Grammar, Style, and Nonpologies,

Leave a comment

March 13, 2016 by libroshombre


“Many English speakers cannot understand basic grammar” was the headline of a article several years ago citing research out of Britains’s Northumbria University that found that people who dropped out of school by age 16 had far more difficulty understanding simple sentences that used the passive voice instead of the active voice. Sentences expressed passively treat nouns that would be the object of an active sentence as the subject. For example, “Caesar was stabbed by Brutus” is passive, but “Brutus stabbed Caesar” is active.

The Northumbria researchers “stressed that the findings had nothing to do with intelligence,” and many of the test subjects who were given training after the tests picked up the distinction between passive and active voices quickly. However, this came from NORTHumbria. Most Southerners admit that our indirect way of approaching topics is usually politely passive. Even after a quarter-century in Alaska, I’m still taken aback when plain-speaking, I might even say, abrupt, Northerners tell me just what they think.

It’s so incredibly easy to confound one another linguistically that it’s a good thing stylebooks were invented. “Stylebook” is defined by the American Heritage Dictionary as a “ book giving rules and examples of usage, punctuation, and typography used in preparing copy for publication.” The Associated Press Stylebook on Media Law, or AP Stylebook, for instance, “is a writing style guide for journalists … It provides fundamental guidelines for spelling, language, punctuation, usage, and journalistic style. It is the definitive resources for journalists,” according to The website includes an “Ask the Editor” section where subscribers can pose specific questions. For example, a recent inquirer asked “Does a Senator serve IN the Senate or ON the Senate?” The answer was “A senator serves in the Senate and on a Senate committee,” thereby subtly correcting the improper capitalization of “senator.”

That person could have contacted their public library and gotten the same answer for free. Not being an AP subscriber, I can’t say with certainty, but I presume it contains precious little relating to Alaska. That’s why the library and I both own copies of “The Associated Press Stylebook for Alaska” compiled by former UAF professor Dean Gottehrer, and I can say with certainty that it’s journalistically OK to call the Yukon Quest International Sled Dog Race “the Quest.”

It must be noted that Gottehrer’s stylebook notes the odd spelling of Loussac Library in Anchorage, but fails to mention Noel Wien Library’s equally unusual spelling

“The Stylebook of Leviticus” from is one of the more amusing stylebooks, with edicts such as, “Use not an apostrophe in the possessive ‘its’, that is unclean to ye”, “Touch not the word ‘iconic’, for except in a small number of cases. It is unclean as a sheep’s buttocks,” and “Confuse not the transitive verb ‘lay’ with the intransitive ‘lie’. For if ye do, ye shall surely go the way of the false prophet Bob Dylan, who urgeth his woman to ‘Lay Lady Lay,’ as if she be a hen or a goose or any other fowl after its kind. That is an abomination and he that committeth it must be punished. For did not the Dylanites themselves say: ‘Everybody must get stoned?’ And in this case, at least, they spake the truth.”

Sometimes, like President U.S. Grant, we must acknowledge that “Mistakes were made.” However, this is a prime example of weasel-speak that’s been well-utilized by later politicians, notably Presidents Reagan and Nixon. Known as a “non-apology apology,” or “nonpology.” According to Wikipedia, a nonpology is “A statement that has the form of an apology but does not express the expected contrition. In “Effective Apology” John Kador wrote, “Adding the word ‘if’ or any other conditional modifier to an apology makes it a non-apology.”

Here’s a compelling argument from McSweeney’’s “Interactive Guide to Ambiguous Grammar” for you active voice strict-constructionists. “[L]anguage is an art of nuance. From time to time, writers may well find illustrative value in the lightest of phrases, sentences so weightless and feathery that they scarcely even seem to exist at all. These can convey details well beyond the crude thrust of the hulking active voice.” Still not convinced? I’m sorry if you feel that way.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s


%d bloggers like this: