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Grammar and style pet peeves; don’t we all have them?

A friend sent me a list of someone’s “Top 10 Grammar Peeves” the other day. I agreed with some; others weren’t that big a deal to me. Interesting, what sets off one of us another can brush away with a shrug. I was motivated, though, to come up with my own little list. Granted, most of these are grammar issues – but one or two style snafus snuck in because they also drive me nuts.

1. Me and him

INCORRECT: Me and my partner went to lunch at noon.

CORRECT: My partner and I went to lunch at noon.

Of all the grammar errors going – and there are clearly WAYYYYY too many to list here – this is my biggest pet peeve. “Me” is the object, the receiver of the action. “Me” can never DO anything. “I” is the subject, the doer. Only “I” can do things like go to lunch. How did this horrible construction ever make its insidious way into our regular usage? When I heard David Letterman and West Wing’s John Spencer use it about a week apart from each other, I knew I’d lost the battle on this one. But it still pierces every time I hear/read it.

2. Using apostrophes to create plurals

INCORRECT: The boy’s and girl’s played on the swings.

CORRECT: The boys and girls played on the swings.

I did an entire post about this one.

3. Confusing it’s/its and they’re/their/there and you’re/your

PROPER USE: It’s Tuesday and I checked the mailbox, but your letter is not there yet. I await its arrival so I can share your news with the family when they’re home. I want to get their opinion on whether you’re still the first stop on our vacation.

“It’s” is the contraction for “it is,” just as “you’re” is the contraction for “you are” and “they’re” is the contraction for “they are.” ‘Your,” “their,” and “its” are all possessives. Depending on its use, “there” is an adverb or a pronoun ( in this case, an adverb).

4. Confusing choose/chose and loose/lose

Jane will choose whether to leave her hair loose because last time she chose to wear it up she was a loser in the pageant.

“Chose” is the past tense of “choose;” however “lose” means not to win, while “loose”  means not tight, two completely unrelated words.

5. Unnecessary random capital letters

This one just makes you look like a moron. Really. If there’s no reason for the caps, don’t use them.

6. Using random quotation marks

Less moronic than random capitalization, but only by a hair. Again, if there’s no reason for the quotation marks, don’t use them! And what reason could there possibly be to use them below?

Also was asked by the same friend who sent the grammar peeves list about when to use single quotation marks. This is reserved for a quote within a quote – although the Brits appear to reverse this.

AMERICAN USAGE: Eric said, “I told her I didn’t do it, but she said, ‘You’re a liar.’”

BRITISH USAGE: Eric said, ‘I told her I didn’t do it, but she said, “You’re a liar.”’

7. Unnecessary use of .00 when writing monetary amounts; unnecessary use of :00 and lack of periods in a.m. and p.m. when designating time

This is an issue of correctness if you’re following the AP Style Manual, but I think everyone should adopt this style. Those extra zeroes at the end just take up space and make the writing look cluttered.

LESS PREFERRED: The concert begins at 8:00 pm and costs $20.00.

PREFERRED: The concert begins at 8 p.m. and costs $20.

8. There are/there is constructions.

LESS PREFERRED: There are many doctors who advocate drinking less soda.

PREFERRED: Many doctors advocate drinking less soda.

This goes back to my college days. The “there is” construction is not grammatically incorrect, but it makes for weak writing. You will likely find unavoidable occasions for using it – but generally, reworking the sentence will improve it.

9. Literally means something actually happened – it is not a way to describe something figurative.

http://theoatmeal.com/comics/literally

10. Using only a close parenthesis to create a numbered list.

11. Using two hyphens instead of an en or em dash.

SLOPPY: We no longer work on typewriters – – double dashes are unnecessary in the day of word processors.

PROFESSIONAL: We no longer work on typewriters — double dashes are unnecessary in the day of word processors.

The use of an em dash (—) or en dash (–) [so called because they are roughly the width of an “n” or an “m”] is really a stylistic preference, as is whether to use spaces before and after, although certain style manuals indicate that no spaces before and after an em dash is correct. Using one or the other in place of double dashes is the sign of a professional, versus a lazy writer or, worse, typesetter.

Happy grammar checking!

Laura

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Please, please, please can we get the apostrophes out of our plurals?!

I just saw it AGAIN, the incorrect use of an apostrophe with a word that simply wants to be plural. The biggest irony is that it was in the first line of a blog post about the importance of creating a quality book.

I’m not sure where this crazy concept originated or why it seems to have taken such a strong and endless hold in the writing of seemingly intelligent people, folks who certainly should know better. The thing that most bothers and perplexes me is the sheer randomness of it, as the people who make this error don’t do it every time.

Here’s a sample sentence:

There are many ways for author’s
and speakers to market themselves.

Why would we throw a random apostrophe in with the authors, but leave the speakers alone? If we’re going to make this nonsensical mistake, shouldn’t we at least be consistent about it?

Let’s take a look at the correct use of apostrophes, in a perhaps vain attempt to curb some of the inappropriate usage.

SINGULAR POSSESSIVE

___________________

 PLURAL POSSESSIVE

____________________

 CONTRACTIONS

____________________

             SPELLING OUT TIME

____________________

 OK, against my better judgment, I’m going to mention the only caveats
I am aware of for using apostrophes to create plurals.

EXCEEDINGLY RARE EXCEPTIONS FOR PLURALS

That’s it. There are NO apostrophes in:

  • the simple plural form of an ordinary word like authors
  • an abbreviation like CDs or MP3s
  • a decade like the 1980s
  • the possessive words its, hers, his, yours, theirs, and ours

This is basic grammar that we all should have mastered by the sixth grade, yet it’s one of the most pervasive mistakes to have crept into mainstream usage over the last few years. It’s also the one that makes a writer look sloppier (or more uneducated) than almost any other error. Random Capital Letters are another one, but even they are not as glaring as this inappropriate addition of apostrophes to plural words.

When possible, have someone read over any writing you will publish for public consumption. When that’s not possible, just keep in mind that apostrophes have a few very specific jobs; creating plurals of words is not one of them.

Here’s to happy, effortless, and correct writing!

Laura

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Poor spelling doesn’t equal inferior intelligence, but it does require a Plan B

After a recent conversation with a Facebook pal about her spelling challenges, I was reminded of this voicemail I received from a client a few years back:

Hi, Laura. It’s Elizabeth. I really hope I caught you in time. You know that article I sent you to edit? Don’t open it! I mean, I hope you didn’t look at it yet. I just reread it, and realized it’s terrible. I need to rework it. I’ll see what I can do with it later this afternoon, and send you my improved version tonight or tomorrow. Thanks.

Unfortunately, Elizabeth never sent me the revision.

Funny thing about writing: many people have absolutely ZERO confidence in their ability to do it. What they often fail to realize is that they are much more skilled than they give themselves credit for. And for those whose ability is less than stellar, that’s the whole reason editors have jobs, isn’t it?

What I’d like to convince my client, Elizabeth — and everyone else out there who feels similarly — is that there is absolutely nothing to be ashamed about with regard to their writing skills. No matter how bad the spelling or how egregious the grammar errors, none of that is representative of how smart she is; nor does it diminish the importance of the information she wants to share with her audience.

In a 2000 Suite101.com article, “What Does Your Spelling Say About You Behind Your Back?” Sandra Linville references Marilyn Vos Savant’s book, The Art of Spelling: The Madness and the Method. Vos Savant wrote her book after conducting a 1998 survey in her Parade Magazine column, in which she asked, “What does your spelling really say about you? Is spelling ability a measure of your education, intelligence, desire, or none of the above?”

In her article, Linville explains, “The survey garnered more than 42,000 responses, indicating that better organizational skills benefit spelling ability, rather than intelligence. However, Vos Savant realizes that inept spellers can look inept in other ways. A misspelled word can kill a job offer or result in a rejected proposal. She also states that an English-speaking perfect speller doesn’t exist.”

Corresponding with Vos Savant’s theory, it is widely reputed that Albert Einstein, the unquestionable genius physicist, was so bad at spelling that he was initially assumed to be retarded. In fact, according to the 1998 ScienceGoGo.com article, “Ten Obscure Factoids Concerning Albert Einstein,” Factoid #3 is:

He Was a Rotten Speller. Although he lived for many years in the United States and was fully bilingual, Einstein claimed never to be able to write in English because of “the treacherous spelling.” He never lost his distinctive German accent either, summed up by his catch-phrase “I vill a little t’ink.”

Some now purport that Einstein struggled with dyslexia, a learning disorder that impairs a person’s fluency or comprehension accuracy. However, this claim is only speculative. Nevertheless, spelling is only one of several serious difficulties facing people with dyslexia.

According to Dyslexia-Parent.com, there are four main challenges for a dyslexic person:

1. Spelling
2. Sentence punctuation
3. Handwriting
4. Sequencing ideas

In such a case, lack of intelligence clearly is not the issue for a challenged speller.

There is also the distinction to be made between poor cognitive spelling skills and never having learned to do it properly. As Philip Hensher writes in the UK’s The Independent:

Spelling may, in the end, not be a very reliable indicator of intelligence, and it is certainly possible to imagine very intelligent and articulate people who lack the skill. But society has agreed that it is significant, and there is no doubt that people, at some point in their lives, will be judged partly on the basis of whether they can spell or not. It is simply the job of education to teach that skill, and it is incredible to hear professional teachers sneering at the notion.

I fear that this attitude is not all that unusual, however. A couple of years ago, I agreed to teach a residential course for sixth-formers who were interested in becoming journalists. They were from a disadvantaged part of London, but I would say they were intrinsically bright and capable. I set some written work: it arrived: I held my head in horror. Not one of them was capable of writing 20 words without making a mistake in spelling, and sometimes an elementary one.

The point here is not that they lacked ability, but that their education had never impressed on them the importance of accuracy. It seemed perfectly plausible to them, and to their teachers, that native ability and enthusiasm would be enough to qualify them to write prose for a living. The idea that accuracy might be needed had literally never occurred to them.

One interesting yet seldom-mentioned fact is the converse of this idea that poor spelling is an indication of inferior intelligence, that is, good spelling is NOT necessarily an indication of intelligence. A person may have strong memorization and/or language skills without possessing comprehensive intelligence across all subjects.

Beyond spelling, another consideration is the fact that not all of us are inherently strong in verbal/linguistic skills. Renowned social scientist Howard Gardner developed a model known as multiple intelligences, meaning that although each of us has many ways in which we learn and perceive information, we generally have one primary area where we excel. The eight intelligences Gardner identified are: Verbal/Linguistic, Logical/Mathematical, Visual/Spatial, Intrapersonal, Interpersonal, Bodily/Kinesthetic, Musical/Rhythmic, and Naturalistic.

Although verbal and linguistic may be perceived as the most commonly emphasized of the eight intelligences, there are seven other skill sets at which a person may excel. Verbal/linguistic may be my personal strengths, but just ask my niece about my fiasco as a sub, teaching math to her 6th grade Montessori class.

What it comes down to is this: in business in particular, heighten and hone your natural skills and leverage them as far as you can – but HIRE OUT your weaknesses. Don’t worry that you don’t do it well as you hand over the project to your outsourcee – that’s why you’re hiring them!

My client who said she needed to rewrite her article before she sent it to me reminded me of those people who feel they have to clean their houses before the housekeeper arrives. That one also baffles me. Rather than focus on her imperfections, I wish she could celebrate her wisdom in reaching out for help. If we could all just get past our shame about our deficiencies and instead focus on the things we do well, life would be so much easier.

Laura

Originally posted on March 31, 2007 as “There’s No Shame in Being a Bad Speller/Poor Grammarian” on the blog Communication Made Easy, by Marcie Brock creator, Laura Orsini.

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