May 24, 2018

The unlikely joys of syntax by Dr John Yeoman

Grammar is a joyful thing! I hear you cry: ‘Huh?’.  But ‘tis true – trust me. (I’m a doctor.)

Did you spot the seven ‘grammatical errors’ in that paragraph?

A copy editor might strike out the colon before the quoted speech (‘Huh?’) and the full stop after it. S/he’d howl at the archaic ‘‘tis’. That good person would exchange the hyphen for a full stop and protest that you can’t start a sentence with a conjunction: ‘But’. No doubt, s/he would also replace the first bracket with a comma, to arrive at the prosaic: ‘Trust me, I’m a doctor.’

S/he would be wrong. That paragraph might not be graceful but it is grammatically correct.

Problem is, major publishing houses have their own style guides, confected over aeons out of sheer bad habits.

A bad American habit

For instance, I’ve long deplored the bad American habit of inserting a full stop before the quotation mark in quoted speech: ‘as in this example.’ That’s illogical. A full stop should end the entire unit of meaning. The quoted example given is contained within an extended unit of meaning; therefore, the full stop should come at the end: ‘as in this example’.

Try arguing that with a copy editor at Random House. (Q: How many copy editors does it take to change a dead light bulb? A: None. They only change the stuff that’s working.)

For reported speech, American usage also prescribes double quotes where British writers would use single quotes. Why? Just a convention. But convention becomes tiresome when you are forced to use nested quotes.

‘John replied: “Here’s what he said to me, your honor: ‘She told me “Go away, Sam!”’ he said”.’

John Barth had great fun with games like that in Lost In the Playhouse. Its Menelaus episode has as many as six levels of nested quotes. But then, he was just showing off.

A US copy editor might tear out his/her hair, trying to transpose those quotation marks into ‘correct’ American usage. More likely, s/he would strike out the entire awful paragraph in despair.

The perils of being politically correct

Speaking of correct usage, should I have written ‘her/his’ or ‘their’ hair? ‘Their’ is always a useful compromise in these PC days but it’s grammatically wrong. (Until recently, the default term would have been ‘his’.)

Indeed, it amazes me that feminist writers have not long ago developed elegant substitutes for ‘s/he’, ‘her/his’ or ‘their’. As every writer knows, this is a sensitive issue.

(Personally, I’d have said it was a ‘problem’ but ‘issue’ is now the cant term favored by the politically correct. So global warming is no longer a ‘problem’ but an ‘issue’. An issue is easily resolved if we’d all just pull together. But that’s the problem.)

Gender issues are particularly vexing for those who – having no real work to do – write academic papers.

To avoid offence, the writer feels obliged to switch the gender of the notional reader between each alternative paragraph. Thus, the ‘reader’ is cited as ‘he’ or ‘him’ in the first paragraph but, by the next one, s/he has apparently popped over to Buenos Aires for a quick snip to re-emerge as ‘she’ and ‘her’.

We soon discover that the operation had not been a success, alas, because in the next reference we meet once more a chastened ‘him’. And so it goes, back and forth between transgendered paragraphs, in an expense unspeakable of Air Miles.

The simplest solution in these post-feminist days is to refer consistently to ‘him’ or ‘her’, according to your personal taste or gender, and damn the reader’s ethos. (A writer who offends nobody has nothing to say.)

Or you could adopt my own helpful neologisms: ‘herim’, which conflates ‘her’ and ‘him’, and ‘heris’ (‘her’ plus ‘his’). Pity your poor reader. S/he will then find nothing to offend herim. Heris sensibilities will go unchallenged. And you will win the Booker prize, by default.

Why you shouldn’t aim to please the reader

Of course, ‘pleasing the reader’ can go too far. For example, in this article I have diligently switched between American and British spelling at random. Why? To avoid giving offence (or is it offense?). Did it work?


No matter. One or two slips of spelling or grammar are a Howler. They put food on copy editors’ tables. Systematic howlers comprise an Author’s Voice. It is a thing of beauty. It wins awards and enters the literary canon.

Whatever is obscure is worshipped. Finnegan’s Wake is one long howler.

The entire purpose of grammar is to get across your meaning, succinctly and unambiguously. As I tell my first-year writing students, you can’t use a comma as an all-purpose punctuation mark. Or spread one paragraph across three pages, broken only by semi-colons at random intervals, darn it! The world has room for only one Thomas Hobbes.

But if bad grammar works (as in the paragraph above), it’s good grammar.

In the apocryphal words of Mae West: ‘I never did pay syntax. But folk still know what I mean. You know what I mean?’


Dr John Yeoman teaches creative writing at a British university and is the judge of the Writers’ Village short story contest:

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.