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by Martha Brockenbrough

Grammatical errors we can ignore

Bryan A. Garner, in his Dictionary of Modern American Usage, talks about words that have been "skunked," meaning they've turned putrid because of disputes over their acceptable uses. Some people stick with the traditional; others open their vocabulary to the new. There's no pleasing both groups. Savvy writers avoid the skunks, so that no readers are distracted by the smell. We can imagine ourselves here to be like wise and courageous generals who, despite their clanking collection of victory medals, sometimes look at their fellow warriors and say, "Let's pack it in, boys. This is one we're not going to win."

This sort of thing does happen with language, you know:  we fight the good fight and lose, anyway. The lost causes:

We Can No Longer Take "Literally" Quite So Literally.

It once meant actually true. Now, though, it's used literally all the time as an intensifier.

"Hopefully" No Longer Merely Means "in a Hopeful Manner."

Though many writers, current and former nuns, and teachers of English seize up in the bowels when it stands in as a shorter substitute for "it is hoped," it's still a common usage. Crusaders will have better luck taking their red pens elsewhere. And really, do we want people to start saying, "It is hoped that the weather will be balmy tomorrow"? Hopefully not.

We Cannot Require Our Children to Say "Shall" Instead of "Will" for Simple Future Tense.

Grammar books used to insist the first-person future for both I and we was "shall." I shall see you tomorrow, Lady Hedgerow!

With I and we, the verb "will" had a specific function:  to express intention, command, or desire. I will defeat the Kaiser! I WILL!

With sentences in the second and third person, however, these "shall"/"will" roles were reversed. You shall bring his head to me! Or, he will see the doctor tomorrow about that rash.

This distinction is pretty much dead, except when singing the protest song "We Shall Overcome." Grammatically speaking, that's ironic, for we shall not overcome the will of the masses on this issue.

"A Couple Of" Doesn't Always Require the "Of."

Though some find the expression "I read a couple books this summer" to be abominable without the "of," it's increasingly acceptable in informal contexts to drop that preposition. And indeed, there are some uses where the "of" is a bit precious. Imagine the person at the picnic stating his intention to eat a "couple of more" chips (or even the scholar saying, "I plan to read a couple of more books"). "A couple of" is already inexact, at least in its idiomatic sense; when paired with an also inexact word like "more," insisting on that "of" is a bit like cleaning a muddy pig with a greasy rag:  hopeless.

No One Can Be Sent to Grammar Detention for Describing Food as "Healthy."

It is true that "healthful" means wholesome. But "healthy" has been used to mean the same thing since 1552, so those of us who experience unhealthful bouts of high blood pressure when we see an advertisement for "healthy cereal" need to find a new outlet for our consternation. Or, if we have a healthy appetite, we can always eat a few cookies.

From Things That Make Us (Sic) by Martha Brockenbrough. Copyright © 2008 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martin's Press, LLC.

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Articles in this Issue

Dispatch from the American Arctic: A Sense of Despair, by Bill Streever
The Feast of Stephen, by Annie Breeding
The Life and Death of Señor Armando, by Meredith Cornett
After the Boat Went Down, by Alan Huffman
English, by Martha Brockenbrough
Sociology, by Corinne Loveland
History, by Clyde L. Borg
March 2009


Martha Brockenbrough is the founder of SPOGG, the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar, as well as a writer for Encarta.com and the former editor-in-chief of MSN.com. She is the author of It Could Happen to You and lives in Seattle with her family. Please visit her websites at www.SPOGG.org, www.thingsthatmakeussic, and www.nationalgrammarday.com.

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