself  me.”
  • Avoiding dangling modifiers.
  • Correct semicolon use.
  • Avoiding what are still commonly considered the incorrect meanings for such words and expressions as begs the question, phenomena (as a singular), cliché (as an adjective), comprised of, and lead (as the past tense of the verb lead).

As I say, these pieces came out in March 2013. Time passed. An odd thing happened. Two or three times a week, people would send out over Twitter a link to the “Rules You Really Should Pay Attention To” article, with some approving comment. However, I have never seen any mention, over Twitter or anywhere else, of the “Bogus Grammar ‘Errors’” article.

Today, when I looked in my Twitter feed, I saw yet another tweet referring to the “Really Should” list. This one, from a London woman, was cheeky: “Surely the title of this piece should be ‘7 grammar rules to which you should really pay attention’?” I replied with a link to the “Bogus ‘Errors’” piece and a brief message: “See #2.”

When I went to The Week to get the link, I discovered something kind of amazing. The site’s second “Most Popular” article—right after “The Cult of Natural Childbirth Has Gone Too Far,” published June 20, 2014—was that golden oldie from 2013, “7 Grammar Rules You Should Really Pay Attention To.” I went to the article itself and saw that it had 677 comments and 20,000 Facebook shares.

Why has this short article, summarizing some fairly widely known notions, had such longevity? And why did its companion piece promptly sink into obscurity?

The answer seems to be that you can get a lot more attention telling people what to worry about than what not to worry about. Bobby McFerrin seems to have offered a counterexample when he had a big hit with “Don’t Worry, Be Happy.” It may or may not have been relevant that his title included a comma splice.

 

 

 

 

 

 

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