Tag Archives: grammar

Do You Use ‘Alot’ A Lot?

Hopefully you realized there were two spelling of ‘a lot’ up there in my title, and hopefully you also realized one of them was not grammatically correct. Why not grammatically correct, you ask? I don’t know – the spaces lobby argued we should all use the space bar on our keyboards more often?

That is why I was SO HAPPY to see someone finally speak up in defense of ‘alot’. James Harbeck argued today in Slate that just like ‘ahold’ and ‘awhile’ were finally somewhat accepted in English, ‘alot’ is likely here to stay. Whether it’s official or not, whether grammarians screech or not, likely enough people will keep using it until it’s finally accepted.

Wait, I’m not saying I use it – not in my public writing at least. I know pulling it out would brand me as a know-nothing hack. People on the internet would pretend I was talking about a furry animal, rather than an understandable word ( The link in the last sentence goes to a rather amusing piece by Hyperbole and a Half which rails against ‘alot’ – the Slate piece linked to it too, but I remember reading it back when it was first published and wishing I could come up with a good enough retort. But really, it’s cute enough that I can let it slide…)…

But oh, wouldn’t it be nice to skip typing that space. Why, oh why, should ‘a lot’ be two words? Using ‘alot’ doesn’t wreck anything about the English language. It’s simple and understandable, and the only thing holding it back is that it’s nonstandard.


So here’s to hoping in fifty years or so my arthritic hands will be typing ‘alot’, a lot.


See also: Rant on “Ruining the English Language” and What, the English Language Changes? Literally?

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Against Grammar – and Other Rules of English

“Why can’t the English learn to speak?”

         Henry Higgins, from My Fair Lady

 I’ve been scaring all my friends lately by ranting on about grammar and how much I hate it. They come to me with concerned looks and say, “But doesn’t grammar help you understand what other people are saying?” And I tell them, “Well, that’s where it should stop. Once you understand a person, it doesn’t matter how they said it.”

Why do I sound this extreme? (And, admittedly, I am not this extreme at heart, because the misuse of ‘your/you’re’ does annoy me.) I puzzled over this fact for a while. I’m the sort of person who loves learning new words, and easily can remember the official rules for using ‘who’s’ and ‘whose’ – and even the more obscure facts such as ‘peruse’ originally meant to read carefully, not skim. So why would I hate language rules?

Because I hate how knowledge of English language rules can be used to bully people.

Are You a Language Bully?” asks Matthew J.X. Malady at Slate, underlining my point that people often use language rules to shame each other, show off over each other, and to feel superior to each other.

He restricts this bullying to obscure language rules, but I know how even rules ‘everyone should know’ can be used as weapons. How someone can pointedly and clearly fire a criticism at someone else, and be met with, “I don’t think you know what ‘literally’ actually means…”

Maybe it’s because I volunteer to teach ESL, or because I live in a country where I meet immigrants daily, or because my mother and grandparents and so many members of my own community were immigrants themselves. Maybe it’s because I’ve travelled and know what it’s like not to know ‘the rules.’ I see how the inability to communicate holds people back, and once they gain that ability to communicate, the fear of others still keeps them quiet.

Language should be democratic. If we have freedom of speech, we should also have freedom of speaking without being held back by nerves or fear of others. If people can’t understand us – well then, that’s our problem, and maybe we should go back and rephrase things. But if we made a point, why dismiss it because of how it’s phrased?

Knowing how to use English ‘properly’ tells other people you’re well educated, but, more sinisterly, it also indicates wealth and social class. Certain accents and words (like “ain’t”) are looked down on and shunned, and children are repeatedly taught not to use them, even though almost every English speaker in the world can understand the word “ain’t.” (Sorry, I always loved that word). Why words and sentences become “proper” English, while other words become “slang” – well, it often depends on who uses them. It also depends on time and how words change over time, but I hate, hate, hate how perfectly clear language can be looked down on. How the underlying message to enforcing language rules can be: “Only the elite should be listened to.”

Whoa, so I’m ranting again. Let’s narrow this down to how this should play out in the real world – since I don’t actually believe we should throw out all the English language rules out tomorrow. Keep the one that are useful, thank you.

I think good writers are able to recognize a powerful expression, and the truth that shines through the words, no matter how it’s phrased – like Mark Twain did in Huckleberry Finn. Use whatever combination of words you need to get the message across. Linguists can go on doing wonderful studies of how people actually use language, and where ideas about ‘good’ and ‘bad’ language come from. And English teachers (by this I mean the poor souls who have to teach grammar and spelling and the difference between a ‘subject’ and a ‘predicate’) can limit themselves to teaching our kids, and being quiet when nobody follows the rules.

And we can all help each other speak clearly and understandably, while leaving behind the judgemental worries about the disintegration of the English language.

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What, the English Language Changes? Literally?

Dare you use 'literally' when you mean 'figuratively'?

Dare you use ‘literally’ when you mean ‘figuratively’?

First, a somewhat related note – check out my story ‘One House, Six Decades – Three Generations’ on the new CBC Hyperlocal site. The CBC, our venerable old Canadian broadcaster (for those of you who aren’t Canadian and didn’t know), wanted stories of change from Canadians across the country – change in people and places, not the English language, but still interesting. Since I have the rare and fortunate position of living a house that’s seen three generations of my family, I wrote about the changes its seen throughout the years. Please check it out, like it, or share it! 

Okay, grammar matters. As a device for making our writing clear and readable, and our communication in general easier to understand, it is a necessary (though irritating) set of rules and regulations. Considering how Jane Austen’s writing throws me off every time she writes ‘surprize’ instead of ‘surprise,’ and how Shakespeare confuses me by using ‘nothing’ to mean gossip and rumours, I suppose it is good someone set out to systematize our language and standardize everything. While I reserve the right of writers to break those standards when necessary, I will admit a basic knowledge of grammar for most people does matter.

The problem comes in, however, when fans of English grammar try to impose useless rules on the rest of us. As linguists have long pointed out, knowledge of a language and its grammar has not merely been used throughout history as a way of improving communication between people, but also – more sinisterly – as a way to classify people. People who use ‘ain’t’ clearly must be less educated than people who don’t. People who split infinitives must be stupid and clueless. And so on. This results in some grammar rules that are just used as a stick to beat other people with – even when whatever people are writing is perfectly clear as it is. Worst of all, this mindset clings to the idea that there are some hard and fast rules of English out there, and when the changing language of English leaves this idea behind in the dust, its supporters merely howl, “But that’s wrong! You’re ruining English!”

I care because I love how English changes. I love how I can twist words and sentences to mean exactly what I want them to mean, ignoring whatever grammar rules might water this meaning down if I have to. So today, let’s look at two of the ways English is changing right before our eyes! First up, we have that wonderfully maligned word… ‘literally.’


Everyone knows people use ‘literally’ when they really mean ‘figuratively.’ ‘His head literally exploded!’ is a common example given to writers to drive home the point that using ‘literally’ in this way is wrong, wrong, wrong. Except… maybe it isn’t. As Jesse Sheidlower from Slate points out, ‘literally’ has been used in sentences like this since at least the 18th century. James Fenimore Cooper, Thackeray, Dickens, and Thoreau all used it, and no one noticed until the twentieth century or so, when someone had to add another example of ‘bad writing’ to their style book. Also, in the interests of clear communication – I think everyone except possibly the very newest speakers of English would understand ‘literally’ in this context doesn’t actually mean the guy’s head actually exploded. Maybe this rule just exists so thousands of internet commenters the world over can spend their days writing “the author used ‘literally’ wrong, she obviously can’t know what she is talking about…”
But as this use becomes more and more common, do you think we’ll see the day where it is grudgingly accepted by grammarists?

Using ‘They’ to mean ‘He or She’:

I’m a huge fan of this one, and I hope it gains acceptance soon! Even the most stringent grammarist will note there is no genderless pronoun to use in sentences like, “When I tell someone a joke they laugh.” You could say, “When I tell someone a joke, he or she laughs,” but that just ruins the flow of most sentences. And since everyone uses ‘they’ like this in casual conversation, it makes sense to use it this way in all writing except the most formal, academic manuscripts. In novels, you don’t want to jerk the reader out of the story, even if the combination of words you use is ‘right.’
On the positive side, many analyzers of the English language are giving into this as a natural evolution of English, as it fills an obvious void our language has.

Bonus English Language Change!

Lastly, I want to point out a new word the English language has generated in the last couple decades – not an accepted, official word by any means, but a useful, slangy word that will either rise to prominence or die the ignoble death of other slang terms such as ‘the bees’ knees.’ This word, of course, is lol. Lol, you ask? How can I bring up such a horrible example of textspeak?
Well, as Farhad Manjoo pointed out recently, it’s a wonderfully flexible piece of slang. It doesn’t actually, strictly, mean ‘laughing out loud,’ though everyone knows that’s what it stands for (and we use similar phrases such as, ‘it cost me an arm and a leg,’ without literally meaning it cost you that). Actually, apparently it signifies something more like ‘basic empathy’ between two people. It can mean That made me smile a bit. It can mean I hear you. It can mean I’m not ignoring you, I’m just not sure what to say to your comment. If it ever gets accepted into dictionaries as something other than colloquial speech, it’ll be a wonderful example of how humans invent useful words to put into conversations and get a new kind of meaning across.
That said, am I going to be the brave writer who uses lol in a new, literary way? At the moment, I have no plans to. Unless one of my characters is actually online or texting something, lol will remain at the sidelines of my stories. As it stands today, lol has not crossed the boundaries of the virtual world. A few people have used it in casual, everyday conversation, but they have been met with strong resistance. And until this word becomes a conversational word, I’m not sure it will ever be a literary one.
But who knows, the wonderfully chameleon language known as English may prove me wrong yet.

What’s your favourite change in the English language?


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Beware the “Self-Appointed Language Arbiter”!

This Prof won’t tolerate those grammatical errors…

“The view of language as a variable system is at odds with the notions expressed in traditional grammars and adopted by teachers who insist that there is only one “correct” way to speak the language… Though unsupported by any scientific evidence, such notions are propagated by a host of self-appointed language arbiters who proffer inept advice on matters of correctness and find errors where a bona fide language specialist would find none.”

– Milton M. Azevedo, in Portuguese: A Linguistic Introduction

I’d rather write the way people actually use the language, rather than worry about being “grammatically correct”. Clearly, you’ve got to follow grammar most of the time, or risk being incomprehensible. But pretending that people don’t break grammatical rules all the time in everyday speech, insisting we remember grammar rules that people stopped following fifty years ago, or acting like the rules are hard and fast when they’re really just pragmatic things, is stretching it a bit.

When I was in Brazil, one of the Brazilians who spoke English asked if it was more correct to say “lie in the grass” or “lay in the grass.” None of us knew off the top of our heads. He was like, “You guys speak English and you don’t even know???” But it just goes to show most people don’t really care about whether they’re using the words correctly, or even think about grammatical rules, until the rare moment that they’re faced with an academic paper or have to meet the Queen.

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Just Write What You Mean

There’s Got to be a Common-Sense Approach to the Language Rules


Please Correct Your Mistakes
(“Edited Version of First Book,” by Joanna Penn, licensed under Creative Commons 2.0 Generic (CC BY 2.0))

Presciptivists vs. Descriptivists – apparently these are two sides of a lingual battle that involves literary theorists, writers and all-around grammar nazis. The New Yorker magazine (that bastion of literary prestige!) kicked things off by describing an old conflict between those who want to prescribe rules for English that everyone else must follow (“prescriptivists”), and those who believe writers should be allowed to write however they please (“descriptivists”). The blogsphere exploded in response, arguing that the article was deeply confused about how these groups approach language rules, and that reality is not nearly so clear-cut as to divide language users into two distinguishable groups anyway. You’d be pretty radical to insist any utter gibberish should be accepted as grammatical, and I know many writers who’d cringe at being dictated to about how to use words. So yeah, maybe both groups are stereotypes. Grammar and language rules are things people love to fight over, strangely enough, but there’s got to be a common-sense approach to it.

To me, it’s pretty simple. I want people to understand me, and hopefully to feel something through what I write. If that means discarding every grammatical rule in the book, so be it. I’ve used sentence fragments, comma splices, run-on sentences, and far too many em dashes. I’ve made up words and mangled sentences. I’ve ended sentences with preposition, and started sentences with ‘because’ (and I’m still not sure why my elementary teachers insisted that was a no-no). All of it was in an effort to put my jumble of thoughts on paper in some kind of coherence. The thoughts in my head are far more incoherent than any grammatical mess, trust me, and sometimes there’s no way to force them into some rigid and imposed framework. But all this does not mean that I want to throw all grammar out the window – as if I’m on the far radical edge of the “descriptivist” position. Let me be clear, I write to communicate something.

Because, after all, if something is riddled with spelling mistakes it is far more distracting than whatever the main message of the writing is. If you expect a sentence to contain “you’re,” you are going to be thrown off it the writer puts “your.” If you start your masterpiece with a comma splice, some reader out there will never take the rest of your work seriously, because they just can’t get past the fact you didn’t know that simple rule of grammar (never mind the fact you did it deliberately). In other words, grammar should only be followed as much as the reader expects you to.

(If you’re interested, Steven Pinker explain this far better than I can over at Slate, but his article is also far longer.)

See, if you’re writing dialogue, and your character is an uneducated bum, you can use “ain’t” as much as you want. If you’re writing an academic paper, maybe not. (I love writing dialogue, by the way, because real-life dialogue is so dominated by sentence fragments, run-on sentences, and other grammatical blunders. You practically have to break rules to make your characters sound like real persons). It’s like the little rule about using “said” all the time in dialogue – many writers avoid using it, but it’s often better to use “said” than “pontificated,” “communicated,” or “opined,” since the little word “said” is expected by readers while the other words as so unexpected it’s jarring. And jarring shakes a reader out of a story.

So my goal as a writer is to maintain the illusion of the story as much as possible, and avoid jarring the reader out of the story at all costs. Therefore some grammatical rules must be followed. Sentences should end in periods, unless you’re pretending to write from some distant future where punctuation is entirely different (and that sort of story would be entirely difficult to pull off without seeming gimmicky). Quotation marks should go around dialogue. But things like semicolons – well, it may be entirely grammatically correct to place them in a sentence, and the sentence might really need some kind of connection device included in it, but semicolons are so formal-looking you’ve got to be very, very careful with them. It’s okay if your whole story is pretty formally written already. But if your story is from the first person point-of-view of a very slangy character, a semicolon’s going to look weird, no matter how grammatically correct it is. (And this is another reason I love the over-used em dash).

In the end, I think grammar should be very personal. Oh look, I’ve horrified English teachers everywhere! But it’s your decision as a writer to decide which grammatical rules are going to enhance your story, and which ones you should break. This implies, of course, that you know a bit about grammar (and hey, I’m one of many writers who can always learn a thing or two more about it). English is an evolving language, so take advantage of that. If you’re lucky, you might be like Shakespeare, and get the invent half the vocabulary people will use in the future. 🙂


Are you in favour of dictating grammar rules, or allowing writers their freedom – and how much freedom? Is there a common-sense approach to the funny quirks of the English language?

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