Do you know what you’re saying about grammar?

adviceDo you offer grammar advice to others? I urge you to read 12 mistakes nearly everyone who writes about grammar makes to insure you’re not repeating common mistakes. Jonathon Owen, blogger at Arrant Pedantry (and also a linguist, writer, and editor) knows what he’s talking about. To me, the most serious mistake self-proclaimed “specialists” make is Mistake #3 on Owen’s list.

The writers of these lists typically treat English as though it had only one register: formal writing.

Let’s talk about “register” for a minute. Register is a term used to refer to the way styles of language vary according to situation. Example: when stating your opinion of the new PlayStation 4, your words and their structure vary in different situations:

  1. a text to your friend (ps4 is the sh@% f#$k xbox)
  2. a conversation with your grandmother (it’s better than any other game system)
  3. an online consumer review (better gaming than Xbox)
  4. an online professional review (The PlayStation 4 is $100 cheaper than rival Xbox One and has the upper hand on indie and day one digital-only offerings.)
  5. an academic essay (Compared to Xbox One, the PlayStation 4 gaming system demonstrates critical advantages: it is less expensive, and there are more independent, as well as more digital-only, games available at the time of its release.)

The style of your language — its register — differs because the rhetorical situation (your audience, purpose, mode of delivery, etc.) differs. I’ve referred to this as code-switching in previous posts.

Back to Mistake #3. The formal writing register is the style of language preferred when writing for teachers.  That’s example 5 above. None of the other styles of language would be appropriate for use in an academic essay. But here’s my point. The style of example 5 would NOT be appropriate for any of the other four situations. (If you think the style of 5 would be appropriate for situation 4, you might need to think carefully about the audience for online reviews of gaming systems.)

As Owen wrote in the post that prompted mine:

Sure, it’s useful to know when to use who and whom, but it’s probably more useful to know that saying To whom did you give the book? in casual conversation will make you sound like a pompous twit.

The choice between Who did you give the book to? and To whom did you give the book? is a choice of register. Only the most formal written register includes the use of whom.

If you’re providing grammar guidance, make sure your advice takes register and genre into account. Also remember that the register of the business world is less formal than the academic register. And specific business genres can be both more formal (a white paper) and less formal (an email request to a colleague who is also a close friend) than the business register in general. Using an inappropriate register for a specific situation is a breach in manners — like wearing white shoes after Labor Day — not a breach in grammatical competence.

I’ll repeat what I wrote in Shibboleths and entering the professions: What is most sad to me is that so many people perpetuate the worldview of your-language-is-wrong with a total lack of awareness. Almost every person I know believes language can be wrong. Many of them are highly educated — even with English degrees. They parrot memorized etiquette rules based on the language preferred by teachers. But they were denied any real language education. An education that taught them about registers and their rhetorical functions. An education that would allow them to make good judgments about the most appropriate style of language for a specific situation.

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  1. I’m not even sure if formal writing is appropriate for all academic writing. Perhaps my program is a bit odd but until this semester (when we start to really work on our—let’s just call them theses) we have been sort of discouraged from writing in overly formal styles.

    I’m also a bit skeptical about the who and whom bit. I don’t think many people care about “whom” these days, and I mean including many of the (prescriptive) grammar types.

    But I totally agree that the “your language is wrong” attitude is rampant in at least parts of the language professions. It’s frustrating.

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