Because the Stakes Are So Low

by • April 29, 2014

typewriter, grammar rules, Grammarly, writingThere’s an old joke: Academic politics are so bitter because the stakes are so low.

Why do we often become riled up over the picky things in writing? Take a survey among your writer friends. How many believe there should be two spaces after the ending of a sentence in a typed manuscript? How many believe there should be one? And why do people have such strong opinions about the subject?

Farhad Manjoo, who writes a column on technology for the Wall Street Journal, says: “Can I let you in on a secret? Typing two spaces after a period is totally, completely, utterly, and inarguably wrong.”

A Wikipedia article takes a more moderate view: “Today the desired or correct sentence spacing is often debated. Many sources now say additional space is not necessary or desirable. From around 1950, single sentence spacing became standard in books, magazines and newspapers. However some sources still state that additional spacing is correct or acceptable.”

Of course, most writers—at least those over a certain age—learned in high school typing classes to use two spaces after the end of a sentence. And according to some of them, doggone it, that’s the way it is, and “I’m not going to change.”

Where did the two-space rule come from? Back in the [almost pre-historic] days when we used typewriters, every character took up the same amount of space. Thus the period at the end of typewritten sentences gave the reader a visual break. But today, since most computer fonts are proportional, no such break is necessary. Try to convince the two-space-people of that, and I wager you won’t make a dent in their belief.

Yes, the stakes are low. Another example of an issue that gets writers riled up is the use of the word “that.” There are those who say it should never be used to introduce a clause. For example, “We know that many people use the word in this manner.” Others believe the preceding sentence should never, ever, ever include the “that” word. In fact, a few years ago in a writing workshop there was a woman who loved to take members’ manuscripts and cross out all the that’s. As Jack Paar often used to say, “I kid you not.”

That’s not all. Many writers become enraged when “that” is used to refer to a human being: “She’s a woman that everyone respects.” Some people think “whom” should always be used in such instances. Or in similar circumstances, “who,” as in “He’s the person who won the prize.”

Yes, “who” or “whom” are more common, but “that” is also correct. Then there’s the matter of nonhuman beings—especially pets. It’s generally accepted that animals are “that,” rather than “who.” But there was a newspaper columnist who refused to use the word “that” in reference to his cats. He believed his cats deserved the same respect as human beings!

In a creative writing class at a Southern California University, the professor mentioned that there often were old rules of writing that lacked validity. One such rule was that a writer should never end a sentence with a preposition. One of the women in the class, an older student who was an attorney, argued with the professor. “Never, never, never should you end a sentence with a preposition,” she said.

“And why not?” the professor asked.

“It’s always been that way! That’s what I learned in school. That’s what everybody learned.”

“Perhaps,” the professor replied. “But the rule doesn’t make sense.”

The woman became so incensed that she left the class and never returned. Why? Possibly because the stakes were so low?

What are your high-stakes grammar mistakes? Share in the comments below.

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