Stylistic misunderstandings and nitpicking

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⚠ This page is arguable, by nature

Even without the opinions it contains, much of this page arguable, by definition and/or lack thereof, and by the way language change has always worked.

Nitpicking too much is when you, say, insist that a meaning derived from the original latin, which was actually not clear two thousand years ago, then probably mistranslated and adopted across a language border or two, then filtered through a school system or two -- is the actually the best and only possible choice. You other-person, too stupid to follow this slightly preferable one. Honestly.

'Not nitpicking enough, however, is what leads to words that have such varied meaning that they lose their value to communicate meaning.

So picking at things that are currently in the state of 'new and wild misunderstanding', and trying to take the confusion out, is all good by me.

Language ought to help us communicate, after all. You could say it's the main point.

And, as always, most things are somewhere inbetween.


Typography, ease of reading

There are a lot of tiny details we don't notice other than that things are a little easier to skim.

The reason we don't do them is often rooted in some technological change.

Quotes and apostrophes

This article/section is a stub — some half-sorted notes, not necessarily checked, not necessarily correct. Feel free to ignore, or tell me about it.

Almost purely stylistic.

, and there are quite a few more than that, though it's relatively rate to see more than a few on the same page or in the same book.

Depending on the font, most of them will look about the same, so it's easy not to care. For books and formal documents it helps readability (and looks) to at least avoid being inconsistent.

Of course, computer keyboards only give you ' and ", so unless you use a word processor or typesetting that automatically correct them based on context, you have to be aware of it and pay attention.

Using inch/foot marks and quotes/apostrophes interchangeably can get confusing.

Probably fair points

That is, things that people know there is something to, and that will help interpretation, but people are either too lazy to do or never really learned the exact rules for.

You can always nitpick - say, about run-on phonetic uncapitalized stuff on the internet - but let's not.

Strange hyphenation

Hyphenating words in the middle of a sentence is usually

  • current convention of writing a compound (see delexicalization)
  • clarification of ambiguous modification (perhaps purple people-eater)
  • avoiding double vowels (anti-inflammatory versus antiinflammatory)
  • cases where the original word was capitalized, such as anti-Semitic rather than antiSemitic or antisemitic, but the last is often accepted.

Unexpected hyphens (where no rule applies, and it's not current convention) will seem marked to us - there seems to be some intent, but we don't know what it is. It's more distracting than helpful.

But not necessarily wrong either.

Run-on sentence

Partly about syntax, partly stylistic.

A run-on sentence is a sentence where independent clauses sit together without connectors - connectors like conjunctions, punctuation (such as a semicolon, colon, comma, period, or dash), or such.

They're relatively separate thoughts, with less separations, or indication about relations of the parts, which can be confusing, and even misleading in a garden path sort of way, meaning you have to go back to resolve ambiguities, references, and occasionally even whether there is an point implicitly being made, or not, and the structure or subject or point might become unclear.

They can be wrong in the sense that there is no reasonable way to figure out how you are supposed to read the thing, resolve all the references, with not only rereading but some pragmatic evaluation of possible readindg, and projection about the possible intents of the original writer.

Note that run-on sentences are not necessarily long. Just a lack of punctuation and conjunctions can easily do it, and certain types of lazy writers on the internet are almost a stereotype now.

air quotes, scare quotes

For context

Use of quotation marks ("these") has varied uses.

  • clearly marking dialogue separate from non-dialogue, in books and articles
  • verbatim quotation anywhere else, to make it clear what exactly someone said (to the point of being literal and using sic).
  • marking someone else's word choice, motto, etc - a smaller version of the previous, really
    • more so when you want to distance yourself from that choice
  • mark when words or phrases isn't used in its most usual sense.

Air quotes, scare quotes (or bunny-earing and various other names) refers mostly to the last two.

and it seems some people have a strange relation with figurative language and will quote a lot of it.

Sometimes it's a "that's how they wrote it", basically a variant of [sic]

Perhaps more generally, it indicates that the most literal/common reading does not apply.

"that was a 'smart' thing to do" is probably ironic
'It is suggested we live in a "post-truth" age'
hints at the writer's doubt that view is complete and accurate description
We will give you a "second service"
...okay now you just made it weird without meaning to

Or maybe it's suggesting it may be euphemism, highlighting yours or another's loaded meaning, that you are distancing yourself, and possibly even mocking it in demonizing rhetoric and judgment.

And then there are people who use it purely for emphasis,

e.g. 'Please "do not" leave the seat up'.
As this usually emphasizes the most obvious and literal meaning, this can look strange and sometimes b every confusing- are you being ironic or very direct?

(And then there are people who have seen this and use it around seemingly arbitrary phrases, usually expressions, or even any idea or concept)

Misuse of archaic terms

For example, I know the word 'herewith' exists, but wouldn't use it without looking up how it is properly used.

Archaic words, including those used only in a few contexts, such as formal letters and some older writing (for example, far from everyone knows that "wherefore art thou romeo" asks why rather than where - because why would you know Elizabethian English detauls unless your English teacher made a point of this while making you read this?)

Uncommon words leave more up to guesswork, which actually limits communication - or at least limits the clarity to just English majors.

Common mistakes that are probably avoidable enough

That is, things that aren't just styistic, that have a fairly clear explanation. Though that's not to say they are necessarily set in stone.


The flagrant apostrophe

See Apostrophe.


Such as:

  • principals instead of principles


i.e. and e.g.

Doesn't matter what latin they're short for, e.g. means 'for example', and i.e. means 'that is to say'.

So e.g. usually gives a single example, a subset, while i.e. tends to give a roughly complete summary or equivalence.

So the only time at which both are equally valid is if the example happens to be pretty complete.

Effect and affect

The basic uses are:

  • to have an effect on something is to have some influence on it
  • to affect people is about a specifically emotional influence

There are further cases, though they are more rarely use:

  • To effect a change is to cause or initiate it (much more than having an effect on that same change)
  • To speak without affect (and such) refers to expressed emotion.

(note that these cases cover both being both noun and verb)

Reasonable preferences, that are often made in an unreasoned or overcorrecting way

Singular/plural inconsistency

Dangling modifiers

Not clear-cut enough to be picked on

Avoiding passive voice

Mixing past and present (and future) tense will usually be interpreted as intentional. It will often suggests a chronology, or at least that order matters, but at the same time will not give any details that some things were in the past.

So unless you wanted to make a point, and you do so clearly (and you will find this is more convoluted to write), it often ends up being a little more confusing for a reader.

This is why the general suggestion is to avoid mixing them.

And if you're going to choose one, present tense seems the most generic. It's more direct, feels more certain, and tends to be shorter, so fits more styles.

Except that when you know this, you can mix passive and active usefully, e.g. to do give a basic chronology without going into details.

And passive voice is preferred for some things - the lack of directness structures may e.g. let bad news arrive more softly.

So it's absolutely a good idea to keep in mind, yet not a hard rule.

"... is not a word"

...about irregularly seen words seen repeatedly (rather than misspellings, or brainfart words).

Often these words will have originated in a misunderstanding, unnoticed mistake, copied mistake, or such. Sometimes it's about creativity deemed unnecessary by others.

All that a word has to do to be considered real is to be used widely enough and/or long enough, because once it's useful for communication, it plays in language change. In the long term, origin does not matter.

A better claim is about informality, which is often tied to its general acceptance. Some types of writing have their own set of standards that often includes using the most common and unambiguous words, and using an unusual or informal word there is rare. In particular consider academic writing, written for unambiguous succinctness. Various other things (e.g. newspapers, political/business communication) may have a style that does the same - and is very much tied up with an air of formality.

Saying a word is not proper, that it's made up, or that it's not in the dictionary are largely opinions. Opinions are rather empty as arguments.

Dictionaries describe rather than define a language (see also Prescription, description). It's only final when everyone explicitly agrees, such as in word games.

Dictionaries also lag behind a language, partly intentionally - many of these words, particularly the made-up ones (nonsense words, sniglets, and such; see word formation) are short-lived and are never even heard of by most people.

And still some of these end up in the dictionary, some much faster than others, before they really become generally accepted as words, sometimes before they fall completely out of style again.

Jargon is a bit of a special case in that it's useful even while most of it will never be widely used, which means some of it is less volatile than you might expect by the limited use alone.

There is arguably a distinction in examples that are easy enough to follow and you may not even always notice (for example wrong morphology but not misleading, say, inclinement, conversate), and things that are illogical once you start thinking about them (e.g. irregardless, which is invariably meant with exactly the same meaning as regardless even though the ir- prefix means negation).

Irregardless is one of the more interesting examples because it's an example of something that is not only readily understood, it has also become used widely enough that it is edging slowly towards a formal-word status - except that there are enough people pointing out that it is an unnecessarily confusing word (common arguments: the useless negation prefix, the word probably originating in a confusion between irrespective + regardless).

In cases where the argument is over alternatives that come from a misunderstanding, a choice to use a less common rather than a more widely used/accepted word is seen as thoughtless and informal.

Another point to be made: in situations where common misconception redefines a word (particularly in the case of opposites) the meaning becomes considerably weaker, in that you require more context or clarification. Language will often abandon the word for one that was not semantically poisoned.

Some of these are also grammatical shibboleths for class distinction, for academic/non-academic context, and such.

"You shouldn't start a sentence with a conjunction" (and, or, but, however, ...)

Largely a stylistic preference.

One with a decent point, but only purists will claim this is a rule.

The point is largely that repeatedly using stop-conjunction-continue constructions often make for rather choppy text.

Text often flows better without this, so when you can easily avoid it, you might as well.

There are also many cases where it makes little difference, or where using it once or twice actually helps structure the text (and its readability/skimmability), such as when it clearly marks contrast, marks a new paragraph as a counterargument, or such.

"You shouldn't end a sentence with a preposition"

There are cases in which a preposition can sit at the end perfectly well, there are cases in which it's incorrect, and there are cases considered bad (or informal) style.

It's easy to point at some cases where prepositions are incorrect for some other reason, and many in which it's not so clear.

The suggestion that this should be a rule probably comes from the observation that unnecessary prepositions may be confusing. However, unnecessary prepositions can be a problem wherever they sit in a sentence, and there are multiple reasons why it would be hard to make a simple rule.

There are cases

  • where a unnecessary prepositions helps readability.

"You shouldn't split your infinitives"

There is nothing fundamentally wrong with splitting infinitives (inserting someting inside "to verb") - or compound forms of verbs (e.g. believe in).

It can be bad style in that it can lead to some confusing and/or convoluted constructions.

...but so can never splitting your infinitives.

Style guides tend to point out that you should weigh the clarity of both versions - the ease of parsing.

It doesn't hurt to err on the side of not splitting when both variants are easy, or whenever it makes it clearer what modifies what, or when one seems more natural (be less marked).

But if both seem right enough, don't worry about it.

And sometimes you can do it intentionally, creatively, for markedness, for style. Consider "To boldly go".

The idea for the rule seems to come from the Victorian upper class's wanting to sound a little more fancy and formal than the plebs.

They observed that Latin didn't split its infinitives, and decided that since Latin is fancy, this must have a proper reason.

That reason, however, is that Latin's infinitives are purely morphological, so the infinitive is always a single word, and so cannot be split even if you wanted to.

So it looks a lot like they tried to transplant such a rule to another language by force (which rarely works), and then only this one.


Me + I

(...and analogous pronoun forms, such as he/him, etc.)

The most basic case of whether to choose me or I is relatively simple - we use I when it's a subject, and me when it's an object. For example,

We tend to do most of that automatically, and once we've learned it the other feels wrong. But not always so thoroughly.

Than me, than I

Seems similar to the basic case, and thereby a simple resolvable misunderstanding, but this has been debated for longer than we've been alive.

In this specific case, the discussion is mostly over whether 'than' is a conjunction or a preposition:

Conjunctionists argue that the 'than' in this construction is always a (subordinating) conjunction, which would mean that a lone pronoun after it is an abbreviated (arguably gapped) longer implied sentence (e.g. 'than pronoun would/can/does'). Add the verb and you'll know what to use.

This would mean that the pronoun has to agree with what is implied to be there, which often means 'I' is correct.

The freedom to think up the implied sentence does imply some ambiguity - sometimes both are valid, partly because the choice of pronoun implies a different second sentence.

In a number of cases (seemingly primarily judgments), the choice of word allows for different expanded sentences, with significantly different meanings. A stolen example:

  • Aardvark likes Squiggly more than I...more than I [like Squiggly].
  • Aardvark likes Squiggly more than me...more than [Aardvark likes] me.

This makes for the occasional chicken-and-egg problem, which is one reason this argument doesn't feel elegant or final to everyone.

Prepositionists argue that 'than' is used as a preposition and the pronoun an object in the sentence, in which case there's no choice, it would always be me.

You could argue that the choice between conjunction and preposition lies less in the sentence originated in, and more in the speaker's/writer's cognitive form. Which is unknowable. (And something you can argue exists that strongly)

You could also argue that direct comparison is a more common thought than people thinking of gramatically implied altered deixis (in informal speech, anyway).

Quit your squabbles?

Both styles are quite defensible -- and both are standard and common enough not to be objectively wrong.

That doesn't mean you can choose anything - in a good number of specific cases, both say the same thing.

Conjunctionist style seems to have more adherence (or just more vocal and/or prescriptivist adherence), and is generally accepted as more formal - the sort of formal you would want in text that you want to sound formal.

However, strict adherence forces constructions that just sound wrong in informal discussions, or sometimes anywhere.

"X and I" versus "X and me"

In a sentence like "You and me should be blamed," the common explanation is that we are dealing with coordination, specifically a strict composite of "You should be blamed" and "I should be blamed".

This reduces the problem to the usual I-when-it's-a-subject, me-when-it's-an-object.

It's "You and I should talk to John", and it's "John wants to talk to you and me." "They should blame you and me" would be correct, "They should blame you and I" would not be.

There is some point to the argument that "You and me" and "You and I" both act like a single unit, being a compound noun, basically meaning that both forms are acceptable), and that this is closer to cognitive origins than an implicit expanding coordination.

Note however that constructions like "...between you and I", while used and looking somewhat formal (and use that seems to stem from hypercorrective preference for I), are technically always wrong. This cannot be a be a coordination because 'between' is a preposition, which implies that 'you' and 'I' are necessarily two distinct objects (in this case in a comparison), which calls unambiguously for 'me'.

Was, were

To be clear: we are not talking about cases where the verb simply needs to agree with the noun or pronoun in number (singular/plural), e.g. the car was speeding and the brakes were failing.

We are talking about the difference between, say, "If Jack was in France" and "If Jack were in France."

This is about the subjunctive, which is a verb mood. We can choose to use the subjunctive when expressing uncertainties, such as wishes, statements with unlikely facts or that disregard reality, conditional futures like hypotheticals and requests, and some other things[1].

Sometimes the subjunctive is about word choice, and sometimes it makes a different sentence structure more natural.

Subjunctive forms are traditionally preferred in formal-sounding contexts, are still used, and certainly still valid. However, they haven't been in wide use in English for quite a while now, so are rarely required (unless perhaps you're an English major with a particular style of teacher).

In the case of 'was' and 'were', you might prefer 'were' because 'was' may more strongly suggest past tense.

Since subjunctives are not required, there is often one neutral and one less-neutral choice. Sometimes choosing the subjunctive form looks very formal, sometimes not using it looks very informal (Perhaps more true for more basic-looking ifs (future-conditionals), largely because they are more common than most of the other constructions and so sees more informal use).

That said, there are still quite a few phrases where most of us favour the subjunctive more than we otherwise would, many of which originate in times and places in which the subjunctive was a more actively used form.

Many of these are are phrases used in formal settings (e.g. "requests that you be present", "asked that he join"), others are just phrase-like combinations that sit in our heads (e.g. "if I were you").

In some cases it makes for a shorter form with less bother getting the agreement right, which can make it preferred for more than one reason, such as in signs.

Further notes:

  • American English seems more fond of subjunctives than other flavours.

See also:

(This can sometimes look a bit odd. For example, in "The person was fishing, and they were good at it," 'they' is used as a singular pronoun[2] in terms of reference, but it still looks and acts as a plural, and forces 'were' through agreement.)

On hypercorrection

Hypercorrection refers to people applying a rule beyond its real scope, or simply incorrectly.

Often habitual correction that applies an oversimplifed form of what governs the real-world language, or done with the intent to seem formal or correct.

Sometimes people disapprove of correct forms that happen to not be the most common one, or imply that regional variation is wrong.

Sometimes it even takes something correct and makes it incorrect, but that usually gets shot down soon enough.

May be personal insistence the rules are strict, clear (and happen to be exactly as they say). May be based in preference, ignorance, or both.

Because it plays with the fear of incorrectness, they may effectively drag a lot of other people along to say the same thing.