Day 69: The Herzfeld’s Rules Part 2

In this post, I’d like to introduce some more titbits of the Herzfeld’s Rules. I have learned over the years from the man himself that some of these mistakes do have an impact on how you are perceived by your colleagues and superiors. As one anonymous person once said: “Grammar is what about knowing the difference between your shit and you’re shit.” I could not agree more. In fact, also over the years, I have learned the joy of learning about grammar, especially syntax or the arrangement of words and phrases to create well-formed sentences. Syntax, a topic elaborated in beautiful and great detail by the linguist Noam Chomsky in the classic Syntactic Structure (published in 1957), is definitely a topic that I would like to write more about, but it’s a topic for another time. I’d like to suggest, in this post, an additional 12 easy-to-remember and easy-to-practice rules.

Now, let’s get right into it. 

First (and just that, not Firstly) when you feel the urge of using “scare quotes,” (or “air quotes” when you make a gesture with your fingers in the air as though there’s a pair of quotation marks around the word you’re saying) ask yourself: do you really “need” it? Scare quotes could mislead your readers to think that you are being sarcastic when you might just well be honest. Over the years, I have seen excessive uses of scare quotes. #It’s #almost #as #annoying #as #seeing #excessive #use #of #hastags (#). Only use scare quotes when you want to draw attention to an inaccurate use of a word, or when you are quoting someone directly. Scare quotes, in these two cases, indicates the idea that you are being sarcastic, or that which is not your words. You’d absolutely need it when you are quoting an offensive term used by others to tell your audience that it isn’t you who had said it. The misuse of scare quotes could easily lead to your audience thinking of you as being uncertain about the complexity of the meaning of the world around which you put the scare quotes,  and, the worst of all, being “simple-minded” for not knowing that doing so could lessen the credential of your claim. By the way, you should know by now that the scare quotes around “simple-minded” aren’t actually needed. 

Second, use “due to” only as an adjective and not as a conjunction. So, “it was due to the rain that I come late” and not “it came late due to the rain.” In the second example, use “because” (a beautiful and probably the most useful conjunction) or “owing to.” This is not a matter only obsessed with by a grammarian, but a matter that those with the astute logic of the sequence of actions could make use of in making their expression clearer and, usually, more meaningful.

Third: This is one of my favorite: Fewer/less. Although many grammarians have all agreed that we could be chilled out  about this — both works as long as the core of the message about the quantity  is clear — it’s still good to be able to know the distinction between these two adjectives. Why? Because it had made Stannis Baratheon “the One True King”! Yes, I am talking about (***spoiler alert for those who have not seen but planned to see Game of Thrones — skip this part immediately; knowing the difference between fewer and less doesn’t worth being spoiled of the joy of watching the show uncontaminated).


Stannis Baratheon was one great fighters who was deprived of the supreme position as the King of the Seven Kingdoms in Westeros by trickery. In an episode of the fifth season of the series, Stannis Baratheon was caught on camera for wanting to secretly correct a part of the speech given by a member of the council of  Night’s Watch. Othell Yarwyck, that A council member, said “Kill the Wildlings. Let them die. Less enemies for us.” Yarwyck was arguing against Jon Snow’s unimaginable (to most of the Night Watch’s at the time) proposal to travel outside of the wall toward the north in order to warn the Wildlings of the dangers that were coming their way. Upon hearing this speech, Stannis whispered almost immediately to himself (but loud enough for his Hand of King Sir Davos Seaworth to hear): “Fewer.”

What’s the fuzz here? Educated people (like Stannis) would know that we must use the determiner fewer, not less, with numbers of individual items or people. So, yes, he’s right to correct Yarwyck that the correct locution was “fewer enemies” and not “less enemies” — because it’s about the numbers of the individuals to be killed rather than a group of an uncountable noun for which less is appropriate. For instance, “less than £200,” “less than 700 tonnes of oil,” “less than a third,” and “less than 5 minutes,” because, according to The Economist’s Style Guide, “these are measured quantities or proportions, not individual items.”

Fourth, avoid saying “of course” and “needless to say” when you are not sure that everyone would agree with that you that there’s no other way of thinking about it. It’s better to not use them altogether. Usually, the proper use of them is when you need to occasionally give your prose a personal tone.

Fifth, indecisive singular gendered pronouns are ugly. In the words of the great anthropologist Sir Edmund Leach writes in his classic Social Anthropology published in 1982:

Humankind is male/female, betwixt and between. However, the English language faily consistently treats “unmarked” nouns as male rather than female. Ordinarily this does not matter but a male anthropologist, writing in the 1980, risks his neck with feminist colleagues if he implies, even by oversight, that either the anthropological observer or the individual who is observed is more likely to be male than female. But I must risk it A text whch is excessively literred with “he(she),” “him(her),” expressions becomes unreable. And anyway, why not “she(he)?” I fairly stick to male pronouncs for unmarked category nouns. I should not on that account be rated as a male chauvinist pig.

It’s also violating Bill Strunk’s “omit needless words” rule. I am talking about the use of “he or she,” “him or her” and “his or hers” in a sentence. Turn them into a plural pronoun. So, instead of “each student needs to think about his or her need,” instead say “students need to think about their needs.” If you absolutely need to use a gendered pronoun, the rule of thumb is to use the male pronoun for a neutral matter (or whatever you are not sure of whether or not it is a good or bad thing), so “each student needs to think independently about his individual and personal need.” And use a female pronoun for the matter that is absolutely more good than bad; for instance, “a great philosopher is consistent with her own words.” It has recently been acceptable to use “they” as a singular generic personal pronoun, although it may seem a bit counterintuitive as “they,” as we all know, is a plural pronoun. So, the advice given by Grammar Girl (my frequent source of knowledge about the topic and one of my favorite podcasts) is to use”he or she” if you want to play it safe, or use “they” — if you feel bold and are prepared to defend yourself.

Sixth, try to not putting anything between the “to” and the verb that follows. The fancy name for this verb form is “infinitive.” We use this kind of verb form all the time, such as “to go,” “to play,” “to drink,” and so on. If you have an adverb that you would like to put before the verb (which, commonsensically, is the most appropriate place to place an adverb) put them after the verb instead. So, instead of “to actively play soccer,” instead say “to play soccer actively.” Many grammarians and language specialists have debunked that this act of “splitting infinitive” is not a crime and the original of the myth that infinitive shall never be splitter comes from the mistranslation of a Latin grammar rule into that of the English language, i.e., verbs in Latin are all one word so by default one can never split an infinite in Latin. Avoiding placing anything before the verb helps to remind the reader what is it that they are being told, as sometimes the adverb can be very long, such as, “I like to occasionally and sometimes thoughtlessly though not that intentionally play soccer.” By the time one gets to the verb play, the meaning of this sentence has already been lost. 

Seventh, avoid using a foreign word when an English word can do the job — and 99% of the time that which is the case. It just gives the sense of pomposity. So, say “blank slate” instead of “a tabula rasa.” Say “masterpiece,” and not “magnum opus.” Say “existing condition,” and not “status quo.”

Eighth, avoid using idioms that you do not know the origin of — because sometimes people can be sensitive about it. It’s easy to hear something that sounds “kind of cool” from the television and want to use it in real life right away. Look it up first, and make sure that you really know what it means. I have met a number of people who use “lo and behold” in lieu of “surprisingly,” which is the opposite meaning of it. Someone I happen to know use “if you’re up for it” as lieu of “if you would like to” without knowing that the former implies, also, a challenging tone which is not her intention. 

Ninth, “like,” in addition to being a verb (as in “I like soccer”) and a noun (as in “the like”) is a preposition and not a conjunction. So, “I feel like having a drink now” is wrong because a proposition can only govern (be followed by) a noun; hence, instead, say “I feel like drinking” (or “I feel as though I’d like to have a drink now”). “Drinking” here is a grammatical element that looks like a participle (a word formed from a verb, such as running, jumping, standing) but is actually a noun (surprise), so “drinking” — and an act concerning how a person take a liquid into the mouth and swallow) is a noun and therefore can be governed by the preposition “like.” Most of the time “as though” and “as if” are interchangeable, so you could substitute them to give your prose a variety. That said, “I want to have a drink now” might also do the trick. Many are saying “like” all the time these days without knowing what its linguistic function is (especially teenagers). We would call this wrong use of “like” a verbal tic. (if you don’t remember what it is anymore, please visit the Herzfeld’s Rule Part 1). 

Tenth, still on the common mistake with gerunds. “Gerunds are nouns” — say this mantra as many as times as it’d take for it to wrap around your nervous system — and therefore should never be preceded by a personal pronoun. For instance, “I was awoken by him snoring” is wrong, and it should be “I was awoken by his snoring.”

Eleventh, think twice before using “zombie nouns.” The linguist Helen Sword has coined the term to explain the kind of nouns formed from other parts of speech. In The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century, Stephen Pinker explains: “The nominalization rule takes a perfectly spry verb and embalms it into a lifeless noun by adding a suffix like –ance, –ment, –ation, or –ing.” For instance, instead of “he intensifies the situation,” writers who use zombie nouns would instead write “there is a manifestation of the intensification of the situation. “This way of turning parts of speech into nouns has a linguistic jargon: the nominalization. Helen Sword writes:

Academics love using zombie nouns; so do lawyers, bureaucrats and business writers. I call them “zombie nouns” because they cannibalize active verbs, suck the lifeblood from adjectives and substitute abstract entities for human beings.

That’s pretty damn harsh! In The Sense of Style (again, one of my favorite book): Stephen Pinker is no less harsh:

Zombie nouns lumber across the scene without a conscious agent directing their motion.21 They can turn prose into a night of the living dead.

Don’t let nouns like that sucking lifeblood from adjectives! So, instead of thinking nominalized nouns, think what exactly you would like to say. It may seem cooler to say “my current introspection of my physicality is imposing a sanction on the optimization of my verbalization of contestation, than simply “I’m too hungry to say anything now,” but we all know which one better convey the message. As Bill Strunk (again) has reminded us: “Write with nouns and verbs.”

Screen Shot 2016-07-10 at 8.06.00 PM.png

A witty example that Pinker uses in The Sense of Style.

Finally, Restrain yourself from the temptation to write long sentences and from using “weak verbs”: Think of Ernest Hemingway and his writing style. What makes it so profound is that, first, his sentences are always short. And how do you make short sentences meaningful? Hemingway also has an answer for you: Think active verbs that connect the subject with the rest of the sentence. Is/am/are is a weak verb because it doesn’t say much about the action that the subject is engaging let alone how such an action affects the situation. Psychological speaking, as Steven Pinker has pointed out, we have a limited cognitive capacity to understand the linearity of the contents provided to us in a form of verbal communication. The more you remove the main idea from the subject, the less likely your audience will get the gist of what you are trying to convey. The weaker the verb that you use, the more likely your audience will misinterpret your meaning. For instance, “an old man lives by the sea” is better than “there is an old man whose life and livelihood is depending on his residing by the seaside, therefore he is living close to the sea.”

All for now, have a great (for some, the rest of the) weekend, guys!


3 thoughts on “Day 69: The Herzfeld’s Rules Part 2

  1. While all this is excellent review of what I once learned in english classes, I remember when “idiomatic english” (not sure if that is the term but the meaning here is vernacular and often grammatically incorrect english spoken by less educated folks) became popular in cultural media. I myself now subscribe to the idea from the Daoist master who said, “if you have the fish, you can lose the net; if you have the meaning, you can lose the words” (paraphrased). I believe your argument is that without the properly written form, people may not know if they actually have the meaning — or worse yet, people might imagine they have the meaning — but it may not be the intended one!


  2. Pingback: Day 71: How to Change the World Part 1 | 100 days of writing

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