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Eric: You know, it's probably bad form to disagree with publishers who are saying nice things about you.

For those who haven't seen, today's Daily Illuminator, over at Steve Jackson Games, is about Websnark. And specifically about me. This has happened before (back on December 29 of last year, not that I made special note or anything, no, really), and my reaction then is substantially the same as my reaction today:


See, one of the things about writing for a site like Websnark is people you know of or have heard of sometimes acknowledge it. Sometimes, a Lore Sj˝berg or a Scott Kurtz or someone else you've been reading since 1996 links you, and your mind is blown, just a bit. Even now, firmly ensconced in R-Level Celebrity (a level of celebrity which means no one has ever heard of you, but occasionally cute girls are tongue-tied around you at conventions, which is better than being kicked in the teeth no matter how you slice it), having someone I respect say something nice about me is a thrill.

And then? Then there's Steve Jackson.

Let's set aside In Nomine for a second. Yes, it's my favorite role playing game. Yes, I occasionally get a check or two for it. Yes, I would gladly sacrifice the freshman class at the school I work at for a second edition. But let's set it aside, and cast our eyes back... back... back to a younger world, innocent of the ways of the Internet, where the Cold War was frigid and Disco was still twitching. This is the world... of 1981.

A world where I am thirteen years old. At this point, I'm already a multiple year veteran of Role Playing Games. (For the record, I lived in Fort Kent, Maine -- you'd have a rich fantasy life, too.) I had gotten into them following a television report about the dangers of Dungeons and Dragons and crawling around sewers and access tunnels while practicing Satanism and losing all sense of reality so that you kill your friends and loved ones followed by yourself that made me think "what a cool sounding game." I had Traveller. I had Villains and Vigilantes. Champions was still about a year away for me, but it too would come. I subscribed to Dragon.

And I had Car Wars. I had several of those "turning keys" you used to figure out maneuvers. I had ziplock baggies of games. Hell, I had a copy (long since gone) of The Fantasy Trip.

Now, for me, the games were far more significant than the writers -- at least in those days. I probably wouldn't have known the names Jeff Dee or Loren Wiseman, even though I played stuff they were heavily involved in on a regular basis. The only exceptions were Gary Gygax (because let's face it, Gygax has always been an Iconoclast)... and Steve Jackson (whose name, after all, was on the front of all the boxes).

So, when I read a Daily Illuminator that says "I like Websnark" and has Steve Jackson's name at the bottom of it... when I read a Websnark comment that has Steve Jackson's name on it... when I read something that makes it clear that Steve Jackson reads Websnark... my first reaction doesn't come from the part of my brain that's a professional writer, that's had conversations with Jackson on different things, or that's gotten paid by Steve Jackson. It should be, but it isn't.

My first reaction is a thirteen year old boy, buried in my psyche, doing -- in Aeire's words -- the happy, squirmy puppy dance. The man who designed Ogre and Illuminati READS MY SHIT. DUDE!

So... it's with great sadness that, having had that little boy be so thrilled, and the professional writer in me be so affirmed... that I take his post, which is so laudatory to me, and disagree categorically with it. Is this career suicide? Perhaps. Is this ungrateful? Almost certainly.

But this is about a higher calling. This... is about grammar.

He said, and I quote:

PS: I fear that he will burn in Grammar Hell for pluralizing names ending in S by adding an apostrophe and another S, which is irony for you. I know some authorities say that construction is permissible. They'll burn hotter than Eric Burns.

"Some authorities" say it is "permissible?" No no. No no no no no.

This comes from Rule One of Strunk and White's The Elements of Style. And The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr., with edits and essays and contributory information by E.B. White, is simply put the foundation of modern grammar. It is a slender volume, dirt cheap, and required of essentially every Freshman in English Composition in America. You can still typically find the book for under five dollars (Amazon currently lists it new for seven, but also acknowledges it can be had new and used for five from other vendors). It is short, easy to read, easy to digest, and easy to put your hand on it at any time. The original work, by Strunk, is broken into several sections, with the most important being a list of eight elementary rules of usage, and ten elementary principles of composition. All of which (minus White's influence) are in the public domain, I would add.

And the first rule, the first rule in the first section... rule number one... is as follows:

1. Form the possessive singular of nouns with 's.

Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,

Charles's friend
Burns's poems
the witch's malice

This is the usage of the United States Government Printing Office and of the Oxford University Press.

If you look at the first web page I ever put on the web -- a terrible, horrible web page from 1994 or so, that scars the retinas of those unfortunate enough to see it -- you will find I quote this rule. Having the surname of Burns means having this discussion on a regular basis, you see. So yes, this is a matter of dogma with me. This is a matter of religion -- of theology. But damn it, the holiest of testaments in the world of grammar, usage and style concurs, in plain, simple language right there on the first page of rules. This is not "some authorities," this is the bedrock on which all modern English grammar lies, and I will not suffer stones cast against it! Not even from Steve Jackson.

You can take your Chicago Style Guide (though, actually the latest Chicago Manual of Style says both are acceptable but concurs that Strunk's interpretation is preferable), your MLA guide, your Harbrace Handbook, and you can subscribe to their false theologies of the possessive. I will not use the plural possessive with a singular noun, no matter what happens. It's right there, in the book, for all to see, and false prophets will not dissuade me. When I stand in Grammar Heaven, before the light-bulbed visage of William Strunk, Jr., he will not say to me "Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the Grammar Devil and his angels."

Of course, when I'm writing for Jackson, I'll do as he says, because he pays me. And money is good. At the same time, I drive Elizabeth McCoy, the In Nomine line editor, insane because I continue to create the singular possessive following the letter s with "'s", and she has to edit it. But if I am to be a good evangelist, I must carry the Word to the unbelievers, yes?

On the other side of all this, Jackson was excited to learn the word Apophenia, and says he'll put it in the next Illuminati set. This thrills me, but also amuses me, because I learned the Word from watching the Question on Justice League Unlimited, and every time we hear one of the Question's theories, I immediately assume the writers just finished playing a round of Illuminati.

Needless to say, this is a good way to start the morning.

Posted by Eric Burns-White at July 20, 2005 8:52 AM


Comment from: lochinola posted at July 20, 2005 10:55 AM

PS: I fear that he will burn in Grammar Hell for pluralizing names ending in S by adding an apostrophe and another S.

Uhh... plural or possesssive?

Comment from: Wednesday posted at July 20, 2005 11:01 AM

occasionally cute girls are tongue-tied around you at conventions


Comment from: SeanH posted at July 20, 2005 11:02 AM

Tsk! You capitalised the B on "They'll burn hotter than Eric burns", thus occluding the pun that was the best thing there! For shame.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at July 20, 2005 11:04 AM

Ever since I learned that the word "their" had been used as a singular construction -- legitimately -- until a bunch of jackasses decided to "Latinize" the English language... I have had little more than seething contempt for style guides, no matter who wrote them. Their only use is to keep me employed.

I am your opposite number, Eric Burns. We must make war!

(Have no idea what I'm talking about? Then read on!

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen posted at July 20, 2005 11:07 AM

And let's not forget that fun time of second semester introductory physics: Gauss's Law. :)

I have heard told that in the world of newspaper grammar, where conservation of space is vital and alternate spellings like "employe" are encouraged, that the rule is indeed different from standard written English. And that in a newspaper column, it would be "Eric Burns' webpage".

But I will leave the question of whether a webpage is more like a book or more like a newspaper up to the rabbis.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at July 20, 2005 11:07 AM

"Uhh... plural or possesssive?"

...if I create the plural with an apostrophe-S, the fires of Hell are too good for me. I'm pretty sure he meant the possessive, though, as there are several examples of the possessive following a singular S in the section of the essay he quoted, and he himself makes reference to "Eric Burns' site" or the like.

"Tsk! You capitalised the B on "They'll burn hotter than Eric burns", thus occluding the pun that was the best thing there! For shame."

Would you believe I honestly didn't get the pun until you pointed it out, Sean? I mean, thirty-seven years with this surname, and I still don't get the puns when I see them? Weeeeeird.

(When people ask me on the phone how to spell my last name -- which happens all the time, despite it being... well, Burns -- I say "as in 'careless with matches.'")

Comment from: SeanH posted at July 20, 2005 11:09 AM

I was converted to what I believe is Wright's camp (it's nice, we have spacious tents and our own oasis) after reading an impassioned treatise declaring that the rule invalidating "me and Bob" in favour of "Bob and me" is useless and outdated.

Besides which I just think s's looks sloppy. Keats's poems? Ick.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at July 20, 2005 11:10 AM

The oasis is nice.

Comment from: SeanH posted at July 20, 2005 11:10 AM

Eric: until Jackson comes here and tells us it was just a typo and that I really shouldn't have giggled so much, I'll take full credit for that :)

Comment from: SeanH posted at July 20, 2005 11:12 AM

Of course, my position is also informed by living in Bizarro America, where your precious style guides hold no sway!

(I should really get my thoughts in order before posting a comment, rather than post a whole bunch of smaller comments whenever something vaguely relevant wanders into my head)

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at July 20, 2005 11:14 AM

Eric, I'm a guy who owns two different copies of Strunk & White. I also own a copy of "Eats, Shoots & Leaves," which is a bit more directed towards British English but still sits well for our breakaway dialect. I once even wrote a style guide for my site (and you just try getting either video game players or critics, let alone both, to follow one of those) and the first entry there boiled down to "buy Strunk & White."

We'll make those people write English in a uniform and easy-to-understand manner or die trying.

Comment from: Christopher B. Wright posted at July 20, 2005 11:19 AM

32_footsteps, we must also make war!

This could be fun. Sort of a grammarian's version of the SCA, or Civil War re-enactors.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at July 20, 2005 11:28 AM

Only thing is, we need to agree on all the nitpicky stuff, too. I mean, debates over the interrobang alone could cause chaos (for the record, I'm of the camp that believes we should have one amalgamated interrobang symbol).

That said, I volunteer to lead the Semicolon Brigade once this gets started up.

Comment from: Polychrome posted at July 20, 2005 11:29 AM

If you use an apostrophe to pluralize words Bob the Angry Flower would like to have a word with you.

Comment from: lochinola posted at July 20, 2005 11:39 AM

Aha, my confusion came from the fact that he had already corrected his complaint on his site to read "will burn in Grammar Hell for making possessives of names" by the time I looked. This made it look to me like you misquoted him in a very confusing way...

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at July 20, 2005 11:44 AM

Morgan-Mar dealt with this issue a week ago or so.

A reader wrote to tell me that I was using my apostrophe incorrectly in Paris' body, and that it should be written Paris's body, because the rule of leaving off the s after the apostrophe only applies to plural nouns, such as when talking about the horses' saddles.

Although this does make sense from a pronunciation point of view, it is not a hard and fast rule of English grammar. Several well-regarded manuals of English usage and style indicate that either method of using an apostrophe on a person's name that ends with an s is acceptable, so long as one is consistent. And, since I began this way, I'll stay consistent.

I? I learned the rules of punctuation in high school (back in the 70s when they were still taught in high school*). Now I observe them or ignore them as required for desired effect. I am Punctuation's master, not it mine.

* Uphill! Both ways!

Comment from: Will "Scifantasy" Frank posted at July 20, 2005 11:56 AM


"My good friends Smith & Wesson want a word with you, Jackson! Then you've got an appointment with my pals Strunk & White!"

Comment from: Bequita posted at July 20, 2005 12:13 PM

The Elements of Style is also available online here: ">http://www.bartleby.com/141/

And Eric, at least you don't have one argument per week over whether "data" takes singular or plural verbs. One per WEEK. The Latin language agrees with me, the internet agrees with me, our PI agrees with me (and his word is law!), but the argument inevitably surfaces. It is slowly driving me mad.

Comment from: S. Ferrari posted at July 20, 2005 12:14 PM

Ok, two things:

1) You really need to get Aeire to draw something involving the Grammar Nazi to add to this post. Preferably something also involving the Illuminati to keep the Jackson angle in it as well.

2) I'm curious to see if my girlfriend chips in on this thread seeing as she is at times a bit of a grammar nazi herself, though she may very well be soaked in work on her thesis and thus not have time to comment.

But then just having a hot girlfriend who reads something as cool as Websnark is good enough for me ;-).

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at July 20, 2005 12:18 PM

The number of hot smart women who read Websnark is significant.

This, to me, is even cooler than being mentioned by Steve Jackson. Which I think he would understand.

(And yes, that opening sentence is grammatically correct. "Number is significant.")

Comment from: vortexae posted at July 20, 2005 12:30 PM

Bless you, sir. In the name of all things grammatically righteous and for goodness's beloved sake, bless you.

Comment from: SeanH posted at July 20, 2005 12:38 PM

And Eric, at least you don't have one argument per week over whether "data" takes singular or plural verbs. One per WEEK. The Latin language agrees with me, the internet agrees with me, our PI agrees with me (and his word is law!), but the argument inevitably surfaces. It is slowly driving me mad.

Indeed. It is a point of honour never to allow somebody to finish a sentence that began "The data shows". Just as I had almost gone off reading Dilbert, one cartoon involved him telling somebody that "Your data aren't actuable" or some such, and it made me very, very happy for a brief while.

Comment from: Dave Van Domelen posted at July 20, 2005 12:59 PM

The Grammar Illuminati have deliberately crafted the incontradictory and sometimes insane rules of written English over the centuries in order to distract folks who would otherwise be clever enough to deduce the existence of the Illuminati. Intransitive fnord.

Comment from: Joshua posted at July 20, 2005 1:03 PM

The problem is that Strunk and White is full of crap. They don't follow their own rules and neither should you.



If you want a usage guide, then at least pick one that actually pays attention to the empirical evidence, like the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage.

Comment from: Matt posted at July 20, 2005 1:07 PM

I am new to the site, and I hate to involve myself in such a debate, but I was reviewing the Grammar of Strunk and White when I noticed that rule II.1 is not quoted in full above. Eric B leaves out the second portion of the rule, viz:

"Exceptions are the possessives of ancient proper names in -es and -is, the possessive Jesus', and such forms as for conscience' sake, for righteousness' sake." (Source: http://www.bartleby.com/141/strunk.html#1) />

The usage which Mr. Jackson seemed to object to is: "...Hades's helm, Hermes's winged sandals..." which would seem to be salient examples of the "Exceptions" mentioned above. Strunk moves on to point out that "the Helm of Hades" and "the winged sandals of Hermes" would be preferable constructions.

Which is to say that Jackson's objection should stand, but not for the reason he probably thought it should. Not only that, but Eric Burns is *also* correct, if seemingly not as broadly correct as he thought.

Which means that we can have more people not burning, which I think is probably the best outcome :). If I've missed something here (likely), then you can ignore this and burn me instead.


Comment from: tsuibhne posted at July 20, 2005 1:10 PM

A thread some here might enjoy on this very subject


Comment from: KenM posted at July 20, 2005 1:54 PM

Well, the exception Matt points out seems to relate to Biblical or Classical names (though Strunk is kind of silly to suggest people striking at each others' 'heels of Achilles' to capitalize on their weaknesses), so maybe you should be flattered, Eric. Every other s' possessive is -es or -is except for you and Jesus.

Of course, I'm pretty against prescriptive grammar myself, but that's largely because it says I can't tell you y'all are doing a good job with this site.

Comment from: Liz posted at July 20, 2005 2:09 PM

Until I read this post, I had an unopened copy of Strunk and White sitting in my bookcase. It was a required book for an introductory class on historiography - essentially trying to get new architectural history and historic preservation students to examine how history is written so that they could, in turn, write history. It should've been a far more interesting class than it was, but this is all beside the point.

So, I opened Strunk and White to confirm that Rule #1 was indeed Rule #1... and kept going. That is a funny, funny book. Above, my boyfriend called me "a bit of a grammar nazi," but I really don't think that's the right assessment. (He said other nice things so we'll forgive him.) It's more-so that I find this sort of thing absolutely fascinating.

On page 35 of the Fourth Edition:

The hyphen can play tricks on the unwary, as it did in Chattanooga when two newspapers merged--the News and the Free Press. Someone introduced a hyphen into the merger, and the paper became The Chattanooga News-Free Press, which sounds as though the paper were news-free, or devoid of news. Obviously, we ask too much of a hyphen when we ask it to cast its spell over words it does not adjoin.

That's highly amusing for non-grammatical reasons, but I'd be willing to bet that I'm the only person who finds this next quote funny.

Page 73, Rule 8: Avoid the use of qualifiers.

Rather, very, little, pretty--these are the leeches that infest the pond of prose, sucking the blood of words. The constant use of the adjective little (except to indicate size) is particularly debilitating; we should all try to do a little better, we should all be very watchful of this rule, for it is a rather important one, and we are pretty sure to violate it now and then.

I am a sad, sad woman.

Oh, and "y'all" is the best word ever!

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at July 20, 2005 2:17 PM

Of course I left out the other part of Rule One. If I'm going to ape Jack Chick, I also have to ape Chick's methods, including selective quoting that proves my point and eliminates all doubt.

Does any artist out there want to collaborate on making a thirty-two panel (sixteen "page") Chick-style tract about grammar with me?

There's clearly a tee shirt in all this.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at July 20, 2005 2:18 PM

Liz -- there's a reason I have such reverence for Strunk and White. They're more than authoritative. They're rabble-rousers.

Comment from: Bequita posted at July 20, 2005 2:23 PM

Y'all is a perfectly valid contraction of "you all". The usage of you and y'all returns the singular/plural distinction of the English language; formerly thou and ye, that had disappeared from the language by the 18th century. Other languages have retained that distinction: French with tu and vous, Spanish with tu/vosotros and usted/ustedes, etc.

Now, if you had said "ya'll" we would have been required, per the Grammar Nazi Code of Conduct, to beat you with large, heavy objects. But you didn't, so you're safe.

Comment from: Ian K. posted at July 20, 2005 2:25 PM

Grammar Heaven indeed, Mr. Comma Splice.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at July 20, 2005 2:30 PM

Where did I splice commas?

I'm not denying, mind. I'm asking. ;)

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at July 20, 2005 2:31 PM

(Well, splice sentence fragments that could not themselves be clauses, but that's neither here nor there.)

Comment from: yaJ posted at July 20, 2005 2:48 PM

I don't care what anybody says... My Boss's Doughter looks just... wrong.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at July 20, 2005 2:59 PM

Maybe that's because you misspelled "daughter."

Comment from: kirabug posted at July 20, 2005 3:00 PM

I've been fascinated with language since Transformational Grammar (Junior-level English course in Undergrad which is the BA equivalent of Organic Chemistry) taught me that "I ain't" was the original correct contraction of "I am not", and "I'm not" was only adopted because the English were trying to break the Cockney-accented from using the word "h'aint" for "hasn't" and "ain't" sounded too much like "h'aint".

As a result, I still use "I ain't", especially for emphasis (makes Mom's hair stand on end), but "he ain't" or any other form is just wrong.(Strangely, it'd probably be used correctly now if people wouldn't have kicked it out of the language in the first place.)

Bequita wrote:

Y'all is a perfectly valid contraction of "you all". The usage of you and y'all returns the singular/plural distinction of the English language; formerly thou and ye, that had disappeared from the language by the 18th century.

Agreed - but then what's the distinction between "y'all" and "all y'all", which my former-college-roommate from Texas has adopted. Is "all y'all" for big groups?

(This from a girl in Pennsylvania whose neighbors use "yous" for the same purpose.)

yaJ wrote:

I don't care what anybody says... My Boss's Doughter looks just... wrong.

Then don't look at her!

Comment from: joeymanley posted at July 20, 2005 3:15 PM

"All y'all" is for a group of groups.

When speaking to the Justice League: "Y'all are cool."

When speaking to the Justice Society: "Y'all are cool, too."

When speaking to the combined Justice League and Justice Society: "All y'all are cool."

"All y'all" is most often used (incorrectly) to mean "Each of y'all," though.



Comment from: Bequita posted at July 20, 2005 3:20 PM

Firstly, you can get a BA in scientific fields. I suspect you meant that it is the Liberal Arts equivalent of Organic Chemistry.

Secondly, there can be no equivalent to Organic Chemistry. Organic Chemistry resides in a level of hell all its own. No other topic can contain such simultaneous levels of absolute precision, complete obfuscation, and mortal danger.

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at July 20, 2005 3:25 PM

Not even high energy particle physics?

Comment from: Alun Clewe posted at July 20, 2005 3:39 PM

Ever since I learned that the word "their" had been used as a singular construction -- legitimately -- until a bunch of jackasses decided to "Latinize" the English language...

Hey, I learned something new today. I've known for a long time that the injunctions against ending sentences in prepositions and splitting infinitives were false "rules" imposed by eighteenth-century grammarians who wanted to make English more like Latin, and not respected even today by major grammatical authorities, but I had no idea the same was true of not using "their" as a third person singular pronoun of indefinite gender.

I'm actually quite glad to know this, because I'm enough of a prescriptivist that I do feel compelled to do my best to follow the rules of proper English grammar. I feel no obligation to avoid ending sentences with prepositions or splitting infinitives, however, because those aren't, and never were, real rules of English grammar. Now that I know the same is true of "their" (well, maybe to a lesser degree, and I'll have to research this further before I'm completely convinced)...I can avoid all those awkward constructions like "his or her", or the use of "his" for the neuter (which is often accused as demonstrating sexism--an accusation I don't agree with, but that's another subject altogether), and use "their" for the indefinite singular, and still be able to justify it as staying within the bounds of correct grammar. So...hooray!

Y'all is a perfectly valid contraction of "you all".

I actually use "y'all" on occasion (mostly in the phrase "see y'all later"), despite never having been to the South or spent much time around anyone else who uses it, simply because it seems to me to fulfill a useful function. It might be because I speak Spanish, and having the second-person plural pronoun in Spanish made me miss it in English--but then again, it might not be; I honestly don't remember for sure whether I started using "y'all" before or after I learned Spanish. Anyway, though, you'll get no arguments against using "y'all" from me.

Comment from: Bequita posted at July 20, 2005 3:50 PM

Nope, not even high energy particle physics -- lacks obfuscation. It's got plenty of precision and mortal danger, though.

Comment from: yaJ posted at July 20, 2005 4:05 PM


Maybe that's because you misspelled "daughter."

Hay! Yor almohst fanatikul atention too speling riuned my joek! Yor not nise! Poopy on yu!

Comment from: quiller posted at July 20, 2005 4:35 PM

I feel like noting that I like to come to this site for at least 2 reasons. The first reason is for the quality of the posts. The second reason is for the quality of the comments to the post, and by extension the commentators.

But, I have to admit to being surprised when Steve Jackson not only commented on one of your snarks, but used the comment section to give directions to one of his employees.

And I am definitely not getting into this grammar discussion, as I use s's and s' at whim depending on what I think looks better or would sound better sounded out. My degree is in Physics, so if I write things comprehensible to normal human beings I'm a step above many of my fellow graduates.

Comment from: Joseph White posted at July 20, 2005 5:35 PM

The one that always pisses me off is the split infinitive. I hate it when I hear that you shouldn't split an infinitive. Why the hell not? In Latin, you don't split infinitives, but that's because it is physically impossible. Look at a romance language like Spanish, which is based on Latin. The infinitive form of "dance" is "bailar." One word. The infinitive form of "dance" in English is "to dance." Two words. I read somewhere (don't remember exactly where) a statement along the lines of, "We speak of 'the brown dog,' yet no one objects to that as a split nominative."

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at July 20, 2005 5:42 PM

Nominatives don't work the same way as infinitives, though. When one uses the infinitive form of a verb, the infinitive is in effect a contiguous unit. Like you said, in other languages it's often a variant single word. In English, it's constructed differently but the structure is the same.

"To boldly go" is a problem because it's like we're breaking the verb apart to shoehorn in an adverb. "To go boldly" doesn't suffer from that, structurally. On the other side of things, the nominative form doesn't form a contiguous unit -- it's essentially a preposition. "We speak of the brown dog" has a subject-verb of 'we-speak.' The preposition simply leads to an object that elaborates on the sentence's statement. It does its job and gets out of the way -- and therefore, there's freedom to modify the noun with adjectives.

In fewer words: nouns and verbs are different things, and adverbs and adjectives work differently in a sentence, and so the comparison doesn't end up working.

Comment from: Alun Clewe posted at July 20, 2005 5:53 PM

When one uses the infinitive form of a verb, the infinitive is in effect a contiguous unit.

I'm afraid even your cherished Strunk and White disagrees with you there, Eric.

Part V, Section 15:

"Some infinitives seem to improve on being split, just as a stick of round stovewood does...The sentence is relaxed, the meaning is clear...Put the other way, the sentence becomes stiff, needlessly formal."

See also this page from the American Heritage Book of English Usage, which is even friendlier toward the split infinitive than Strunk and White (who, to be fair, do still call it a "violation", albeit a "harmless and scarcely perceptible one"). I quote:

"In fact, the split infinitive is distinguished both by its length of use and the greatness of its users. People have been splitting infinitives since the 14th century, and some of the most noteworthy splitters include John Donne, Samuel Pepys, Daniel Defoe, Benjamin Franklin, Samuel Johnson, William Wordsworth, Abraham Lincoln, George Eliot, Henry James, and Willa Cather.

"The only rationale for condemning the construction is based on a false analogy with Latin. The thinking is that because the Latin infinitive is a single word, the English infinitive should be treated as if it were a single unit. But English is not Latin, and people split infinitives all the time without giving it a thought."

Joseph White is entirely correct about the split infinitive. There's no genuine grammar rule against it; like the injunction against ending sentences with prepositions, that "rule" was invented by eighteenth-century grammarians who thought English should be more like Latin. One can justifiably argue on stylistic grounds that it's often better to avoid splitting infinitives (or ending sentences with prepositions), but not on real grounds of proper grammar.

(Well, okay...I can see your point about his analogy being flawed. But while his argument may have been flawed, the point he was trying to argue is correct.)

Comment from: Alun Clewe posted at July 20, 2005 5:56 PM

Hm...there was supposed to be a paragraph break within the blockquote in the post above...but apparently paragraph breaks within blockquotes have to be explicitly inserted, unlike paragraph breaks elsewhere. You know, I realize I'm not saying anything new by making this observation, but it would be nice if the TypeKey preview actually showed the post the way it was going to look after it was posted...

Comment from: Alun Clewe posted at July 20, 2005 5:57 PM

Also, in "a 'harmless and scarcely perceptible one'", "one" should have been outside the quotation marks.

I am now going to stop making corrections to my post and shut up.

Comment from: miyaa posted at July 20, 2005 6:14 PM

(*hugs his copy of The Chicago Manual Style; MLA Style Manual; A Manual for Writers of Term Papers, Thesis, and Dissertations (Chicago Guides for Writing, Editing, and Publishing); and of course, Eat, Shoots, and Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Puncuation.*)

This thread really should come with the classic Victor Borge comedy routine about how to "say" a puncuations. And a PvP comic involving Brent Sienna reading Eat, Shoots, and Leaves.

Oh, and Bequita, meteorology has that very high level of absolute precision, obfuscation, and mortal danger. The demands on the public for us to be so exact with our predictions are so dangerously high we are doomed to failure because we can't get it right at least 30% of the time. It also leads to our obfuscation, since no one can fully understand why despite our technology we still can't get tomorrow's temperature right. And mortal danger? Do you wanna be on television when a hurricane hits Mobile, Alabama? Do you wanna chase after a tornado? I rest my case. Now, if you would excuse me folks, I have a willy-willy to chase...

Comment from: Eric Burns posted at July 20, 2005 6:15 PM

Blast! Hoist on my own petard!

And that's really not all that comfortable.

Comment from: lucastds posted at July 20, 2005 6:57 PM

I simply cannot stand when people write my name as "Lucas's"... eck! No. I'm going to have to disagree with you.

Comment from: Bequita posted at July 20, 2005 8:03 PM

Miyaa, just because precision is unjustly demanded of meteorology doesn't mean meteorology is actually precise. So, technically, you do not have precision, only the presumption of precision.

The bonus question on our Org. Chem. final was to show the steps necessary to synthesize asprin from petroleum, using whatever reagents we deemed necessary. (Synthesizing gasoline and then driving to the drug store, while creative, was not given credit.)

There are different ways to get to the same product: the individual reactions are precise and predictable, the sequence obfuscated, and it's always possible to blow yourself up.

Comment from: Steven E. Ehrbar posted at July 20, 2005 9:11 PM

If you want a usage guide, then at least pick one that actually pays attention to the empirical evidence, like the Merriam-Webster Dictionary of English Usage.
The problem with "empirical" usage is that it destroys precision and distinctions. Empirical usage of "ironic" or "literal" would leave us with a language without a simple way to express the original concepts. Anyway, an overly literal reading of Strunk & White as absolute rules is to ignore the book itself. As the introduction itself says:
"It is an old observation that the best writers sometimes disregard the rules of rhetoric. When they do so, however, the reader will usually find in the sentence some compensating merit, attained at the cost of the violation. Unless he is certain of doing as well, he will probably do best to follow the rules. After he has learned, by their guidance, to write plain English adequate for everyday uses, let him look, for the secrets of style, to the study of the masters of literature."

Strunk & White is a pedagogic tool, not an absolute law, and does not pretend to be anything more.

Comment from: KenM posted at July 20, 2005 10:06 PM

Y'all are the best group of commenters ever. I had to go do some work after posting, so it only hit me later that I didn't mention that y'all can be singular and plural, just like you. I should have known that would be sussed out.

As a side note, the girl from Pennsylvania might be from Pittsburgh, or near there. My dad is from there, and while his accent isn't really there at all, I've heard with my own ears that 'younse' (pronounced yoonz) is a plural for you. Though there's somewhere else where I've heard people say 'yous guys,' and that might have been Philly.

Never mind.

Oh, wait. If anyone will know, it's you all: Who was it that said, of the rule against ending clauses with prepositions (another latinizing) that "It is a silly rule, up with which we should not put."

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at July 20, 2005 10:26 PM

Who was it that said, of the rule against ending clauses with prepositions (another latinizing) that "It is a silly rule, up with which we should not put."

SF writer Martha Soukup said that, but I think she was quoting and I don't know who.

Comment from: Alun Clewe posted at July 20, 2005 11:15 PM

The line is generally attributed to Winston Churchill, and the usual wording is something along the lines of "This is the type of arrant pedantry, up with which I shall not put!"

(Mind you, I'm not saying I'm positive Churchill actually said this...but rightly or wrongly it's generally attributed to him.)

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at July 20, 2005 11:22 PM

Wait, precision, obfuscation, and danger? Sounds like everything I've ever done. An opinion and a sharp wit are dangerous in combination - of course, that should be the most bleedingly obvious statement to anyone who's read this site's contents.

I'm going to use Romance languages to come to the defense of the poor, abused split infinitive. See, it's true that the infinitive construction is used as a unit. This is descended from Romance languages using only one word to show an infinitive. However, when they use an article for a noun, the noun is always used as a unit with the article. In French, for example, people would give you funny looks if you said "le brun chien;" the proper construction is "le chien brun." Just as a split infinitive is a no-no in Romance languages, so is a split nominative. The only exceptions are generally the so-called BAGS words - adjectives related to beauty, age, goodness, or size. This of course results in tortured phrasings like saying "le grand chien brun" for the big, brown dog.

However, english clearly does not follow the Romance rules for split nominatives, so there's no reason for us to obey the language group's rules on split infinitives either. Split infinitives are like grammatical bold tags. Used sparingly, they serve to vividly emphasize the adverb in question to impart said adverb's meaning to the rest of the sentence. Overused, however, they act to distincly annoy anyone reading.

And to finish, Miyaa, I've dreamt of that PvP strip ever since I picked up Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Comment from: Doc posted at July 20, 2005 11:23 PM

I can't speak to grammar but I have to agree with Bequita on Org. Chem.

Not that that stops me trying to major in it...

Comment from: Doc posted at July 20, 2005 11:24 PM

Oh and just because no one has been a total fanboy yet in this thread:

Steve Jackson..... DUDE!

Comment from: larksilver posted at July 20, 2005 11:28 PM

Hailing from the great state of Texas, as I do, I learned at an early age the magnificent power of y'all. It functions whether the speaker is communicating with two persons or two thousand, is ever so much friendlier than "you people" and less formal than "ladies and gentlemen." I could go on for quite some time, but I will not.

Reading through the comments on this thread, I had three thoughts:

1) People should respect the y'all, and stop looking at the Southerners who use it in that manner which suggests we are inbred hicks.

2) Regardless of whether Strunk & White or any other authority agrees with it, "Burns's" just looks terrible. I believe they started pounding into my wee brain the terrible wrongness of "s's" when I was in third grade, and being a clever little sponge, the pattern was thus set, for life.

3) In reference to the many profound and in-depth comments regarding the minute details regarding the functionality of the English language: AAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAAHHHHHHHHHHHHHHH.

Thank you for the intelligent discussion, I enjoyed it immensely. Now, I believe I shall go find someone with very poor grammar to relieve the pressure in my brain somewhat. Ouch.

Comment from: theLibrarian posted at July 21, 2005 12:34 AM

Picking out some non-germane detail from your description, Eric - you say you used to have TFT and have misplaced it? I don't know how potentially squeamish you may be about copyright on an out-of-print item, but check out http://www.deiker.net/tft.html

Someone has scanned the manuals and posted them in PDF format, which is great for folks like me who have aging copies spilling out of notebooks and protective sleeves.

Comment from: Pyrtas posted at July 21, 2005 12:44 AM

See, it's funny how people say that certain things look terrible. "Burns's" and "Lucas's" both look odd to me (though I would be hesistant to call either terrible), but no more so than "Burns'" and "Lucas'" do. "Boss's," on the other hand, looks absolutely fine to me.

Comment from: gwalla posted at July 21, 2005 1:25 AM

The French definite article cannot be split from the noun because it is essentially a grammatical prefix. The English article, on the other hand, is more of a clitic: a morphological unit somewhere between an affix and a full-fledged word, which floats to one end or another of a phrase (proclitics go to the front, enclitics to the end) and becomes phonologically bound to the adjacent word in that phrase (and also are generally unstressed).

English is nifty. Fun fact: English is arguably a dechticaetiative language, which is a feature it shares with some African languages but not many others.

Comment from: SeanH posted at July 21, 2005 4:56 AM

I believe gwalla should receive an award of some kind for bold use of "dechticaetiative".

We wouldn't be having this argument if we all spoke Esperanto, you know.

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at July 21, 2005 8:18 AM

Gwalla, "dechicaetiative" is now my new favorite word.

And in English, I'd like to point out that the word "to" when used to form the infinitive of a verb is also a clitic. I'll split my infinitives with ease, not only knowing that I'm doing something grammatically correct, but I know how to justify it as well.

Comment from: TeleriB posted at July 21, 2005 9:22 AM

Bequita said:

Organic Chemistry resides in a level of hell all its own.

I never had the... experience of Organic, but I lived in a Women in Math, Science and Engineering dorm where it seemed like every other sophomore besides me and the CompSci were taking it.

In my roommate's section, the first quiz included the following extra credit question:

"Lasciate ogni speranza, voi ch'intrate."

What does this mean, and how does it relate to your experience in Organic Chemistry?

For reasons known only to her, my roommate had actually calligraphed that very quote and posted it to our dormroom door at the start of the semester. I think she was the only one to get the extra credit.

(Here, it's on Wikiquote if you don't want to Google the Italian.)

Comment from: Bequita posted at July 21, 2005 10:26 AM

Dont' get me wrong, Organic Chemistry was hellishly difficult, but it was also a blast (figuratively and occasionally literally).

Comment from: 32_footsteps posted at July 21, 2005 11:03 AM

While I do love a discussion of Dante, that line is overused. If the teacher had quotes lines 2 and 3 of the same canto (I don't have my Italian version handy, but they roughly translate to "I am the way to a forsaken people/I am the way to eternal suffering"), I would have been impressed.

Having been through Organic Chem, I will admit that it seperates the real pre-med students from the future comp sci and lit majors. That said, I'd rather deal with a different benzene ring every day for ten years than touch another freaking epistilary novel. Chemists do not get my pity.

Comment from: Plaid Phantom posted at July 21, 2005 11:26 AM

I *knew* those rules were just made-up! I *knew* it!

That said, could anyone point me to a really good book on rules that have been made up to romanize (whatever) English?

Comment from: Plaid Phantom posted at July 21, 2005 11:29 AM

That said, that Dante quote is just that much cooler in Italian. :)

Comment from: Paul Gadzikowski posted at July 21, 2005 11:40 AM

I keep forgetting to append to other comments on this post that The Fantasy Trip was the system I cut my roleplaying teeth on amongst my high school friends in the 70s, and the system of my own single foray into GMing. On the one hand, aside from some social D&D in the 80s I've done no RPGing since. On the other, my brother (the only one of those high school pals whose subsequent RPG habits I'm cognizant of) still RPGs weekly on Fridays and once had actual employment teaching D&D to troubled kids.

Oh, and yeah: Dude! Steve Jackson!

(Who besides me only says Dude! here?)

Comment from: Joshua posted at July 21, 2005 1:13 PM

Unfortunately, the alternative to the empirical approach of actually paying attention to how English speakers speak and write their language is just making shit up, which is what people like Fowler and Strunk did. "Literally" is a good example of that. If you were just making shit up, you might view with alarm the hyperbolic use of literally ("and with his eyes he literally scoured the corners of his cell", OED sense 3b), and worry that English speakers are going to lose the ability to use it to express the concepts of "word-for-word" (as in "the passage was translated literally", OED sense 2) and "the literal truth" ("some people take the account of Genesis literally", OED sense 3). If you look at the evidence, however, you'll find that the hyberbolic sense of literally has been in the English language since at least the early 1700's, which ought to call into question any assertion about how it's going to destroy the ability of English speakers to express themselves. Moreover, it has been used by Charles Dickens, James Joyce, Vladimir Nabakov, and F. Scott Fitzgerald, among others, and it's more common in literary speech than everyday language. What's more, actually counting instances of its use shows that it hasn't supplanted the other senses, which remain more commonly used by a substantial margin.

Split infinitives are another good example of just making up rules with no regard for actual usage. There's no such thing as a split infinitive in English. The infinitive of "go" is "go." The "to" in "to go" is a helper particle (I think technically a subordinator), not part of the infinitive, and there are plenty of infinitival constructions that cannot take the "to" (such as "You should take this advice" or "I want to help clear up the confusion around split infinitives"). To really be a nuisance, you should go around telling everybody that they ought to write "really to be a nuisance" or "to be really a nuisance." Not even Strunk and White would support that. "To boldly go" is a perfectly fine stylistic choice that places the emphasis on "boldly," that's all.

Comment from: miyaa posted at July 21, 2005 4:24 PM

Congratulations, gwalla. "Dechticaetiative" is the first word that I've ever found that did not have a meaning in dictionary.com, and it took the longest time for google to find a response to (0.8 seconds it claims, but it seemed more like 5 seconds). I'm surprised this isn't one of those questions from the Jeopardy catagory, "Fifteen letter words." (For $2000, no less. This probably means I should look for a better internet dictionary.)

And turning petro into Asprin? Didn't I see that happen on an episode of MacGyver?

Comment from: gwalla posted at July 21, 2005 10:37 PM

miyaa: If you'd checked Wikipedia, you would have found it. ;) (I wrote that article. Well, started it. Before, the only Googlable resource on the term was this, which doesn't really clarify things)

SeanH: That's because Esperanto is boring. Quirks make languages interesting. (Actually, Esperanto has quirks. They're just lame ones)

32: this is true.

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