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Tuesday, December 15, 2015
Words & Language Toolbox

Standard English requires no defense

By Paula LaRocque

A self-described “obsessive-compulsive copy editor” sent the following:

“I just saw the word miserly used as an adverb in an online news story: ‘What moral person could gratuitously, miserly, refuse health insurance to their own citizens?’”

You probably spotted yet another error (albeit more common and less peculiar) in that sentence. But hold that thought while we deal with “miserly.”

It’s true that we often turn adjectives into adverbs by adding -ly: sad/sadly; happy/happily; vivid/vividly. But not all adverbs end in -ly: often, never, well. And not all words ending in -ly are adverbs.

Some -ly words are verbs: apply, rely, comply.

Some -ly words are nouns: family, lily, tally.

And some -ly words are adjectives: silly, courtly, dastardly. “Miserly” is one of these. It’s an adjective, created from the noun “miser.” To make “miserly” an adverb, what might we do, typically? Right, we’d add an -ly, with this weird effect: “What moral person could gratuitously, miserlyly, refuse health insurance to their own citizens?”

Here’s how that looks using other adjectives:

• Blah blah blah, she said sillyly.

• He pulled a card dastardlyly from his sleeve.

• He bowed low, courtlyly.

Those examples show that we cannot just create words, willy-nilly (willy-nillyly? No, “willy-nilly” can be either adjective or adverb).

Let’s return to the other error in our copy editor’s sentence: “What moral person could gratuitously ... refuse health insurance to their own citizens?”

The problem here is antecedent/pronoun agreement: The plural pronoun “their” doesn’t agree with the singular antecedent “person.” To fix it, we must either make the antecedent plural or the pronoun singular. Therefore: “Could moral people gratuitously refuse health insurance to their ...” Or: “What moral person could gratuitously refuse health insurance to his own citizens?”

Instantly, we hear writers and editors clamoring in the wings: But why the masculine pronoun? Shouldn’t it be “his or her”?

OK, we have a choice to make. Do we want to burden the sentence with the awkward, busy “his/her” — a structure that unfailingly calls attention to itself? Or do we choose the traditionally accepted masculine pronoun and risk being thought sexist? Or do we cherish accuracy less than political correctness and stick with “their,” deliberately making a grammatical error and adding to the general burden of linguistic inaccuracy?

Here’s what has worked for me for decades: Do none of that. As a matter of course, of policy, of philosophy, make antecedents plural. And when quoting someone who makes this agreement error — a common mistake in speech — paraphrase and repair the grammar.

An exception to making antecedents plural is when clearly referring to one sex. Then it’s both graceful and accurate to choose either “him” or “her.”

My mention above of a writer’s personal philosophy brings up something we haven’t discussed in this column, at least not in so many words. But this is Quill’s last issue for 2015 and a new year looms; maybe it’s an appropriate time for a few reflective words on a big subject.

Over the decades, I’ve asked many media writers about their personal philosophy of written communication — a philosophy that might help them settle the sort of issue we discussed above. Many, perhaps even most, have said they had no “philosophy” of communication, that they’d never really thought about it.

I like organizing principles — principles that ease our effort and help us make choices. Maybe you do, too. Here’s mine:

Skilled wordsmiths stick with standard English except for certain special effects. That’s because standard English is invisible. Even readers with marginal literacy don’t protest accurate grammar, spelling and punctuation. No one hears complaints about, for example, “she had taken it,” or “they have gone,” or “he brought it.” Can you imagine anyone suggesting: “had took,” “have went” or “brang”?

Typically, readers notice grammar only when it is nonstandard. Therefore, standard English is the careful writer’s best defense against criticism — even when certain usages may seem to have become acceptable.

For example, some writers may defend the ungrammatical “snuck,” “dove” and “kneeled” (instead of the grammatical “sneaked,” “dived” and “knelt”) — a defense based on wide and common misuse. But, all argument aside, the very fact that a usage needs defending tells careful writers everything they need to know.

Here’s the point: When we write, it’s all about communication. Do we want our readers to read smoothly, quickly, engaged in the successful transmission of idea? Or do we want them to skid to a halt because of our expression of that idea? In short, do we want our readers to focus on our message or our mechanics?

Savvy communicators make choices that need no defense.

Paula LaRocque is author of five books, among them “The Book on Writing.” Her latest work, a mystery, is “Monkey See,” available on Amazon. Email: plarocque@sbcglobal.net. Blog and website: paulalarocque.com

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