Meet Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins

Pic by left-hand

THERE are lots of dos and don’ts when it comes to English but one of the things I love most about it – despite my underserved reputation as a bit of a pedant – is that there are quite a few maybes, too. The art of the matter is, of course, knowing when they’re okay.

Enter Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins.

I’d all but forgotten that delicious phrase and those happy creatures, so I was delighted to come across them again in a throwaway mention by New York Times resident grammar guru Philip B Corbett, who rightly defines them as representing the “rules that aren’t”.

Miss BerthaThistlebottom was an imaginary bad-tempered spinster schoolteacher – many of us have known them, I’m sure – created by Philip B’s predecessor, Theodore M Bernstein.

An intractable stickler for grammar, her hobgoblins were broken grammar “rules”, which were enough to throw her into a froth of fury.

Never split an infinitive, she would insist as she rapped her students over the knuckles with a ruler. And never, ever end a sentence with a preposition. Heaven only knows what she’d make of “verbing”. She certainly wouldn’t google it!

Old Theodore created her for his book Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins: The Careful Writer’s Guide to the Taboos, Bugbears and Outmoded Rules of English Usage, in which he debunks many of the outdated, impractical regulations so beloved of grammar grouches which “lack flexibility and evoke fear, confusion and frustration in writers”.

None is one. In fact, Miss Thistlebottom would be horrified to know that it’s often more than one, too! As The New York Times’ own style guide points out, “despite a widespread assumption that it stands for not one, the word has been construed as a plural (‘not any’) in most contexts for centuries”.

But (and I can picture poor Miss Thistlebottom rolling over in her grave at the start to this sentence) hobgoblins can be very liberating.

As Theodore M himself said: “At the extreme right are the purists, the standpatters, the rigid traditionalists who brook little or no change and who go by the rules — as many rules as they can recall or invent. They may not speak or write brilliantly, but they are grammatically unassailable —except when they forget some rule or misinterpret one … At the extreme left are the permissivists, the heretics who argue that there is no such thing as ‘correct’ usage.”

In the middle, of course, are those of us who, like Theodore, believe that the written word should, above all, be easy to read and understand.

Of course, that’s where the “don’ts” come in and among my personal bugbears are dangling participles.

One phrase I had to rewrite recently – a couple of details changed to protect the guilty – was this beauty:

“Peppered with amusing anecdotes from the legal annals, the judge even plays armchair detective by solving long-forgotten cases.”

I can just see him sitting in that armchair with the words sprinkled all over his head. – Stevie Godson

(A version of this column first appeared in the Daily Dispatch)

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This entry was posted by stevieg on Saturday, October 15th, 2011 at 9:29 am and is filed under General . You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can leave a response, or trackback from your own site.


  1. Darcey says:

    With havin so much content do you ever run into any issues of plagorism or copyright infringement? My site has a lot of unique content I’ve either created myself or outsourced but it seems a lot of it is popping it up all over the internet without my authorization. Do you know any techniques to help stop content from being stolen? I’d truly appreciate it.

    • stevieg says:

      I wish I did know how to stop it, Darcey. I think the best thing to do is to remain vigilant and report any transgressions. Irritating but necessary. Take care, Stevie G

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