Sunday, July 10, 2016

Grammar trouble

Most of the time, when I see a grammar error, I can still understand the message.  However, when I am reading, even when the intent is clear, I suddenly recall that I am in my room with one hand on my dog, rather than watching the folks of The Laundry fighting to prevent the Return of the Old Ones. The error takes me out of the moment.

My friend, the Big Hominid, occasionally discusses common grammatical errors. I think I understand this one but I definitely use "me" and "I" wrongly in conversation and I didn't have the background or the vocabulary to explain usages.

Here is a list of 15 common grammar mistakes.
10. Superfluous Commas
It’s common writing mistake to throw commas around liberally when they aren’t necessary. There are dozens of examples of this error, but here are a few common mistakes.
Example 1:
Incorrect: The woman never went into the city, because she didn’t feel comfortable driving in traffic.
Correct: The woman never went into the city because she didn’t feel comfortable driving in traffic.
Example 2:
Incorrect: He wants to get a degree in engineering, or medicine.
Correct: He wants to get a degree in engineering or medicine.
I find that I overuse commas.  Ironically, when I read Richard Dawkins' work, I am knocked out of the narrative by the omission of a comma where I feel one should be.  In rereading the sentence, I always find I am wrong. Funny how in this one limited way, good grammar should have the same effect as bad grammar.
In searching for an appropriate quote from Dawkins, I instead found one from Steven Pinker - writing about Dawkins!  Here is a review of Steven Pinker's A Sense of Style with a two sentence from Dawkins' book Unweaving the Rainbow (my bolding):
The sentence he chooses is from Richard Dawkins’s Unweaving the Rainbow – “We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones.” From the start we’re walloped with a “reminder of the most dreadful fact we know, and on its heels a paradoxical elaboration”.
Ah, was that clear? In his book, Pinker quotes Dawkins approvingly and the review is quoting Pinker's book.  The review is not a positive one and I will quote a relevant bit in a moment, but let's stick with Dawkins.
I would have written the second sentence as, "From the start, we're walloped with ....." Removing the comma does not change the meaning at all but I typically would place one there.   Perhaps my style is more oral and I would hesitate there if I were lecturing on the subject.

Alright, grammar is more than rules. Not only should the pronoun and verb agree but the sentences should also agree and fit.  John Preston, from the link above, gets into the meat of his problem with Pinker's book:
If you had to boil down Pinker’s advice into two main points, they would be: “Keep it snappy” and “Keep it simple”. Unfortunately, he proves wholly incapable of abiding by his own rules. Rather, he’s a colossal windbag, never using three words when 35 can be rammed into the breach, and frequently writing sentences so tortuous that they seem to be eating themselves. He even manages to define what a coherent text is in a way that made my eyeballs rotate in opposite directions: “A coherent text is one in which the reader always knows which coherence relation holds between one sentence and the next.”
Got that? All right then, try this: “In fact, coherence extends beyond individual sentences and also applies to entire branches in the discourse tree (in other words, to items in an essay outline).”
I may be excessively picky here, but I can’t help feeling that the phrase “in other words” doesn’t belong in a sentence about the virtues of coherence. Similarly, the phrase “Avoid clich√©s like the plague” may be ironic – but then again, it may not.
I have my own idea of what 'coherence' means in an essay but I hope  “A coherent text is one in which the reader always knows which coherence relation holds between one sentence and the next.” makes more sense in context than it does in this review.
Added later but so appropriate I had to include it:

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