Grammar Gremlins

I’ll admit I’m as flummoxed by grammar as the next person.

Despite my love of language, until recently I never formally studied grammar. What I know of grammar came mostly by osmosis, through reading well-edited books and magazines.

Proper editing is no longer prevalent, I’m sad to say. So, I’m beginning to study the subject myself and happy to share occasional examples, especially the ones that have tripped me up. Please feel free to let me know if you find them useful and to share your favorite grammar gremlins, as well.

Here are three that caught my eye this month:

Not only…but also
This phrase tends to sneak in to writing when we’re trying to make a point. But use it incorrectly or too frequently (a recent book on social media employed it in almost every sentence), and it starts to sound high-falutin’. When that happens it’s more likely to detract from your case than bolster it.

The not only…but also convention is a “parallelism.” It’s used, according to Frederick Crews in the Random House Handbook, when “you are telling your reader to consider one item in close relation to another.” The trick with not only…but also is to avoid “invaded parallelism” by keeping marauding elements of your sentence in their proper places.

Here the gates of not only…but also have been crashed by an invading subject (“she”):

She not only wants to learn Spanish, but she also wants to learn Portuguese.

To use not only…but also correctly, you want to avoid duplicating within the phrase any part of the sentence that precedes it. In the example above, the subject “she” starts the sentence outside the not only…but also construction, and then barges in between “but” and “also” where she doesn’t belong.

Correct:

She not only wants to learn Spanish, but also wants to learn Portuguese.

I thought the repetition of “wants to learn” felt awkward and wordy, but thanks to Crews, I’ve learned it’s part of the parallelism, which requires the same Verb-Object construction in the second half of the sentence to make it a genuine comparison.

So, while the sentence, “She not only wants to learn Spanish, but also Portuguese,” is clear enough to understand, Crews explains that “the parallelism is faulty on grounds of incompleteness.”

either / or, either /or, either/ or
You can use either a typewriter or a computer, but if you choose the latter, you should know: The computer is not a typewriter.

And you thought I was going to continue our discussion on parallelism, didn’t you? Nope, this one’s about formatting. Just when most people finally learned that you don’t have to put two spaces after a period, this bizarre construction popped up. And, if adding random spaces around a slash mark wasn’t bad enough, I recently saw this: [ California]

Good grief, people! Computer word processing programs have at least one marvelous advantage over the typewriter – they act like professional typesetters. This means that spacing is automatically adjusted between letters and punctuation and numbers and symbols.

Extra spaces? They’re a carry-over from the days of the typewriter, when each letter, number and punctuation mark was the same width; it left the eye a bit confused at the end of sentences, even when there was a period, so we began tapping the spacebar twice to give typed documents the same visual comfort of a typeset book.

Trying to outsmart the computer’s typesetting function by throwing in extra spaces willy-nilly only disturbs the reader’s eye and confuses your computer’s attempts at formatting. So give the spacebar a rest and let the word processor do the work for you.

Ahem! Textual throat-clearing
This bad habit has sneaked (not snuck) into general usage from pop culture sites and fan forums. Here’s an example from a standard news article:

“Match.com snatched up online dating site OkCupid for $50 million, TechCrunch reports. It’s an interesting, um, match, because OkCupid launched as a free alternative to industry giant Match.”

There’s one of two reasons the writer cleared his or her throat here, neither justified:

1) The pun wasn’t funny enough to fly on its own, so “um” was added as the textual equivalent of a George Burns rimshot. If it’s not that funny, it’s probably just taking up space, detracting from the clarity of the sentence, and should be discarded.
2) The writer doesn’t think readers are clever enough to spot the pun on their own and added “um” as advance warning: Clever locution ahead! This is a terrible way to engage readers and plain rude. If this is the case, it really doesn’t belong.

In fact, the very first “Don’t” in Television Without Pity’s guide to good manners and respectful engagement in its reader forums is to avoid “um.” They’ve learned, over years of monitoring and mediating thousands of tearful discussions, that “um” reads as “snotty” and is basically hurtful.

Sure, not every writer means it that way, but writing “um” is essentially adding extra, unnecessary words.

Trust is what makes for good writing. Trust that your readers are there because they’re interested and want to find out more or contribute their own expertise to a discussion. And trust in the words you use. Choose the clearest, most accurate words to express your thoughts and then trust that each will hold the weight of its meaning and do the job you’re asking it to.

2 thoughts on “Grammar Gremlins

  1. I am not a grammarian, having had no formal training in grammar—unless you count the seventh grade—so I really appreciate your grammar posts, Vickie.

    I must admit to using textual throat clearing in my email communications and I have to be ever vigilant because it sometimes shows up in my other writings as well.

    I’ve noticed the terms parallelism and parallel structure cropping up in those “How to Write” books that I love to read. I’ll have to pay close attention to my use (usage?) of parallelism in the future.

    I might not need to read any more of those writing books though. Your last paragraph expertly sums up the advice in every “how to” book I’ve read!

    Rita

    • Hi Rita,

      That parallelism example is the second time in recent months I’ve found myself caught out, thinking a writer’s usage was incorrect, only to find – once I looked it up – that it was right (even though “not only…but also” sounds redundant to my ears!).

      My stepfather always said, “Look it up,” whenever I asked the meaning of a word; it’s a good practice I need to apply more often when it comes to grammar, too!

      Thank you for your kind comments.

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