Watch Out for Muphry’s Law

Yes, Muphry’s.

M-U-P-H-R-Y.

You thought I misspelled Murphy, and you were going to rush in here and catch me, didn’t you? “A-ha, Mr. Grammar Pants! I caught you.”

Except you didn’t. It really is Muphry’s Law.

It’s a variation of Murphy’s Law, “anything that can go wrong will go wrong.”

Muphry's Law signMuphry’s Law says, “if you criticize anyone’s grammar, punctuation, or spelling, you’ll have your own grammar, punctuation, or spelling errors in your criticism.”

You usually see Muphry’s Law in action when political arguments on Facebook turn into flame wars, which usually turn into finger pointing about how idiotic a person is because they forgot to capitalize the “N” in “Nazi,” and so your entire argument, as well as your entire political party, will crumble because “no, YOUR the idiot!”

(See what I did there?)

I’ve fallen prey to Muphry’s Law plenty of times, especially when I write blog posts complaining about grammar sticklers and their nerdy obsession with using language “properly” but are actually wrong or outdated about their reasons. It’s embarrassing when I write a blog post decrying bad writing, only to find that I made a typo.

The only other people we love roasting more than erroneous grammar bullies are televangelists — the ones who tell us to live a godly life and send them lots of money — who are then either caught with their hands in the cookie jar or their mistress’ blouse. We heap scorn and derision on them the way an obsessive gardener piles manure on her tulip beds.

Similarly, God help you if you ever call someone out for making a stupid spelling mistake only to make one yourself. If there is ever a time to pause, write and rewrite, before you ever submit a comment to anyone, this is it.

Muphry’s Law, like irony, is cruel and heartless, and he will cut you.

 

Photo credit: Michael Coghlan (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Grammar Bullies, Write or Shut Up

I saw a video based on an essay by Stephen Fry about how he loathes language pedants (that’s fancy British talk for Grammar Bullies), and it’s got me rethinking how I approach my own love of language and punctuation pet peeves.

First, let me say I’m not a fan of a 6:30 minute kinetic typography video (see it below); I’d rather just read the original, or hear the audio, not read at someone else’s out-loud pace. But that’s just me. Other than that, this was brilliant.
Mean Teacher

For me, it is a cause of some upset that more Anglophones don’t enjoy language. Music is enjoyable it seems, so are dance and other, athletic forms of movement. People seem to be able to find sensual and sensuous pleasure in almost anything but words these days. Words, it seems belong to other people, anyone who expresses themselves with originality, delight and verbal freshness is more likely to be mocked, distrusted or disliked than welcomed. The free and happy use of words appears to be considered elitist or pretentious.

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There are all kinds of pedants around with more time to read and imitate Lynne Truss and John Humphrys than to write poems, love-letters, novels and stories it seems. They whip out their Sharpies and take away and add apostrophes from public signs, shake their heads at prepositions which end sentences and mutter at split infinitives and misspellings, but do they bubble and froth and slobber and cream with joy at language? Do they ever let the tripping of the tips of their tongues against the tops of their teeth transport them to giddy euphoric bliss? Do they ever yoke impossible words together for the sound-sex of it? Do they use language to seduce, charm, excite, please, affirm and tickle those they talk to? Do they? I doubt it. They’re too farting busy sneering at a greengrocer’s less than perfect use of the apostrophe. Well sod them to Hades. They think they’re guardians of language. They’re no more guardians of language than the Kennel Club is the guardian of dogkind.

Don’t Mind Your Language by Stephen Fry

I’ve always been a stickler about language, but I try not to make an ass of myself about it. I make sure I use it correctly, but I don’t want to be a Grammar Bully. I don’t correct people out loud, although I’ve been known to mark up a sign or two. And I’ve, on occasion, sent my friend Doug Karr a private DM when he’s misspelled a word in a blog post.

My bigger crusade has been spent fighting the Grammar Bullies, those self-appointed vigilantes who snipe and gripe about every preposition-ending sentence, every split infinitive, and every other misguided grammar myth that they insist on perpetrating because they stopped learning about grammar after the 5th grade.

(Had they continued, they would know those myths have long been debunked, and that you can boldly split infinitives and end sentences with any prepositions you come up with.)

My Challenge to Grammar Bullies

So I’m changing my own personal rules about language usage. I’m not going to pick nits off other people’s language, unless they pick on someone else first. I’m not going to correct someone’s mistakes, unless they just need a guiding hand to send them in the right direction, rather than a bully’s smackdown.

To the Grammar Bullies, those people who still vomit out their 5th grade English rules like yesterdays’ lunch, you need to put up or shut up. Most of those rules are outdated or were incorrect in the first place.

If you’re a Grammar Bully who doesn’t actually do any real writing yourself, you’re a coward. An assassin who does his work with poisons, so he can be safely out of harm’s way, rather than the warrior, who wades into battle and earns his glory. You’re the theater critic who can’t act, the sports analyst who never played.

I think the new standard for Grammar Sticklers (that’s fancy American talk for “you’re being an A-hole”) should be that you need to be a Writer. You can’t just complain about grammar and language. You need to produce your own grammar and language for everyone to see.

Write, as Fry said, “poems, love-letters, novels and stories.” Put them out there for the whole world to see. Let the other people who are “too farting busy sneering and guarding the language” get a gander at your work.

But if you can’t produce, if you don’t have any skin in the game, then your “corrections” are hollow and pedantic (that’s fancy talk for “this is why no one likes you”), and should be ignored.

You’re not allowed to gripe. You’re not allowed to point out errors in other people’s writing. You may not complain about these things, because you haven’t earned the right. You haven’t done the work. You haven’t slung the ink. You haven’t sat down at a typewriter, opened a vein, and bled.

Because until you do, you don’t know the annoyance of a pesky piss-ant biting at your ankles, complaining about things they know nothing about.

So, you self-appointed grammar thugs and bullies, put your Sharpies down, pick up your notebooks and laptops, and let’s see what you can do. Until then, keep your pens and your pedantic rules in your pockets, and let the real writers get back to work.

(As for the rest of you: seriously, stop putting apostrophes in words to pluralize them. “DVD’s” and “car’s” is incorrect.)

 

 

Six Writing Terms That Are Fun to Know

I listen to enough writing and language podcasts that I keep hearing certain writing terms bandied about like I’m supposed to know what they are. After hearing some of the same ones over and over, I decided to look them up. And then, because I constantly need to feed this beast, I decided to turn them into a blog post.

These are words that every writer should know, if nothing else, than to explain with a wild look in their sleep-deprived eyes why they do what they do, or at least, how they do it.Nude woman with the words "write or be written off" written across her front shoulders

At the very least, it just makes you sound smart at parties.

Hypergraphia

The manic need to write. This is more than just the weird obsession that most writers have. Wikipedia says “It is not itself a disorder, but can be associated with temporal lobe changes in epilepsy, and hypomania and mania in the context of bipolar disorder.” Don’t worry, if you feel like you need to write all the time, you probably don’t have hypergraphia. You’re just obsessed. True hypergraphia is the overwhelming desire to write, even to the point that you don’t eat, sleep, or visit the bathroom. (Ewwww!) But you can also tell people you have “mild hypergraphia” and watch them edge slowly toward the cheese dip.

Prescriptive versus Descriptive grammar

Prescriptivists are real bastards about grammar rules and the way language should be used. These are the ones who rend their garments, gnash their teeth, and wail whenever another sacred grammar cow is threatened. Scads of prescriptivists were truly upset when the Associated Press said you can start sentences with “Hopefully,” or when they learned you can end sentences with prepositions.

But Descriptivists — also called linguists — are more concerned with language as it’s actually used by speakers and writers. They’re the ones who shout “common usage!” like it’s a Get Out Of Jail Free card whenever a prescriptivist corrects them on something.

Metonymy

Replacing the name of one thing with the name of something else that’s closely associated with it. For example, referring to “Detroit” when you mean “auto makers;” “Washington” when you mean “politicians, Congress, or the President;” and, “Wall Street” when you mean “those thieving bastards who wrecked the economy.” Hat tip to @RyanBrock, owner of Metonymy Media, for teaching me this word.

Synedoche

A type of metonymy where a specific part of something that is used to refer to the whole. “The White House” when you mean “the President and his staff;” “graybeards” as “a group of old men;” or one that I’ve been talking about a lot lately, “Coke” when referring to “any carbonated beverage.”

Trope

A figure of speech where the words are used in a way to change their meaning. It comes from the Greek verb for “to turn” or “to alter.” I include it here, because metonymy and synedoche are both tropes, as are metaphors and irony (Completely useless trivia: These four figures of speech are considered the four master tropes)

Will these terms make you a better writer? Will they transform and uplift your words into the realm of the powerful and noble?

No. Not at all.

But are they fun to know because they make you feel smarter? Definitely. Trot one or two of them out at your next writers gathering, and use them in a sentence like it’s the most natural thing in the world. If nothing else, you’ll feel smarter than that smarmy, hatchet-faced Evelyn who’s always prattling on and on about her latest self-published “office romance” novel.

Photo credit: Djuliet (Flickr, Creative Commons)

Four Language Errors That Make You Sound Pretentious

There are some grammar errors people insist on perpetuating (not you, you’re awesome!). Some are just common errors that we all make. But others are errors people make in the hopes of sounding smarter or somehow official. (Think government talk or cop talk.)

I heard the first error — “an historic” — on NPR the other day, and thought of all media outlets, this one should know better. And it actually annoyed me so much, I not only shouted at the radio — “A historic, dammit! A historic!” — I wrote this post.

So here are four language errors people make that sound a little pretentious.A unicorn rearing back atop the Falcon Square Mercat Cross in Inverness, Scotland.

1) It’s Not An Historic

Just because you heard them say it on the BBC doesn’t make it true. The reason you say “an” anything is if the next word starts with a vowel sound. Not even a vowel — a vowel sound.

An apple. An MBA. An honorable profession.
A unicorn. A universal truth.

Say “historic” out loud. What sound does it start with? “H.” That’s not a vowel sound. Unless you’ve got a cockney accent, you didn’t just say ‘istoric. The only reason you’d say “an historic” is if you dropped the H sound in front of the word.

And since you’re not an 18th century bootblack, you’re going to keep the H and say “a historic.”

2) Bemused is not Amused

This is a tricky one, because “-mused” is the root word. People seem to think bemused is a form of amused, like it made you chuckle or smile slightly.

It isn’t.

Amused means you think something is funny. It means you found it slightly humorous. Bemused means confused or bewildered. It means you’re cocking your head like a puppy hearing a weird noise.

Bemused is not one step above amused. It’s not “more amused.” There certainly will never be “cemused.”

Just remember, bemused = bewildered.

3) You Don’t End Your Sentences With a Preposition EVER

Regular readers know that I hate and despise the “don’t end your sentences with a preposition” rule, because it’s wrong. However, not everyone got the memo, and some people are just mentally locked in to this idea. So I don’t begrudge the people who write this way, because they were bullied into thinking this is correct.

But if you speak that way, it’s like fingernails on a chalkboard.

It makes you sound like you’re trying too hard to be grammatically correct. But even most die-hard word nerds don’t speak like they write. They end their sentences with prepositions. They use slang. They have weird accents. But they don’t try to speak correctly all the time like an overenthusiastic school marm.

The most famous example is Winston Churchill telling an aide who misapplied the preposition rule to a speech, “this is utter nonsense up with which I shall not put.”

If you contort your brain and vocal cords to speak like this, you sound stilted and overly formal.

When you talk, end your sentences with a preposition, if that’s the way you would normally talk. If you’re not comfortable doing it, try to figure out a different way of saying what you wanted to say.

Like adding, “you know?” at the end.

4. Stop Saying “Myself” When You Mean “Me”

A lot of people say “myself,” when they mean “me.”

“Please email your questions to Bob or myself.”

I heard this a lot during my state government days. I think people did this to sound smarter or more official, but it’s wrong, so it negated any effect they were going for.

Using “myself” in most cases is almost certainly the incorrect usage. There are a few times you can use it — as a reflexive pronoun or an intensive pronoun — like “I see myself in the mirror” (reflexive) or “I built the workbench myself” (intensive) but that’s it. You would never use “myself” as the object or subject of a sentence.

Wrong: Give the cookies to myself.
Wrong: Myself baked some cookies.

The best way to see whether or not to use “myself” is to remove the other person — Bob — and see if the sentence makes sense: “Please email your questions to me.”

In this case, “email your questions to myself” just sounds wrong, so you know to use “me” instead.

We’re starting to learn that a lot of our hard-and-fast grammar rules are changing, either because common usage is rendering them unnecessary, or because they were never right to begin with (see #4 above). If you can avoid these, you can feel morally superior to people who make these mistakes in an attempt to sound smarter than everyone else.

I feel that way myself.

Photo credit: ranil (Flickr)

Stop Saying “Value Add”

English is a fluid, malleable language that is ever changing, which I always enjoy. Until someone comes up with a stupid term like “value add.”

(Before I go on, I know some of my friends use this term. Please be assured this is not a reflection on you. You’re awesome. I only harbor a grudge against the person who first came up with it.)

“Value add” — I can’t even bring myself to use the word without putting Quotes of Sarcasm around it — is one of those business words that went from being an adjective to a noun with a flick of the jargon pen. I still remember the first time I heard it. (Oh what a fun conversation that was!)

Friend: I think your ghost blogging service will make a great “value add” to a marketing agency’s offerings.
Me: What’s a “value add?”
Friend: It’s a thing that adds value. You know, from “value-added.”
Me: Why couldn’t you say “value-added service?”
Friend: This way is shorter.
Me: Except I hate “value-added.” You could say “be valuable.”
Friend: But . . . this is. . .
Me: Or “beneficial.” Or “useful.” Or “provide a great service.”
Friend: But I don’t—
Me: Or “helpful.” Or “marvelous.” Or “inestimable.”

“Value add” is one of those business terms that someone created because “value-added” was apparently too hard to say. That somehow the adjective “value-added,” as in “value-added feature,” was bulky and cumbersome, and tripped over the teeth before blubbering through the lips, like Quasimodo trying to recite the Gettysburg address.

“I know!” shrieked some business jargon harpy, whose song lures young marketers to them in their ships, causing the marketers to hurl themselves on the jagged rocks of corporate BS. “Instead of saying ‘value-added,’ which is four syllables, we’ll say ‘value add’ which is only three!” The other harpies cackled with glee, until a young harpy pointed out that “a value add” is still four syllables, whereupon the other harpies ate her.

Look, I was not a big fan of “value-added” when I first heard it. It sounded jargony, even if it took two commonly used words — “added” and “value” — and mashed them up into one awful word. English is malleable and fluid, and we are free to do things like that.

But I absolutely abhor and detest the new phrase, “value-add.” It serves no useful function, it sounds more corporate and jargony than even “value-added,” if such a thing were possible, and it doesn’t enhance the language so much as it makes me despair for the future of it.

The point of language is to find the best possible words to educate, inform, persuade, enrich, describe, and profess. Words like “valuable” do that. If something “has value,” we know it’s important. But jargon takes away from language. It dilutes language. Weakens it. Makes a mockery of it.

Jargon does not add value to our language. It is a “value-suck.”

is the owner of Professional Blog Service, and the co-author of Branding Yourself: How to Use Social Media to Invent or Reinvent Yourself. His new book, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide to Social Media Marketing, which he wrote with Jason Falls, is in bookstores and on Amazon now.

Five Writing Rules You’re Allowed to Break

Chances are, you’re repeating some grammar and writing rules as gospel, not knowing they’re completely wrong. Or that they changed. Or that they were never really rules to begin with.

Whatever the reason, you can stop doing them. In fact, you should stop doing them.

Ernest Hemingway

Ernest Hemingway - This guy knew a few things about writing and breaking rules.

I’m trying to undo the writing rules my daughter’s 8th grade teacher has been foisting upon her, showing her that they’re not really legitimate, but some arbitrary rule that someone made up to make our language fit a preconceived structure. The English language is an ever-changing organic system that defies most rules. The ones that were created hundreds of years ago — like “don’t end your sentences in a preposition” — was never correct. Other ones like “don’t use incomplete sentences” have changed.

1. You CAN end your sentences with a preposition.

This one doesn’t always work, but for a good bit of the time it’s true. The rule was created by a scholar, Robert Lowth, who wanted English to bend to the same rules as Latin. In the Latin sentence structure, it’s not possible to have a sentence end with a preposition. Ergo, said Lowth, English shouldn’t either.

But it’s wrong. There are times you have to end your sentences in a preposition. For example, let’s say you stepped in something that stinks, and your friend says to you, “In what did you step?”

Wouldn’t you look at her like she lost her mind?

In that instance, it’s perfectly okay to say “what did you step in?” It’s proper English, it’s grammatically correct, and it doesn’t sound completely idiotic.

On the other hand, “where’s it at?” is wrong.

The basic rule is that if you can remove a preposition and the sentence still works, you shouldn’t use the preposition. But if you remove it, and the sentence changes, you should leave the preposition at the end.

Okay: What did you step in?
Not Okay: Where is it at?

2. You CAN start a sentence with And, But, or Or.

This may have been a real English class rule at one point, but no longer. Common usage has rendered it obsolete. People talk this way. People write this way. It may not be completely accepted in business writing, but I can foresee that hurdle breaking down in the next ten years as more business people speak that way.

Besides, it looks pretty cool. And dramatic. And punchy. And intense.

And it turns out the practice has been around since the 10th century. It’s just some arbitrary rule our English teachers liked to enforce without ever knowing why.

3. You don’t have to start with the dependent clause first

A dependent clause is that sentence clause that can’t exist on its own. “Before the trial even ended” is a dependent clause (also called a subordinate clause). And we were told that you needed to start sentences with a dependent clause.

“Before the trial even ended, the real killer had been arrested and the defendant was set free.” not “The real killer had been arrested and the defendant was set free, before the trial even ended.” Even though you might want the important information at the front of the sentence, our teachers told us to put the dependent clause first.

You don’t have to do that anymore. For one thing, it sounds clunky. For another, there are times where the dependent clause will get in the way. Third, there are times a dependent clause needs to be set apart in a different way.

“The real killer was arrested — before the trial even ended — and the defendant was freed.”

It doesn’t always fit at the end, but it doesn’t always have to go first either.

Your better bet? Eliminate the dependent clause completely, or make it a standalone sentence. Which brings me to my next point.

4. You CAN use incomplete sentences.

This was a very minor point of contention while I was writing Branding Yourself (affiliate link). One of my editors would tell me not to use incomplete sentences.

Like this.

“But it’s a style choice,” I would say. “Not a grammar issue.”

And while you don’t want to make that a regular habit, stylistically, it doesn’t hurt to do it once in a while. It’s another common usage issue, where enough people have begun doing this that the grammar sticklers have to bow to majority rules and allow the change in the accepted use. (They don’t have to like it, and they’ll talk about it at dinner parties, but they’ll generally leave you alone about it.)

They also add some punch and drama to your writing, whether it’s fiction or nonfiction. Pepper them occasionally throughout your writing and see what it does for you.

5. A sentence does not always contain a subject, a verb, and an object. A paragraph does not always contain 3 – 5 sentences.

Journalists violate this rule all the time.

Because it’s a dumb rule. And untrue.

For one thing, people read differently than they did 30 years ago. We’re so impatient that we don’t want to read a lot of text. We need white space to break up the monotony of the Tolstoy-esque blocks of text we find in some books, tech manuals, and magazines. If you’ve ever looked at a page with a lot of tiny text and no breaks at all, you know what I’m talking about.

Newspaper publishers learned a long time ago that people won’t read long paragraphs and über-long sentences. So they encouraged writers to use short punchy words, short sentences, and short paragraphs.

Even one sentence paragraphs.

My daughter has been told her paragraphs all need to be 3 – 5 sentences long, and I keep telling her it’s not only unnecessary, but it leads to bad writing. If you try to fill up every paragraph with 3 – 5 sentences, you start writing filler just to get there.

But if you keep some extra white space in your writing — by using short paragraphs — people are more likely to continue reading long beyond when they thought they would quit.

How about you? What writing rules do you gladly (or unwittingly) violate? Are there rules you wish you could break? Leave a comment and let me know.

Did Merle Haggard Marry Two Men? Another Reason to Use the Oxford Comma

Did Merle Haggard marry Kris Kristoferson and Robert Duvall?

Of course not! Don’t be stupid!

But you might not know it if you look at a newspaper clipping from an unnamed newspaper (which was originally posted on James Joyner’s Outside the Beltway blog, “Merle Haggard and the Gay Serial Comma“). The clipping features a photo of the country music star with the caption, “The documentary was filmed over three years. Among those interviewed were his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.”

Photo from newspaper about Merle Haggard

Look very carefully at the last 9 words — “his two ex-wives, Kris Kristofferson and Robert Duvall.” The sentence, as it’s written, looks like Rural Merle was married to Kristofferson and Duvall.

That’s because the newspaper forgot to put the Oxford comma after “Kristofferson.” If they had, it would look like the documentary interviewed four people: two ex-wives, Kristofferson, and Duvall.

But the Associated Press typically does not use this device, and as a result, most newspaper writers and editors have taken it to mean “There will be NO Oxford Commas EVER!” What they forget is that the Oxford comma may be used if it will clarify a confusing sentence. And the sentence about Merle Haggard’s marriage partners is about as confusing as it can get.

Adding the Oxford comma would have told us that Kristofferson and Duvall were not part of the previous group, “his two ex-wives,” but rather, were two additional people. It’s exactly like the book author who dedicated his book “To my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa.”

I may have the occasional argument with an editor or punctuation stickler about the use of my beloved Oxford comma, but I have never seen an instance where using the Oxford comma caused confusion. On the other hand, there are occasions where blindly adhering to the “no Oxford comma” rule can cause all kinds of confusion. Or at least raise some interesting questions.