"Don't use no double negatives", etc.(Miscellany)
Humorous Rules for Writing ("Fumblerules," "Perverse Rules," etc.) by Donna Richoux
Since the 1970s at least, lists of humorous rules for writing have circulated around schools, universities, and offices. The humor depends on each rule contradicting the very advice it gives, such as "Don't use no double negatives."
As Mark Israel's FAQ states, these were written up by William Safire under the name "Fumblerules," although there is at least one earlier published source of a similar list, by science editor George L. Trigg. Below, I give details about both of those sources, and quote the original articles in full.
Note that both Trigg and Safire credit others with having collected or contributed the rules they published. Although they helped in publicizing this catchy form, neither should be considered the originator.
There are many, many variants of these lists on the World Wide Web. Some clearly began with one list or the other and added new ones as people thought of them. Others may have descended from the same "xeroxlore" that preceded both and circulated throughout campuses and offices in the 1970s. You can turn these up by searching on typical phrases like "don't use no double negatives" (which appears in both original articles) and "eschew obfuscation" (which appears in neither).
The following is the text of an article in the scientific journal Physics Review Letters, 19 March 1979 (Volume 42, Issue 12, pp. 747-748).
It is said that back in the 1940's, the following message was prominently displayed at the front of the main chemistry lecture hall at a major university:
"The English language is your most versatile scientific instrument. Learn to use it with precision."
In the intervening years, the teaching of proper grammar in the public elementary and high schools fell into disfavor. The inevitable result is that manuscripts submitted to us are often full of grammatical errors, which their authors probably do not even recognize (and often would not care about if they did).
We regard this state of affairs as deplorable, and we want to do something about it. For many years we have tried to correct the grammar of papers that we publish. This is toilsome at best, and sometimes entails rather substantial rephrasing. It would obviously be preferable to have authors use correct grammar in the first place. The problem is how to get them to do it.
One fairly effective way is to provide examples of what not to do; it is particularly helpful if the examples are humorous. We have recently seen several lists of grammatical examples of this type. A few weeks ago we found taped to a colleague's office door the most complete one we have seen. (He tells us it was passed out in a class of Darthmouth - not in English - at the time a term paper was assigned). We reproduce it here in the hope that it will have some effect.
The above was taken from a reprint at http://lib.ru/ANEKDOTY/orfograf.txt.
Publishing info at http://prola.aps.org/toc/PRL/v42/i12.
In the same year, William Safire wrote at the end of his "On Language" column in the New York Times, on 7 October 1979:
I am compiling "Ten Perverse Rules of English Grammar." Thanks to Philip Henderson of Lawrence, Kan., I have three. They are: (1) Remember to never split an infinitive. (2) A preposition is something never to end a sentence with. (3) The passive voice should never be used.
Any others along these lines?
He followed this up a month later, on 4 November 1979, with the following "On Language" column:
The Fumblerules of Grammar
Not long ago, I advertised for perverse rules of grammar, along the lines of "Remember to never split an infinitive" and "The passive voice should never be used." The notion of making a mistake while laying down rules ("Thimk," "We Never Make Misteaks") 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:
We are told that these and possibly more Fumblerules were reprinted in at least one of Safire's books of collected articles. In 1990 he made a separate book, Fumblerules: A Lighthearted Guide to Grammar and Good Usage (not in print, but used copies available.)
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