The rules of English and why we observe them (or not)

  1. Listen Mary Norris, author of “Between You and Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen”

    December 22, 2015

It’s not that Mary and Margaret Taylor, the two venerable old ladies who constituted the English department in my high school days, weren’t nice people. They were lovely and learned beings. But you didn’t want to split your infinitives in front of them. They took the language seriously; some would say too seriously.

The more pages I read in Mary Norris’ book (Mary would insist I add an “s” to that, but I refuse, in deference to the Taylor sisters), the more I want to ask the people who made up all of these rules of our language one question: Who hurt you?

I have loved Mary for many years, but only recently, with the premiere of her Comma Queen web videos, have I elevated my affection to near cult-like. Grammar, punctuation, and definition (yes, that’s the Oxford — serial — comma you see. What about it?)

She’s hysterical. Her book is Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen.

Mary, who is charged with upholding the quirky standards of The New Yorker, is my guest at 10:06 a.m., Central time, this morning on Minnesota Public Radio News. I’m filling in for Kerri Miller. We might even debate what’s the point of which/that, when you’re editing a story intentionally full of profanities. We’ll have the finger on the delay button if we do.

I look forward to hearing from you on the air, or with your questions and comments here.

  • Jay Sieling

    Bob, please ask her about “then” and “than” – one of the things I see too often in online posts. It’s like nails on a chalkboard!

  • MrE85

    I may only read one of the “Talk of the Town” articles in the New Yorker, but I always find something worth reading in her magazine — beside the cartoons, of course.

  • Jim in RF

    A certain local gossip columnist still goes ape- when someone ends a sentence with a preposition, for which there is no rule against.

    • What you did there, I see it (and approve).

    • jon

      Many years ago (probably 15) I heard a conversation on public radio on that topic.
      Apparently there is a rule against it, in latin.
      And since we who speak english are so enlightened we wished to follow the rules of the language of science, so we began trying to enforce them.

      But english is a germanic language by nature not a romance language.

      The lesson here, is that every teacher I had in grade school was wrong.
      That called into question everything else they taught me… turns out I didn’t really need to learn how to write in cursive to get a job… I barely hand write anything at all any more.
      Also apparently Pluto isn’t a planet, and Dinosaurs had feathers… terrible lizards not because of their size but because they were birds… Though I do end up using math on a surprisingly regular basis (though I do always have a calculator, so memorizing multiplication tables was a bit of a waste).

      • >>though I do always have a calculator, so memorizing multiplication tables was a bit of a waste<<

        It comes in handy when figuring a service tip, though.


      • Khatti

        Actually English is the bastard child of both Germans and Romans. for hundreds of years after the arrival of William the Conqueror English Kings spoke French, Therefore the Court and Nobility spoke French. And the common folk picked up more than a few french words and phrases.

        • ec99

          True. One is the distinguishing of meat from animal: pork, beef, mutton, veal. It also helps explain the numerous synonyms of Germanic and Latin origin.

    • Jeff C.

      A preposition is something you should *never* end a sentence with!

  • joetron2030

    Glad I saw this post before 10. I MUST TUNE IN.

  • Craig Rottman

    Can you ask about the use of ordinal and cardinal numbers in dates, especially in expressions such as using the nd in “Today is Dec. 22nd”? I read that one should not use the ordinal numbers in expressing dates like this, but one sees it all the time.

  • Christopher Tabor

    The song that always gets to me is “Live and Let Die”. The line “…the ever changing world IN which we live IN…” You only need one of those “in”s, Paul! (It doesn’t even matter which one stays!)

    • Jack Ungerleider

      Have you tried singing the lyric with just one IN? (I haven’t) Maybe its a syllable count thing.

      • Rob

        The double ins drove me nuts, too, until I came up with this:

        …in which we’re livin’

        still works syllable count-wise and looks better on sheet music

  • BJ

    How about sports teams like

    “Minnesota United FC”, is said to not be said “The United play today”, it is supposed to “The Minnesota United FC play today”, or “United play today” (no the). Problem with teams in US uses a ‘nickname’ as real name, where in other countries the team name and nickname are different.

  • Meg Desmond

    Which mistakes has the computer and spell/grammar-check helped reduce, and which have they increased?
    Meg, St Paul

  • ppft

    Thank you Bob and Mary. Will there be a text summary? I missed some bits…

  • AmyO

    Thanks, Bob, for having her on your show today. It was fantastic!

  • BJ

    Listened to almost all of it, great interview – again.

  • ec99

    Most of the rules for English were invented by normative grammarians basing their edicts on Latin. No split infinitives because they didn’t exist in Caesar’s language. Of course, in Latin they were one word. Same for spelling. Dr. Johnson insisted on archaic forms (silent letters) even though they weren’t pronounced in his own era.

  • Khatti

    This conversation boldly goes where no man has gone before!