David Foster Wallace Grammar Challenge Challenged

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Jason Kottke links to a "Grammar Challenge" devised by David Foster Wallace and posted by a student of Wallace's, Amy McDaniel. What's noteworthy is that Kottke reports getting 0/10. Kottke is a thoughtful, creative English prose stylist, and Wallace thought that these questions were basic ones that should be taught in any undergraduate class. Kottke seems to think the problem lies with him. I take a different view: this test is useless. Just imagine a chemistry quiz that accomplished working chemists could not pass. What would you make of such a quiz? I myself would question its author's competence at devising chemistry quizzes.

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  1. Amy Reynaldo said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 7:01 pm

    "She didn’t seem ever to stop talking" sounds horribly stilted to me.

  2. Deniz said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 7:04 pm

    Yes. Yes. Thank you. People have this reverence for Foster Wallace's grammarianism, but this is no different than people's reverence for grammar-advice textbooks; as has been pointed out many times on this blog, this is a symptom of people's ignorance of the way language actually works combined with the anxiety left over from grade school that they are doing things wrong. Foster Wallace was an absolutely brilliant writer, but in the arena of grammar he is flat-out wrong. One of the man's largest flaws as a writer was his penchant for showing off his erudition, a flaw because these displays (whether they be of French, mathematics, grammar, etc.) are the worst kind of show-offy: the kind that only impresses those who are unfamiliar with the subject.

    P.S. I know that his last name is Wallace, not Foster Wallace, but FW sounds nice and there are too many Wallaces already.

  3. Chris Weimer said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 7:19 pm

    Horribly stilted is an understatement. However, I have no idea how Kottke, whoever he is, had received a score of zero. Some of them are obvious (like the "whence" v. "from whence"). Some of them are arguable, but most people who write often should get more than zero answers right…

    Chris Weimer
    SFSU

  4. Faldone said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

    I can't get it to stand still long enough to read more than about a half a sentence at a time.

  5. delagar said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 7:21 pm

    Also, apparently some of these rules he has just invented on his own. The word aggravate annoys him, so say irritate instead? Please.

  6. Chris Weimer said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 7:23 pm

    On a further note, some of the reasons for suggestions (such the split infinitive one) is pure BS. "Distracting the reader"? What reader? Rarely do I know anyone who cringes at split infinitives, and those readers ought to educate themselves on real rules of English, not some forced proscriptivism that only came about recently.

    CW

  7. Keith M Ellis said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 7:28 pm

    Does he include an example of insufferably self-aware and smug writing? I know that's not "grammar" but someone ought to be sued for it, nevertheless.

  8. John Roth said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 7:36 pm

    @ Delgar @ 7:21.

    The point about aggravate is in Garner (Garner's Modern American Usage, Oxford University Press, third edition 2009) on p. 29. However, MW(c)DEU does not agree, and traces the pedigree of the proscription.

    Wallace did not invent it. It's a late 19th century invention by, among others, John Stewart Mill.

    John Roth

  9. Larry Lard said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

    I consider myself a reasonably well-educated native English speaker, and I find nothing immediately wrong with any of the example sentences (except perhaps #6's 'from whence', but I know – with this site's help – that that is an unjustifiable personal peeve). Does this mean I'm not half as well-educated as I think? Or is it in fact that the 'rules' proposed by the corrections aren't half as rule-ish as they might like to be?

  10. Franz Bebop said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 7:41 pm

    Delagar: Also, apparently some of these rules he has just invented on his own. The word aggravate annoys him, so say irritate instead? Please.

    This is the essence of grammar peeving, isn't it? Just indicate that some feature irritates you, and it constitutes a holy command from god to stop using that feature.

  11. Faldone said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 7:43 pm

    OK. I had to highlight the whole thing. It was apparently being presented to me on somewhat less than readable black on black. I'm with Chris Weimer, though, on the difficulty of getting zero correct if you know anything at all about zombie rules.

  12. Andrew (not the same one) said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 7:56 pm

    Number 7 – 'arguments of' – does strike me as a bit odd; I would think either 'as to', which Wallace recommends, or 'for' would be more acceptable.

    Apart from this, we have clear cases of one-true-way-ism (never say 'if' when 'whether' is possible, never say 'one another' when 'each other' is possible), and avoid-all-redundancy-ism (don't say 'from whence' because 'whence' by itself is sufficient). We also have cases of styulistic advice which, even if correct, are wrongly represented as grammatical advice; for instance 'Christ's visit to the Nephites happened shortly after Christ's resurrection' is undoubtedly grammatical, even if you think it is infelicitous.

    And the criticism of 'In my own mind, I can understand' strikes me as flatly wrong. Yes, you can understand something only in your own mind, but the point of this use is clearly to point a contrast – 'In my own mind I can understand, but I see that others might not understand.'

  13. Stuart F said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 8:53 pm

    It seems odd to me that for a quiz supposedly on grammar many of the reasons for rejecting constructions are explicitly aesthetic such as "Simple rule, avoid needless repetition." That is clearly not a grammatical rule but a stylistic one.

    Also while 7 is condemned as an "idiom error" (admittedly, I'm not entirely sure what that means – it's arguably non-standard but can be justified by analogy), 5 is rejected based on a literal reading of "in my own mind", which surely is itself an idiom, meaning something like "for me but not necessarily for anyone else".

    "From whence" is something that I used to think was incorrect, but you find it everywhere from Shakespeare onwards, and I doubt David Foster Wallace is a better writer than Shakespeare.

  14. Melancholy said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 9:08 pm

    Sigh. Such a shame that young, impressionable students will now cite these zombie rules as unalterable commandments "because Dallas Fort Worth said so."

    Strunk and White are old and dead enough to be considered archaic and therefore potentially fallible, but DFW – being only recently dead, and with his straggly facial hair to boot – was young and hip, and therefore may be viewed as a legitimate authority (dare I say hierophant) for all things literary.

    Sigh.

  15. Morten Jonsson said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 9:19 pm

    Evidently it's now permissible to speak ill of David Foster Wallace again. That's good to know. One can never be sure how long the required waiting period is after a famous person passes away; for some it might be a year or more, and for others, a week or two.

    My take on these sentences, as an editor:

    1. No correction needed. Points to Wallace, though, for digging up one of the more obscure zombie rules.

    2. The sentence does drag on a bit, and I'd probably try to find way to fix that. Wallace's extra "at" doesn't help, and isn't really needed for clarity.

    3. No correction. And no points to Wallace—his rule is quite common, though uncommonly obtuse even for a zombie rule.

    4. I'd probably leave this one alone, and definitely would in an informal context. Wallace's reading of the sentence as it stands is completely unidiomatic in current American English, and would never occur to anyone not specially trained in error-detecting.

    5. I'd probably make Wallace's correction. But I'd make sure of the context first, and that the writer didn't mean something necessary by "In my own mind." For instance, maybe the whole passage reads, "In my own mind, I can understand why its implications may be somewhat threatening. But as an official representative of the fire department, I have to assure the public that there is nothing to worry about." In that case, maybe the opening phrase should still come out, but maybe something like "In my heart" or "Privately" could go in its place.

    6. I'd think about making Wallace's change—when one word means the same as two, it's always tempting to economize—but then I'd remember "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help," and leave it alone. Between the Psalmist and DFW, I'll take the Psalmist every time.

    7. I'd make Wallace's change or a similar one, such as "about why" or "explaining why." "Of why" is as unidiomatic to me as it was to him.

    8. Either no change, or make it "She didn't ever seem to stop talking." Not to make it correct—it's not incorrect as it stands—but because it sounds better to me than "She didn't seem to ever stop talking." Depending on the tone of the passage, of course. Wallace's fix is the least likely alternative.

    9. In formal prose I'd make Wallace's change. "Aggravate" meaning "irritate" doesn't aggravate or irritate me, but there are situations where I like making the distinction, the same way I like taking my hat off when I go indoors, on those rare occasions when I wear a hat.

    10. I'd probably make Wallace's change. But his statement of the reason for it is inept. It's the jingle of "Christ . . . Christ" so close together that's objectionable, not the repetition as such. In the next sentence, depending on the rhythm and how long since the last time the name "Christ" was used, it might be perfectly fine to use it again. Even if it is repetitious. (I'll give Wallace another point for the buried joke here, about taking the Lord's name in vain.)

  16. Ryan Denzer-King said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 9:36 pm

    Wasn't "whence" the inflected form of "where" when it was the object of a preposition? I.e., isn't it "from whence", rather than just "whence"? I used to be of the Wallaceian school of thought, but was told that in fact "from whence" was, at least originally, the "correct" form, but I've never been able to verify the answer either way.

    Other than that I won't even comment on how ridiculous and pedantic most of the questions in that quiz are.

  17. Ellen said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 9:36 pm

    The correction of "From whence" to "whence" really surprised me. I know I wouldn't be able to make sense of the sentence with "from" removed. My correction would be to change "whence" to "where".

  18. Disappointed said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 10:20 pm

    Wow, the Wallace hate here is really distressing. Generally his own approach to grammar is pretty close to the Language Log line– descriptivist, fascinated by the communicative uses and possibilities of language, alert to the rules but never letting them get in the way of expressive writing.

    This seems like the kind of picayune dispute that crops up when two parties agree on almost every detail– the last small points of contention take on disproportional importance.

    Just imagine a chemistry quiz that accomplished working chemists could not pass.

    To make the example a little more universal, imagine a test on driving rules that an accomplished, experienced driver could not pass.

    Now go to the DMV and ask for the written driving test and take it without studying. Chances are, you won't pass. But I myself would not question its author's competence at devising a written driving test.

    The written driving test is intended to make new drivers study and memorize driving laws to help guide them when they first get out on the road. As they gain experience as drivers, they forget a lot of the specifics about driving laws, but generally that's fine, because at the same time, they're learning the subtleties of the rules from practice. They forget the formal laws about passing, but in the meantime they learn from experience when it's a bad idea to pass other cars.

    The fact that experienced drivers could fail the standard written driving test is, in my opinion, not much of an argument against the test itself. The written driving test serves a specific purpose. Experienced drivers might fail it, but few places make experienced drivers take it, because it's meant to help prepare inexperienced drivers by giving them guidance that they'll gradually need less as they gain experience.

    "From whence" is something that I used to think was incorrect, but you find it everywhere from Shakespeare onwards, and I doubt David Foster Wallace is a better writer than Shakespeare.

    This is just exasperating. It's a test about the rules of grammar usage. He doesn't say that no one has ever successfully used grammar differently, he is testing them on what the rules are right now.

    "I doubt David Foster Wallace is a better writer than Shakespeare" is just gratuitous bitchiness. This isn't about that! He didn't make this test as an author, he made it as a teacher.

    He said that the English students who were taking his class should have been taught these grammar rules. It's really bizarre to see people turning their noses up at this proposition. Does everyone here really think that English majors shouldn't learn English grammar?

    Even if grammar rules are flawed and arbitrary, people who are paying for an education in the subject should be taught what the rules are!

    In the answer sheet, the former student specifically says that Wallace's concern wasn't teaching students to adhere to the rules because they were the rules, but suggesting that they use the rules when appropriate in order to keep from distracting readers who vaguely remember that you're not supposed to split infinitives and might get hung up when they notice it.

    I don't understand what's so controversial about this approach. It seems nothing but reasonable to me.

  19. LLD said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 10:32 pm

    The challenge wasn't THAT difficult. And what's with the Wallace antipathy? He wasn't your thing, fine, move along.

  20. Karen said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 10:34 pm

    No, originally "whence" meant "from where", just as "whither" meant "to where", but now we use the preposition and "where" (whence "where at" which bothers many people). "From whence" is thus redundant, but it's been around a long time. If I were to change it, it wouldn't be to "whence" it would be to "from where".

  21. Disappointed said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 10:37 pm

    Accidentally deleted from the above:

    It seems clear enough that Wallace believed his students should know grammar rules thoroughly in order to understand which ones aid communication vs. which are arbitrary, and when it would be more appropriate to ignore them. It's perfectly understandable to require students to learn didactic traditions in order to make them conscious of the rules and give them an understanding of when to use them and when to disregard them. In every creative discipline, students are urged to learn the formal rules and traditions before they break them.

  22. slobone said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 10:43 pm

    "Whence" is dead as a doornail in American English, therefore incorrect for an American writer unless he is being jocular or quoting a Brit. With or without "from".

  23. Mark F. said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 10:48 pm

    I'm beginning to think the appropriate response is to take a high-handed, prescriptive attitude and simply assert that a given rule does not exist, and that the writers who say it does are in error. Showing examples of good writers using a construction is useless, because "even the best writers make mistakes." To most people, the only acceptable evidence about rules of English is the voice of authority, so you just have to muster as much authority as you can and make assertions.

    Incidentally, some may know the traditional English translation of the Apostle's Creed, which contains the line "from thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead."
    So "from thence," at least, has a pretty good pedigree. (I'm not following my own advice here, but this is a different setting.)

  24. slobone said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 10:49 pm

    Or she…

  25. Disappointed said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 10:49 pm

    Oh, one last note: while the student titled her post "grammar challenge" the test itself was about "punctuation, usage, or grammar." So much for the complaints that some of the questions aren't strictly confined to grammar.

  26. Franz Bebop said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 11:10 pm

    The Ring was made in the fires of Mount Doom; only there can it be unmade. It must be taken deep into Mordor and cast back into the fiery chasm from whence it came.

    Elrond said it, I believe it, that settles it.

  27. Franz Bebop said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 11:12 pm

    @Mark F.: I'm beginning to think the appropriate response is to take a high-handed, prescriptive attitude and simply assert that a given rule does not exist, and that the writers who say it does are in error.

    I agree with this completely. It's the only response that has any hope of success.

  28. David said,

    December 5, 2009 @ 11:44 pm

    LLD: The problem is that teaching the kind of approach to grammar which Wallace represents to students may result in some of them not leaving us alone. And teaching it without telling students that there are other, quite different ways of looking at grammar, writing and grammatical correctness (even for Standard Written English) is to do them a disfavour.

  29. Ben said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 12:12 am

    "Foster Wallace was an absolutely brilliant writer, but in the arena of grammar he is flat-out wrong. One of the man's largest flaws as a writer was his penchant for showing off his erudition"

    That's kind of not true at all. David Foster Wallace is possibly the clearest stylist of English prose I've ever read.

    He also, as far as I can tell, had a lot of faith in people without being naive about it. Which seems like a much more likely reason for his administering of this test than what people are assuming here. There can, in fact, be reasons for teaching ways of using language that have nothing to do with the narrow "descriptive linguistics vs prescriptive linguistics" dichotomy. Maybe he was teaching a class where he knew his students, and was well aware that telling them where to put "seem" in a particular sentence (no matter how micro-polemically) wouldn't automatically convert them into a horde of prescriptivist zombies.

  30. Elliot said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 12:49 am

    Disappointed: Your DMV analogy depends crucially on the assumption that the rules DFW teaches are actually useful and accurate representations of usage. Which, as many here have pointed out, they often fail to be. As a matter of fact his sojourns into linguistics, philosophy, mathematics, etc. have all seemed fairly embarrassing to me in the cases where I knew something about the topic at hand.

    It's a test about the rules of grammar usage. He doesn't say that no one has ever successfully used grammar differently, he is testing them on what the rules are right now.

    Here's (for example) dictionary.com on the topic: "the idiom from whence is old in the language, well established, and standard." I can't speak for you, but to me, standard means standard.

    It's perfectly understandable to require students to learn didactic traditions in order to make them conscious of the rules and give them an understanding of when to use them and when to disregard them. In every creative discipline, students are urged to learn the formal rules and traditions before they break them.

    The real question is whether or not these "didactic traditions" are worthwhile. The LL crowd isn't opposed to usage guides—rather they're opposed to inaccurate representations of human language, arbitrary or idiosyncratic rules, and general pointless stuffiness.

  31. Franz Bebop said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 1:08 am

    I'm particularly aggravated by Wallace's correction to sentence number three: "If you can use whether, always do so. If implies conditionality. Whether or not is redundant."

    What kind of mental infirmity makes it so hard to understand that the word if is a synonym for whether?

    You cannot present yourself as a person with good instinct or insight into the English language if you don't perceive this. It's even in the dictionary. It's probably in all English dictionaries.

    @Disappointed: Now go to the DMV and ask for the written driving test and take it without studying. Chances are, you won't pass. But I myself would not question its author's competence at devising a written driving test.

    There is no "DMV" of the English language. Instead we get tests conjured up by random amateurs. What if, instead of asking a random driver to take the test, you asked him to make the test, and to just invent questions and answers according to his own opinion. Do you suppose some part of the test might be wrong? Would you insist on teaching this test anyway, even if you knew some of it were wrong, or would you try to make a better test, or fix the mistakes, before teaching it?

    Does everyone here really think that English majors shouldn't learn English grammar?

    They should learn the real grammar of the real language, not stupid rules made up out of thin air by half-wits.

    Even if grammar rules are flawed and arbitrary, people who are paying for an education in the subject should be taught what the rules are!

    No. If the rules are flawed and arbitrary, then they should not be taught. If they are taught, then they should be ignored, and the teachers deserve to be mocked.

    I don't understand what's so controversial about this approach. It seems nothing but reasonable to me.

    It would be a reasonable approach if the rules rang true. The problem is that many of the grammar rules as presented are wrong. The so-called "rules" are not rules at all, they are just complete nonsense.

    Teaching English majors wrong rules is not a good idea at all.

    In every creative discipline, students are urged to learn the formal rules and traditions before they break them.

    Grammar is not a "creative discipline." It is possible to create sentences which are unambiguously ungrammatical. Non-native speakers produce them frequently, and their teachers need to correct them and help them practice. Allowing non-native speakers to maintain bad habits is not a way to encourage creativity, it's just a failure to do the job of language teaching.

    The problem with so-called "traditional" English grammar, as taught to native speakers, is that it has become unhinged, often divorced from reality, and full of bad advice and "rules" that clash with the language itself. The people who advocate these "rules" just do not know what they are talking about.

  32. Simon Cauchi said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 1:12 am

    @Mark F: You're right about "from thence" in the Apostles' Creed. Consider also: "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help." (Ps. 121:1).
    You people who deplore the preposition, arguing that it's redundant: you're making the common mistake of expecting English grammar to be logical. "From whence/thence" has long been perfectly good English, and it still is (though, of course, it's a bit archaic now).

  33. Simon Cauchi said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 1:17 am

    PS I must say I prefer the Book of Common Prayer's real archaism to Tolkien's fake.

  34. Sravana said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 1:38 am

    Is it just me, or does "She didn't seem ever to stop talking" sound incredibly awful?

    I must admit that flipping 'each other' and 'one another' is a pet peeve.

  35. John Cowan said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 3:33 am

    Disappointed:

    It's perfectly understandable to require students to learn didactic traditions in order to make them conscious of the rules and give them an understanding of when to use them and when to disregard them.

    That's the equivalent of teaching medical students that there are more accidents on full-moon nights or that cats suck babies' breath, just so they can learn which rules are useful and which not.

    Simon Cauchi:

    I must say I prefer the Book of Common Prayer's real archaism to Tolkien's fake.

    I'm not sure why you mention the BCP, as the from whence quotations people have tossed around are from the KJV — which is written in a deliberately archaic style, not in the ordinary prose of 1611. Tolkien's prose certainly isn't ordinary for the middle of the 20th century either, but if you mean that he didn't understand the grammar of an archaic style in English, you are mistaken. Elrond is, at the time, about 6500 years old, and it's not surprising that he speaks the Common Speech in a rather archaic style; Tolkien was by profession a student of the English language from Old English times to the present. Here's his own view on the requirement in certain circumstances for the archaic style, drawn from one of his letters:

    There were some thoughts, Tolkien pointed out, again in his Letters, which could not be said in modern words without sounding false. Replying to an accusation of pointless archaism, he wrote:

    Take an example from the chapter that you specially singled out (and called terrible)…'Nay, Gandalf,' said the King, 'You do not know your own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall in the front of the battle, if it must be. Thus shall I sleep better.'

    This is a fair sample – moderated or watered archaism. Using only words that are still used or known to the educated, the King would really have said: ' Nay, thou (n')wost not thine own skill in healing. It shall not be so. I myself will go to war, to fall…' etc. I know well enough what a modern would say. "Not at all, my dear G. You don't know your own skill as a doctor. Things aren't going to be like that. I shall go to the war in person, even if I have to be one of the first casualties' — and then what? Theoden would certainly think, and probably say 'thus shall I sleep better'! But people who think like that just do not talk a modern idiom. You can have 'I shall lie easier in my grave', or 'I should sleep sounder in my grave like that rather than if I stayed at home' – if you like. But there would be an insincerity of thought, a disunion of word and meaning. For a King who spoke in a modern style would not really think in such terms at all, and any reference to sleeping quietly in the grave would be a deliberate archaism of expression on his part (however worded) far more bogus than the actual 'archaic' English that I have used."

  36. Gordon P. Hemsley said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 3:57 am

    The commons on this post are entertaining, but I'm surprised that the contents of the post itself aren't as critical. I would have thought that LL would have taken a much stronger stance against a "test" of this sort.

    (I don't think the chemistry quiz analogy is harsh at all, but I recognize that some people actually think that it's too harsh….)

  37. Simon Cauchi said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 5:21 am

    @John Cowan: "I'm not sure why you mention the BCP, as the from whence quotations people have tossed around are from the KJV — which is written in a deliberately archaic style, not in the ordinary prose of 1611."
    The wording is the same in BCP and KJV: "I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help." My sources are the Oxford World's Classics edition of the KJV and a copy of the Book of Common Prayer printed by "His Majesty's Printers" some time before the accession of Queen Elizabeth II. The wording of this BCP is as archaic as that of the KJV, so I don't understand the point of your objection. I was merely agreeing with Mark F about the "pretty good pedigree" of the rather antiquated expressions "from whence" and "from thence".
    I do know about Tolkien's scholarship and wasn't disparaging it. I just don't care much for his fiction.
    All this has wandered rather far from the original point of this discussion, so now let's just drop the subject.

  38. ellis said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 5:48 am

    No-one seems to have challenged the remarkable statement that writers should avoid distracting readers. Does this mean that the narrative voice should be invisible, as it were, otherwise the reader's pleasure in the narrative fails? If so, that's just about everything short of the occasional railway timetable blasted…
    And if I were a writer who worried about whether I'd distract readers with a split infinitive, I'd stick to writing job applications, wherefrom this logic would appear to come (which'd be my correction for 'from whence', because I have a weakness for pronominal adverbs; I can see no reason, though, to even suggest anyone else have to use the damn' things…).

  39. Lance said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 6:28 am

    The one I find the most outright baffling is #2, which DFW apparently called a parallelism problem. I'm usually fairly sensitive to parallelism problems (even, I dare say, prescriptively so), but when I read

    I’d cringe at [[the naked vulnerability of his sentences left wandering around without periods] and [the ambiguity of his uncrossed “t”s]].

    it set off no lack-of-parallelism alarms in my head at all, because you've got "Preposition [NP and NP]", which looks pretty parallel to me. That, even more than any of the others, really indicates to me that the "test" is nothing but a list of his personal peeves.

  40. Melancholy said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 6:32 am

    @ellis

    To be honest, it's best when writers don't write anything at all. That way, we are not distracted by having to read their work. And they can rest assured that they have followed all the prescribed rules.

  41. Army1987 said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 7:44 am

    Well, I agree with his correction of #1 (although I wouldn't consider the original as ‘incorrect’, it's only me who likes ‘each other’ more, even when talking about more than two individuals).
    I agree with #2 (I prefer to say ‘of X and of Y’ rather than ‘of X and Y’ unless X is one word or a very short phrase), though I wouldn't consider the original to be wrong.
    As for the #3, my reaction is ‘WTF?’. Before seeing the answer, I thought the guy might have something against ‘I was over the flu’.
    As for #4, I prefer the original, or maybe ‘spent just six weeks’ if I really needed to be unambiguous. ‘Spent only six weeks’ sounds bad to me.
    About #5 I agree with everyone else around here.
    In #6 I'd say ‘Where had … come from?’, but the original isn't wrong.
    In #7 both ‘of why’ and ‘as to why’ sound funny to me — I'd say ‘about why’.
    In #8 the original is 100% fine IMO
    In #9 I would have used ‘irritating’ which is unambiguous, although the other meaning of ‘aggravating’ is meaningless here so the original is unambiguous too.
    In #10 I agree, but would never call it a grammar error. (Also it doesn't save anything, as ‘his’ and ‘Christ's’ are the same number of syllables; this is seldom the case in my native language, so I guess I'm less used to repetition and more used to pronouns than most native English speakers.)

  42. Tom Saylor said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 7:44 am

    The Book of Mormon gives an account of Christ’s ministry to the Nephites, which allegedly took place soon after Christ’s his (or His) resurrection.
    Simple rule, avoid needless repetition.

    ———————————————-

    It's ironic that in applying this stylistic rule Foster ends up violating the grammatical rule that prohibits the use of a pronoun with a possessive antecedent (his >>> Christ's ). This is the rule whose violation in a PSAT question caused such a furor several years ago. The rule is bogus, of course, but one I would have thought someone as "punctilious" as Foster would be careful to observe.

    [(myl) One thing about "snoots", as I've observed elsewhere, is that they're generally not interested in scholarly investigation of any sort, not even in cataloging the reactions of other self-appointed usage authorities. Rather, they just seem to enjoy enforcing their own peeves, crochets and irks on others.

    Thus it's quite possible that DFW didn't know about the Possessive Antecedent Proscription, or perhaps he knew about it but rejected it; in any case, it wasn't high enough on his own list of PC&I to make the top 10.

    Another thing about "snoots" is that they often violate their own rules. They and their acolytes defend this on various pretexts (e.g. "they're experts, they can handle it"), but a better model is probably the phenomenon of priests and politicians who indulge privately in exactly the practices that they excoriate in public.]

  43. Richard Sabey said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 8:49 am

    @Sravana

    No, it's not just you. Not only does it sound awful to me, it is an incorrection. The original sentence means "It seemed that she never stopped talking", but DFW's supposed correction means "It never seemed that she didn't stop talking".

    @Franz Bebop

    "If" and "whether" are not always interchangeable. DFW is wrong to say that his 3rd sentence has an error: it is perfectly clear, whether it has "if" or "whether", but there are times when the conjunctions mean different things. "Let us know if you intend to come" means "If you intend to come, let us know this", indicating that the writers will assume that the readers do not intend to come unless the writers hear from them in the positive. "Let us know whether you intend to come" requests readers to respond, whether or not they intend to come.

    I agree with many readers here that DFW is wrong to say that the sentences in the test are all wrong. However, in some cases, although the sentence in the test is grammatically faultless, DFW's supposed correct form is an improvement. So I think that, rather than "rules" being ignored, it would be good to present them as stylistic advice.

    For example, unlike Lance, I did see the parallelism problem in sentence 2. DFW was wrong to say that it has an error, but it does create the risk that the reader is led up the garden path and must reread the sentence in order to understand it. The extra "at" makes the sentence clearer.

  44. Ellen said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 9:56 am

    The format of the test presupposes that the original supposedly wrong sentences are understandable. After all, you have to understand them to correct them.

  45. Kate said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 10:12 am

    I don't consider any of the sentences grammatically incorrect, but I vastly prefer DFW's "correct" versions, and they match up with the unconscious "rules" in my head. They're not something I'd say was wrong in someone else's writing, but I would certainly change them in my own; that is to say, I wouldn't see them as breaking a prescriptive rule, but as less-than-ideal phrasings.

    For what it's worth, I got 8 out of 10 per DFW's scoring. Of the remaining two, I disagree with DFW on one, and couldn't find an error on the other (but agree with his explanation of why it sounds "off"). What that means, I do not know.

  46. Z. D. Smith said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 12:04 pm

    The problem with all this talk is that whenever you start talking about vaguely defined, if strongly held, stylistic opinions as 'rules', then you also need to cover your ass and provide some boilerplate about knowing all the rules so you can know when to break them. Which makes them sound a little less like rules. English has a lot of rules, and fluent speakers very rarely break them, because they produce ungrammatical or non-meaningful sentences. But the supposed failing to catch all the supposed rules here is insulting and needless, because when you start using that boilerplate you're basically boiling down to, 'You need to know all the vague and variable ways of writing that self-appointed 'snoots' object to for some reason, so you can know which ones to agree with them about and which ones to disagree with them about.'

    The sad part is that DFW really is totally within his rights to prefer each of the 'corrected' constructions to the 'incorrect' ones, but presenting them as this absurd objective reflection of the basic rules of English construction (as they stand now, which we can break with impunity as long as we can pass a test indicating we know that we're breaking rules) totally removes the potential for a real conversation about his own preferences. I'm sure DFW could have written a bang-up style guide, but every time he wrote about how to construct sentences he had to put on his ridiculous snoot hat. I remember a video that made the rounds not too long ago, of him on Charlie Rose, discussing his use of footnotes. I imagine how he would have sounded if he po-facedly informed Charlie that his prodigious footnotes were simply applications of the basic rules of English grammar, of which everybody is ignorant but him.

  47. Liz said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 1:46 pm

    "They should learn the real grammar of the real language, not stupid rules made up out of thin air by half-wits. "

    I think you severely underestimate the power and influence of half-wits in our modern world.

    I have great respect and interest in "the real grammar of the real language" but when you teach disadvanted young adults (not undergraduates studying linguistics) who need to write letters of application to half wits and pass tests set by half-wits, such a sophisticated approach has little relevance, and I am very reluctant to accept that that makes me a zombie. That easy sneer seems to me elitist in a very unattractive way

    As several people have pointed out, whether the test sentences were grammatical or not is beside the point. Several of them were simply stylistically hideous and could be better expressed without recourse to any rules.

  48. Elliot said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 2:03 pm

    Liz: No one disagrees with the fact that we have to recognize the practical aspects of how we choose to talk or write. My main issue with what you say is that no one has given any evidence that the sort of advice he is giving will in fact help them in the real world. You can't simply assume that all the advice of a self-proclaimed "snoot" will be useful; if the snoot's rules don't match actual usage in (for example) the corporate world, why bother with them?

  49. Liz said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 2:08 pm

    d i s a d v a n t a g e d – and yes, I respect the zombie rules of spelling, too. Though it can be difficult to explain why one short e in "necessity" doesn't need two consonants and the other does, the historical basis of this makes language interesting to me (and,sometimes, students). Spelling Reform may be logical and non zombie,but I kind of like it like it is.

  50. Liz said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 2:12 pm

    Elliot: And how do you know what the corporate world regards as important? I'm in England,and the pontifications of, for instance, some members of parliament and letters to newspapers like The Times do not lead me to believe that the world is yet run by enlightened linguists.

  51. Elliot said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 3:01 pm

    Liz: I'm afraid I don't understand your response. I didn't make any claim to know how people in some particular sector (such as the corporate world) write and speak. My claim was that people like DFW were giving advice from a similar place of ignorance—the implication being that DFW's advice cannot be defended on the grounds of practical benefit in the real world.

  52. Liz said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 5:44 pm

    Not sure this is at all worth pursuing – my students (both first language and second language) are preparing for low level tests which may well test their knowledge of rules which are not actually rules at all, but prescriptive prejudices. They want clear cut explanations – to some extent, to save them the trouble of thinking. My employers are also quite often convinced that, say, infinitives should not be split or pepositions should not end a sentence. Your average English teacher is not all that interested in linguistics so how do we avoid teaching zombie rules that we know are nonsense?

  53. Eli said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 5:54 pm

    They all sound grammatical to my ear. Some slightly marginal.

    The "corrections" sound worse, to a one.

  54. Stephen Jones said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 7:36 pm

    Though it can be difficult to explain why one short e in "necessity" doesn't need two consonants and the other does,

    Simple enough to explain. You don't need to double the consonants if the vowel is unstressed.

  55. Stephen Jones said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 7:39 pm

    Of course the above rule explains 'necessity' but not 'necessary'.

    But we only need to know about the rule when suffixing, and then the rule I've mentioned does seem to apply in most cases for American English.

  56. TB said,

    December 6, 2009 @ 10:43 pm

    Liz, it seems to me that the trouble is that it is impossible to know all the 'rules' (some of these DFW ones are new to me, and I fancy I know more silly prescriptive rules than even the average prescriptivist), it is impossible to know which 'rules' will be followed by whom, and it is impossible to know when a new 'rule' will be invented (which is often done, though the inventors will pretend its not being followed is evidence of the tragic decline of the language). In any case the waste of time is enormous. Why not teach them the real meaning of grammatical terms like "noun" and "verb" (which they probably think of as "a person, place, or thing" and "an action word") instead?

    Even if all of these were correct, pretending you are "teaching grammar" by teaching these superficial points seems to me like teaching children a few random math facts, like "5×5=25" and "the sides of a square are equal in length" and calling it "teaching math".

  57. Risma said,

    December 7, 2009 @ 8:30 am

    Going back to the chemists analogy — I'm not sure it applies exactly. I think it's likely that even though Jeff Kottke got 0 out of 10, he himself would never have produced most of these sentences. Correcting others' usage and style is a much different discipline from producing clear style yourself; when we read others' prose, isn't our primary concern just understanding it? So we gloss over inept wording ("In my own mind," "your arguments of why") easily, root out the meaning and get on with it.

    So I'm not sure that a seasoned, accomplished writer getting 0 out of 10 is a good stick with which to whack this test. (I like some of the others better.)

  58. Nick Lamb said,

    December 7, 2009 @ 8:40 am

    I am greatly amused by the DMV analogy tried above. The reality is enlightening on this topic:

    In _safe_ transport modalities we endlessly test and re-test the operator of the vehicle. The driver of my commuter train is subject to recurring ride-along assessments and classroom re-training. But not only train drivers, the signallers who set their routes are re-tested too.

    What car drivers learn is not safety, but risk taking. They learn that jumping a light usually won't result in a collision, that if you're not staying long you can park dangerously and not get a ticket. They ignore traffic signs, hoping it won't matter. That's why they fail if they have cause to re-take the tests – they're not safe and probably never were. The rules of the road are pretty safe, but hardly anyone driving obeys them, and so the roads remain incredibly dangerous.

    My experience of car drivers who've just broken a rule and know it is that they act just like peevologists. Firstly they refuse to accept that they're wrong. When the evidence weighs too heavily against them, and they fear looking foolish for continuing to insist that the rules are how they think they should be, rather than as they are, they begin to first, blame someone else for teaching them the wrong rules and then second insist that the rules are wrong, and should be changed… What we need is the grammatical analogue of "severe tire damage". A humiliating consequence for persistent bogus advice on language.

  59. Jan Freeman said,

    December 7, 2009 @ 12:35 pm

    Tom Saylor, Mark L: You say:

    The Book of Mormon gives an account of Christ’s ministry to the Nephites, which allegedly took place soon after Christ’s his (or His) resurrection.
    Simple rule, avoid needless repetition.

    It's ironic that in applying this stylistic rule Foster ends up violating the grammatical rule that prohibits the use of a pronoun with a possessive antecedent (his >>> Christ's ). This is the rule whose violation in a PSAT question caused such a furor several years ago. The rule is bogus, of course, but one I would have thought someone as "punctilious" as Foster would be careful to observe.

    ———————————————-
    And:
    [(myl) One thing about "snoots", as I've observed elsewhere, is that they're generally not interested in scholarly investigation of any sort, not even in cataloging the reactions of other self-appointed usage authorities. Rather, they just seem to enjoy enforcing their own peeves, crochets and irks on others.

    Thus it's quite possible that DFW didn't know about the Possessive Antecedent Proscription, or perhaps he knew about it but rejected it; in any case, it wasn't high enough on his own list of PC&I to make the top 10.]

    But I thought the PAP (as promulgated by its adherents) applied only when the pronoun in question was not possessive: "Christ's ministry … soon after HE did something or other." And that "Christ's ministry … soon after HIS something" was considered kosher. No?

  60. Boris said,

    December 7, 2009 @ 12:40 pm

    The aggravate/irritate distinction was drummed into me by the SAT prep books, and so that was the easiest part for me, though I'm not sure I'd notice it if I weren't looking for errors. I've also picked up a few that I don't consider errors, but others do, like the misplaced only. I failed to pick up the if/whether thing, even though I'd consider it an error in formal writing (though I use if a lot in such cases when I talk. Also, I find the talk about never using "whether or not" ridiculous, since I was taught that the way to determine whether or not to use "whether" for "if" was to see if (or not?) I could add "or not" to the sentence without changing the meaning). I guessed the right answer for "whence", though I wasn't sure about its precise meaning, and wouldn't ever use it (If there's one prescriptive rule I agree with it's "never use words you don't understand")

  61. jamessal said,

    December 7, 2009 @ 1:30 pm

    Nothing helps you learn new words more than the embarrassment of misusing them.

  62. Peter Taylor said,

    December 7, 2009 @ 2:28 pm

    Boris wrote:

    Also, I find the talk about never using "whether or not" ridiculous, since I was taught that the way to determine whether or not to use "whether" for "if" was to see if (or not?) I could add "or not" to the sentence without changing the meaning).

    I don't know whether that works for some dialects, but I know that I (Home Counties BrE speaker) consider "Ask him whether he wants chips or mash" correct, and "Ask him whether or not he wants chips or mash" to mean something different (and to sound slightly wrong).

  63. dwmacg said,

    December 8, 2009 @ 4:40 pm

    Here's my take on what's wrong with some of these sentences:

    3. My brother called to find out if I was over the flu yet.
    If he really cared, he'd bring over some chicken soup.

    4. I only spent six weeks in Napa.
    Stop showing off. Most of us would be content with a long weekend.

    6. From whence had his new faith come?
    Dude, it's faith. It comes from above.

    9. As the relationship progressed, I found her facial tic more and more aggravating.
    Clearly the relationship was regressing.

  64. JR said,

    December 11, 2009 @ 12:52 pm

    To take the thread in another direction, the argument that the prescriptivist rules are arbitrary and nonsensical may be missing the point.

    The prescriptivist tradition is maintained by writers and editors; as such, DFW is teaching students about the professional standards of publishing, rather than the grammatical rules of English as such. These prescriptivist rules are a barrier to entry within publishing, and aspiring editors need to know and enforce them in their own writing and editing in order to keep a paying job.

    As such, DFW is playing Henry Higgins. Not necessarily because RP is inherently more correct than Eliza Doolittle's Cockney English, or say AAVE, but because the ability to codeswitch into prestige dialect and prestige culture lowers a barrier out of poverty.

    If prescriptivism is effectively a written prestige dialect, or moat defending professional writers/editors, then arcane, counterintuitive, nonsensical rules may be the point.

  65. sharon said,

    December 12, 2009 @ 6:11 am

    I can't help thinking that someone who wants to set grammar/usage/style tests should be setting a better example than this:

    I have ever and will ever encounter

    "I have ever encountered or will ever encounter", shurely? (Which strikes me as a more clear-cut grammatical error than anything in the examples…)

    It's always hard to keep up with these people – how is the poor student supposed to know which prescriptions they prescribe and which ones they don't?

  66. sharon said,

    December 12, 2009 @ 6:52 am

    I've just noticed, btw, that I changed 'and' to 'or' there… which doesn't mean that I think 'and' was wrong, simply that it wouldn't be my instinctive choice…

    (I continue to reserve the right to criticise people who – regardless of their own writing talents – fail to understand the difference between personal peeves and general conventions, let alone useful rules, and those who – worse still – lecture others while displaying their own ignorance.)

  67. Not My Leg said,

    December 16, 2009 @ 12:28 am

    I know I am really late on this, but I love that the correction of "From whence" is to change it to "Whence." Because when you want to say from where, the most understandable way to say it is "whence."

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