Grammar: Principles and Pitfalls
Even if you haven't formally studied English grammar, you know countless aspects of grammar. You would never say or write “I are hungrily very, ” no matter how many hours had passed since your last meal. Not all questions of grammar are that simple, of course, but many tangles are easily resolved once you know the rules and conventions. In some cases, however, the rules are unclear or disputed, and the experts offer conflicting analyses. The number of these disputes—and the passion, indeed, the moral fervor they sometimes inspire—is far greater than you might imagine, until you begin to pore over the shelves of grammar and usage books in the library or in a well-stocked bookstore. For example, the editors of DEU describe their work as an examination of “common problems of confused or disputed English usage” (p. 4a)—and note that their volume treats some five hundred such problems.
The perplexities are compounded when an author and a copyeditor have different positions about what constitutes correct English. In Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, Joseph M. Williams describes the contours of this plight.
A few especially fastidious writers and editors try to honor and enforce every rule of usage; most careful writers observe fewer; and there are a few writers and editors who know all the rules, but who also know that not all of them are worth observing and enforcing, and that they should observe other rules only on certain occasions.
What do those of us do who want to be careful writers?
We could adopt the worst-case policy: follow all the rules all the time because
somewhere, sometime, someone might criticize us for something. … And so, with a stack of grammar books and usage manuals close by, we scrutinize every