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Grammar And Style Guide - G

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Gender comes from the Latin genus, which means "kind" — any old kind of kind, not necessarily masculine and feminine. It was traditionally a technical term in grammar to describe the kinds of nouns and adjectives: in most European languages, they could be masculine, feminine, or (in a few languages) neuter.

According to the traditional distinction, nouns and adjectives have a gender, while people and animals have a sex. Language textbooks are careful to insist they're not the same thing: masculine isn't the same as male, nor is feminine the same as female. German Weib, for instance, means "wife," by definition female; the noun, though, is neuter. And in many languages the distribution of nouns into masculine, feminine, and neuter seems pretty arbitrary. The very fact that other languages like Swahili have more than three genders should remind us it's unwise to map gender onto sex.

In the twentieth century, though, feminist theorists began to use the word gender in a newish way, to distinguish biology from society. In this scheme, your plumbing determines your biological sex; your social role determines your gender. As it happens, most biological males behave in socially masculine ways; most biological women behave in socially feminine ways — but the distinction allows us to discuss people who don't follow the norms, including transgendered people, those with XXY chromosomes, and biological hermaphrodites. If you care to observe this distinction, feel free — it's often useful.

It's probably unwise, though, to allow gender to edge out sex altogether. Once gender began to be used to describe people, it became first a synonym, and then a substitute, for sex. The word sex still provokes giggles, and I can understand why people who prepare questionnaires would be glad to see it disappear after finding the "Sex" blank on a form filled in with "Yes, please" for the jillionth time. Still, using gender to refer to biological sex should be avoided.

In either the traditional system, in which gender applies only to grammatical categories, or the more recent feminist theory, in which it describes a social role, the word shouldn't be used to describe biology, for which sex has long been the preferred word. In practical terms: an ultrasound can't tell you the gender of a fetus, though it may tell you the sex. Cats and dogs don't have a gender, they have a sex. [Entry added 14 Sept. 2004.]

Since the beginning of time, man has wrestled with the great questions of the universe. Humans have always sought to understand their place in creation. There is no society on earth that has not attempted to reckon with the human condition.

Balderdash. Generalizations like that are sure to sink your writing, because they almost always fall into one of two classes: the obvious and the wrong.

For starters, how do you know what has happened since the beginning of time? — is your knowledge of early Australopithecus robustus family structure extensive enough to let you compare it to Etruscan social organization? Have you read Incan religious texts alongside Baha'i tracts? Unless you've taken courses in omniscience, I'm guessing the answer's no. In that case, you're saying things you simply don't know, and certainly don't know any better than your audience. So it's either obvious to everyone, or a plain old lie.

Couching vacuous ideas in portentous prose impresses nobody. Simplicity, clarity, and precision will always win over ringing generalizations: don't think everything you write has to settle the mysteries of the ages in expressions worthy of Shakespeare. In the words of one of my favoritest writers in the whole wide world, Calvin Trillin, "When a man has nothing to say, the worst thing he can do is to say it memorably" ("Speak Softly," in Too Soon to Tell [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1995], p. 123). [Entry added 3 November 2000.]

Germanic Diction.
See Latinate versus Germanic Diction.
See Dangling Participles.
Grace always trumps pedantry. Don't let rule-mongering make your prose unreadable. See Bugbears, Audience, Clarity, Prescriptive versus Descriptive Grammars, and Rules.
Grammar, strictly defined, is a comparatively narrow field: most questions native speakers have about a language deal not with grammar but with usage or style. Grammar is the more scientific aspect of the study of a language: it's made up of morphology (the forms words take, also known as accidence) and syntax (their relation to one another). Grammar gives names to the various parts of speech and their relations (see, in this guide, Adjectives and Adverbs, Antecedent, Apposition, Conjunctions, Prepositions, Imperative, First Person, Transitive and Intransitive Verbs, Direct and Indirect Objects, and Agreement), so it's useful in providing a vocabulary to discuss how language works. But if you're debating whether language should be concrete, or where to put only in a sentence, or when to use italics — strictly speaking, that's a question of usage or style rather than grammar. And some come down to nothing more than taste.

Linguists complain that the terms taught in school are inadequate for discussing the way our language really works. It's a fair cop: most of our grammatical categories are imported from Latin grammar, and often don't jibe well with English. Still, in this guide I tend to use the traditional terms, and for two reasons: first, I'm not a linguist, and am not up on the best scientific descriptions of the language; and second, few of my readers were taught the more modern system in school, which means explanations that depended on them would confuse rather than enlighten.

I should point out that this guide isn't intended to be a formal or systematic grammar, just a handy vade mecum (look it up) on effective style. I define grammatical terms only insofar as they're useful in improving usage. If you want real grammar, talk to the linguists, who know what they're talking about in a way I never will. (See Prescriptive versus Descriptive Grammars for further details.)

One more thing — for the love of Pete, please don't spell it "grammer," unless you put "Kelsey" right in front of it. [Entry revised 26 January 2001]

Grammar Checkers.
I have no problem with spelling checkers; while they sometimes miss typos, they rarely give advice that's downright wrong. Computerized grammar checkers, on the other hand, are a mess. They not only miss most of the serious problems, they actually give wretched advice, often telling you to fix something that's not broken. And of course they have no sense of grace, which means they can only apply rules pedantically with no sense of context. I've played with many of them, and have never seen one worth the CD-ROM it's printed on.

A fun experiment is to take some great work of literature and feed it to a grammar checker, and then to see what mincemeat it makes of it. Here are some mindless tips on the first sentence of Milton's Paradise Lost:

  • Consider revising. Very long sentences can be difficult to understand.
  • Avoid contractions like "flow'd" in formal writing (consider "flow had").
  • Avoid the use of "Man" (try "he or she").
  • "One greater Man restore" has subject-verb agreement problems.
  • "In the Beginning" should be "at first."
  • "Or if Sion" should be "also if Sion."
Milton's style is judged appropriate for a 98th-grade reading level. (Well, okay, that seems about right. But the rest is silly.)

Maybe someday I'll be pleasantly surprised, but for now, rely on your own knowledge when you revise and proofread. See also Spelling Checkers and Microsoft Word. [Revised 5 April 2001.]