Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Grammatical Errors That Aren't

By Davilynn Furlow

Here is an excerpt from an excellent piece by Mark Nichol on the Web site Daily Writing Tips. These are four of seven grammar fallacies he shattered. I found these the most compelling.

7 Grammatical Errors That Aren’t

By Mark Nichol

There are two types of grammar: Descriptive, which describes what is customary, and prescriptive grammar, which prescribes what should be. A tension between the two systems is inevitable — and healthy; it keeps us thinking about what we’re saying and writing.

Allowing mob rule at the expense of some governing of composition is madness, but a diction dictatorship is dangerous, too. As with any prescription, an overdose is contraindicated. Here are some hard pills to swallow for language mavens who require a strict adherence to rigid syntactical patterns at the expense of, well, language:

1. Never split an infinitive.
It isn’t wise to always ignore this fallacious rule against dividing the elements of the verb phrase “to (verb)” with an adverb, but to blindly follow it is to prohibit pleasing turns of phrase — one of the best known of which is from the introductory voice-over from all the Star Trek television series: “to boldly go where no one has gone before.”

2. Never end a sentence with a preposition.
This rule is ridiculous, to start with. If you believe it, please tell me what planet you are from. What are you striving for? Give it up. Am I getting my point across?

The stricture against closing sentences with words that describe position stems from an eighteen-century fetish for the supposed perfection of classical Latin, which allowed no split infinitives — for the excellent reason that Latin infinitives consist of single words. English, however, being a distant relative of that language, should be allowed to form its own customs.

3. Never begin a sentence with a conjunction.
And why not? For an honorable tradition of doing just that exists. But some people persist in prohibiting this technique. Yet we defy them. Or we simply ignore them or laugh at them, neither of which they appreciate. Nor do they understand our attitude, though we try to convince them, and will continue to do so. So there.
The words beginning each of these sentences are conjunctions... Every one is perfectly acceptable at the head of a sentence. As is obvious from the previous paragraph, however, a little goes a long way.

4. Distinguish between while and though.
Petty prescriptivists would have you reserve while for temporal usage only: “While I agree, I resist,” they say, should be revised to “Though I agree, I resist.” I freely admit that I often change while to though, and while I understand — I’m sorry, I can’t stop myself — and though I understand that it may seem pedantic, I think though reads better.

Friday, February 4, 2011

Inspiration for Beginning a Book

By Bill Furlow

In a recent post, we mentioned that author John Irving said it often takes him seven months to a year to develop the first sentence of a novel.

I don't know how long it took my friend and former boss Dale Fetherling to come up with the first paragraph of his 1973 biography of "Mother Jones," but it's a dilly. Dale died last month at the far-too-young age of 69. He had spent the first two-thirds of his career as a journalist, principally as the editor of the now-departed San Diego County Edition of the Los Angeles Times, where he hired me as city editor in 1980. Then he became a successful author and collaborator on about 20 books for other people.

Read this opening to Mother Jones: Miners' Angel for inspiration in how to begin a book.

The fire, at times a 100-foot-high wall of flame, hurtled down streets, burst through buildings, and engulfed whole blocks. It bore down with heat and smoke and ash on the refugees and sightseers who jammed the city’s streets and bridges. To many of those who fled, the scene may have seemed like the preacher’s most spirited description of Judgment Day. Block after block was aflame. Wagons, carts, wheelbarrows, and buggies piled high with personal effects became stalled in a sea of pedestrians rained upon by blazing embers. Desperate owners and would-be looters tossed valuables from upper-story windows. Horses, dogs, and children ran through the streets in search for their masters. Bearers of makeshift stretchers jostled with the crowd in an attempt to move the sick and the injured. Toppling walls, the crackle of flames, and a strong wind competed with the screams of the frantic and the whistling of tugboats pushing sailing ships to safety. It was 1871. Chicago – ‘’the Gem of the Prairie’’ – was being destroyed by the then-most-destructive fire in American history.