Author Archive

Grammar Girl Interview

2011-10-19 by Mr. Shiny & New. 8 comments

As someone who is interested in the English language and word history, I don’t just participate in English Language & Usage, I also read other blogs. Grammar Girl, from Quick and Dirty Tips, is a good blog to read for English advice. She recently agreed to do an interview for us. I polled the community and we sent her these questions. Here are her responses.

  1. How did you choose the name Grammar Girl?
    It just popped into my head, and I liked the alliteration. In retrospect, I think it works especially well because “girl” is a very nonthreatening word, and a lot of people are anxious about grammar, so Grammar Girl seems approachable and friendly. Grammar Girl is someone who will answer your questions without making you feel stupid or embarrassed.
  2. How do you come up with ideas for podcasts/posts?
    In the early days, I tackled what I knew were the most common questions (e.g., who versus whom) or things I struggled with myself (overusing of). Then I went through a phase during which I answered a lot of listener questions–the show often actually began with a recorded listener question. Then, when I started writing more books, I had a lot of guest writers contributing to the show, and they would suggest topics. Today, it’s still a mix of all those things. I mix reruns of the shows that cover the most common problems with listener questions, ideas from guest writers, and topics that appear in the news.
  3. What grammar-related question(s) do you get most frequently from your listeners?
    The most common question is how to know when to use affect and effect. There are exceptions, but most of the time, affect is a verb and effect is a noun.
  4. What’s the most interesting, thought-provoking, or fun topic you’ve tackled lately? On the other hand, what question are you sick of hearing?
    I’ve been doing small research projects lately. They’ve been popular, and I enjoy doing them. For example, I polled my Facebook followers to find out where people say “The car needs washed” instead of “The car needs to be washed.” It turns out dropping the to be is a regionalism, and that led to a lot of other interesting discussions about other regionalisms such as spendy (which is popular in Minnesota and Oregon) and bow up (which is mostly heard in the South). The studies aren’t scientifically rigorous, because the sample is just people who respond to my Facebook questions, but the results are still interesting. Frankly, I’ve answered all the common questions (affect/effect, who/whom, which/that) hundreds–probably thousands–of times, so I’m a little sick of all of them.
  5. It seems like many common grammar rules have exceptions. Are there any hard and fast grammar rules you believe in firmly, that don’t have exceptions?
    Yes! A lot is always two words.
  6. From EL&U moderator nohat: In your article about the word class of than, you explain the prescriptivist objections to using “than” as a preposition, but also provide some arguments in its favor. In contrast, I answered a related question on our site using two different corpora to show that than-as-a-preposition is in fact more common than than-as-a-conjunction. Have you considered using corpus-based approaches to answering questions of grammar? Corpus-based approaches have the benefit of bringing cold, hard facts to the table using logic and appeals to authority, but the authority of these facts might be hard to sell to your readership. The argument that “just because everyone says it that way doesn’t make it correct”, though specious, is, sadly, quite common.
    Great question! I’ve started doing more corpus-based research since I discovered the Google Books Corpus (Ngram), which then led me to investigate other corpora. For example, I did a Google Ngram search to track the rise of schadenfreude, which showed some interesting spikes that may correlate with a mention on the TV show The Simpsons and the popularity of the Broadway musical Avenue Q, which includes a song “Schadenfreude.” You’re right that many people don’t like the “it’s correct because everyone writes it that way” argument, but like it or not, that is one way language changes, and I’ve been looking through corpora and making that argument more and more lately. This isn’t a corpora-based argument, but on a related note, I recently decided to give up the fight for the traditional logic meaning of begs the question. I searched extremely hard to try to find a correct use in newspapers, magazines, and websites, but the “improper” use (using begs the question to mean “raises the question”) vastly outnumbered the proper uses. I literally searched through hundreds of articles and not one of them used it in the traditional way. When common usage swings that far in the “wrong” direction, it’s a lost cause.
  7. From user Robusto: Is it ever worth the time and effort to correct someone else’s grating grammatical mistakes? In my experience, even when I phrase my suggestion in the gentlest possible way it never works well and I almost always wind up feeling pedantic, priggish, or even alienated.What’s the general opinion here? Is it best to just let these things slide or to take up the fight?
    I think it has a lot more to do with your personality and relationship with the other person than anything else. It’s always going to be fine to correct your children or your students if you’re a teacher, for example. But you start to get on thin ice when it’s a coworker or your boss or a stranger. I almost never correct people unless they’ve asked for help because in most instances it seems rude to me. On the other hand, I know a lot of people do want to correct others, so I’ve actually invited a guest writer who does regularly correct people to write a Grammar Girl podcast on the topic and give advice on how to do it as politely as possible.
  8. From user TRiG: What do you think of gender-neutral pronouns? I prefer the zie/zir set, but when I used them on our Christianity site, all kinds of unpleasantness broke out! Do you think these pronouns are offensive? If so, which set of gender-neutral pronouns do you prefer?
    I’m not offended by the zie/zir set, but I think it’s hopeless to try to get them widely adopted. I strongly believe that they will be fine to use as a singular gender-neutral pronoun in the near future. People already use it all the time (especially in speech), there’s a long history of it in literature, and English desperately needs such a word.
  9. On a related note, why don’t English nouns have gender, the way they do in French and Spanish?
    I don’t know!
  10. What’s your favorite bit of punctuation and why?
    I’m fond of the interrobang (‽): a combination of the question mark and exclamation point. An advertising man invented it in the 1960s and held a contest to determine the name. It was almost called an exclamaquest. It’s not on your keyboard, but you can insert it as a special character or symbol in some fonts. (The easiest way to use it online is to just cut and paste it from a site that has one.) I like it because it fills a need (much like they as a singular pronoun that we talked about a couple of questions ago). In English, you aren’t supposed to use both a question mark and exclamation point at the end of a sentence; you’re supposed to pick one of the other, but when it’s a surprised question (you did what?!), the desire to use both is strong. The interrobang fills the need, while letting you stick to the rule of only using one terminal punctuation mark.
  11. Of the other Quick and Dirty Tips podcasts, which is your favorite and why?
    That’s like asking me which of my children is my favorite! I love them all equally.
  12. Below are two examples from our top grammar questions. If you click the link you can see the answers our community came up with. What is your take on these questions? Do you agree with any of the answers you see on EL&U?
  13. What do you think of the Stack Exchange English Language & Usage site? Is it something you can see yourself or your listeners using? What is your favorite question on EL&U?
    The reputation score is an essential part of the site; without that, you’d just have mess of people posting their opinions. I might use the site as a starting point for research, but even with the reputation scores, I’d still always verify anything I found there before using it in my own work. I like the question What is the origin of the term “Urban Legend”? because I had never thought about it before.

On behalf of the EL&U Community, I’d like to thank Grammar Girl for taking the time to answer our questions, and I encourage our readers to check out her site for useful tips.

What are you on about now? (Prepositions: on vs about)

2011-10-11 by Mr. Shiny & New. 2 comments

When something has a topic, is it ON that topic, or ABOUT that topic? This question on, or about, which preposition to use comes up fairly oftenMartha’s answer tries to explain some of the connotations that may be present when using certain words.

  • A discussion about a topic — this implies that the discussion was just a conversation, really, and it might not have stayed strictly on-topic.
  • A discussion of a topic — this brings to mind a true discussion, going into all sorts of details of the topic (and only the topic).
  • A discussion on a topic — here I picture the discussion to be somewhat one-sided, almost a lecture.

I’m afraid to say that I don’t agree with these explanations.  My instinct is that “about” and “on” are pretty much equivalent in meaning, as FumbleFingers wrote.

But if there are two words, and they both serve a similar purpose, which should we choose? People must care about this, because they keep asking.  It turns out that EL&U is not the only place people have asked. A blog post on asked the Chicago Manual of Style editors which was better:

She gave a lecture on recycled plastics or about recycled plastics.

A lengthy discussion ensued until one editor pointed out that it didn’t matter at all, since the meaning was perfectly clear and concise.

Until, of course, you have a sentence like

I once attended a lecture on the surface of Mars. (How did you get there?)

Now we have a pickle. The word “on” has many definitions, so once your sentence invokes one of those other definitions you risk confusing your reader. If you’re careful, you can spot the double meanings and edit your sentence accordingly. Or, you can be cautious and just choose “about” which has less potential for error.

Finally, if you want to just go with the flow, you can simply do whatever everyone else is doing. If you can figure out what that is, of course.

Ratio of On to About

(Ratio of less than one means About is used more)

Word Ratio
News 0.73
Discussion   0.6
Lecture 4.82
Article 2.73
Book 1.35*

*Note: Many false positives here, such as: “found the book on”, “book on tape”, etc.

From my crude Corpus search, it seems that there is no clear winner in usage. The numbers for “on” are inflated by the fact that many examples are false positives, yet there still is an overwhelming usage of “on” for certain phrases. So don’t get too hung up about about, or go on and on about on. It’s all okay.