my grammatical pet peeves

Here are some of the things that annoy me in papers, presentations, etc., and that I’m apt to edit out or mark on manuscripts/papers I’m reviewing/grading:

  1. Comprise vs. compose
  2. Split infinitives
  3. Use of “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun
  4. Use of the second person, just about ever
  5. Use of “natural” or “human nature” as (implicit or explicit) cause of outcomes
  6. Which vs. that

What are your pet peeves?

Author: andrewperrin

Johns Hopkins University - Sociology and SNF Agora Institute

34 thoughts on “my grammatical pet peeves”

  1. I’ve changed my position on #3, “they.” In German, sie is both third person plural and third person feminine singular. And German even has a neuter gender to work with. Language evolves. I have decided that “they” is now both third person plural and third person singular gender unknown or mixed.

    I’ve also read a persuasive argument about #2 that it is entirely a superstition derived from overcorrection to Latin. So although I rigidly trained myself never to split infinitives, I now believe that rigidity is wrong.

    #4 I think second person ought to be used in certain kinds of writing.

    And #6 I’ve spent a number of hours in intense interactions with competing grammar police who actually had opposite positions (about which they were both equally certain they were right and equally certain they had sufficient education to be right) on the correct usage of which versus that in some contexts.

    Oh, I need to get back to work, don’t I?


  2. > 2. Split infinitives

    Is it Fowler who says some people would sooner eat peas with a knife than split an infinitive? There are plenty of cases where splitting is clearly preferred, I think.

    > 3. Use of “they” as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun

    This is not ungrammatical, in general. Obviously it’s an error when writing about a known person (e.g., “Karl Marx once went outside without an umbrella and when it rained they got wet”). But in cases where one is making a singular noun universal by “every” or “any”, (or even “neither” or “no one”) etc, it’s perfectly well-accepted English usage dating to the 1500s. I think Jane Austen is the standard exemplar of someone who used singular “they” and “their” a lot.

    > 4. Use of the second person, just about ever

    I think I know the sort of informal usage you have in mind, but it doesn’t seem hard to come up with perfectly acceptable cases.

    > 5. Use of “natural” or “human nature” as (implicit or explicit) cause of outcomes

    In what way is this a question of grammar?


  3. I’d be interested to know *why* you’re peeved by each one of these. I studied Linguistics as an undergrad before going into sociology, so I’m still well indoctrinated with the descriptivist dogma: there is no such thing as “correct” language, and defenses of so-called correct grammar are really just attempts to defend a status hierarchy of some kind.

    So I’m not persuaded by any argument to the effect that some construction is just grammatically “wrong”. But I do think one can argue against certain constructions if they either a) impede clear and effective communication, or b) contain unexamined and undesirable presuppositions, entailments, or connotations.

    Of your list, I’d say (2) is a clear case of indefensible prescriptivism for the reason olderwoman gives above, while (5) is genuinely objectionable because of a bad presupposition. The others are more ambiguous. My intutition is that (1) is very bad, (6) is somewhat bad, and (3) and (4) are OK. (And since we’re talking language, I’ll revert to the Chomskyan practice of treating my intuitions as “data”.) But I think that to be a completely consistent descriptivist, I’d have to accept all of them except (5).


  4. I fear that Star Trek has forever ruined my ability to critique split infinitives.

    My most productive grammatical (in a loose sense) pet peeve is probably my distate of hanging ‘this’es and ‘that’s (e.g. “This caused a massive change in how the trial was perceived.”). I find that when you demand someone tell you what the “this” is, they often don’t know and are forced to rethink their argument much more closely.

    Also, what’s with academics who use the word academic as a pejorative (i.e. “that’s an academic question”)? Isn’t that… us? I heard a professor use academic that way in a seminar once and I was just baffled.


  5. For the record, I consider myself to be reasonably well educated and a good writer, but I cannot for the life of me keep comprise and compose straight, while I have no trouble at all with the proper uses of affect and effect, an equally subtle matter. And I never resolved the battle between the aforesaid contrary and opinionated grammarians regarding a construction such as: This is a construction that/which requires further study.

    My own personal pet peeve, which does not seem subtle to me at all, is using it’s instead of its for the possessive and using ‘s for plurals.


  6. I don’t mind any of the linguistic/grammatical errors but I have definite peeves with #5, which is a fallacy. It is silly that anyone appeals to “human nature” as an explanation of a certain behaviour of phemonenon.


  7. 1.) The use of “I” instead of “me” to sound smart.

    2.) “Than me,” as in, “she is better than me.” It’s, “than I;” “am” is assumed. You would never say, “she is better than me am (is?}.” Ugh. I’m already getting worked up/annoyed.


  8. David Foster Wallace (alas) wrote an outstanding essay*–ostensibly a (60 page) review of Garner’s Modern Usage Guide–in which he intelligently hashes out the prescriptive/descriptive debate mentioned by Peter, the sordid history of split infinitives (citing Fowler but not Kieran), and a host of other grammar-related issues.

    *”Authority and American Usage” reprinted in Consider the Lobster**

    **superfluous homage


  9. Wow, I’m amazed that my defense of magic against reason hasn’t garnered a single comment while my petty grammar post got 9 in a couple of hours!

    I agree that #5 is not particularly grammatical, but it’s a common mistake in students’ writing.

    The rest of the examples, IMHO, are often signs of sloppiness. Like many rules, they can be broken once they are well understood. The right of an outstanding writer to aggressively split infinitives should not be denied them. But when they are committed out of sloppiness instead of care, I find them irritating. Oh, and by the way: my students are not Jane Austen!

    @1.OW: English is not German. The fact that “sie” is both “all y’all” and “she” (and, by the way, that “Sie” is “you (formal)”) doesn’t mean “they” is “he/she”.

    @3.Peter: sure, language changes. It just doesn’t change, nor is it infinitely malleable, in the hands of undergraduate students too lazy to craft a paper.

    A couple of useful links:
    Which vs. That: Essentially, and ironically: that tells you which one, while which gives you additional information about an already-identified one.
    Comprise vs. Compose: The group comprises; the elements compose.


  10. Damn it, Dan beat me to it with the Star Wars reference! That oh-so-famous breach is the only reason I even know what a split infinitive is.

    And I am all about using ‘they’ as ‘singular’, gender-neutral pronoun. All that s/he, or ‘he or she’ nonsense is cumbersome. If you can be both singular and plural, why not they?

    Also, there seems to be indication that the use of ‘he’ as generic singular is a relatively new invention, and ‘they’ has history on its side:

    “Beyond the world of linguistics, it isn’t generally known that singular they was once accepted usage in English writing and speech. There is no evidence that speakers of Middle English and early Modern English used gender-inclusive he as we know it today (Hook 333).”

    My pet peeve involves errant apostrophes. It frustrates me most when I am the culprit.


  11. The rest of the examples, IMHO, are often signs of sloppiness. Like many rules, they can be broken once they are well understood. The right of an outstanding writer to aggressively split infinitives should not be denied them. But when they are committed out of sloppiness instead of care, I find them irritating. Oh, and by the way: my students are not Jane Austen!

    But you probably (and justifiably) find anything more irritating when done sloppily than with care. The question is whether things like 2 & 3 are in fact errors in the first place — that is, whether their presence alone shows that the writer is sloppy rather than careful, like “it’s” for “its” or “their” for “there” would. We’re all entitled to our peeves, but several things on your list aren’t errors of grammar or usage to begin with.

    By the by, I like it that even though prescriptivists like to edit manuscripts for mistakes, the verb edit is a back-formation from the noun editor — it was coined because it was presumably the thing that editors do. (Editor comes from the latin meaning “to put forth”.) In other words “edit” was itself once a dubious neologism, like “flake” or “jell” or “gruntle”.


  12. I wouldn’t say it “chaps my ass” (is that a “dumb blonde” colloquialism then?), but to me impact as a verb is like nails across a blackboard.
    My number 1 pet grading peeve, though, is student’s inability to use proper citation standards (even on their fourth assignment this term). Drives me bonkers.


  13. Once you get past rules that have clear implications for clarity or concision, I think most prescriptive grammar is just Fronting For The Man. However, when students confuse “affect” and “effect” I cut them.


  14. Split – Yeah, it’s the English-as-Latin assumption. In Latin, the infinitive is a single word. The anti-split idea is that English infinitives should also be treated as single words even though they are obviously not.

    Comprise/Compose — “The group is comprised of many people.” Should be “The group comprises.”

    Second person. Would you prefer that we use the impersonal pronoun. One sounds so stuffy when one speaks or writes that way. (Besides, upper class Brits tend to use “one” when they mean “I.”)

    They — In English, either we used to use “he” for the unspecified singluar. We erred in the gender department. “They” errs in the number department. Writing a sentence so that it avoids both errors sometime seems to me to be more trouble than it’s worth.

    @8 The I and the me. The trouble is that English has no official disjunctive pronoun. We can’t say “better than moi” or “for my brother and moi.” Some people know the strict rules of grammar. Others just use “I” probably because it sounds more educated (they were probably taught to say “It is I” and generalized that “I” must be the disjunctive pronoun). Others use “me.” Me, I prefer the latter.

    @4 This, that, and the other. I’m with you, Dan. But there was a discussion of “this” at Language Log a month or two ago, and some of those linguists disagreed with us. They even had a word for this use of “this,” but of course I forgot what it is.


  15. This doesn’t count as grammaer, but I received an electronic file of a paper in my digital dropbox this morning: “sociological pap.docx”


  16. @19.Jay: Re Second Person, you’re confusing first with second. I’m often happy with first-person accounts in academic writing. Second person is “you”: as in “You always see people hanging out in the Pit.” How would the writer know what the writer always sees? Should be “I always see” or “one often sees” or “there are often people”.


  17. Andrew @21, I beg to differ. Second person is appropriately used to draw the reader into a narrative description or to invoke an imperative voice. It is different from a first person narrative and different from a third person narrative (which would often have to be written around the whole he/she/they/one mess). It should not be used sloppily or erratically, but it has a place in academic writing. The most powerful uses of “you” describe a researcher’s entry into a setting. Something like, “To get to Xville, first you have to get off the Interstate and drive fifty miles on narrow roads, dodging around potholes.” (I just made that up.) Try rewriting that in the third person (or God forbid the passive voice) and see how stodgy it sounds. I could rewrite it in the first person without being stodgy, but then the voice would be more about me and my adventures and feelings as I approach, and less about Xville. Powerful writers use these nuances of voice to get particular effects. Which is not to dispute that first you have to beat sloppiness out of people.


  18. what about “different than”? when i learned english as a second language (british tradition) many many years ago, the grammatically “correct” way is to say “different from”. and then i came to america….


  19. yli @24, Different than vs different from is a point of usage about which the “experts” disagree, even though you can lose points on the SAT for picking a different expert than the test-writer chose. There are dozens and dozens of examples of this phenomenon. Some come from the differences between British and American usage. Some are points of pedantry that many of us had beaten into us in high school.


  20. @23.OW: I agree and think this is an example of being allowed to dance once you’ve demonstrated you can walk.

    More generally: I take from this discussion confirmation that I am a stick-in-the-mud, which I already knew.


  21. Andrew @22. I meant what I said and I said what I meant, and I know the difference between first and second person, and one doesn’t need a weatherman to know that the choice of “than” or “from” with “different” is arbitrary, and some Brits say “different to,” and to insist one is right and the other wrong is like saying that New Yorkers are wrong when they stand “on” line rather than “in” line or that Brits are wrong when they say they live “in the” King’s Road rather than “on” King’s Road.


  22. Amen to everything Jay said in 28. Is there not a certain level of stubborn absurdity in insisting on making people prove that they can follow a rule that should not be a rule? I’m speaking of the prescriptivists’ blind acceptance of “thou shalt not split an infinitive”.

    Insisting that the plebes prove that they know this nonsensical and language-limiting rule before “we” allow them to break it is the height of snobbery.

    Slavish adherence to the non-split infinitives also affects and weakens the language usage of skilled writers. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve seen senior academics who should know better refuse to split an infinitive (thus weakening their prose and muddying the clarity of their statement) for fear of other educated readers thinking “gotcha!” when they found the “mistake”.


  23. [more style than grammar]
    There are remaining problems with passive voice. It appears as if there is a general tendency to weaken syntax by affixing superfluous words to sentences as to obfuscate topical ignorance. Yes, mistakes were made.


  24. Andy, this explains a lot of the red ink across my dissertation. Or rather, explained much red ink, this posting has.

    I was taught in high school to use “they” as a gender neutral pronoun, but now use s/he when writing. What to use when speaking though?

    I get grumpy when my students write something and then follow it with “In other words…” and then write it again. Some goes for the phrase “Put simply, this means…”


  25. I have enjoyed one of the great ironies of this post: That sociologists can get so fired up about grammatical pet peeves, but oddly seem to care little about the quality of their narratives. Translation: we can get tons of comments on grammar within a discipline famed for its terrible quality of writing.


  26. While I can understand the grammatical issue with “they” as a third person singular, how would sociological writing address the issue of an individual of indeterminate gender?

    There are many instances in which the gender of the individual may not be immediately apparent, nor relevant to the discussion.


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