Any discussion about language usage tends to provoke disagreements between so-called prescriptivists (those who argue that we should try and maintain what they consider to be standard or correct usage) and descriptivists (those who argue that language just reflects current usage and is thus always evolving and that there is no timeless standard that can be appealed to.)
David Owen writes about a pet peeve of his that he claims is beyond an issue of taste and is objectively objectionable.
Here’s an example of a sentence type that I think no writer should ever use:
A former resident of Brooklyn, Mrs. Jones is survived by three daughters and five grandchildren.
The first phrase is an appositive—typically a noun or noun phrase that modifies another noun or noun phrase, which appears next to it in the sentence. (“A former resident of Brooklyn” and “Mrs. Jones” refer to the same person, so they are said to be “in apposition.”) Appositives almost always follow the noun they modify, and are set off by commas; the kind I don’t like come first.
My problem with all such sentences is that they seem to have been turned inside out: they start in one direction, then swerve in another. The awkwardness is obvious if you imagine hearing one in conversation. No one has ever said to you, “A sophomore at Cornell, my niece is coming home for Christmas,” or “Sixty-six years old, my wife is an incredible cook.” Either sentence, if spoken, would sound almost comical, as though the speaker were struggling to learn English. (You wouldn’t use one in an e-mail or a text to a friend, either.)
Owen argues that this form used to be quite rare and likely was popularized by newspapers because it enables a lot of information to be presented compactly, and then it spread everywhere. Of course, there are many differences in the way we write from the way we speak. I myself do not see anything particularly objectionable in that type of sentence construction when writing.
But in the essay, I found this little nugget of interesting information at the very end.
“Peeves are interesting,” Okrent told me. “Sometimes one person’s opinion can affect the way something is taught from then on.” Hardly anyone had a problem with split infinitives before the nineteenth century, when a number of grammar and usage guides—among them “Live and Learn” (“over 1000 mistakes corrected”)—took a stand against them. Fowler and his successors dismissed the prohibition as wrongheaded, but many teachers continued to insist on it, as mine did in junior high. A similar example, which Okrent cites in “Highly Irregular,” has to do with “discrete” and “discreet.” These two words, she writes, were once merely alternative spellings of the same word—which, like many words, had more than one meaning. But then a grammarian or a lexicographer decided that both spellings should be preserved, and that the main meanings should be divided between them. This idea caught on, creating an orthographic distinction that writers ever since have struggled to keep straight. “This was all relatively recent,” she told me. “Now it’s something we learn in school, and you’re an idiot if you don’t get it right.”
I have noticed that many writers use the two words discrete and discreet in ways that I had considered wrong. I never knew that they were at one time merely alternative spellings of a word that had the two meanings, and that one deciphered the meaning from the context. It seems to me however that if you have a word that has two spellings and two distinct meanings, assigning each spelling to a meaning seems logical.