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Thursday, May 17, 2007

Throwing down the gauntlet

Today’s episode of Little Miss Know-it-All: Things you should just know.

Someone – I’m not saying who – has put enmity between Glen and me. Actually, I’m probably the one at fault. I just can’t stop picking on Russell Smith. Glen, for his part, has suggested that Russell would cut me down with one disparaging glance at my wardrobe. This is probably true, but I cannot let him pretend to be a grammar expert any longer.

The best part is that Russell’s copy editor is still refusing to correct his shoddy grammar and is now placing grammatically-incorrect headlines on his columns. As you can imagine, this has put Russell into a difficult position. He must defend the errors while maintaining that he is the resident grammar expert at Canada’s Newspaper Of Record.

I think this is hilarious. Glen is unimpressed and thinks I am being unnecessarily harsh. I pointed out that Russell had to look up the meaning of the word “that”; Glen responded by asking me to define the word.

I thought for a moment and realized that I couldn’t come up with a snappy definition. I responded that “that” is a word that people should just know how to use. I then turned to my trusty dictionary, which did not provide a definition but provided a few dozen usage examples. Unsurprisingly, I am forced to conclude that I was right: there are some things a writer should just know.

Russell didn’t come up with a definition when he checked his dictionary, either:

The patterns for that and which are made up of strange rules that took me a while to master even as an adult. I get it wrong all the time. The standard explanation involves saying that you use which for a "non-restrictive clause" and that for a "restrictive clause." Well, that's helpful, isn't it?

{Preening self-congratulatory pap about how Russell is smarter than everyone else withheld.}

Here's the simplest demystifier I can come up with. First, note that if you are looking this one up, you are looking up "that" as a relative pronoun, not as an adjective, an adverb or a conjunction. Then, when you come across all this bafflegab about restrictive and non-restrictive (sometimes called defining and non-defining), think of it rather as essential versus non-essential.

Ah, Russell, what would we do without you? Today’s column is fabulous. I love the way you’ve taken up all of the available space with your ridiculous argument that grammar mistakes are OK when they’re in or near your column. It’s almost as if you have no idea how to admit that you were wrong.

My dear readers, you deserve better than this.

Newspaper space is precious, so copy editors need to cut columns like Russell’s down to size. Even on the best of days, his column is nothing more than a celebration of self: Look at me. Man, I’m good. Go ahead, ask me how I tie my shoelaces. Ah, you want to know how I carry my umbrella? Of course you do. Don’t complain about the way I use commas: I’m on the cutting edge of grammar. Hold on a second while I look up the proper way to use capital letters.

Sorry, Russell. There are some things you should just know. If you don’t know them, you’re not an expert, you’re just a poser.