What’s Wrong With This Sentence? — A Linguists View On Grammar Usage

From the Lecture Series: English Grammar Boot Camp

By Anne Curzan, Ph.D., University of Michigan

I’m going to show you two sentences, and I want you to decide if there are any problems with them. Your decision shouldn’t be about the meaning of the sentence, but rather whether you think there’s anything wrong with the grammar usage. Are you ready?

Image of text edits for the article on grammar usage

Acceptable? Unacceptable?

Rate the following sentences with one of these four choices — completely acceptable, somewhat acceptable, somewhat unacceptable or completely unacceptable. Here’s your first sentence:

Experience is equally as valuable as theory.

How did you rate that? Was it in the acceptable category or unacceptable category? Are you bothered by the redundancy of “equally as”? Do you want it to be “Experience is as valuable as theory”? Or did the sentence sound okay to you? How about this sentence:

Aptitude is essential; but equally as important is the desire to learn.

Did you find “equally as important” unacceptable? Did you want it to be “equally important”? Or did “equally as important” sound idiomatic to you, like something you might say or write?

Learn more about the dangers of danglers

These sentences were on the usage ballot for the American Heritage Dictionary in fall of 2015. All the members of the Usage Panel were asked to vote on the sentences using exactly the same categories I just gave you, and with about as much instruction about what acceptability means.

Perhaps you’re thinking right now this is not yours to decide, whether these two sentences are acceptable or not. What do the experts have to say? Well, in 1926, H. W. Fowler, the well-known grammarian, called “equally as” an “illiterate tautology”—in other words, an illiterate redundancy.

Ouch! That feels like pretty strong condemnation for a sentence that perhaps some of you thought was perfectly fine.

This is a transcript from the video series English Grammar Boot Camp. Watch it now, on The Great Courses Plus.

The American Heritage Dictionary Usage Panel

Image of word definition in dictionary.

Let’s look at the usage note on this construction in the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language. The editors updated the usage note after the 2015 usage ballot, and here’s what it now says:

The adverb equally is often regarded as redundant when used in combination with as, as in ‘Experience is equally as valuable as theory’ or ‘Aptitude is essential; but equally as important is the desire to learn.’

In our 2015 ballot, the example sentences above were deemed unacceptable by 64% and 53% of the Usage Panel respectively. Even among those panelists who rated the sentences as acceptable, there were several who commented that it would be preferable to avoid the redundancy for stylistic reasons. Fortunately, one can easily streamline sentences such as these, as by deleting equally from the first example and as from the second.

Learn more: Why Do We Care about Grammar?

So how does the voting process work for members of the Usage Panel? We get the ballot over e-mail and we all vote in the privacy of our home or office on whatever grounds we want to vote on. Some people vote based on personal preference; other people vote based on their favorite usage guide, which they might have in their office. Some look at data about actual usage.

Now, sometimes, when I get the ballot and I read through it, I know exactly what the question is after. It could be about they and whether we can use it as a singular, or about the difference between anxious and eager or perhaps it’s hopefully, and whether we can use that to mean “it is hoped.”

But sometimes I look at the sentence that we’re voting on and I don’t know what they’re after. For example, I remember a set of questions about finalize, which it turns out was severely criticized in the 1960s as bureaucratic. It now strikes us as unexceptional.

You Know More Than You Think You Do

I, too, think it’s probably preferable to edit out the repetition for stylistic reasons, but, all in all, I think those sentences are perfectly acceptable in edited prose, and there are editors who are already letting it through.

In other words, I’m trying to isolate the question of: Does the repetition make the sentence wrong? And my answer would be: not inherently. There’s nothing inherently wrong with repetition. And you can find other examples in the language where we have no problem with repetition.

Learn more about descriptive grammar: the rules that describe actual usage

Think about the expression “each and every.” Well that’s clearly repetitive, but we see it as usefully emphatic. Think about “terms and conditions.” Also repetitive, but can do a kind of emphasis, and one could argue that “equally as” is also emphatic.

Language is a key part of culture, and understanding the diversity in our language is an important part of understanding the diversity among speakers.

If you are someone who feels some insecurity about your mastery of grammar, I’m asking you to believe me that you know more than you think you do, or than you give yourself credit for. You know English grammar in this really intricate way that allows you to communicate with all the speakers around you. This is the descriptive sense of grammar. You may not have every piece of terminology or all the formal usage rules for written English, but you know a whole lot about how English grammar works.

Common Questions About English Grammar Usage

Q: What is usage in English grammar?

Usage refers to rules in grammar that are prescribed in order to maintain consistency when writing and speaking the English language. Some of these rules are cut and dried, such as the rule that a complete sentence must express a complete thought, while other rules such as the use of redundant words/phrases are more subjective.

Q: What are the basic rules of grammar?

Some basic rules of grammar are as follows: a sentence contains a subject (who or what is performing the action) and predicate (what the subject is doing) and communicates a complete thought, subjective pronouns are used to identify actors (I, we, they) while objective pronouns are used to identify receivers of actions (me, us, them), and adjectives describe nouns.

Q: How do you use grammar correctly?

To use grammar correctly, you first need to get your sentence structure down. This means avoiding run-on sentences and fragments (incomplete sentences). You need to use the right articles (a, the, an) when appropriate. Overall, though, correct grammar usage is about clear communication.

Q: Why is proper grammar important?

Proper grammar is important because you want your message to be as accurate and clear as possible. An abundance of grammatical errors can obscure your meaning. Additionally, first impressions are crucial and you might not be taken seriously if your cover letter, blog post, or email to a client is filled with grammatical errors.

This article was updated on 7/17/2019

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