Thursday, February 2, 2012

A Letter to Wired Magazine

Dear Editors:

You published in your February, 2012 issue a piece titled “Use Your Own Words”. In fact, you chose to make it the first article in the magazine. It is this article with which I would like to take issue.

The author, Anne Trubek, bemoans the constraints of proper spelling and the constrictions of English grammar. Yet if you re-read the article (as I assume you at least perused it once before it was published) you will see that her argument boils down to “why spell correctly or construct sensible sentences when it inconveniences me?”

To me, it reads as sheer arrogance. Ms. Trubek advocates throwing away the rules built over hundreds of years simply because using them would require an extra click or two on your “smart” phone or tablet. If such strenuous writing taxes her that terribly perhaps she should make a phone call and communicate orally.

Had she stuck to her contentions I would, perhaps, not have taken umbrage at her opinion. When I reached the end of the article, however, I found that she had undermined her entire argument that people spell and punctuate in any way they chose. Ms. Trubek wrote, “Standardized spelling enables readers to understand writing, to aid communication and ensure clarity.”

How, then, does throwing out that standardization help to improve communication? While podcasts, videos, and hangouts allow people to correspond orally in unprecedented ways, it is in these media that spelling and punctuation do not matter. (Grammar, naturally, always applies, though the rules relax dramatically in verbal communication.)

Writing, whether in a text message, on social media, or in an article—on-line or print—demands a higher standard if an author cares at all about being understood. If he or she does not, why write out a message at all?

Ms. Trubek’s assertion that written and oral communication now share a digital grey area couldn’t be less true: the two words have perfectly serviceable definitions that draw a black-and-white line between them. I notice that the article itself, excepting one exemplar, contained words spelled correctly and punctuation used properly to clarify her meaning.

Language continually evolves. It’s to be expected and even embraced. But disregarding the inconveniences of existing rules because you’re too rushed or lazy to follow them leads to degradation, not evolution.

I’d like to see a refutation of her article in a future issue but I presume your publishing of the article to be an intentional stirring of the pot to bring readers to your site. In that respect it was a successful piece, at least.

Thank you for your attention.


Thursday, January 19, 2012

Craptacular Grammar Tip: Quotation Marks Gone Wrong

NOTE: In case you thought I might be unaware, I know that “craptacular” isn’t a word. It seemed to fit the quality of the examples, however. Check back for more posts in this new series!

Out of curiosity, I clicked a reputable organization’s free “Grammar Tip of the Day” link, to see whether I’d like to subscribe. I found this example and immediately thought that the only reason I’d ask for such a tip each day would be to provide fodder for One Step Forward. Why? At best the tip oversimplifies punctuating with quotation marks. At worst it gets the rule wrong.

I would perhaps not have reacted so strongly had the first example not been incorrect. If you use quotation marks you should only include the punctuation if what is inside them would stand alone. You do put commas and question marks inside quotation marks for dialogue but not song, movie, and book titles unless the punctuation is part of that title.

In fact, I would go so far as to say that the tip should be rewritten entirely. Were I to be so foolish as to reduce the proper use of quotation marks to a single sentence it would read thus: “Punctuation only belongs inside the closing quotation mark when it is part of the quotation itself.” Don’t bow to “popular opinion”; learn how to use quotation marks correctly!

Remember that this does not apply to dialogue. In writing the spoken word the punctuation goes inside the quotation marks, though the period does not. Well, it does if it’s followed by another sentence in the same…I should write a post about this. Oh, wait, I did.

It offends me to see such sloppy advice sent out as “help”. If people unfamiliar with the grammar rules take this and its ilk as gospel it will further erode my ability to teach my children how to speak and write like educated persons. Oh, and you all, my dears.

Friday, December 9, 2011

Obligate: Two Words, One Spelling

I read a book in which the big baddy was an organization called Obligate. The author chose not to explain the reason for that name until halfway through the story, which meant that I did not know how to pronounce it for about two hundred pages. It surprised me how distracting that was.

If you are scratching your head, wondering what other pronunciation I’m writing about, this post is for you. Obligate does double duty, as both a verb and an adjective. You pronounce the two forms differently, however. When used as a verb, whether it’s compelling someone or committing funds, you say OB-li-gate (with a long A). That’s the form with which most people are familiar.

However, if you’re a biologist you likely use the word much differently. When referring to an organism that can live only in a particular environment or in a specific role in an ecosystem you call it OB-li-gƏt (with a short A represented by the schwa). The dictionary says you can use the long-A pronunciation of obligate as an alternate but it seems to me that doing so would only create confusion.

In case you’re curious, the organization in the book used the second definition and thus, when reading to myself, I used the short-A pronunciation of obligate. The rest of the book was much more interesting when I didn’t stop to wonder about that every third page. Think about how your readers will interpret such ambiguous words when you’re naming things in your own writing.

There! You get both a language and a writing tip in one post, something as dual-purpose as the word obligate itself.

Saturday, October 1, 2011

Word Tidbits: Discreet versus Discrete

I doubt most people realize that discrete and discreet are discretely separate words. Today I thought I’d explain the slight difference between the two adjectives and clear up any confusion.

Discreet refers to cautious or tactful action. The word generally applies to something secret, such as a discreet rendezvous, or that you wish kept quiet, like dropping a discreet word in someone’s ear to let them know they have toilet paper stuck to their shoe after a trip to the facilities. Off the top of my head I can think of only one way I’ve seen discrete used regularly: to follow someone at a discrete distance.

While at first blush the two words look interchangeable in fact the latter implies not secrecy but separation. Discrete means something that is isolated or distinct from something else. Much of the confusion between the two words arises from the fact that people who follow someone at a discrete distance are usually trying to be discreet. Were they not they would simply travel with the person they’re trailing in the first place, thus eliminating the need for discretion entirely.

In that last sentence we find the rest of the reason that people conflate discreet and discrete. The noun form of both words is identical. It’s no wonder people don’t realize they are two discrete terms. Next time I'll post a difference on two more discrete words: confuse and conflate. Be discreet and don't spread it around, okay?

Monday, September 26, 2011 2011 Contest and a Thank You

The darling folks at have nominated One Step Forward for the "Best Grammar Blog of 2011"! If you would be so kind, and if you agree, do click over to their contest page and vote for this humble attempt to explore the English language. (Note: They've listed it as "Legbamel's blog on writing" rather than its official name.  Further note: They've fixed the listing and now it's under One Step Forward and open for voting now!)

Such kindnesses keep me interested in writing about writing and English grammar, as do the comments and questions from you interested readers. Thus I'm taking this as an opportunity both to toot my own horn and to thank you all for helping me to prove that grammar is alive and well in the twenty-first century, text messaging and L337-speak be darned. I may not post as often as I used to do but writing and English fascinate me as much as ever.  There's definitely more to come!