Michael J. McDonagh

An established writer who recently went to work becoming an author, trying valiantly to make someone give a damn and chronicling the process.

Archive for the tag “grammar and syntax”

Grammar, Style, and Usage are Three Different Things

Advice on grammar, style, and usage are often confused. This can be particularly troubling when, for example, style advice is touted as grammar advice. If you don’t think that can happen, just turn on grammar check and, assuming you use MS Word, look at all the green squiggly lines underneath grammatically pristine phrases. I type my blog posts in MS Word then cut and paste them into the blog. There are two in this paragraph already – one because the phrase “advice is touted” is passive and a second because the prissy little fuck doesn’t like contractions.

The distinctions are important, because ungrammatical phrases (which have a few subcategories of their own) are usually a problem. Style preferences are just that, preferences. Usage changes so much that it is one of the keys to communicating effectively with your audience. When grammar check or beta readers or other people providing critiques mistake a question of style for one of usage or grammar, for example, things get muddled. At a minimum, it helps to have a handle on the nature of the advice being given.

What is Grammar?

There’s a reason we call it “grammar school” and not “syntax school.” Grammar is less of a category than a broad term that covers a bunch of different fields of study. That can make things confusing, because the importance of any particular “rule” of grammar depends heavily on which category it comes from. From a linguistic perspective, there are areas of huge importance within the scope of “grammar” that we, as writers, don’t need to worry about. Not that they aren’t important, they’re just so ingrained in a fluent English speaker that we don’t need to give a shit about their linguistic/grammatical formulations.

Language came first, probably about 200,000 years before the first linguist showed up on the scene. This happened long before the invention of writing, when our ancestors were all either hunter/gatherers or sold Geiko automobile insurance and looked like this:

To be honest, more than one of my relatives and about eighty percent of my fishing buddies still look like that.

Linguistics came along to study languages after languages were a thing. And a whole slew of the grammatical issues they study (like why we know the word “cars” means more than one car, even if the Chinese use a completely different set of rules to make that distinction) just don’t matter if you can speak fluent English.

The part of “grammar” we really need to worry about is syntax and construction. The stuff that makes sentences make sense. Syntax is the building block for construction – it’s the basic rules that let us understand what the hell each other mean when we say something. “We ate pie,” is basic subject, verb, object syntax saying what happened in a way that English speakers understand. The cognitive construction involves the listener, who probably knows (from the context the speaker gives and/or pie stains on her shirt) whether “we” refers to the speaker and one or more other people or the speaker and the listener.

This is a really important distinction, because the listener’s (or, more likely, reader’s) role is key. It trumps everything else. Brilliant syntax is meaningless without cognitive construction. Put another way, lexicological formulations achieve Floccinaucinihilipilification when opacified through superfluous bullshit.

There are no green squiggly lines under that last sentence, because it’s grammatically pristine. It’s still a train wreck. Grammar, in itself, does not make writing clear to the reader. It often helps, but it’s merely a guide to what the reader expects to see. That’s the heart of what the “rules of grammar” really are. They are a guide, written down after the fact, to how we say things in the most easily understandable way. “Pie we ate” is probably still understandable, but it sounds weird (because it’s not the standard subject-verb-object formulation we use in English). It takes more work for the reader to understand the meaning, because you sound like Yoda.

Those are some important factors to keep in mind when thinking about grammar. Specifically:

  • Grammar is backward looking. First people communicate in a way they all find works, then linguists assign rules to explain what it is that lets it make sense.
  • The only reason we have “rules of grammar” is to give context to the information we are being provided.
  • Something that follows the linguistic structure for written English (i.e., is grammatically correct) can still suck balls. If you put a cardboard box on top of the foundation for a mansion, you haven’t built a mansion.
  • A phrase or sentence that is readily understood by the reader in a pleasing and predictable way has accomplished what the “rules of grammar” seek to accomplish, whether it follows those rules or not.

Don’t infer from the above list that I’m not a fan of following the rules of grammar. Outside dialogue, I do so the overwhelming majority of the time. But it is important to realize that the “rules of grammar” are a means, not an end. Occasionally, the choice is presented between a clearer sentence that breaks the rules or adherence to the rules at the expense of clarity. In those cases, clarity wins.

What is Style?

My favorite definition of style comes from Orson Wells, who wrote, “Style is knowing who you are, what you want to say, and not giving a damn.” My English professors (with one notable exception, who was awesome) did not agree. Style was something they often confused with grammar, imposing arbitrary little rules affecting voice and tone as “rules,” despite the fact that they have nothing to do with proper syntax. If you find someone who thinks the correctly named (but otherwise often incorrect) Elements of Style is a grammar guide, you have identified this problem.

Style, to an editor, is a set of rules that fill in the gray areas left by broad grammar rules. Issues like whether parentheses or em-dashes should be used to set off a particular clause, or how to hyphenate a set of compound numbers that combine to form a big-ass compound adjective. To a writer, style can best be defined as the set of preferences that aren’t syntactic rules. A subject worthy of it’s own post, but including:

  • Don’t begin sentences with conjunctions (there is no grammatical basis for that “rule”);
  • Don’t split infinitives (following this one sometimes screws things up in a big way);
  • Do not use contractions (that’s probably correct for most formal writing);
  • Never end a sentence with a preposition (what’s that all about?)
  • Passive voice should be avoided (by zombies!)

Those and other style preferences, which may be fucked in their own right, are often incorrectly pointed to as “rules of grammar” by writers, writing instructors, stupid green squiggly lines, and others. They aren’t. They’re basic bits of advice and nothing more.

What is Usage?

There’s a reason these three things need to be discussed in this order. Grammar is the basic syntactic framework of language, the nuts and bolts that allow two people speaking the same language to understand each other. We don’t use nouns to introduce adverbs in sentences without any predicates. We don’t even have to think to avoid doing those things, because most of those rules are hard-wired into how we think.

Style as the more flexible but easily definable constructs that (often) make grammatical sentences more easily understandable. There is no grammatical prohibition against using four negatives to state one positive, but it’s confusing as hell. There sure as hell isn’t a grammatical or linguistic reason for preferring active voice over passive, but it’s advisable 95% of the time. This is a gray area, and it’s like Velcro for bad “grammar” advice.

Usage, is that next level down (or up) toward genuine readability. It is the difference between:

“At least one individual in the overwhelming majority of U.S. households..”


“Every family’s got one…”

Just as people often call style issues grammar rules, matters of usage are regularly confused with style. And, in the true “style” sense, that’s fair. Strictly speaking, though, that flair that Welles was talking about relates more to usage than style. If you think of writing as an inverted pyramid, Grammar is the wide base – it includes every possible way of communicating a thought that will be recognized by an English-speaking person as correct. Style narrows that field down, eliminating the most tortured and inapt ways of expressing that thought. Usage is the tip, containing only those ways of stating a thought that will clearly resonate with your reader. It is, literally, the way we use the words to create an image. You need a reasonably good handle on grammar and style before you can focus on usage, but for a writer, usage is what matters most. It is the part of writing that is concerned with the reader’s reaction – not just her ability to decipher. It is the most flexible of the trio, and it is constantly changing. Grammar, by contrast, slowly evolves.

Why does this matter?

Because it gives context to advice. In truth, aside from fragmented sentences, violations of grammar rules are rarely, if ever, a good idea. But a whole shitpile of opinion about style and usage is dressed up as grammar advice, which gives both far more weight than they deserve. For example, here is a list from an article in the Guardian entitled: 10 grammar rules you can forget: how to stop worrying and write proper:

  1. Split infinitives (style, not grammar)
  2. Ending a sentence with a preposition (style, not grammar)
  3. Subjunctive verb form (usage, not grammar. I also think they’re wrong – but it’s a usage question, so I can)
  4. Double negatives (this is probably in a gray area between style and usage, clearly not grammar)
  5. Use of “between” to refer to more than two things (this is about as usagey as usage gets)
  6. Use of “with,” “by,” or “of” with an adjective like “bored” (if possible, this is usegier than 5)
  7. Using gerunds (verbs turned into nouns by adding “ing”) (style, not grammar)
  8. Conjunctions at the beginning of sentences (I agree. But this has nothing to do with grammar)
  9. Use of singular verb with the word “none” (which is based entire on the usage of “none”)
  10. Using try twice in a sentence (until I saw this, I had no idea it was a rampant style problem).

See the problem? There is not one fucking grammar rule on the list. If someone points out a grammatical mistake in your writing, you almost certainly need to fix it. If someone points out a usage issue, you need to decide how much that person’s take on usage is in line with your reading audience.

There’s a big difference.

Passives Should Usually be Avoided Part One (Or: What World War Z taught me about passive voice)

I had a professor once who thought (a) passive voice happened any time you have a conjugation of “to be” at work in a sentence; and (b) passive voice must always be avoided (hehe). He was wrong on both counts, and it took me years to overcome the trauma. We’ll start with a rule (whether something is passive or not is a yes or no question, so there’s no problem having a “rule” about that). Then we’ll talk about applying the general idea (not a rule) that passives usually (i.e., sometimes but not always) weaken our writing.

A)  The Basic Rule

Passive voice is a simple, but often misunderstood, concept. We’ll start with the simple part. In passive sentences, the subject of the sentence is the recipient of the action in the sentence. That’s it. You do not need a Spymaster Deluxe Decoder Ring to work your way around this concept. If you can figure out what the subject of a sentence is, you can figure out whether the sentence is passive or active.

If you can’t figure out what the subject is, don’t worry. That’s not rocket surgery, either. The subject of the sentence is, generally, the thing the sentence is about or the thing that does the action. If it’s the thing that does the action, the sentence isn’t going to be passive, so the problem solves itself. We only need to worry when the sentence is about a thing that isn’t the actor. This also applies to clauses, but I am going to just address sentence structure to keep this simple.

We ate pie.           We are the subject of the sentence. We did the verb (ate). Yay us. This sentence is not passive.

The pie was eaten. The pie is now the subject of the sentence. The pie didn’t do shit. It just sat there being eaten. Boo pie. This sentence is passive.

So, the basic rule is simple. Look at the verb and ask whether the verb is being done by or to the subject. If it is done by the subject, you’re golden. If it is done to the subject, the sentence is passive. Does the fact that it is passive mean it sucks? Not necessarily. But we’ll deal with that in a bit.

B)    Same Rule, Just a Little Less Basic

If all sentences were three or four words long with one noun and one verb, the issue would be closed there. We’d sound like 1950s Hollywood stereotype cave men and Native Americans, but we’d be done worrying about passive voice. Assuming we want our narratives to be slightly more nuanced than “Kate make fire,” we need to take a couple more issues into account.

The pie was eaten by us. Now we have two nouns (well, OK, a noun and a pronoun). Now there’s a noun (us) doing the eating, so the sentence can be active, right? Not quite. The “by us” part is a prepositional phrase (“by” is the preposition). But hang with me here, because if you just learn one more little rule, you’ll have your black belt in passive kicking. Or at least your fourth-degree brown belt (not to be confused with a fifty shades of grey belt, which is a whole other thing).

Whenever a passive sentence has an agent doing the verb, that agent is going to show up in a prepositional phrase. So there will be a preposition (by, from, after, etc.) followed by a noun or pronoun. They aren’t the subject of the sentence, they modify the verb that is doing something to the subject of the sentence.

If you grew up speaking English, you don’t think twice about prepositions. If you are learning English as a second language, you probably think preposition is a four-letter word (or a twenty-one-letter word like “big-fucking-pain-in-my-ass”). From a linguistic point of view, they are amazing little buggers with an amazing history, but today I am focusing on the fact that they are a pain in the ass to identify.

In passive sentences, the prepositional phrases most often used are: by, for, from, after, off, on, and between. That’s not a scientific study of language, by the way, it’s my opinion. Here’s another opinion, about half of the time, the preposition is “by.” So when you see a sentence with a noun, a verb, and a prepositional phrase “by [whatever]” your passive radar should start ringing.

C)     Same Rule, The Part My Dickhead Professor Didn’t Get.

If he weren’t the only person with this misconception, I’d assume he just learned half a rule and missed the next day of class. Because a good portion of the English-speaking world (including a few old-school English teachers) labors under the same misconception, it’s worse than that.

The truth is if you find a form of “to be” in a sentence AND it’s followed by a past participle (let’s just call it a past-tense verb for now), you’re going to end up with a passive.

The cake has been [that’s our ‘to be’] eaten [that’s our past participle] by them (or anyone, at that point, because it’s already passive).

So Professor Asshat had half the rule right. Well, half of the first half of the rule, because he was dead wrong about passives being wrong all the time, too. But forms of “to be” (is, are, were, will be, have been, etc.) by themselves do not create passive sentences or clauses. When combined with past participles, they’ve always resulted in passive voice, though (hehe).


D)  Same Rule, Keepin’ it Real.

If your eyes rolled back in your head when I started talking about prepositional phrases, roll them back. The grammar part is over, and it’s time to deal with the real-world use.

1)    It helps to learn about the past participles and prepositional phrases, but it’s not required. You can identify passives if you are able to identify the subject of the sentence.  

2)    What’s the sentence about? That’s the subject. In my examples, some sentences have been about pie (“The pie was eaten by us”) and some sentences have been about us (“We ate the pie”). If you can identify the subject, you can identify passive voice.

3)    What does the subject do? In many sentences, the subject is also the agent of the action. If the subject is doing something, we don’t need to worry. The subject can’t be the doer of the action and the recipient of the action at the same time. It’ll go blind. (I’m kidding, it’s grammatically impossible). If the subject is doing the action (e.g., “The pie attacked Cleveland”), your sentence will be active.

4)    If the subject isn’t doing anything, you probably have a passive sentence. Take a look, is the verb being done to rather than by the subject? If the answer is yes, then your sentence is passive.

5)    If all else fails, look for prepositional phrases. Sentences can get complicated. Especially if you write like I do, and half of your first-draft sentences are run-on amalgamations of phrases and punctuation that seem to last for pages. You can still catch most passive sentences that have two nouns (and/or pronouns) if you just look for prepositional phrases that include “by.” Broaden your search to include on, off, from, against, between, and the other prepositions, and you’ll nail that type of passive.


E)    What the hell does this have to do with World War Z?

Because — zombies, man!

Among their few contributions to society are the zombies’ uncanny ability to guide us through passive sentences. Want to know whether a sentence without a telltale prepositional phrase is passive? Ask yourself this: Could the zombies have done it?

We ate the pie. (nope, there’s no pie left for the zombies)

The pie was eaten (cue awesome, eerie music) BY ZOMBIES! (yep, passive).

What you’re really doing here is inserting the implied prepositional phrase to show the actor in a sentence that lacks one. This is one of those rules that works better than it should, probably because it’s fun, which keeps editing interesting. Nothing livens your writing up like a good zombie apocalypse. Ironically, nothing shows the need for livening as effectively, either. If you run through a page or two of your manuscript and realize that you could have zombies doing most of the things that happen, there’s a pretty good chance your writing contains too many passives. One zombie every few pages? That just keeps your characters on their toes.

As I’ve said before, there are no rules of writing that shouldn’t be broken for the right reason. More importantly, knowing what the rule is, why it operates the way it does, and why it has been accepted as a “rule” is a prerequisite to breaking those rules effectively. Today I covered the relatively boring part (except for the zombies, because zombies are cool). Next up, we get to the fun part:

Passives Should Usually be Avoided Part Two (Or: How to effectively sprinkle zombies through your writing)

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