Grammar Questions

Written by Helen Glenn Court
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We all have grammar questions from time to time. It might be our brain being stubborn about a problem that stumped us for a minute when we were 10 years old, one we found illogical then and still do today. We tend to use some phrases without even thinking about them. Asking questions is important to saying on our toes and keeping our writing effective. English usage runs on autopilot.

The Value of Grammar Questions

Take, for example, "compare and contrast." You see it often. Redundancy is one of the most frequent usage errors encountered. Just two days ago I stumbled over "a harbinger of things to come" in the introduction of a book by a respected social scientist. I scribbled in the margin, because one must be exquisitely polite when editing. "Query: I deleted 'things to come' because it's implicit in the definition of the word harbinger."

As far as strict structural grammar questions are concerned, one of the age-old favorites is the split infinitive. This is a great example of an artificial rule that ignores common usage and is based on the opinion of someone lost to memory. "That is something up with which I will not put," Winston Churchill is reported to have said on the subject.

Another popular topic is consistency. The topic once opened an amazing Pandora's Box of other grammar questions. An author requested that I "restore the hyphen in 'psychiatrically-inclined physicians" on the grounds that it was the "same rule as that which is followed with '19th-century debates.' It is important to be correct and consistent, no?" I refused.

First, the rule isn't the same. Second, it's not a rule, it's usage. Third, adverbs ending in 'ly' do not take hyphens. Fourth, while consistency is a fine thing, it's worth remembering Emerson's original quote. "Foolish consistency is the hobgoblin of small minds." Fifth, "as that which is followed with" is redundant and wordy. Why not say "as that in" and be done with it? Asking grammar questions is good for your writing skills, just be prepared for answers that might surprise you. Online grammar aids can provide you with usage examples that are often more current than older texts.


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