Holiday gifts for grammar geeks

In the third and final installment of our series on “language conventions that so many editors and journalists are reticent to release,” we have some gifts for you. But first, as the Wizard of Oz says, we need you to perform a very small task:

Let it go.

(Okay, so we mixed up lines from The Wizard of Oz and Frozen. Let it go.)

We have gifted you in the past with permission to use conjunctions to begin a sentence, because we all do anyway, and to use “over” instead of “more than,” because, again, we all do it anyway. We have said that, in most situations, you can use “like” instead of “such as” even if the list that follows includes the very thing you are likening the others to. That means the phrase “words like ‘over’ and ‘more than’ are becoming interchangeable” includes “over” and “more than” as among the things that are becoming interchangeable.

We have said that “hopefully” long ago lost its sole sense of “in a hopeful manner” and can be used with abandon to mean “it is hoped.” (Even the Associated Press, still a holdout when we wrote that in 2009, has come around, and The New York Times stylebook entry no longer says that the “it is hoped” usage “inflames passions”; instead it says it “still irritates some traditionalists.”)

Ending a sentence with a preposition is something with which we put up all the time, yet many people still think it is wrong.

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Search for any of the above, and you will find a multitude of sites insisting that they are all mistakes that will somehow make your communications misunderstood and, in turn, make you look like a fool in business as well as your personal life. (We will dignify none of those sites with any links here, but some look quite foolish themselves.) Even some grammar checkers will scold you for some of the above.

So here is our gift to you:

Damn those sticklers in favor of what sounds best to you, in the context of the writing and the audience it’s intended for.

If your audience is unlikely to have heard of “petitio principii,” go ahead and use “beg the question” to mean either “ask the question” or “avoid the question.” Just be sure the context makes it clear which one you mean.

Don’t get your pants in a twist if you see “hone in on” instead of “home in on.” Few people will misunderstand it, and in just 13 years, it has gone from totally unacceptable to all-but-standard in the estimation of Bryan A. Garner and his modern usage books. And he’s often a late adopter.

Perhaps you “feel badly about the way she uses grammar.” Perhaps you “feel bad about the way she uses grammar.” Ignore the people tweeting GIFs of someone seemingly unable to experience touch. You are on the side of popular usage, and that usually wins.

Passive voice is able to be used. Maybe not in that way, but it can be used when you need to use it. Sometimes it’s more important to emphasize the thing having something done to it more than the thing doing it. The difference between “Congress plans to raise your taxes” and “Your taxes would be raised by Congress” may be important in the context.

“Decimate” is a perfectly fine word for “nearly destroyed.” We’re not quite ready to give up on the idea that “completely destroyed” is redundant, but if you’re being paid by the word, go for it.

If you’re writing for a medical audience, “stanching” blood flow is probably better. For everyone else, “staunching” will do. But be prepared for a bloody battle from some editors and readers.

You can decide whether you want a comma before the word “too” in a construction like “He wishes she would discuss idioms too.” No law requires it. And no law bans it. (Remember, the grammar police have no enforcement powers.)

These gifts, though, come with a few conditions. One is that spelling is not as open to interpretation as usage. Go ahead and spell it “alright,” or “miniscule,” or “healthcare,” and defend the spelling because “it’s in the dictionary.” But most publications have style guides, and one thing those style guides do is try to standardize spelling to avoid the momentary confusion from a reader seeing “health care” in one article and “healthcare” in another. If your publication’s style guide swings one way and not the other, just suck it up.

Second, you do not have permission to just make things up. Most of the time. Given a choice between using “home in on” and “hone in on,” you can decide. But you can’t just use “hone on it” and expect your audience to understand it. (The exceptions are where you are doing something for effect, and it’s clear that you are doing something for effect.)

Third, do not come after us to complain that we are contributing to the destruction of the English language. “We” are simply listening to what “you” are doing. And by “you,” we mean “us.” That’s where these language changes come from. Do you really want to go back to when “contact” was not a verb?

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Merrill Perlman managed copy desks across the newsroom at the New York Times, where she worked for twenty-five years. Follow her on Twitter at @meperl.