More correct than you

Jill Rosen should have known when she set out to write about people who correct other people’s grammar that she would inevitably draw the attention of people who like to correct the grammar of the people who like to correct people’s grammar. (My reaction you’ve already seen.)

Some of the responses she got, with my commentary:

"I do judge a little bit," Corsetto admits. "That comment section was appalling. I was kind of embarrassed as a Barack Obama supporter ... some of the comments trying to back our side up were so poorly written I was thinking, 'God, writing this poor is weakening our point.'" It should either read:'God, this poor writing is weakening our point, " or be changed to "'God, writing this poorly weakens our point.'" Otherwise, its grammatically clumbsy...

The is nothing grammatically or syntactically wrong with the sentence in question. Writing is a gerund appropriately modified by the adjective poor. This poor writing changes the meaning of the original, the sense of which is writing as poor as this. Writing this poorly also fails to catch quite the sense of comparative quality.

I am one of the school that hears a mistake but lacks (is that "lack," singular?) the courage or the confidence to correct it. But to be a grammar policeman is to ascend a slippery slope. You yourself slipped on that slippery slope: Page 1, third line from bottom, you write, "His standard for quickie Twitter is different than his blog." But on Page 22 of "Grammar Girls," Mignon Fogarty instructs: "Different from is preferred to different than ". (Ex: Squiggly knew he was different from the other snails..."

It’s a fair cop, as the British criminal classes say. Though different than is not always wrong — particularly useful in introducing a clause — different from followed by a noun is standard usage.

A small caution: as representatives of "the elite," we are pulverized when we make an occasional mistake, even a typo. Each of us is susceptible. You wrote, "...but a person's standing in the online universe is based, in part, on how they use words." The antecedent of they is person, so the pronoun needs to be singular, not plural. They don't match. Interestingly, Grant Barrett makes the same mistake in the article's next-to-last- paragraph.

Person … they is increasingly accepted as standard in British writng, and some commentators, among them the authors of Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, suggest that Americans would do well to follow suit: Examples of they following a singular antecedent “are uses following a normal pattern in English that was established four centuries before 18th-century grammarians invented the solecism. The plural pronoun is one solution devised by native speakers of English to a grammatical problem inherent in that language—and it is by no means the worst solution.”

The singular they is already well established in speech and seems likely to prevail in time over the clumsy he or she construction or the sometimes-unworkable plural construction. It is probably better to think of it as a matter of individual preference rather than an error.

And finally, one writer drags in an error from a separate article:

I found it ironic that your column today dealt with mistakes in grammar. I sent an e-mail to Fred Rasmussen yesterday about his piece, but it came back undelivered. I.e. in the obituary headlines yesterday highlighting the life of Pasquale Polillo. The headline was:

Pasquale 'Pat' Polillo Johns Hopkins graduate was a broadcasting executive who become a well-known personality in Philadelphia.

When that is "spell checked" with my Juno program it does not alert me that the incorrect tense of the verb "become" is used. I have noticed that published books - particularly novels - have many errors. I think a significant problem is the use of "spell check" programs that often do not deal with syntax errors.

Mr. Rasmussen did not write the headline; copy editors write headlines for articles in The Sun. And while become for became is indisputably an error, I suspect that it is not an error in grammar so much as a mere typographical error. Sometimes the wrong synapse fires, or the finger hits the wrong key. Then the proofreader’s eye registers the near-correct spelling as the correct one, and off it goes merrily into print.



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