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12 Times Grammar Pedants Got Their Pedantry Completely Wrong

Pedantry 101: Actually know what you're talking about before telling people off for getting their grammar wrong.

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If you're going to criticise someone's grammar, you'd better get it right.

And people love to criticise each other's grammar. One thing they particularly like to criticise is the "passive". The passive is (roughly speaking) when you arrange a sentence so that the object becomes the subject, like this: "the ball was kicked", instead of "he kicked the ball". People don't like it because they say it can hide the person who was responsible for something: "mistakes were made", instead of "I made mistakes".

1. But loads of the people who get really angry about it apparently don't know what they're talking about. Like this writer for The Guardian who hates "passive constructions" but doesn't know what they are.

The Guardian / BuzzFeed / Via

In "company policy is unable to support that", the object ("that") is still the object. A passive version of this sentence would be: "that is unable to be supported by company policy". It's the same with the second example.


2. Or this Spectator journalist who uses the passive voice to complain that you shouldn't use the passive voice.

Ingenious satirist @toadmeister mocks the many people who unknowingly use the passive voice while criticising it.

I mean, if the passive voice is so terrible, you'd think you wouldn't use it four times in a paragraph criticising it.

3. And this author of a book on "the correct way to write" who doesn't obey his own rules.

Windmill Books / Tom Freeman / BuzzFeed / Via Twitter: @SnoozeInBrief

The same thing's happening here. For the record, there's nothing wrong with using the passive; if you use it well, it can draw attention to the right part of the sentence. As the linguist Geoff Pullum says, if “helicopters were flown in to put out the fires”, you don’t need to know that a man named Bob was flying the helicopters.

4. The author above makes a habit of that sort of thing. Here he is telling people to cut out "redundant words".

In his book ‘Simply English’, Simon Heffer recommends cutting redundant words. Well, he’s convinced me.

5. And here he is telling people they shouldn't use "they" to mean a single person, then – in the same book – using "they" to mean a single person.

Windmill Books / BuzzFeed / Via

Pedants really don't like singular "they", but it's so useful and natural that they use it without noticing. There are at least three examples in this book alone.


12. And the granddaddy of them all. George Orwell, who used the passive to lament the use of the passive.

NPR / BuzzFeed / Via

That's from his famous essay Politics and the English Language, which purports to tell people how to write clearly.

In accordance with Muphry's Law, which states that no criticism of other people's grammar will be free of mistakes itself, an earlier version of this post included an entry that incorrectly chided a writer for seeing passives where there were none. There was one.