The Grammar Nag

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Look.  I am no saint when it comes to use and abuse of the English language.  I have been known to split the occasional infinitive.  After all of these years, I am still appalled at how often I catch myself writing in the passive voice.  And I can’t spell to save my life, although that has improved with practice.  Nevertheless, I take no comfort in the fact that many of my colleagues abuse our language far worse than I do, and over the years I have kept a list of the most egregious offenses.  Ladies and gentlemen, I have been promising this rant for a while, now.  Fasten your seat belts.

To begin with, I will let you in on a little secret.  I didn’t begin life as a technology geek, nor do I have a business degree of any kind.  I am in actuality a classical music geek with a mortgage.  Yes, I hide it pretty well.  My appreciation for writing well, and for the specificity of the language, grew out of my first quarter in graduate school.  We were all required to begin the program with a course entitled “Methods of Musical Research.” Dr. Glixon, a wiry little bespectacled scholar from Princeton, taught the seminar and over the course of thirteen weeks, we wrote thirteen full-scale term papers.  When the first paper came back, there was so much red on every desk that the classroom resembled the sacking of Troy.  It was a difficult quarter, but somehow Dr. Glixon in his quiet, smiling way beat and drilled the ability to construct a proper paragraph into every one of us.

As consultants and BI practitioners, we all write and speak a lot.  It is difficult enough to avoid some of the clownish jargon that springs up all about us.  It just can’t be helped some days.  But the core elements of the language – what words actually mean and the basic principles of grammar that we all should have learned in school – are things we should use better than we do.  Without further ado, here is the Grammar Nag’s list of top offenses.

“Our firm is platform agnostic.”

This is the one that makes me want to knock people upside the head with a vegetable.  The word agnostic is NOT NOT NOT a synonym for the word neutral.  Per Wikipedia:  “Agnosticism is the view that the existence or non-existence of any deity is unknown and possibly unknowable…Agnosticism can be defined in various ways, and is sometimes used to indicate doubt or a skeptical approach to questions.”  So every time some idiot declares that he is “software agnostic,” I see the ghost of Jacob Marley rising from the frosty gloom asking “Why do you doubt your software?”   This is just the wholesale misuse of a word with a very specific meaning and it needs to stop.  Not only is it momentarily confusing for people who actually know what the word means, it really is a sign of utter sloppiness.  Our firm is platform ignorant?

“Our data is in the warehouse.”

It still sounds incorrect as I write it, although I’m enough of a realist to know that I am spitting into the wind on this one.  Technically speaking, the word data is the plural of the word datum.  Therefore, “The data are in the data warehouse” and “The datum for that metric is incorrect” are the correct forms of usage.  It is what I grew up with and I believe that the distinction adds more vividness and clarity to the meaning.  However, it is also true that at least since my Random House Unabridged Dictionary was published in 1987, the word data is also singular.  “Today, DATA is used in English both as a plural noun meaning “facts or pieces of information” (These data are described more fully elsewhere) and as a singular mass noun meaning “information” (Not much data is available on flood control in Brazil).”  I think it is sad that over time, usage blurs the clarity of the language.  It is also worth pointing out that in Business Intelligence, we make a distinction between data and information.  The data are the raw facts.  Information is what they mean.

“Email the document to Tom and I.”

The confusion between I and me is one we all should have had straight by middle school.  I is the first person singular subject pronoun.  Me is an object pronoun.  The subject pronoun is used when it is the subject of the sentence and does not change when there is more than one person involved.  “I went to the store.”  “Tom and I went to the store.”  The object pronoun is used when it is the entity on which the subject is acting.  “Email the document to me.”  “Email the document to Tom and me.”  It is the conjunction that confuses people, but the presence of a conjunction does not change the part of speech.  You would not say, “Email the document to I,” so there is no reason to get this wrong.  None whatsoever. To be sure, the same is true when using the predicate nominative form. “It is I,” is technically more correct than “It is me,” and “If you were I” is more correct than “If you were me.”   But American speakers rarely use the correct forms in either speech or writing because they sound stilted and require a monocle and silk hat.  Many grammarians concede that the rule regarding the predicate nominative is changing.

“No less than three of my proofreaders are on vacation.”

I wrote that sentence myself.  Yesterday.  I wrote those very words in an email to a colleague. I was asking her to proofread some copy.  I hit send.  I did.  Five minutes later I was standing in the kitchen pouring myself a cup of coffee when the dart hit me squarely between the eyes.  I literally dashed back to the computer to correct it and resend.  In formal usage, the word fewer is used in relation to discretely quantifiable nouns (counting nouns).  “There are fewer birds on the clothesline today.”  The word less is used with singular or “mass” nouns.  “There is less flour in this canister.”  However, one could also say, “There are fewer cups of flour in this canister.”  It becomes challenging in more complex constructions where one would probably not replace “at least ten items” with “at fewest ten items.”  This is where prescriptive grammar and descriptive grammar collide.  For me, the distinction between less and fewer is clear, and adds sharper definition to speech and writing.  And it is true.  No fewer than three of my regular proofreaders are on vacation.

“The book was laying on the table.”

This is another one that nobody should ever get wrong.  And nobody will who reads on.  First, here is the rule.  The verb to lie is an intransitive verb meaning to rest or recline.  “The book was lying on the table.” The verb to lay is a transitive verb meaning to put or place.  A transitive verb requires a direct object, something being acted upon.  “John laid the book on the table.”  The direct object (the book) must be there.  Some confusion might occur because the word lay is also a past tense of to lie, but only if you aren’t paying attention.  “The book lay on the table yesterday.”  The same rule works for the verbs to sit and to set, by the way.  To set is transitive and requires an object.  So here is the best way to remember this.  “Hey Steve.  Your crazy dog is laying in the street again.”  “Well now, Toby, is that a fact?  What’s he laying this time?  It’s not eggs is it?”  “Naw, it could be bricks but I ain’t certain.”

It feels so good to get this off my chest at last. I am self aware enough to know that I do my share to help other bloggers write their articles.  But particularly in the BI world where we are trying to find precision in the information we extract from our data, should we not also be seeking the same precision and definition in how we communicate about this information?  Granted that writing is not everyone’s strong suit, but shouldn’t we be reasonably knowledgeable about the meaning of the words we use and aspire to accuracy in how we use them?  Clarity and accuracy is what we are all about.  Or, as my last boss is wont to say, “If you can’t tie out your own travel expense report, why would I trust you to tie out my client’s data?”

I come from a point of view that believes that everything I lay my hand to – from the most abstruse data reconciliation to sweeping the floor – should be stamped with the same standard of quality.  That is a topic for another day.  Suffice it to say that the better we speak and write, the more our clients and colleagues will value and trust what we say and do. So beware.  The Grammar Nag is listening and may be back.  Oh, and one last thing.  Thank you, Dr. Glixon.

Do you have a grammar pet peeve or “favorite” example of word abuse? How about a choice new piece of jargon?

4 thoughts on “The Grammar Nag

  1. QuantumLeaper says:

    In addition to “grow the economy”, I wanted to mention something I’ve heard people saying lately: “supposably”. When did “supposedly” become this other, senseless word?

    • bimuse says:

      Thank you, Elizabeth, for yet another one. I had not heard this particular mangling of the language before, but to answer your question, “Supposably because the word supposedly is disposedle.”

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