Confidential To The Grammar Nazi
And keep those cards and letters coming
There are few things that we here at Illinois Times enjoy more than letters from readers.
Nary a week goes by that an envelope sans return address doesn’t show up in my mailbox. Usually, the sender takes great care to write my name and address in block letters, almost childlike, that would mystify the most skilled handwriting expert tasked with identifying the author. Through such missives I have been alerted to nepotism in government offices, nasty lawsuits worthy of publicity and all manner of skullduggery that, often as not, is as unprovable as it is tantalizing.
One of these days, I suppose, a miniature blizzard of sinister-looking powder will emerge from one of these envelopes, resulting in anthrax, panic or perhaps both. But today I received something unique: a very nice note from a person who signed off as Loyal Reader aka Grammar Nazi.
The Grammar Nazi took me to task for my use of the word “that” in stories. I will be the first to admit it. I use “that” a lot. It is not by accident. While the Grammar Nazi believes that (I did that on purpose) the use of “that” should be kept to a minimum, I disagree, even though I am otherwise very much in favor of writing as few words as possible, which is usually harder than using a lot of words.
Confused? Don’t be. Here’s an example of a sentence that (did it again) the Grammar Nazi thinks could be better written: “But Linn said that he doesn’t believe that decriminalizing possession for personal use would…” In the Grammar Nazi’s judgment, both “that’s” in this sentence should be eliminated. In the case of the first “that,” it is appropriate, I think, because it follows the word “said.” By putting “that” after “said,” we alert the reader that (!) the ensuing clause is a paraphrase. Of course, we should already know that, given the lack of quotation marks. But there is nothing wrong with making things as easy as possible for the reader, especially in this age of texting in which all manner of punctuation and grammar is considered superfluous, and use of “that” adroitly accomplishes the mission.
The second “that” in our sample sentence deftly cleaves things into digestible portions. What is already a simple sentence is made even simpler, and we like simple. While it is not as essential as the first “that,” it does no real harm, and so, why not? It’s not like we’re raining the world with ill-advised adjectives and adverbs.
All this said, it is humbling and gratifying that the Grammar Nazi would take the time to closely read stories as well as take the time to critique an art form – and writing is, indeed, an art – that doesn’t get sufficient attention these days. So, thanks. It is perfectly fine to have grammatical pet peeves, and there are worse sins than a crusade against “that.” Since we’re on the subject, at least in a general sense, below are a few terms I loathe.
Grapple. What on earth does it mean for a city council to grapple with a budget or grapple with a panhandling ordinance or grapple with anything? Grapple, to me, sounds like some sort of exotic fruit, perhaps from Fiji. If you really must, use “wrestle” instead. Better yet, come up with a more precise way to say what you really mean.
Family members. Why not “relatives?” That’s shorter, at least, and with fewer connotations . When I hear “family members,” I think about folks who hang out with Charles Manson.
Murder. You see it every day: “Businessman/cheerleader/mayor found murdered in home.” Really? There’s been a trial and verdict before the autopsy is even scheduled? “Murder” is a legal term that denotes the unlawful taking of a life. It is not necessarily against the law to kill someone, and so what do we say when it turns out that (!) the guy we said was murdered had threatened to kill the killer and so had it coming? We should wait for a jury or a guilty plea before describing any death as a murder. Until then, there are lots of other words that are every bit as good. Slain. Massacred. Killed. Homicide.
Suspect. Perhaps the word I hate most that the media uses all the time, no matter what. Here’s a recent honest-to-goodness example from a newspaper that shall remain nameless: “Police are asking the public for help in identifying two suspects filmed on store security video believed to have been involved in at least 12 robberies in the city since July 20.” These unidentified guys captured on video whilst carrying guns and wearing masks and grabbing cash aren’t suspects, they are robbers. Now, if the cops arrest two people, we can call them suspects until such time as prosecutors charge them with crimes, at which point we can call them defendants. If they should be convicted, we can then call them robbers. But a suspect never robbed anyone. Only a robber did that.
Contact Bruce Rushton at firstname.lastname@example.org.