Grammar wars

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This doesn't happen very often — Terri Pederson, "Them's fightin' words: Grammar dispute becomes brawl", Beaver Dam Daily Citizen 7/8/2014:

A 27-year-old Fox Lake man was charged with battery stemming from a fight that occurred at Tower Lanes in April. […]

According to the criminal complaint, an employee of Tower Lanes had pointed out Gubin and another man who had been allegedly fighting in the business. The 35-year-old victim had facial injuries and injures to his hand.  

He said the fight began over a disagreement over grammar as well as their views on sports teams. He said Gubin had kicked over his chair and then struck him with a closed fist several times and kicked him. The victim originally did not press charges but called police a few days later to say he had received substantial injuries during the fight. When he was kicked on the left side of his face, he suffered three tears to his retina that needed surgery to fix.  

Gubin was ordered to not have any violent or abusive contact with anyone. A review hearing was scheduled for July 23 and a preliminary hearing was scheduled for Aug. 21.

The article doesn't specify what sorts of "disagreement over grammar" or "views on sports teams" were at issue. Perhaps these details will emerge as the case proceeds through the judicial system.

The comments, of course, are argumentative:

nuzzo:   If the guy's grammar was as bad as your headline writer's, I can see why it came to blows.
"words" is plural, so "Those are fightin' words"

Chan:   And your sentence has a subjunctive phrase that should be written "if this guy's grammar WERE as bad….."; it should not read "if this guy's grammar was as bad…."

Wangchung:   Who cares dude got rocked!

The most recent comment:

RobertWReif:   “He said the fight began over a disagreement over grammar….”  So about what, precisely, did they disagree? I hope it was actually “over grammar” and not simply syntax or even diction. I was once involved in a real donnybrook regarding the use of “continual” as opposed to “continuous.” However, this was merely a matter of diction, so it never came to blows.

The worst knock-down-drag-out fisticuffs I ever engaged in concerned when to use “who” or “whom.” That, of course, was completely warranted because it actually pertained to grammar. The fight was with Sister Alphonsine, my eighth-grade teacher at St. Pat’s. It was essentially a draw. Were she still living, I do not doubt that I could whup her now.

 At one point in my life I had several friends for whom bar brawls were a favorite form of recreation, but I don't recall grammar ever being used as a casus belli.  I can't even think of any literary or cinematic examples, despite the prominent role of brawls in 19th-century boys' literature, 20th-century noir fiction, cowboy movies and their successors, …

Update — There's some additional information about the sports disagreement in Collen Kottke, "Heated exchange between football fans results in battery charge", Fond du Lac Reporter 7/9/2014:

Gubin told police that he was at Tower Lanes in Beaver Dam on April 17, 2014, when he got into an argument with a 34-year-old man over the views of Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears fans, as well as a disagreement over the use of bad grammar, during the verbal exchange, according to a criminal complaint.

But there's still no information about the point of grammar involved.




  1. beamish said,

    July 9, 2014 @ 6:14 pm

    A literary example of sorts

  2. Yuji said,

    July 9, 2014 @ 6:26 pm

    Here's a sketch by Mitchell & Webb
    on a fight within an office over grammar, diction and pronunciation.

    [(myl) I should have remembered that. But the ethos involved is pretty far from a bar brawl…]

  3. profan said,

    July 9, 2014 @ 7:07 pm

    Gubin sounds like a Russian / Slavic name. I wonder if some immigrant / foreigner / non-native speaker bias is involved.

  4. mike said,

    July 9, 2014 @ 7:18 pm

    Since someone's going to post this eventually anyway, it might as well be me:,30806/

  5. Ben Zimmer said,

    July 9, 2014 @ 9:13 pm

    And then there's this Grammar Rumble.

  6. maidhc said,

    July 9, 2014 @ 10:51 pm

    How exciting it must be to have the Beaver Dam Daily Citizen land on your front porch every morning to keep you up to date on these events. "Did ye read what that that low-down Gubin said down at the bowling alley last night? — that 'data' should take a singular verb? I never heard the like!"

    In these days of declining standards, it's refreshing to see arbitrary prescriptivist norms defended by fisticuffs. I wonder how the judge will rule? Based on law or based on Strunk & WHite?

  7. Jerry Friedman said,

    July 9, 2014 @ 11:09 pm

    maidhc: How do you know it was an arbitrary prescriptive norm? Maybe they were discussing whether there's such a thing as a trace.

  8. Martin J Ball said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 12:58 am

    Commenter RobertWReif's odd distinction between grammar, syntax and diction stood out for me. What on earth is that supposed to mean??

  9. Jeremy Wheeler said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 1:45 am

    Lovely story! The comments show the usual lack of humour in matters grammatical. Am I right in thinking that Chan's criticism of Nuzzo's "if the guy's grammar was as bad.." is misplaced? I wouldn't have read that as a subjunctive.

  10. Peter Schult said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 1:53 am

    If Jerry Friedman's hypothesis is correct, we may be in line for Linguistics Wars II.

  11. Peter Taylor said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 2:33 am

    Not quite a fight over grammar, but I recall once turning on the TV and catching the very end of a (probably spoof) Western. The scene went something like this:

    Gunslinger: There ain't room in this town for the both of us.
    Studious fellow: There isn't room in this town for the both of us.
    Gunslinger: That's right, there ain't room in this town for the both of us.
    Studious fellow: No, the problem's your grammar.
    Camera follows gunslinger as he walks down to a house where an elderly woman is sitting on the porch in a rocking chair.
    Gunslinger: Gramma, git!

  12. Jayarava said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 5:45 am

    There's also this lovely gag about past tenses by Reggie Hunter:

    Woman: What do you know about Tommy Cooper?
    Reggie: Ah, he dead.
    Woman: I must be terribly British and correct your grammar, I think it's "he died".
    Reggie: At first he died. Now he dead.

  13. Mr Punch said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 6:37 am

    Grammar and sports teams … probably one guy insisted on "Man U are"?

    [(myl) People who care about Man U are likely to be thin on the ground in Juneau, WI — or even in the nearby metropolis of Beaver Dam.

  14. S. Norman said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 8:49 am

    The 1988 remake of the noir film D.O.A. had this exchange:
    Bernard: I don't think I like what you're inferring, Mr. Cornell…
    Cornell: Implying. When I say it, that's implying. How you take it, that's inferring.
    Bernard: I see. Then Infer this(doubles him over with a punch to the gut)

  15. Ellen K. said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 9:02 am

    Perhaps RobertWReif (commenter quoted in the original post) was being ironic.

  16. Scott said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 9:10 am

    "Gubin was ordered to not have any violent or abusive contact with anyone."

    Um … aren't we ALL ordered to not have violent or abusive contact with anyone, in perpetuity?

  17. Rube said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 10:16 am


    Yes, but for most of us, our abusive conduct does not lead to our bail being revoked.

  18. is said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 12:46 pm

    I'm flabbergasted that someone genuinely thought that "them's fightin' words" was an ignorant grammatical mistake on the part of the headline writer that needed "correcting". How is it possible to be so clueless?

  19. Rube said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 3:57 pm

    I'm flabbered that you're flabbergasted.

  20. Keith said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 5:38 pm

    I'm quite literally flabbered by the article…

    What's the point of writing such a long-winded and clumsy phrase as "[the] victim had facial injuries and injures to his hand", when it would have been so much more elegant to write "[the] victim suffered injuries to both his face and his hand".

    And then there is "Gubin … struck him with a closed fist several times and kicked him". It's important to know that the fist was closed, rather than open? Where I grew up, that was called a punch. So "Gubin … punched him several times and kicked him" would have been better.

    A little later, we read that "he suffered three tears to his retina that needed surgery to fix". At first glance, I thought that this meant that the victim had wept three times. But no, what was meant was "his retina was torn in three places, requiring surgery". Do you see what I did there? The passive voice used to improve intelligibility!


  21. Jim said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 6:19 pm

    Oxford comma! I'm sure that was it!

  22. Ø said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 6:58 pm

    Relax, people. This is local journalism. It is what it is.

  23. Gert Loveday said,

    July 10, 2014 @ 11:44 pm

    In wonder if the victim delayed his report of the crime so he could check his grammar books. He would have wanted to make sure he was in the right and not risk being exposed in court as a grammar ignoramus. Case dismissed immediately.

  24. Thomas Thurman said,

    July 11, 2014 @ 7:02 am

    Some show (ITMA, I think) once had a cowboy sketch where they got into a fight over grammar. ("You're the rat I'm gunning for!" "I don't like that talk." "No?" "No: it should be 'You're the rat for whom I am gunning.'") I am in the middle of packing to move across the country, so my books are not to hand. If I find the relevant book in the next day or so, I'll come back and post details.

  25. aslamK said,

    July 11, 2014 @ 9:16 am

    > "Gubin was ordered to not have any violent or abusive contact with anyone."

    He shoulda been ordered not to make no grammatical errors no more.

  26. Alex said,

    July 11, 2014 @ 12:09 pm

    @Keith I think the stylistic features you identify in the article are due to the journalist copying down policespeak mostly verbatim from the "criminal complaint." For instance, the closed fist thing is intended to allow someone reading the police report to gauge the severity of an attack– degree of assault or battery– based on whether it was a slap or a punch. Punching someone is significantly more likely to cause serious injury, and that makes a difference for whether it's aggravated assault in many jurisdictions. And the legal line is drawn at whether the hand is open or not, regardless of the mechanics of the strike which might cause most English speakers some ambiguity in applying the word "punch." (I wouldn't call a downward blow with the side of the fist a punch, but it is a closed-hand move frequently employed at close quarters by inexperienced fighters. Also, is a backhand a punch?) And the avoidance of the passive voice could be the unintended result of police being trained to avoid it in writing reports. The reporter would have had a stronger article if they had taken the time to re-write rather than cut and paste, but most journalists don't have time for that.

    @Jeremy Wheeler You're right about the subjunctive. The commenter is misreading the indicative statement about the past as an irrealis counterfactual about the present, mislead by the word "if" into a hypercorrection. If his grammar was bad in the past, it either was or it wasn't, and it's the first part of a conditional statement. If it were bad right now, it isn't bad but we are imagining what might be the case if it were.

  27. Alex said,

    July 11, 2014 @ 4:52 pm

    Also, if you wanted to make the sentence subjunctive in the past tense, you would say "If his grammar had been bad…" (Meaning it wasn't, but let's imagine for the sake of argument that it was.) You would not use "were." The commenter Chan has definitely fallen afoul of Muphry's law– anyone criticizing someone else's grammar will make an error of their own. Which makes me wonder what mistakes I'm making.

  28. Killer said,

    July 11, 2014 @ 6:43 pm

    @Alex: Since you asked for it, the one I spotted was "mislead"! But I found your post enlightening.

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