Archive for the ‘grammar’ Tag

The Importance of Syntax

Way back in the nineteen-mumbles, I took a programming class. I was in the very last class at my university that started Fortran programming on punch cards. Yes, punch cards. You can buy them on Etsy as antiques. The professor thought we should know how bad his generation had it so we would appreciate dumb terminals (insert eye-roll here).

At any rate, the mini-mainframe system was so amazingly primitive that your program output might be a single sheet of paper (with tractor-feed margins still attached, of course) that bore the message “Syntax Error”. Which meant you had screwed up in punching one or more of your cards and the resulting code would not compile correctly, let alone run and give you the results you had to turn in for a grade.

It’s an excellent catch-all message that can be used to describe so many grammatical errors in English:
“Try and do it” = syntax error
“Graduated college” = syntax error
“Happened on accident” = syntax error
“Your so right” = syntax error
“I could care less” = syntax error

Luckily, English is extremely redundant and the human brain is highly resilient (unlike computers). We can interpret statements full of syntax errors, although a personal opinion of the speaker/writer’s intelligence might be revised down in the process. Unless English is not his or her first language, of course; syntax can be tricky to port between different grammatical systems.

For example, French uses postpositions, positional-descriptive words that are placed after a noun phrase, as well as prepositions. When French is transliterated to English, you sometimes get sentences that sound like Yoda came up with them — full of syntax errors…in English.

Genre fiction publishers are reluctant to include semicolons in books, because they believe (or so my editors have said) readers can’t understand them. Not fair, really, to either readers or the semicolon, but there it is. The result, if the writer is using the punctuation correctly, is unnecessarily choppy prose or (shudder) comma splices without appropriate conjunctions. In other words, syntax errors.

Many syntax errors are so common they’ve become idiom (a nice way of saying everybody does it so grammarians have given up), which is why idiom is almost untranslatable — it didn’t actually make sense in the first place, so moving it into a different language is tricky at best.

Study your syntax, be aware when you’re using idiom. Control it; use it for effect and not just because it’s the first thing that comes to mind. Just because everyone is doing it does not make it right, or good, or readable twenty years from now when idiom and syntax have moved on.

If you do that, you’re less likely to include the word “hassle” (origin in the late 19th century, rarely used before 1950) six times in a Regency romance novel.

Back to the word mine….


Now that the election is over, I can say it

“Well-paying jobs” must be stricken from American English. It is a phrase that makes no grammatical sense whatsoever.

“Paying” is a gerund, a linguistic sleight of hand that turns a noun (or an adjective) into a verb. The problem with this? Um, pay is a verb. Paying is also considered the present tense of the verb “to pay,” but only in specific cases, and it usually requires a helper verb (He *is* paying the rent vs He pays the rent.).

There’s no real reason to create a gerund from a verb, unless you are among those who believe that extra syllables make a word more important (utilize and use don’t actually mean the same thing, for example, although many people use them interchangeably; these are normally the people who opt for the longer word).

So, now that the proverbial “they” have made a verb out of…a verb, these folks then proceed to turn it into a compound adjective by applying the adverb “well” with a hyphen — when they actually remember the hyphen, but that’s a different issue.

The net result is a construction that sounds off when spoken and looks off when written. Why? Because of the double-sex-change of the verb to try to make it sound present-tense (a verb thing) when acting as an adjective (which, like the honey badger, don’t care). See? This is why it makes no sense.

What is a “well-paying job” anyway? Logically, it’s a job that pays well. I would consider a person who has a job that pays well to be well paid, wouldn’t you?

Oh look, there’s the construction the media and politicians should have been using for the last two years: “well-paid jobs.”

That’s definitely it, because “well-paid jobs” doesn’t make my inner grammarian cringe. There, I said it. And I have no regrets.

The Job Title Post

It was almost a month ago when I threatened to post the correct way of introducing a person with a job title. The stupid silly grammatical mistakes were driving me to an eyelid twitch that day.

I don’t understand why so many educated Americans have so very much difficulty speaking the language properly. Or even typing it properly, since spoken language is, by definition, less formal than written language.

But enough of that. I must cure the world of half-baked parenthetical phrases!

A parenthetical phrase is an aside, a brief thought tangentially related to the main sentence after which the speaker/writer returns to the main thought. It is something that you could set off with parentheses (hence the name), or with commas if it’s not quite as much of an aside.

For example, when referring to Paris, you need to make sure people know which one you’re talking about. You could do it like this: “In Paris (the one in Texas, not the one in France), rodeo is considered an art form as well as a sport.” Or you could do it like this: “Residents of Paris, Texas, consider rodeo an art form as well as a sport.”

Under absolutely no circumstances is this correct: “Residents of Paris, Texas consider rodeo an art form and a sport.” Why? Well, why does your web page throw up if you leave off a closing tag? You’re leaving code swinging in the breeze. There’s a reason C# and HTML are called languages, Dude. And it works exactly the same way in the English language.

Now on to the really hard part. Job titles, when placed before a person’s name, are not necessarily parenthetical phrases. Job titles, when placed after a person’s name, are always, ALWAYS (in case you didn’t hear me the first time) parenthetical phrases.

Former Apple CEO Steve Jobs died last week. (Not a parenthetical phrase).

Steve Jobs, Apple CEO until August 2011, died last week. (Always a parenthetical phrase, even more so with the other information in it.)

Then you have the less-clear-cut cases. Talking about your sister, if you have more than one, might give the following:

My sister Marcia said hi. (“sister” is a sort of job title)

My sister, Marcia, said hi. (“Marcia” as a clarifier)

My sister (Marcia, the perfect one, not Cindy, the cute one) said to tell you hi. (Parenthetical phrases within a parenthetical phrase! Bwah-hah-hah-hah-hah. Wait. Did I type that out loud?)

Mastery of the parenthetical phrase will also provide a considerable amount of comma mastery, because parenthetical phrases provide nearly half of incorrect comma usage in my daily bad grammar experience.

Here’s an example of stacked parenthetical phrases, correctly punctuated:
Visionary Apple CEO Steve Jobs, who resigned in August due to failing health, succumbed to a neuroendocrine tumor, a rare form of pancreatic cancer, October 5, 2011.

Every single one of those commas is grammatically necessary. And if the sentence didn’t end at “2011,” there would need to be another comma after it, because the year is a parenthetical phrase in a date, as in “October 5 (of this year)” — exactly the same way that the state or country is a parenthetical phrase in a location.

See, wasn’t that easy?

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