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Quotations about Grammar

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Welcome to my page of quotations about grammar, spelling, punctuation, and all that jazz. Even though I have my own strong opinions about the various rules of grammar, I'm a firm believer in poetic license and real‑life priorities, so we shouldn't always take such things too seriously. However, I must warn that if you are a non‑supporter of the serial comma, you should probably leave this page now because you are entering enemy territory. All others, enjoy! —tεᖇᖇ¡·g

[T]he flesh of prose gets its shape and strength from the bones of grammar... ~Constance Hale, Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose, 1999

[M]y spelling is Wobbly. It’s good spelling but it Wobbles, and the letters get in the wrong places. ~A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh, 1926

Devotees of grammatical studies have not been distinguished for any very remarkable felicities of expression. ~A. Bronson Alcott, "Culture: IV.—Mother Tongue," Tablets, 1868

[A] man must be a d—d fool, who can’t spell a word more than one way. ~Author unknown, 1855, anecdote from Jamestown Journal (Thanks, Garson O’Toole of quoteinvestigator.com!)

"Correct" spelling, indeed, is one of the arts that are far more esteemed by schoolma’ams than by practical men, neck-deep in the heat and agony of the world. ~H.L. Mencken, The American Language, Supplement II: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States, 1948

      Woman's great intellectual task is teaching the language. The grammarians and their substitutes, school-teachers and professors, fancy that they are the masters of language, and that, without their intervention, men's language would perish in confusion and incoherence. They have been maintained for ages in this illusion, yet there is none more ridiculous. Women are the elementary, and poets the superior artisans of language, both unconscious of their function. The intervention of grammarians is almost always bad.... He teaches grammar. He does not teach language.
      Language is a function. Grammar is the analysis of this function. It is as useless to know grammar in order to speak one's native tongue, as to know physiology in order to breathe with one's lungs, or to walk with one's legs.
      ~Remy de Gourmont, "Women and Language," Le Chemin de Velours, 1902, translated from French by William Aspenwall Bradley, 1921

You may say a cat uses good grammar. Well, a cat does — but you let a cat get excited once; you let a cat get to pulling fur with another cat on a shed, nights, and you'll hear grammar that will give you the lockjaw. Ignorant people think it's the noise which fighting cats make that is so aggravating, but it ain't so; it's the sickening grammar they use. ~Mark Twain, A Tramp Abroad

Would you convey my compliments to the purist who reads your proofs and tell him or her that I write a sort of broken-down patois which is something like the way a Swiss waiter talks, and that when I split an infinitive, God damn it, I split it so it will stay split, and when I interrupt the velvety smoothness of my more or less literate syntax with a few sudden words of bar-room vernacular, that is done with the eyes wide open and the mind relaxed but attentive. ~Raymond Chandler, letter to Edward Weeks, 1947 January 18th

And all dared to brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds, to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before—and thus was the Empire forged. ~Douglas Adams, The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy

Nostalgia is like a grammar lesson: you find the present tense but the past perfect! ~Attributed to both Owens Lee Pomeroy (1929–2008) and Robert Orben (b.1927)

I believe that every English poet should read the English classics, master the rules of grammar before he attempts to bend or break them, travel abroad, experience the horror of sordid passion and — if he is lucky enough — know the love of an honest woman. ~Robert Graves (1895–1985), lecture at Oxford, quoted in Time, 1961 December 15th

I referred to the need for learning to punctuate properly because in a work of art punctuation often plays the part of musical notation and can't be learned from a textbook; it requires instinct and experience. ~Anton Pavlovich Chekhov, letter to Rimma Vashchuk, 1897 March 28th, translated from Russian by Michael Henry Heim, 1973

There is no element in which language resembles music more than in the punctuation marks.... Exclamation points are like silent cymbal clashes, question marks like musical upbeats, colons dominant seventh chords... ~Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969), "Punctuation Marks," Notes to Literature, Volume One, translated from German by Shierry Weber Nicholsen

Not long ago, I advertised for perverse rules of grammar.... The notion of making a mistake while laying down rules is highly unoriginal, and it turns out that English teachers have been circulating lists of fumblerules for years. As owner of the world's largest collection, and with thanks to scores of readers, let me pass along a bunch of these never-say-neverisms:
   • Use the semicolon properly, always use it where it is appropriate; and never where it isn’t.
   • Reserve the apostrophe for it’s proper use and omit it when its not needed.
   • Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.
   • Avoid commas, that are not necessary.
   • And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
   • If any word is improper at the end of a sentence, a linking verb is.
~William Safire, "On Language," New York Times, 1979 November 4th

There’s a fine line between funny and annoying – and it’s exactly the width of a quotation mark. But it's not the quotation mark that deserves our wrath. It's our bad habits... ~Martha Brockenbrough, "Do You Abuse Quotation Marks?"

We make quote fingers. Please, for the love of your knuckles, stop it. If you can't, at least know that you're supposed to say "quote, unquote," not "quote, end quote." (And if you must do this overseas, be aware of the local customs. In Germany, one hand goes up and the other goes down, mimicking the direction of the printed quotation marks they use. In France, they make sideways v's to look like the guillemets they use to open and close quotations.) ~Martha Brockenbrough, "Do You Abuse Quotation Marks?"

[S]ometimes... quotation marks are an absolute crime against humanity. ~Richard Lederer and John Shore, Comma Sense: A Fun-damental Guide to Punctuation, "Introduction," 2005

      The use of quotation marks to say "their word, not mine" is growing.... World Book Dictionary editor Sol Steinmetz thinks that "disbelieving quotation marks" first became popular during the Nazi era, and then were given a boost in the Vietnam years, especially around the word "advisers."
      Disdain now has its own punctuation. One reason is that quotation marks are being used more often to call attention to a special meaning: Henry L. Trewhitt of The Baltimore Sun calls these "cop-out quotation marks" — when a writer uses a bit of jargon or a colloquialism and encloses it in quotes to show he really knows better. Another reason for putting rabbit ears on a word is the growing popularity of skepticism. Those whose illusion is disillusionment revel in the use of the device that expresses disbelief and disavowal with four inverted commas, and trendy critics can even put quotation signs around a spoken word by wiggling two fingers of each hand.
      ~William Safire, "On Language," January 1980

Bad grammar makes me [sic]. ~Author Unknown

There are grammatical errors even in his silence. ~Stanisław J. Lec, Unkempt Thoughts, translated from Polish by Jacek Gałązka, 1962

Grammar is a piano I play by ear, since I seem to have been out of school the year the rules were mentioned. All I know about grammar is its infinite power. ~Joan Didion, "Why I Write," 1976

Man 1: Where are you from?
Man 2: From a place where we do not end sentences with prepositions.
Man 1: Okay, where are you from, jackass?
~Author Unknown

A pronoun... will aptly reflect the number of its antecedent: they does not refer to one person, no matter how many personalities she or he has, or how eager you are to skirt the gender frays. ~Karen Elizabeth Gordon, "Agreements," The Deluxe Transitive Vampire: The Ultimate Handbook of Grammar for the Innocent, the Eager, and the Doomed

Grammar Checker – A software program that is not needed by those who know grammar and virtually useless for those who don’t. ~Richard Turner (1937-2011), The Grammar Curmudgeon, a.k.a. "The Mudge," from "The Curmudgeon’s Short Dictionary of Modern Phrases"

Grammar is politics by other means. ~Donna J. Haraway, Simians, Cyborgs, and Women: The Reinvention of Nature, 1991

After all, when a thought takes one's breath away, a lesson on grammar seems an impertinence. As Ruskin wrote in his earlier and better days, "No weight nor mass nor beauty of execution can outweigh one grain or fragment of thought." ~Thomas Wentworth Higginson, Preface to Poems by Emily Dickinson Edited by Two of Her Friends, Mabel Loomis Todd and T.W. Higginson, ©1890

Style takes its final shape more from attitudes of mind than from principles of composition, for, as an elderly practitioner once remarked, "Writing is an act of faith, not a trick of grammar." This moral observation would have no place in a rule book were it not that style is the writer, and therefore what a man is, rather than what he knows, will at last determine his style. ~William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style

Grammar stops at love, and at art. ~Terri Guillemets

Do not be surprised when those who ignore the rules of grammar also ignore the law. After all, the law is just so much grammar. ~Robert Brault, rbrault.blogspot.com

The rules of punctuation seem arbitrary. How can they not, when an apostrophe looks like nothing in this world so much as a comma that can’t keep its feet on the ground? Or when, by simply placing next to that wafting comma its twin, one creates (of all things) a quotation mark? ~Richard Lederer and John Shore, Comma Sense: A Fun-damental Guide to Punctuation, “Introduction,” 2005

Who climbs the Grammar-Tree; distinctly knows
Where Noun, and Verb, and Participle grows...
~Decimus Junius Juvenalis, Satire VI, translated by John Dryden, 1693

      What really alarms me about President Bush's "War on Terrorism" is the grammar. How do you wage war on an abstract noun? How is "Terrorism" going to surrender? It's rather like bombing "murder...."
      How will they know when they've won it?
      With most wars you can say you've won when the other side is either all dead or surrenders. But how is "terrorism" going to surrender? It's well known, in philological circles, that it's very hard for abstract nouns to surrender.... Abstract nouns simply aren't like that. I'm afraid the bitter semantic truth is, you can't win against these sort of words—unless, I suppose, you get them thrown out of the Oxford English Dictionary. That would show 'em.
      ~Terry Jones, "The Grammar of the War on Terrorism," in Voices for Peace: An Anthology edited by Anna Kiernan, 2001

I like commas. I detest semi-colons — I don't think they belong in a story. And I gave up quotation marks long ago. I found I didn't need them, they were fly-specks on the page. If you're doing it right, the reader will know who's talking. ~E.L. Doctorow (b.1931), "EL Doctorow: 'I don't have a style, but the books do': The author of Ragtime, The Book of Daniel and Homer and Langley talks to Sarah Crown," The Guardian, January 2010

Next to the semi-colon, quotation marks seem to be the chief butts of reformatory ardor. The fact that quotes within quotes are often confusing, and unhinge the minds of thousands of poor copy-readers every year, has fanned these flames. Also, there is frequent complaint that the marks themselves, as they stand, are unsightly, with demands for something better. ~H.L. Mencken, The American Language, Supplement II: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States, 1948

Let school-masters puzzle their brain,
With grammar, and nonsense, and learning;
Good liquor, I stoutly maintain,
Gives genius a better discerning.
~Oliver Goldsmith, She Stoops to Conquer: Or, The Mistakes of a Night

Dorothea's faith supplied all that Mr Casaubon's words seemed to leave unsaid: what believer sees a disturbing omission or infelicity? The text, whether of prophet or of poet, expands for whatever we can put into it, and even his bad grammar is sublime. ~George Eliot, Middlemarch: A Study of Provincial Life, Volume I, Book I—Miss Brooke, 1871

I have spent most of the day putting in a comma and the rest of the day taking it out. ~Attributed to Oscar Wilde

Grammar: The grave of letters. ~Elbert Hubbard, The Roycroft Dictionary Concocted by Ali Baba and the Bunch on Rainy Days, 1914

A man's grammar, like Cæsar's wife, must not only be pure, but above suspicion of impurity. ~Edgar Allan Poe, critique of Edward Bulwer-Lytton's "Night and Morning," in Marginalia

      The printer, who is, in many cases, possessed of some ambition, cannot afford to sacrifice the face of the book, its physical appearance, to the whims of it mental creator, the author. He declines to submit to the grammatical rules imposed upon him by the scholarly writer, believing that it may be well to consider antecedens and posterius, and the small regiment of auxiliaries, grammatical subordinates, as there are commas, semicolons, colons, periods, etc., in the text, the soul of the book, but he will never consent to permit these important little giants to terrorize him in the composition of the title page.
      It makes the heart bleed to see one of these little marks spoil the symmetrical proportions of an otherwise perfect title page composition; to see the beauty of the picture, its æsthetic value, subordinated to and ruined by the predominance of cold-blooded grammar. Imagine a curve-line ending with a comma! Imagine such a grammatical terror on the end of every second line! How awkward! How disgusting!...
      Whoever must rely upon comma, colon and period to understand the sense of a title, ought not to attempt to try to understand what follows the same; let him drop his literary ambition and seek shelter in a house for the care of idiots.... Sapienti sat.
      ~Gustav Boehm, "A Discourse on Title Page Composition," in The Inland Printer (Chicago), March 1886

A kiss can be a comma, a question mark or an exclamation point. That’s basic spelling that every woman ought to know. ~Mistinguett, quoted in Theatre Arts, Volume 39, Issue 12, 1955

An exclamation point looks like an index finger raised in warning.... A colon, says Karl Kraus, opens its mouth wide: woe to the writer who does not fill it with something nourishing. Visually, the semicolon looks like a drooping moustache; I am even more aware of its gamey taste. With self-satisfied peasant cunning, German quotation marks [« »] lick their lips.... Every text, even the most densely woven, cites them of its own accord — friendly spirits whose bodiless presence nourishes the body of language. ~Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969, a.k.a. Theodor Ludwig Wiesengrund), "Punctuation Marks," Notes to Literature, Volume One, translated from German by Shierry Weber Nicholsen, 1991 (Noten zur Literatur, original copyright 1958)

The serious dash.... mute lines into the past, wrinkles on the brow of [Theodor Storm's] text.... set bald and naked between the events they draw together, they have something of the fatefulness of the natural context and something of a prudish hesitancy to make reference to it. So discreetly does myth conceal itself in the nineteenth century; it seeks refuge in typography. ~Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969), "Punctuation Marks," Notes to Literature, Volume One, translated from German by Shierry Weber Nicholsen

Among the losses punctuation suffers through the decay of language is the slash mark or diagonal... ~Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969), "Punctuation Marks," Notes to Literature, Volume One, translated from German by Shierry Weber Nicholsen

The test of a writer's sensitivity in punctuating is the way he handles parenthetical material. The cautious writer will tend to place that material between dashes and not in round brackets.... Dashes... block off the parenthetical material from the flow of the sentence without shutting it up in a prison, capture both connection and detachment. ~Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969), "Punctuation Marks," Notes to Literature, Volume One, translated from German by Shierry Weber Nicholsen

This is the sort of bloody nonsense up with which I will not put. ~Attributed to Winston Churchill, rejecting the rule against ending a sentence with a preposition, c.1948, may instead have been said by an anonymous official, see notes at www.wsu.edu/~brians/errors/churchill.html

      Years ago, students were warned not to end a sentence with a preposition; time, of course, has softened that rigid decree. Not only is the preposition acceptable at the end, sometimes it is more effective in that spot than anywhere else. "A claw hammer, not an ax, was the tool he murdered her with." This is preferable to "A claw hammer, not an ax, was the tool with which he murdered her." Why? Because it sounds more violent, more like murder. A matter of ear.
      And would you write "The worst tennis player around here is I" or "The worst tennis player around here is me"? The first is good grammar, the second is good judgment...
      ~William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White, The Elements of Style

The great logical, or grammatical, framework of language, (for grammar is the logic of speech, even as logic is the grammar of reason,) he would possess, he knew not how... ~Richard Chenevix Trench, "On the Study of Words," lecture to the pupils of the Diocesan Training School, Winchester, c.1851

Grammar makes the difference between feeling you’re nuts and feeling your nuts. ~Author Unknown

I always put the apostrophe in "ain’t" to make certain I’m using proper improper English. ~Author Unknown

Making love to me is amazing. Wait, I meant: making love, to me, is amazing. The absence of two little commas nearly transformed me into a sex god. ~Jarod Kintz, Love quotes for the ages. Specifically ages 18-81.

Only in grammar can you be more than perfect. ~William Safire

Every time you make a typo, the errorists win. ~Author Unknown

The writer is in a permanent predicament when it comes to punctuation marks; if one were fully aware while writing, one would sense the impossibility of ever using a mark of punctuation correctly and would give up writing altogether. For the requirements of the rules of punctuation and those of the subjective need for logic and expression are not compatible... The conflict must be endured each time, and one needs either a lot of strength or a lot of stupidity not to lose heart. ~Theodor W. Adorno (1903–1969), "Punctuation Marks," Notes to Literature, Volume One, translated from German by Shierry Weber Nicholsen

Grammarians squabble, and will squabble long. ~Horace (65–8 B.C.), De Arte Poetica, translated by George Colman, 1783

laugh, leaning back in my arms
for life's not a paragraph
And death i think is no parenthesis
~e.e. cummings, "since feeling is first," 1926

Language, never forget, is more fashion than science, and matters of usage, spelling, and pronunciation tend to wander around like hemlines. ~Bill Bryson, The Mother Tongue: English & How It Got That Way, 1990

Mr Speaker, I said the honourable Member was a liar it is true and I am sorry for it. The honourable Member may place the punctuation where he pleases. ~Attributed to Richard Brinsley Sheridan (1751–1816), responding to a rebuke from the Chair for calling a fellow Member of Parliament a liar

When money talks, no one checks the grammar. ~Author Unknown

Let me just acknowledge that the function of grammar is to make language as efficient and clear and transparent as possible. But if we’re all constantly correcting each other’s grammar and being really snotty about it, then people stop talking because they start to be petrified that they’re going to make some sort of terrible grammatical error and that’s precisely the opposite of what grammar is supposed to do, which is to facilitate clear communication. ~John Green

A pedant is a bookish thing
That makes a mighty clamour
To plait a wreath from dead men's bones,
And strangle thought in grammar.
~John Stuart Blackie (1809–1895), "Pedantry"

A semicomma, we should note, doesn’t exist; we just made the word up. But it sounds like a punctuation mark that should exist, doesn’t it? ~Richard Lederer and John Shore, Comma Sense: A Fun-damental Guide to Punctuation, "Introduction," 2005

      The Swamp Monster abhors the extra keystroke. That is "so 20th-century" (or even more antiquated); writing complete words, capital letters, and punctuation marks should have gone out of fashion with the quill pen. We don't have time for that in our super-efficient world of electronic communication, any more than the we have time to bother with archaic rules advanced by Neanderthal grammarians, who are completely out of touch with modern reality. How else will we find time to text trivial messages, post videos of dancing hamsters on YouTube, share gossip on Facebook, and tweet platitudes on Twitter?...
      When we grammarians attempt to defend traditional rules and usage, we are accused of denying that language changes as if we were idiots with no awareness of the history of language. The truth is that most people who are interested enough in a language to learn its grammar in depth are probably more aware of the changes that have taken place over time than are those who merely mimic what they see and hear....
      This is where the Grumpy Grammarian sighs, shrugs, and heads for the exit. I shouldn't let it bother me. Almost all the defenders of traditional grammar are old coots like me, so we won't be around when the English language devolves into grunts, pictographs, and hand gestures.
      ~Richard Turner (1937–2011), The Grammar Curmudgeon, a.k.a. "The Mudge," The Grumpy Grammarian, September 2010

Oh, Cedilla! I hyphenventilate as I kiss ur ellipsis! I crave your caron & long to be bracketed by ur guillemets #nationalpunctuationday.com ~Eric Jones, @dericjones, 2010 September 24th

Grammar, which even rules o'er kings and princes
And with high hand subjects them to its laws!
~Molière, Les Femmes Savantes/The Learned Ladies, 1672 (Act II, Scene VI, Philaminte), translated from French by Curtis Hidden Page, 1908  [Molière's learned ladies' (précieuses') attempts to purify speech were based on real life. The French Academy was working to publish an authoritative dictionary to fix the standards of proper usage. Vaugelas, one of its members, wrote that not even kings or emperors have the right to create new words. —tεᖇᖇ¡·g]

Belise: Materialism
            Quite rules your genius, it must be averred!
            I, is first person, notice; talks is third.
            Why will you outrage grammar all your life?
Martine: Who wants to outrage gram'ma, eh? or gran'pa?
Philaminte: O heavens!
~Molière, Les Femmes Savantes/The Learned Ladies, 1672 (Act II, Scene VI), translated from French by Curtis Hidden Page, 1908

Belise: Grammar, I tell you, teaches us the laws
            Of verb and subject, adjective and noun.
Martine: Well, all I say is, I don't know those gentry....
Belise: Those are the names of words;
            And we must see to making them agree.
Martine: Let 'em agree, or fight it out, who cares?
~Molière, Les Femmes Savantes/The Learned Ladies, 1672 (Act II, Scene VI), translated from French by Curtis Hidden Page, 1908

[B]ut why care for grammar as long as we are good? ~Artemus Ward (1834–1867), Pyrotechny, "V.—What This Young Man Said"

Linguists are no different from any other people who spend more than nineteen hours a day pondering the complexities of grammar and its relationship to practically everything else in order to prove that language is so inordinately complicated that it is impossible in principle for people to talk. ~Ronald W. Langacker (b.1942), Language and Its Structure, 1973

No one can write perfect English and keep it up through a stretch of ten chapters. It has never been done. ~Mark Twain

Serial Comma Quotations, Oxford Comma Quotes

In the United States the apostrophe seems to be doomed.... In other respects American and English punctuation show few differences. The English are rather more careful than we are, and commonly put a comma after the next-to-last member of a series, but otherwise are not too precise to offend a red-blooded American. ~H.L. Mencken, The American Language, Supplement II: An Inquiry into the Development of English in the United States, 1948

There are people who embrace the Oxford comma and people who don’t, and I’ll just say this: never get between these people when drink has been taken. ~Lynne Truss, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation

The serial comma is sexy, smart, and useful. ~Author Unknown

You know you’re a language nerd when you have a strong opinion about serial commas. ~Author Unknown

Your participle’s danglin’
But I don’t want your drama
If you really wanna
Leave out that Oxford comma
Just keep in mind
That be, see, are, you
Are words, not letters...
And listen up when I tell you this
I hope you never use quotation marks for emphasis...
~“Weird Al” Yankovic, “Word Crimes,” Mandatory Fun, 2014

There’s the Oxford comma, but I like the Shatner comma. It’s when you pepper them in, so, you know where, to add, dramatic pauses. ~Nicole Leigh Shaw

Shatner commas: Oddly placed commas that don’t seem to serve any actual purpose in punctuation, but make it look like you should take odd pauses, as William Shatner does when delivering lines. ~Author Unknown

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Last modified 2015 Sep 02 Wed 10:25 PDT

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