We are gratified that our readers are uncompromising about the English language. Over the course of fifty articles annually, we get our share of lectures, challenges, and rebukes. We welcome all your comments, but before you write, keep in mind the final edict in last week’s Stickler’s Ten Commandments: Be sure you are correct before you cry foul.
• One correspondent admonished us to replace over with more than in sentences like the package weighs over ten pounds. This myth has been around a long time, but few if any language scholars take it seriously. In an article titled “Non-Errors” the eminent grammarian Paul Brians says, “ ‘Over’ has been used in the sense of ‘more than’ for over a thousand years.”
• When we wrote “formulas,” a reader said that the correct plural is formulae, and those who write “formulas” are “the same lazy folk who would use ‘octopuses’ rather than ‘octopi.’ Please, don’t be lazy.”
While it is true that formulae is preferred in scientific contexts, formulas is most writers’ choice in other applications. The Associated Press Stylebook does not even acknowledge formulae. As for octopi, it is listed in most dictionaries, but that does not make it correct. In his book What in the Word? Charles Harrington Elster states that octopuses is the right choice: “Because octopus comes from Greek, not Latin, the Latinate variant octopi is inappropriate and is frowned upon by usage authorities.”
• But the biggest tiff of 2015 was over the use of that in sentences like She is a woman that likes to laugh. There is nothing grammatically wrong with a woman that likes.
Oh, but try telling that to all the readers who wrote in insisting that that must never be used to refer to humans. In 2014 we ran two articles which we hoped would put this dreary matter to rest forever (you can read them here and here). We’ll say it again: The pronoun that applies to humans as well as nonhumans. You may not care for how it sounds. You may not like how it is used nowadays. But rules of grammar transcend our personal preferences.
Most of the correspondence on this topic included some variation on “this is how I was taught.” Well, maybe so, but as the years pass, sometimes the memory plays tricks. And teachers are not infallible. Even the best ones harbor their own opinions, biases, and delusions, which might slip out in the classroom and be taken as fact by a callow student.
Too many of us cling to cherished misconceptions out of loyalty, sentiment, nostalgia—or sheer force of habit. If Albert Einstein’s theory of relativity were disproved tomorrow, would any reputable scientist disregard the overwhelming evidence because of his allegiance to Einstein?
Correct any sentences that need fixing.
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Posted on Tuesday, January 12, 2016, at 2:14 pm
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