Beheading the hydra

The Baltimore Sun

You will recall that when Hercules attacked the Lernean Hydra, his second labor, every time he cut off one of its nine heads, two more grew in its place. Such today is the labor of those who would decapitate peevery and pedantry. 

David Marsh wrote recently in the Guardian on "10 grammar rules you can forget." Readers of this blog will recognize them: the split infinitive, the stranded preposition, the conjunction beginning a sentence, none only in the singular, that lot. The article is adapted from his new book, For Who the Bell Tolls: One Man's Quest for Grammatical Perfection. I have not read the book and do not know the author,* but if the book is as clear and sensible as the article, it merits your attention. 

His article, as you may imagine, quickly drew the attention of the hydra, the peeververein being well represented in the comments on the Guardian article. One in particular, from an external examiner at the University of London, rang all the changes: "elements of grammar that have been sacrosanct among the educated classes for centuries," a swipe at those filthy Young People and their 140-character illiteracies, the "dumbing-down" of language, sloppiness, ignorance, and the abandonment of all meaningful distinctions. The comment is echt peevery in its combination of ignorance about the language and shameless snobbery. 

At the blog Lavengro, Peter Harvey's post "Pedantry rides again" sets off to lop off the heads as fast as they grow back. He takes the commenter's text sentence by sentence, pointing out the flaws and lapses in its usage and reasoning. It brilliantly illustrates how the commenter falls afoul of Muphry's Law, that any text criticizing editing will contain some fault. 

If you have wondered why this blog keeps returning to the same subjects, attacking the same shibboleths and superstitions again and again, it is because the battle is never won, and never abandoned. 

I am indebted to Barrie England at Caxton for notice of Mr. Marsh's original article and Mr. Harvey's riposte to the commenter



*Mr. Marsh and I are, however, both members of the Facebook group Horny-Handed Subs of Toil. I rather regret that American journalism does not use the terms sub-editor and sub. The Latin preposition sub, with the senses of "under," "up under," "close to," "beneath," and "below," is so much more evocative of the copy editor's life than the prosaic copy editor


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