Thursday, January 04, 2007

An open letter to Russell Smith

Re: You can fax it, just don't write mein The Globe and Mail Dec 28, 2006 pg. R.3

The column in question has some minor correct statements, which you may wish to alter to maintain a coherent style.

You wrote, "if prose deviates in certain crucial ways from standard written English, a style agreed on almost unanimously by various guide-writing authorities, then it becomes confused and unclear."

Merriam Webster's Dictionary of English Usage, would seem to disagree with your assertion of conformity. "A characteristic of writing on usage has been, right from the beginning, disagreement among the writers." If nothing else, there are the two main camps: the prescriptivists, who make about as much sense as this column of yours, and the linguists. And the gulf between them is sizable.

You next complained about "issues of logic, such as mixed up verb tenses."

Verb tenses belong to the field of grammar, not logic. Moreover, English only has two: past and present. And they are rarely mixed up by native speakers. Perhaps the problem is that you have mixed up verb tense with verb form. There is, for example, no passive tense, but a passive voice. There's also aspect and mood, and a number of other considerations when deciding on the correct verb form. Tense is but one; please, try not to confound them in the future, lest your writing continue to be confused, unclear, and ambiguous.

Regarding the "useful distinction" between "write me/write to me". The distinction is already there, both in speech, with intonation, and print, with punctuation or italics. Why require a second distinction when it is obvious to everyone that "a letter" is simply elided? Don't you deride redundancy?

As to your claim that graduate doesn't take a direct object, maybe it doesn't in your idiolect (which, by the way, doesn't usually have anything to do with writing like an idiot), but most dictionaries include a transitive sense. In fact, the intransitive usage was new and much derided in the 19th century, though it is now the more common form. The original was "He was graduated from university." Of course, the "graduated university" construction is new and hasn't made inroads into edited prose, but it makes no less sense than the intransitive form. Oh, and didn't you start the column by downplaying the importance of regional differences and being delighted by change? Is it so hard to keep these things in mind for a few hundred words?

Then, there's this utterly astounding bit of nonsense: "Remember that the past participle of 'go' is 'gone' (not 'went,' which is the perfect)." Went is the perfect what? Aspect? As in "I have went?" Perhaps you mean that it is the past, as in past tense. But we've already established that you mix these things up, so I suppose this is just rubbing salt in your wounds.

And you get paid for this?

May I suggest that, in the future, you consult a scholarly work on the subject at hand before embarrassing yourself and your paper with such trash. The previously mentioned Dictionary of English Usage should be your first stop. You should also consult the Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, by Huddleston & Pullum. And while you're waiting for those to arrive, hie yourself over to Language Log and spend some time browsing the archives. It may help you to see the error of your ways.

1 comment:

alienvoord said...

hee hee.