Beware of False Writing Snoots

A SNOOT can be defined as somebody who knows what dysphemism means and doesn’t mind letting you know it. . . . [But the] very most pathetic and dangerous sort of SNOOT [is] the SNOOT Who Is Wrong.”

—David Foster Wallace, Tense Present: Democracy, English, and the Wars Over Usage

Recently, I set up a Google alert that sends me articles about legal-writing topics. One blog that frequently appears in these alerts is the Legal Writing Prof Blog, which posts blurbs about open legal-writing-professor jobs and other miscellany. In general, the blog gives good advice about how to improve your legal writing. That is, until recently.

In July, the blog linked to an article appearing in the Harvard Business Review, with this teaser:

Poor Grammar Can Limit Job Prospects:
The Harvard Business Review posted an interesting article on the relationship between grammar and hiring in the broader business community. . . . This is a great piece for incoming 1Ls!

So I thought I’d check out this article. Perhaps, I believed, I could learn something new and pass along the information to readers of Lawyerist. But what I found instead was—to put it mildly—disconcerting.

In I Won’t Hire People Who Use Poor Grammar. Here’s Why, Kyle Wiens—a software-company CEO—glibly explains why his company gives a grammar test to its job applicants. By his own account, Wiens fancies himself as having “a ‘zero tolerance approach’ to grammar mistakes that make people look stupid.” If applicants fail the grammar test, he says, “their applications go into the bin.” As of August 14, Wiens’s article had garnered more than 2800 comments, many of them positive.

To his credit, Wiens gives some good advice. He correctly explains, for example, that

  • you can start a sentence with the coordinating conjunction And;
  • there’s a difference between their, there, and they’re;
  • it’s (the contraction for it is) and its (the possessive form of it) mean different things;
  • it’s acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition; and
  • the possessive of a proper noun that ends in s usually takes an ‘s.

But Wiens—a self-described “grammar stickler”—also makes some basic writing mistakes.

First, Wiens doesn’t hyphenate some phrasal adjectives. Although Wiens hyphenates hyper-competitive market, for example, he doesn’t hyphenate zero tolerance approach and paperless work instructions. The latter, of course, should be zero-tolerance approach and paperless-work instructions.

The authorities supporting this hyphenation rule are numberless, but here are four:

  • John Trimble, Writing with Style 143 (hyphenating phrasal adjectives “prevent[s] confusion” and “howlers[—]gaffes that make a writer look silly.”
  • Bryan A. Garner, The Redbook: A Manual on Legal Style § 1.57 (“[T]he absence of hyphens will cause some readers to misstep midway through the sentence. So the better practice is always to hyphenate.”).
  • Wilson Follett, Modern American Usage 428 (“The first and by far the greatest help to reading is the compulsory hyphening that makes a single adjective out of two words before a noun . . . . Nothing gives away the incompetent amateur more quickly than the typescript that neglects this mark of punctuation . . . .”).
  • Bryan A. Garner, The Winning Brief 276-83 (citing ten different writing authorities and concluding that “professional editors learn this lesson early and learn it well: you need to hyphenate your phrasal adjectives”).

Second, Wiens doesn’t capitalize the proper noun Internet. The authorities:

  • Bryan A. Garner, Garner’s Modern American Usage 461 (3d ed. 2009) (“Internet. Capitalized thus—not internet.”).
  • The Chicago Manual of Style § 7.76 (16th ed.) (“Chicago now prefers web, website, web page, and so forth—with a lowercase w. But capitalize World Wide Web and Internet.”).
  • My WordPress spell-checker.

(True, the British and Wired News don’t capitalize internet. But Wiens doesn’t live there, and Wired News is wrong).

Most disturbing about Wiens’s advice, though, is that he unequivocally recommends Lynne Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation. Wiens apparently hasn’t read Bryan Garner’s 2005 review of Eats, Shoots & Leaves in the Texas Law Review, or perhaps he wouldn’t have recommended the book. Garner found Truss’s Eats, Shoots & Leaves so appalling that he stopped editing Black’s Law Dictionary and updating the preeminent authority on American usage—Garner’s Modern American Usage—to devitalize Eats, Shoots & Leaves.

Garner’s review is titled Don’t Know Much About Punctuation: Notes on a Stickler Wannabe, and although it’s not available online, it is reproduced in Garner on Language and Writing. His devastating conclusion: “Although the public seems enraptured by the book, linguistic pros are mostly aghast. . . . On and on I could go, but I have zero tolerance for it.”

In addition to his own criticisms—e.g., that Truss uses nonwords and misuses other words; consistently uses en-dashes instead of em-dashes; opposes the serial comma; and misuses which for that in restrictive clauses—Garner also quotes other writing authorities who deadpanned the book:

  • James J. Kilpatrick, the syndicated language columnist and author of The Writer’s Art and Fine Print: “Parts of it were lightweight, and it was not well-edited—there were syntactical errors and outright typographical errors. Calling it a frivolous book is not quite fair, but it certainly is lightweight.”
  • Barbara Wallraff, author of Word Court and Your Own Words: “Though it made me laugh, it also made me cringe, because on page after page Truss says things that are ill-informed or even completely wrong.”
  • Bill Walsh, author of Lapsing Into a Comma and The Elephants of Style: “I was really surprised at the success of the book. It’s less a useful tool than a rant on misplaced apostrophes.”
  • Patricia T. O’Conner, author of Woe is I and Words Fail Me: The “misinformation in [Eats, Shoots & Leaves] could set good English back 200 years. In the name of correctness, Lynne Truss encourages bad punctuation, bad usage, bad sentence structure, bad spelling, and bad grammar. She’s not even consistently wrong.”

So what’s the moral of this story? In Garner’s review above, he laments that “[i]t turns out that many people like to think that they’re sticklers when they’re not.” So, too, here. If you’re going to take to the pages of the Harvard Business Review to criticize other people’s writing skills, you better make sure that you can pass your own test. Otherwise, you risk being publicly called out as a false writing SNOOT, a pejorative no aspiring grammar stickler wants to bear.

(photo: http://www.flickr.com/photos/sipes23/7613245940/)

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  • Richard Hershberger

    I disagree about the moral: There is a large body of genuine rules of usage (e.g. “its” vs. “it’s”) and fake rules of usage (e.g. the prohibition on ending a sentence with a preposition). People who fancy themselves sticklers actually select some random combination of genuine and fake rules to care about. Another example of a fake rule is the purported distinction between “which” and “that” in relative clauses. This rule is widely accepted among American sticklers, but not English sticklers. This explains why Truss doesn’t follow it. (And Garner should know this, if he knows his business.) In any case, it has exactly as firm a basis as the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition: none. It is merely a matter a fashion among those who regard themselves as sticklers that one rule is routinely rejected and the other routinely accepted.

    The problem with dealing with these people is that there is no way for the uninitiated to know which fake rules they care about and which they do not. Were I applying for a job from Wiens, and I got wind that he considered himself a stickler, I would carefully follow all the fake rules. I wouldn’t end a sentence with a preposition; I wouldn’t split an infinitive; I wouldn’t being a sentence with a conjunction; I certainly wouldn’t use “hopefully” as a sentence adverb; and so on. None of this would make my writing better, but that’s not the point. This exercise has nothing to do with good writing. It has everything to do with placating someone in a position of power who is prone to irrational whims.

  • http://www.papersconsulting.com/proofreading.html Proofreading Experts

    This also applies to bloggers who try to appear like they were experts on something and sound all-knowing. I have stumbled upon these websites and “professional” blogs that give pointers on how to write well. Some of their tips are very relevant, but when I spotted three or five posts that have wrong grammar, I began wondering if they really are experts in that field.

    While the Internet can be a good source for certain topics and to a certain extent, I still recommend that students use libraries to look for the really relevant sources for the things they are looking for. The Internet is populated by a lot of these snoots and small measures can be done about that. It is the call of the the one looking for information to examine his sources well in order to avoid these sites.