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English grammar

Posted by James Cowan on 20 July 2017 in English language; Writing

I mentioned in an earlier blog that English is not "rule-based", merely a system of conventions ("More art than science", 3 October 2016, under Proofreading). That is, there are very few ways to be entirely "wrong" in English, although there are traps that can make you look less clever.

The easy one, that a surprising number of writers fall into, is to let the form of the verb (the "doing") and the number of "actors" who are doing it, be out of step. If you state that "a group" is accomplishing something, you have established that only one group is involved. So the action has to refer to only one actor. The verb must be "does". "A group do …" is simply wrong. Unless you are doing it deliberately, for effect. If you do it by mistake, the effect is that you are now looking silly. Which draws into question everything else you write in that document. As a guide, if it's "a" group, "a" number, "a" pair, there is only one, so the verb should be for only one. No matter what follows the name of the collection: "a flock of 500 sheep" still "runs" through the gate, because there is only one flock. Five hundred sheep, on the other hand, are all individuals, so "they run" through the gate.

When a word has different forms depending on their use – I / me or he / him – a very common error is to use the wrong form in a "group" activity. Thus I am often confronted with something of the form "he gave directions to my friend and I". If you take the "friend" out of that sentence, the mistake is clear ("gave to I"), and the addition of another player does not change the way English handles it. But it does grate on the mental ear when you read it – and will definitely be corrected if Perfectly Worded are proofing the work!

Here's another convention I recently came across: qualifier order. That is to say "great big" sounds better than "big great". Apparently the "correct" sequence (according to Mark Forsyth's Elements of Eloquence) is "opinion-size-age-shape-colour-origin-material-purpose", although for effect (if you know what you are doing) you can vary it. For example, in nature we hear of "great whales", but they start off small, so they can be "small great whales" as well as "big great whales" – as well, of course, as "great big whales". It all depends on exactly what you are trying to say.

And then there's the split infinitive. All of us of a certain age (or, perhaps, interest) are aware of the Voyages of the Starship Enterprise, "to boldly go where no-one has gone before". Anathema to some, and I concede that it does grate a bit, but it also shows that split infinitives are not in fact fatal. This one has become an in-joke. But some split infinitives confer benefits, and ease communication, and really do serve a purpose. There is a subtle difference between "not to go shopping" and "to not go shopping", the element of deliberation and decision. "Not to go shopping" says merely that you didn't go to the shops. To "not go" says that it was an option but a decision was made, consciously, that you were not going to go. Perhaps the weather was discouraging. Or the credit available on the card. But there was definitely a reasoned choice made. However, there are still some who will declaim that a spit infinitive is never acceptable; I am not among them. The very splitting of the infinitive emphasises the choice that is being made. As long as the infinitive is split deliberately, if I am your editor, you can generally rest easy.


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