by David Fox
Librarian Emeritus, University of Saskatchewan
“… when it comes to correct English, there’s no one in charge; the lunatics are running the asylum” (Pinker 189).
Steven Pinker’s point is that there is no absolute authority for English usage. The language is an evolving organism, and there are multiple standards. What is practised in everyday speech and informal writing is often not acceptable in formal communication. Sentences like “Me and Melinda went to the mall” are frequently heard in everyday conversation. They are a form of English, and their meaning is clear. It’s just not the style of English practised in the official forums of government, journalism, or academia.
Pinker, a descriptive linguist, believes that the “rules” of usage are tacit conventions… among the members of a community (190) at a particular point in time. Formal, academic English is a subset of the language that conforms to certain prescriptive rules its users have adopted by consensus. However, as we shall see, many of these so-called rules are not immutable, and there is sometimes good reason to break them in the interest of harmonious writing.
In my final contribution to this series of articles on writing for scholarly publication, I attempt to tackle briefly some of the trickier questions of grammar and usage I’ve struggled to learn and understand over the years. My hope is that other writers may benefit from my exploration of these topics. Those interested in an extended discussion of the “singular they” may see my Brain-Work post from June 30, 2015.
which vs. that
Traditionally, which is used with a non-restrictive relative clause, usually set off by commas (or dashes or parentheses), and introduces a comment that is not essential to the understanding of the sentence.
Three Day Road, which was written by Joseph Boyden, is my favourite novel.
By contrast, that introduces a restrictive relative clause whose content is important to the meaning of the sentence.
The house that I bought last year had sustained some fire damage.
In many cases that can be omitted from a relative clause. An implied that is known as a zero relative pronoun or bare relative.
The house I bought last year had sustained some fire damage.
Personally, I prefer this construction because it is stylistically cleaner.
The which vs. that rule is frequently broken, and in fact, Pinker considers it a spurious rule to begin with (235-6). Setting off a non-restrictive relative clause with commas should be enough to signify to the reader that what is contained within is a non-essential elaboration, and either which or that is acceptable, in his opinion.
each other vs. one another
I used to think that each other referred to relationships between two persons, whereas one another was employed with groups larger than two. However, in modern usage, according to Pinker (251), these terms have become essentially interchangeable. Use whichever one sounds better in a particular situation.
less vs. fewer
The conventional distinction between these two words is that less is used for unquantifiable amounts (less sand, less air, etc.) while fewer is used for countable objects (e.g., fewer books, fewer apples). However, there are exceptions. Less is commonly used where units of measurement are involved.
They were all less than eighteen years old.
She was driving less than 70 kilometers per hour.
The box weighed less than 5 kilograms.
In each of these cases it would sound weird to say fewer than eighteen years old, fewer than 70 kilometers per hour, fewer than 5 kilograms. Less is also used in certain idiomatic expressions such as “one less x” and “no less than y”.
In everyday speech and informal communication, less is frequently used in place of fewer.
between vs. among
Most of us were taught that between must be used with just two items and among is used when there are more than two. “The real principle is that between is used for a relationship of an individual to any number of other individuals, as long as they are being considered two at a time, whereas among is used for a relationship of an individual to an amorphous mass or collectivity” (Pinker 251).
different from vs. different than
The answer here is fairly straightforward. Things differ from each other, not than each other. The preposition than is used with greater or less. The preposition from is used with different.
data is or data are?
This one is controversial. Technically, data is the plural form of the seldom-used Latin word datum, and so purists insist that it should be used with the plural form of a verb, e.g., the data are, the data show. Others argue that data is plural when referring to quantities that can be counted, but singular when referring to quantities that can’t.
This is a case where the language is in flux. For the time being, academic style probably leans towards using a plural verb with data. To be safe, consult the style manual for the publication you’re writing for. In the long run, I suspect that data will go the way of agenda, another Latin plural that nowadays is treated as a singular noun. Nobody says “The agenda were distributed to the committee members.”
because, since, or as?
These words are all conjunctions with overlapping meanings. Because, as the word implies, signifies reason or causality. It answers the question “Why?”
I bring up this point because so many readers have asked about it.
Since and as can be used to imply either causality or a time relationship.
I have not spoken to Barbara since she moved to Toronto. (time)
Since my baby left me, I found a new place to dwell. (causality or time)
I cannot complete this report by Friday as I have too many other deadlines. (causality)
Because since and as can have more than one meaning, their use can sometimes create ambiguity. In the second example above, we are not sure whether Elvis meant that after his baby left him he changed his residence, or he changed his residence because his baby left him. Therefore, if the intention is to convey causality, because is the preferred conjunction.
The subjunctive mood is the verb form used to express a wish, a suggestion, a command, or a condition that is contrary to fact (Grammar-monster.com). For almost all verbs, the present subjunctive differs from the present indicative only in the third person singular form, which lacks the ending -s in the subjunctive (Wikipedia).
It is important that she stay out of trouble.
It is necessary that he see a doctor immediately.
The past subjunctive is identical to the indicative mood except for the verb to be which becomes were in all cases:
If I were a giraffe, I could see over top of the fence.
Proper use of the subjunctive mood is a hallmark of formal speech and writing. Elsewhere its use is falling out of fashion. It is possible to write correctly without using the subjunctive mood at all.
It is important that she stays out of trouble.
It is necessary that he sees a doctor immediately.
The above are perfectly good English sentences. There is just a subtle difference in nuance. However, there are certain sentences whose indicative and subjunctive forms have totally different meanings. Consider the following:
All of my friends insisted that I am respectful. (indicative)
All of my friends insisted that I be respectful. (subjunctive)
The first example conveys that my friends affirm that I am indeed respectful. The second suggests that my friends are concerned that I might not be respectful.
who vs whom
Who and whom are relative pronouns. Who is used as the subject of a verb; whom is used as the object of a verb or preposition. Grammatically, whom is the equivalent of him or her. The use of whom following a preposition seems natural and familiar.
To whom it may concern
With whom do you wish to speak?
For whom the bell tolls
However, the use of whom as the object of a verb tends to sound awkward and a little pompous to the modern ear.
Whom was the dog chasing?
I don’t know whom she invited to speak at the meeting.
As a result, whom is nowadays often replaced by who in daily speech and informal writing. ‘’Like the subjunctive mood,” says Pinker, “the pronoun whom is widely thought to be circling the drain” (242). For the time being, whom should continue to be used in formal prose.
me, myself, and I
The question of how to refer to oneself along with other people is frequently misunderstood. Myself is a reflexive pronoun. It is used to refer back to a previously occurring noun or pronoun. It should not be used by itself where a simple “I” or “me” would be sufficient.
Melinda and I went to the mall.
I kept the secret to myself.
I, myself don’t believe a thing she said.
Murray went to the mall with Melinda and me.
Melinda and myself went to the mall.
Murray went to the mall with Melinda and I.
Murray went to the mall with Melinda and myself.
English usage is evolving. Nobody today speaks or writes in the style of Shakespeare or the King James Bible. Written English is becoming more like spoken English. Some would say that the language is becoming more utilitarian and, as a result, losing some of its character, richness, and precision. There is no use resisting or lamenting these changes. It is what it is.
What is a conscientious writer to do in the face of changing usage and a lack of absolute guidelines? Partly it depends on the purpose. Are you writing a text message, a blog post, an information piece for your provincial newsletter, or a research article for a peer-reviewed publication? The expectations for adherence to formal standards become progressively more rigorous as you move up this hierarchy.
Academic writing is the most formal style of English, and follows the accepted conventions of grammar, punctuation, and word usage of the day. Reputable academic publications employ copy editors who base their decisions on currently authoritative dictionaries and style manuals, supplemented by in-house rules, in order to ensure quality and consistency of published work. In preparing manuscripts, it is wise for authors to adopt the standards for grammar, style, and usage prescribed by their prospective publisher. Even so, given the evolutionary nature of such standards, articles published today may seem quaint to readers a hundred years from now!
“English Subjunctive.” Wikipedia. 15 March 2016.
Pinker, Steven. The Sense of Style: the Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century. New York: Viking, 2014. Print.
“What Is the Subjunctive Mood? (with Examples).” Grammar-monster.com. 17 March 2016.
This article gives the views of the author(s) and not necessarily the views of the Centre for Evidence Based Library and Information Practice or the University Library, University of Saskatchewan.