Tuesday, May 7, 2013

The Grammar Wars


I wouldn’t say I pride myself on knowing grammar.  To me, this is a strange thing to be proud of because grammar is simply a set of rules that anybody can learn.  To be a great artist or musician is to contribute something unique to the world, whereas using—and even defending—good grammar ought to be something everybody does.

I notice people’s grammar errors all the time, but almost never point them out.  Sometimes, though, my merciful nature is not observed or appreciated.  For example, a couple decades ago I happened to see the notes a colleague had taken when checking my job references.  She’d interviewed my old bike shop boss, and asked him about my language skills.  “He was always correcting people’s grammar,” my boss had told her.  Maybe he thought he was helping.  I’m lucky this didn’t cost me the job.

The following post concerns a recent debate over correct usage, while delving into some past history to provide context and, I hope, amusement.

The journalists

The other night my wife hosted a dinner party for some old friends from her journalism days.  A couple of them chatted away at the kitchen table while I poured myself a beer at the counter.  “What are you doing?” E— asked.

“I’m pouring a beer,” I said.  The other guest, R—, said, “Yeah, but what’s with the…” (here she mimed how I’d been swishing the beer around in the bottle).

“Well, it’s a Belgian style beer so I’m swishing around the last third of it before pouring it, while chanting my personal mantra,” I replied.  (I wasn’t exactly chanting; it was more of a whisper.)  R— asked what my personal mantra was.  I’m a bit embarrassed by it, so I dodged:  “It’s a brief statement that lasts just the right amount of time, to make sure you swish the beer long enough.  The actual content of the mantra isn’t important.”

“Yes, but what is the content?” she persisted.  Given the natural curiosity of journalists, there was no getting out of it.  I replied, “It’s ‘I … WILL … NOT … LOSE … EVER.’  I guess I say it ironically, because in fact I lose all the time.”

Improper usage

I sat down at the table with the journalists to enjoy my carefully poured beer and some French bread E— had brought.  Though it was good, he apologized that it wasn’t better:  “It’s from Boulange.  I don’t like it as much as” (here he named some bakery I’d never heard of).  “I love their bread because it’s … artistic-y.”

I replied, “I’m glad you said ‘artistic-y.’  I was afraid you were going to say ‘artisanal,’ which isn’t even a word.”  (“Artistic-y isn’t either, of course, but it’s not pretending to be.)  R— jumped in, “Oh, I hate ‘artisanal’!  Is that true, it’s not a word?  I so want that to be true.”  I replied that it wasn’t in my dictionary. 

(I actually got into some trouble recently over this word.  In a recent blog post I’d written, “I’d be no less astonished if Burger King introduced a grass-fed Kobe beef burger with prosciutto and imported Gruyere on an artisanal semolina bun.”  Of course I should have put “artisanal” in quotation marks to show I was using it ironically.  A cycling pal e-mailed me (cc’ing our bike club), “Cool story. But really artisanal bread.  Hate the word artisanal.  Its so safeway target esque.”  His own poor spelling and punctuation aside, he had a point.  I replied, “True, ‘artisanal’ is a bonehead word, but doesn’t it seem like exactly the term Burger King would use?”)

Since the journalists and I were now on the subject of words we hate, and since I’d had a pent-up desire to vent about it anyway, I brought up my latest pet peeve, which is people pronouncing “processes” with a long “e” at the end, so it sounds like “process-ease.”  I hear this all the time and it rankles.  But E— didn’t agree.  “I’m pretty sure I’ve said ‘process-ease,’” he said carefully.  R— suggested we look it up, and seconds later both E— and R— were pulling out their smartphones.  I cried foul.

“You can’t trust the Internet for such stuff,” I said.  “There are too many pretend Internet facts.  You can support anything that way.  I’ll get a real dictionary.”  I went for my wife’s giant Webster’s Third New International unabridged dictionary.  (I’m embarrassed to say I had to ask where she keeps it.)

E— admired the dictionary, and challenged me to confirm that it’s unabridged.  As I thumbed through it, I said, “We had one of these growing up.  We called it ‘the big dick.’”  (Which is what a person runs the risk of being called if he’s too emphatic about word-related arcana, I privately reminded myself.)  To my horror, this noble dictionary seemed to support “process-ease.”

That “sēz” sure didn’t bode well for me.  I can’t remember exactly what E— said, but it was something like “Read it and weep!”  His triumphant delivery brought to mind Muhammad Ali’s jeer to the journalists who’d doubted him:  “Eat your words!”  E— had vanquished me utterly … or so it seemed.  But before I get to the rest of the story (don’t write off your humble blogger just yet) let’s explore why E— seemed to get such a thrill from proving me wrong.

My scrapper chops

The experience of zealously going toe-to-toe with word-lovers is nothing new to me, and probably not to E— or R— either.  I suppose any logophile will pursue his defense of the language with much vigor, but I doubt that’s the sole reason for E— ’s triumphant tone .  I suppose my recently disclosed personal mantra—“I WILL NOT LOSE EVER”—also came into play.  Indeed, I never expect to lose in such matters, and surely E— and R— could sense this.

Okay, I’ll just say it:  when it comes to grammar, I can be cocky.  For example, I hadn’t hesitated to bash “artisanal,” and my declaration that it’s not a word was kind of a bluff—I’d only ever checked in one dictionary.  (As it turns out, it’s in one of my dictionaries but not the other).  Nor had I paused to consider the possibility that E— and/or R— might routinely say “process-ease” and be offended that I disparaged that pronunciation.  Looking back, I see I was pretty bold in my assertions.  Who wouldn’t want to take me down?

You may be wondering how, if I almost never try to correct people’s grammar, I have such confidence?  Well, there is one important exception to my anti-bashing rule:  for decades I have ruthlessly policed my brother Bryan’s grammar.  It’s reciprocal.  We don’t find fault very often but when we do, we never let it slide.  We do a little dance.  For example, in an online chat Bryan once wrote, “He got his just desserts.”  As you yourself immediately noticed, this is wrong.  I fired back, “Of course what you meant to type was ‘just deserts,’ since it’s from the word ‘deserve,’ having nothing to do with dessert.” There’s an odd procedural form Bryan and I use when we correct each other.  We never say, “You bonehead, that’s bad grammar!”  Instead, we always say “Of course what you meant to say was….”  I think this is to intensify the pain of the barb by being perfectly gentlemanly.

Now, in decades of calling out each other’s grammar errors, neither of us has ever actually defended himself in earnest.  I suppose this is because we are both absolutely certain that the other wouldn’t call out an error unless he was damn sure it was an error.  When Bryan read my “just deserts” comment, he must have immediately grasped that the fact of a bakery called “Just Desserts” doesn’t make the spelling right; it’s a deliberate misspelling in service of a lame pun, like the restaurant “Thai-rrific” or the upstairs barbershop “We’re Up Hair.” 

Naturally, Bryan recognized that defending something like “just desserts” would be rhetorical suicide.  On the other hand, he can’t admit defeat, because I’m his little brother.  (When the tables are turned, I can’t admit defeat either, because I have an English degree and he doesn’t.)  So whenever we’re called out, our response is one of two dodges.  One—and the wording varies so little that I can give this pretty much verbatim—is, “Yes, I know, I was just speaking in the vernacular … you know, coming down to your level.”  The other (which is more appropriate with a misspelling) is, “Yes, I know, I was just testing you, and I’m pleasantly surprised that you passed.”

When I think about it, it’s plain to see that my routine battles with Bryan, coupled with our tradition of denying wrongfulness, surely inflect my overall attitude toward grammar, reinforcing the cockiness I mentioned earlier. 

My “cornered badger” policy

Upon further reflection, I realize that there are a couple more exceptions to my policy of not pointing out grammatical errors.  For one thing, I consider it my duty as a parent to always correct my kids’ mistakes (and if I get a “what-ever” response, there’s a secondary debate about why grammar matters).  In addition, I can be ruthless when somebody tries to “correct” me when I’m not actually wrong.  Since, in this situation, I can’t be seen as a bully, nor can I be faulted for undue linguistic precision, I take such challenges as an invitation—as a mandate, even—to defend myself.

Here’s an example.  Back in the ‘80s, my friends and I had a dinner party where we met one guy’s new girlfriend for the first time.  I liked her well enough I guess, until she committed what I considered a major gaffe.  I’d said to the group, “There’s ice cream for whoever wants it,” and she interjected, “You mean ‘There’s ice cream for whomever wants it.’” 

That she was rude, and wrong, was bad enough, but the nature of her attempted correction made things worse.  In my opinion, using “whom” where “who” is called for is the worst kind of blunder.  If somebody makes the inverse mistake, using “who” where “whom” is called for, he or she is either making a very understandable error (after all, “who” vs. “whom” is complicated) or might be deliberately using incorrect grammar to avoid seeming stodgy and punctilious.  I myself have occasionally avoided “whom” even when it’s the correct word, so as to not alienate somebody (for example, a work contact known for his highly approximate grammatical usage).  When I hear an erroneous “who” or “whoever” I’ll never call the speaker out on it, unless it’s my brother or one of my kids.  Thus, when I use “who” or “whoever” correctly, and then somebody displays a toxic blend of ignorance and gall in telling me I’m wrong, I come out with both barrels blazing.

I walked the girlfriend through the grammar.  “Look, ‘whoever’ is the subject of its clause, and ‘whomever’ would be used only if it were the object.”  She fired back, “But you wouldn’t say, ‘I gave ice cream to whoever.’”  Yes, I acknowledged, but that’s because “whomever” in that sentence would be the object of a preposition, whereas in my sentence, “whoever” is the subject, and the whole clause “whoever wants it” acts (collectively) as the object of the preposition.  (To be honest, I’m not even sure “to whomever” would ever be right … but no matter.)

The girlfriend realized her error, and—to her credit—admitted it.  But she continued to defend herself:  “I only got that wrong because I never actually learned grammar, like, you know, from a book.”  Here’s where I think I’ve matured:  today, I would leave it at that.  But back then, being a belligerent teen, I feigned surprise:  “You mean you were born knowing this stuff?  That’s impressive.  I was born without any language skills at all, and had to learn everything I know.”  Yes, this was a lot snottier than she deserved.  (It didn’t end up mattering, because she didn’t date my friend very long.  Either she was a psycho or he was a jerk, depending on whose side you took.  Probably they were both right.)

Back to “process-ease”

And now it’s time for the rest of the story.

As I stared in disbelief at the pronunciation guide for “process” in the Webster’s dictionary, E— took a victory lap by seeking further corroboration online.  I decided to further investigate the notation in my Webster’s:  “sometimes ÷|,se(,)sēz.”  The “sometimes” didn’t help much, but what was this division symbol?  I cursed myself for never figuring out how to use a proper dictionary, and flipped through the thick tome’s opening pages looking for “÷.”  Finally I found it and was richly rewarded:

“Aha!” I cried.  “The division sign indicates that many regard as unacceptable the pronunciation that follows!”  As I prepared to parlay this finding into full redemption, E— suddenly discovered, online, a very germane discourse on “process-ease” by a guy named Bernie Zimmerman.  At first this blurb seemed to validate E—’s position.  “Listen,” E— said, “‘To this day [process-ease] still sounds strange to me, but the more I hear it in everyday use, the less I feel confident about the way I've always pronounced it, which is similar to the way I pronounce the last syllable of the word glasses.’”  E— seemed to be on the way to scoring another point.  “I don’t like this Zimmerman guy,” I said.

But then E— scanned further down on his screen and said, “Whoah, what’s this?  ‘In recent years there has been a tendency to pronounce the plural ending -es of processes as “-ēz,” perhaps by analogy with words of Greek origin such as analysis and neurosis. But process is not of Greek origin, and there is no etymological justification for this pronunciation of its plural.”  By this point we were all cackling with pleasure, nerds that we are.  E— read on, “However, because this pronunciation is not uncommon even in educated speech, it is generally considered an acceptable variant, although it still strikes some listeners as a bungled affectation.”  (Italics his.  Well, sort of his.  They’re my attempt at conveying the emphatic delight with which he read that phrase).

I knew at once that this last statement had won E— and R— over to the traditional pronunciation of “processes.”  You can always count on a word-lover to prize accuracy over simply prevailing in a dispute.  For a moment I felt vindicated.  “Actually, I think I like this Zimmerman guy!” I said.  E— replied, “Well, he’s actually quoting Answers.com here.”

D’oh!  No matter how persuasive the “bungled affectation” argument was, I’d already expressed my misgivings about “pretend Internet facts.”  As I hadn’t intended to regard Internet research as admissible, I couldn’t very well cite Answers.com just because it happened to agree with me.  I needed something more.  So I decided to consult my (software-based) American Heritage Dictionary, because it has lots of usage notes on debated word forms, and maybe, just maybe, would include a useful commentary about “process-ease.”  This was a Hail Mary, but I felt it was all I had.

Here’s what this dictionary shows for pronunciation of “processes”:

Needless to say this isn’t very helpful.  Probably owing to compatibility issues between MS-DOS and Windows, the special characters look like an excerpt from a book about bridge, or a collection of ‘70s pendants.  The presence of two different plural pronunciations did worry me.

Scrolling down, I was glad to find this very compelling usage note:

Look familiar?  In this instance, Answers.com was quoting directly from the American Heritage Dictionary.  Thus, with the legitimacy of the “bungled affectation” zinger no longer in question, my redemption was complete.  I can now safely assume that neither E— nor R— will be saying “process-ease” anymore … and that’s really all I ever wanted.  That and some playfully barbed banter with people who care about words.

By the way, if you feel like defending “process-ease” yourself, feel free to comment below or e-mail me.  Since it’s not your grammar in question here, I think I can engage you in a debate without violating my policy of ignoring people’s grammatical errors.  In other words, BRING IT!


Be sure to check out the comments below, and click here for my rebuttal to them.


  1. I've been duped! Where's the grammar?! Shibboleths and marketing!

    The suffix -al is perfectly fine and acceptable to form adjectives, nouns, and verbal actions. "Artisanal" is certainly a real word and perhaps the single best word to connote that certain type of Bay Area hipster pretension that we love to hate. The beauty of the word is that the connotation is there whether intentional or not, which leaves it to the listener to determine "Do I like this person, or don't I?" It's very helpful. It is probably one of the most useful words I never use for its meaning.

    And for process[ease], I am not bothered by it. Not in the least. Processe[es] can occasionally be a mouthful, but that's not a real excuse for adults who can annunciate and aren't drunk. Those who say process[ease] almost always reference the noun and not the verb. The noun is frequently used in some quasi-scientific context and the [ease] is consistent with the pronunciation of the plural forms of analysis, neurosis, prognosis, and so on. That is, the different pronunciations do have some utility to distinguish meanings. "This device pr[aw]cess[es] widgets by different pr[oh]cess[ease] depending upon which buttons you press."

    I have heard pr[oh]cess[ease] quite a bit and suspect I may have used it in that quasi-scientific context — I don't remember using it, however, and it sounds funny saying it, so I'm really not sure — but I have never heard it pronounced that way when used as a verb.

    And since we're bringing it, do my poor eyes deceive me or are you adding two spaces after every period? From Robert Bringhurst's "The Elements of Typographical Style," which I highly recommend:

    "In the nineteenth century, which was a dark and inflationary age in typography and type design, many compositors were encouraged to stuff extra space between sentences. Generations of twentieth-century typists were then taught to do the same, by hitting the spacebar twice after every period. Your typing as well as your typesetting will benefit from unlearning this quaint Victorian habit."

    Isn't grammar itself a Victorian invention? Or is that spelling?

  2. Oh, and the American Heritage Dictionary? Total crap. I looked up "irregardless" in it, found it, and then threw it away. "Bungled affectation" is only legitimate if you can successfully defend "irregardless."

    [Heh. For those of you who know Dana really well, this is the proverbial birthday cake covered in ants.]

  3. For a rebuttal to the comments above, click here: