5 Grammar Mistakes that Make You
Sound Like a Chimp

laptop chimp

Writing can be really no-win. It’s not fair, but it’s true.

If you obsess over every grammatical and structural point, you can come across as stiff. But if you’re lax and make a bunch of simple errors, you’ll come across as stupid.

You make one mistake and a lot of people will let it go. Two and you’re making them suspicious. Keep that up, with your intelligence taking hits at each turn, and your reader will decide that you’re actually a chimpanzee — and not one of the smart ones, either.

Copyblogger has covered grammar nicely here and here and here. But I, as a newcomer to these parts, have a few more peeves to add to the pot. Ignore them at your peril, Bubbles.*

1. Improper use of “myself”

This is one that people make because they think that complicating the language needlessly will make them sound smart.

(It’s the same principle as a barely literate inner-city tenant telling me haughtily that her brother is “presently incarcerated in a corrections facility.”)

Unfortunately, misuse of “myself” isn’t just needlessly complicated. It’s also wrong.

Here’s a typical incorrect use:

“The committee will consist of Bob, Mr. Parsons, and myself.”

In this circumstance, “me” is the right choice. In general, “myself” is a word you shouldn’t find much use for, so if you’re using it a lot, you’re probably using it wrong. “Myself” should only be used reflexively, to refer back to the subject.

For example:

“I did the job myself.”

2. Subject/predicate disagreement

This is extremely common, and I can almost forgive it because the correct structure is cumbersome. Here’s an example of a disagreement:

“Clearly, this person didn’t know what they were doing.”

The problem is “this person” (singular) being used together with the pronoun “they” (plural). “These people didn’t know what they were doing” is correct, and so is “This person didn’t know what he or she was doing.” In each of those cases, the number (singular or plural) in the subject agrees with the number in the predicate.

Number disagreements are irritating to solve, because if you have a bunch of them and are writing about a hypothetical or unknown person, your copy ends up being overrun with awkward “he or she’s.”

A good compromise is to pick a gender and run with it. The standard used to be to assume any unknown person was a man (e.g. “This person didn’t know what he was doing”), but it’s more common today to use “she” as the universal pronoun. Alternatively, you can alternate “she” and “he” in different instances throughout your copy.

(If you’re confused on this, try substituting a person’s name in the subject. This tends to make things more obvious. Using the initial example, you’d come up with, “Clearly, Bob didn’t know what they were doing.” Assuming you know that “they” is supposed to refer to Bob and not to another group, this becomes obviously wrong.)

3. “An historic”

I always get argument on this one, but I’m going to put my foot down anyway. Not only is putting “an” in front of a word with an audible H grammatically incorrect, it’s also uncommonly annoying.

Chalk this one up to trying to sound intelligent, like the “myself” rule above. Somehow, users feel that the use of “an” in this clunky way makes them sound distinguished, kind of like adding ye olde in front of tanning parlor, or saying indubitably with an English accent.

If you’re bristling at this one, ask yourself if you’d say, “an horse” or “an house.” What would people think if you went into the store and said, “I’ll have an half gallon of milk, please”?

You can and should use “an” if the H is silent and the word starts with a phonetic vowel, like “an hour.” Otherwise, go with “a” as the article.

4. Was vs. were

Everyone makes this mistake, so don’t beat yourself up if you do. But you should also fix it.

Here’s the incorrect use:

“If I was rich, I’d buy lots and lots of pants.”

However, the correct choice here would be were, not was.

Were here would be correctly used in the subjunctive mood — a case in which what you’re saying is hypothetical. If you’ve used “if,” that’s a pretty good indicator that were is appropriate:

“I wouldn’t do that if I were you.”

(You’re not me, so it’s subjunctive)

or

“If I were at work right now, I’d be eating a waffle.”

Remember, you use “were” because you’re actually not at work right now. But if you were writing about an actual past event, you’d use “was” (e.g. “When I was at work”).

5. Incorrect use of “literally”

Please don’t do this with a straight face. Not only will you look uneducated, you’ll also look absolutely hilarious.

Example: Kristen Stewart from the Twilight movies recently told a reporter, “I get to do something that literally if I didn’t get to do it, I would implode.”

Now, think about that for a second. If Kristen couldn’t act, she would actually collapse in upon herself like a black hole. I’d like to see that.

I collect “literally” mentions. Britney Spears has been “literally on a roller coaster to hell.” Crowds have “literally turned the city upside down.” And in a particularly grisly turn of events, a mall Santa reported that needy, sad children “literally tear his heart out.”

Whenever you use “literally,” stop and think about whether or not what you’re saying is actually true, in those exact words. If it’s not, use “practically,” “essentially,” or (ideally) “metaphorically” instead.

If there’s one thing you don’t want to be, it’s accidentally hilarious. Seriously, trust me on this one.

* “Bubbles” was Michael Jackson’s chimp. What, have you forgotten already?

About the Author: Johnny B. Truant is the creator of Zero to Business: A ridiculously simple guide to turning your online business from tech headache to profit center and almost certainly made at least one idiotic grammatical mistake above. By all means, feel free to jump all over it in the comments section.

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Comments

  1. Another great piece Johnny.
    I’ve had arguments, proper stand up shouting arguments, about correct grammar. That silent H is responsible for more than one bloodbath.
    I’ve also noticed that the more intelligent a person believes himself to be, the more preposterous his use of words becomes. But you better be smiling if you’re going to mention it ;0)

  2. I have to admit that whenever I write or speak, I do focus much more on the content or the idea and less on the grammar. This is a nice article to start thinking about my language mistakes, thank you

  3. Very interesting read, especially for somebody who isn’t a native English speaker. I guess a lot of people will be double checking their comments before pressing the submit button.

    I have a question though regarding point 3. Taking the term (or initialism) SEO, what would be the correct way to write
    “I am a(n) SEO”?

  4. Thank you I literally explode when people use literally for literally everything. It literally drives me insane. Literally, I am in a padded room right now.

  5. Johnny-
    Nice work, very practical. As self proclaimed ‘work in progress’, these are great points, yet there is a balance to strike between getting it right and getting it published, wouldn’t you agree?

    Many publishing outlets are time sensitive, and getting something out first can make all the difference. Certainly you want good content and grammar, but if someone just starting out doesn’t have a proofreader, what do you say if they are trying to strike a balance between getting good (grammatically correct) content out in a timely fashion?

    Thanks.

  6. The error that irks me the most is:

    “…for additional information, contact myself.”

    When I see that word combination, I always believe the writer is ignorant.

  7. I love grammar lessons! The “myself” discussion put me in my place. I realize that this is more for emphasis, yet people use it to sound poetic, sophisticated.

    I parsed sentences as a little girl for fun, so this was a treat, literally, like. . .you know what I mean, Jason?

  8. “Not only is putting “an” in front of a word with an audible H grammatically incorrect, it’s also uncommonly annoying. ”

    Thank you!

    Where do people pick this up? Do high-school English teachers allow it?

    And how does it make its way into books so often? Isn’t it just screaming for an editor to fix it?

  9. The two errors that bother me the most:

    1) mixing up “it’s” and “its”

    2) “loose” instead of “lose”

  10. I’m almost terrified to write this, given the potential to reveal the Bubbles in me. The subjunctive use of “were” is something my mother taught me, though without mention of the “subjunctive”. I only learned that word when studying French grammar. It seems to be a case very few English-speaking people know of. You explain with great clarity.

    I confess, however, that I’m stumped by the “a historic” thing. That just sounds weird. It doesn’t flow the way “an historic” does (to my ears). Could it be something that is influenced by regional pronunciations?

  11. Nice Bubbles reference. It was hilarious in a good way. The subject/predicate agreement is by far the most tricky grammar problem to consistently fix. He or she is extremely clunky, and many people get really weird about the sexist implications of hypothetical situations (they should get over it).

    Lately, I have noticed a lot of people using “as” instead of “since.” I might be wrong about this, but I’m pretty sure “since” should be used in a cause and effect example, and “as” should be used as a time reference. Any thoughts?

    Blake Waddill

    • Blake:

      ‘Because’ is better than ‘as ‘ or ‘since’. ‘As’ and ‘since’ act as a preposition and a conjunction, but ‘because’ is a conjunction only and it subsumes a cause -and effect relations. -Dr. Naquib

  12. I have to make a concerted effort to avoid smacking people who use “literally” inappropriately.

  13. “if you’re using it a lot, you’re probably using it wrong.”

    No, you’re using it wrongly. Using adjectives instead of adverbs is an all-too common error.

    My favorite pet peeve is “persons” – the plural of person is people in my book, even though the cadence and parallelism in a phrase such as “person or persons unknown” is appealing. How much leeway should writers have for dramatic effect?

  14. As a former English teacher, I LOVE how concisely you explained each of the rules.

    I’ve got one that’s stumping me, though, and would appreciate thoughts from anyone.

    In the sentence “I went fishing” (or swimming, or skiing or whatever), what part of speech is fishing? Is it a gerund, and if so, can a gerund function as an adverb, since “fishing” answers the question “where?”

  15. “In this circumstance, “me” is the right choice.”

    Not sure how it’s being abused in the US, but for point 1, when I went to school , “I” was the correct choice… as in me, myself and I.

    “Johnny and I are reviewing grammar”… not “Johnny and me”.

    The committee will consist of Bob, Mr Parsons and I.

    • “I” is correct only when it would be so without the other people mentioned. For example, you would not say “The committee will consist of I,” so your example is wrong.

  16. This is music to my ears. Thank you.

  17. @Susan Baird

    The word “fishing” is indeed the gerund, i.e. the noun form of the verb (see http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gerund).

    But it’s not an adverb. It isn’t modifying “went” as in the past tense of “to be.” It is a noun, the object of the past sentence.

    “I went fishing” is a simple declarative subject (I) verb (went) object (fishing) sentence.

  18. Ugh, the “literally” one kills me when I hear it, like fingernails on a chalkboard.

  19. Okay, nobody has yet

    1. Pointed out something totally retarded that I did wrong (other than Phil, but if I did do that wrong (see below), it’s at least not a really obvious error, or

    2. Called me an elitist butthole for nitpicking these things.

    So that’s a start.

    @RF – I don’t think I’d ever say I was an SEO because that means “I am a search engine optimization,” which is very strange. But if you did say it, you’d use “an” because you’re pronouncing the S as “ess,” whihc starts with a vowel sound. Some acronyms are pronounced as a word, though. Consider “WYSIWYG” (“what you see is what you get”) which most people say as if it were a word rather than W-Y-S-I-W-Y-G. You have to match the article (a or an) to the way it’s most commonly pronounced, and what sound begins that.

    A similar situation I run into is making a letter or number plural, like “Look at all those 1s and 0s in that binary sequence” or “…the Oakland A’s.” The rule I learned was that you can add an apostrophe even though it’s not possessive if not doing so is likely to result in confusion. So I’d write “1s” and “0s” (without the apostrophe) as much as possible, but would write “A’s” because without it, it’s “As”… which of course looks like “as.” Then people will be all, “The Oakland as? Oakland as what?”

    @Travis – That’s a fine line for me. I think it pays to understand what you can, learn when you’re able, and to try to diligently proof your own stuff. I don’t begrudge people errors unless they’re repetitive and obvious. If you say “loose” instead of “lose” once, it’s cool… but if it’s obvious that you think “loose” is the right word (“I want to loose some weight”), then sorry, but I’m probably going to think you’re dumb.

    I also think that blogging in particular is a forgiving medium and can be more casual. One mistake I make CONSTANTLY is to use ellipses (…) inappropriately. I just did it in the above paragraph. But there’s a difference between wanton breaking of the rules just for the hell of it and making dumb mistakes. (Brian made this point in one of those articles I linked to… the first, I think.)

    @Phil – I’ll have to look that one up. It sounds weird to me, but so do a lot of these the first time I hear them.

    I have had that discussion regarding “badly,” though, and I’m not convinced. Someone will tell me that you should say, “I feel badly,” and all I can picture is that you’re simply BAD at feeling, like you try to do it and just can’t get the hang of it. You’re like, “You know, I try and try to feel, but I’m just so BAD at it!”

    • Julian Anthony Murray-Carryl :

      At John Truant and Phil: It’s I feel bad. After an adjective we use adverbs with a few exceptions some of which are the verb to be, get, feel etc .

  20. @Marc

    I think you’re incorrect here because “Bob, Mr Parsons and me” must be in the accusative case; “me” is correct. If the sentence were (ha!) written “Bob, Mr Parsons and I will make up the committee” then “I” would be the correct (nominative case) form.

    I really have to stop monitoring this thread…

  21. Re use of “myself.” You said “me,” and Marc said “I.”

    For some reason, Americans have a hard time figuring out whether to use the first person pronoun “I” or “me,” and instead use “myself” as a catch-all.

    In working with children on English grammar, I’ve found that we hear the first person plural pronoun properly (“we” or “us”), but not first person singular (“I” or “me”).

    Rather than devolving to “myself,” try to insert the *third* person pronoun in the sentence. Would you say:

    “The committee will consist of we.”
    or “The committee will consist of us.”

    Once you know that it’s “us,” you can use “me” with confidence.

  22. Ahem. It’s not lost on me that in my #1, I made a few references to “doing it wrong” when Phil said it should be “wrongly.”

  23. I hate, hate, HATE the use of ‘literally’! It, along with canned laughter, should die.

    Good post. I’ve seen others that mention common mistakes, but this one tossed out a few new ones.

  24. @Marc, the difference is that in the example sentence, “me” is an object. In your example, “I” is the subject. “I” is often used in Johnny’s example because to many ears it sounds better, but it’s not correct.

    I like the mall Santa story. Ewww!

  25. Thanks for the tips. Sometimes I us “an historic” but I think it just makes phonetic sense to me… and it’s only in conversation… I know it doesn’t make me appear smarter ;)

  26. @Marc – I actually had a bit in here about that but removed it because it was going off topic.

    To remove confusion on “me” vs. “I,” remove the extra people involved and it’ll become obvious that it’s not right.

    So take your example:

    “Johnny and I are reviewing grammar” is indeed right, but people also think it’s correct in the predicate:

    “You should review grammar with Johnny and I.”

    But now try my test. Remove the extra people… in this case, “Johnny.” You get:

    “You should review grammar with I.”

    Doesn’t make sense that way.

    People are afraid of “me,” but often it’s the right choice.

  27. Re: “An historic”

    Chalk this one up to trying to sound intelligent, like the “myself” rule above

    That’s not a very charitable interpretation. You might want to chalk it up to regional pronunciations. In some places, the leading “h” gets dropped. My Texan grandparents did that a lot. I don’t think they were “trying to sound intelligent,” it’s just the way the language was spoken around them. Had they written out “a historic” I have no doubt they would have added the “n” the same way their grandson adds it to “a HTML editor.”

    It wouldn’t be appropriate for them to do it in front of a national market, but it wouldn’t be appropriate to accuse them of pretentiousness in the act of correcting it.

  28. @Marc You are right that it should be ‘Johnny and I are reviewing grammar’ as ‘Johnny and I’ are the subject of the verb.

    However, it should NEVER be ‘The committee will consist of Bob, Mr Parsons and I’ as ‘Bob, Mr Parsons and I’ are the object of the verb. ‘I’ is always a subject (‘I eat’, ‘I sleep’, not ‘me eat’, ‘me sleep’ once past the age of about 5 anyway…) and ‘me’ is always an object (‘teach me’, ‘feed me’ – not ‘teach I’ or ‘feed I’.

    I don’t know why this misuse of the ‘… and I’ structure has become so common, particularly in the UK – and I have to say that I would never trust an English teacher to be a grammar expert…

  29. Marc,

    <>

    Yes. In this case “I” is one of the subject of the sentence.

    <>

    No. Here it should be “me,” as this is the object of the sentence and follows a preposition.

  30. @Johnny B. Truant “I feel badly” is a bete noir, no? :-) But I think you’re right on that one. If badly modifies feel then it seems to imply you have problems emoting. Nobody would say “I feel happily for you” which I think is the giveaway. And regardless of strict correctness (which is sometimes very often in the eye of the beholder), usage generally wins out in the end.

    That said, generally speaking, here in the US people generally seem use adjectives instead of adverbs. I’m on a one man “Save the Adverb” campaign…

    Don’t even get me started on who / whom :-)

  31. @Johnny, you’re right about “I feel bad / badly.” I smell good means I am pleasant to smell. I smell well means I have a good sniffer. Same for feeling good/bad.

    Long ago I knew the name for that rule, but it’s lost to the mists of time.

  32. “Johnny and I are reviewing grammar”… not “Johnny and me”.

    ^ Yes. In this case “I” is one of the subject of the sentence.

    “The committee will consist of Bob, Mr Parsons and I.”

    ^ No. Here it should be “me,” as this is the object of the sentence and follows a preposition.

  33. Preach it! Though we’ve never met, I feel as though we have a close bond. ;) THANK YOU for bringing attention to such pressing matters as these.

    If I was reading something else right now, we’d, literally, be climbing the walls (perhaps you and myself will go down in the pages of an historic novel for doing so).

    Sorry. Couldn’t help it.

  34. Great info, but I have to take issue with the subjunctive point. As an editor, I find it’s often overused (incorrectly), not underused. It’s not simply a hypothetical but an unlikely or improbable one. To quote Henry Fowler (1926), subjunctives are “antiquated survivals of pretentious journalism, infecting their context with dullness.” I believe they encourage the passive voice rather than the active voice, which does, indeed, make for dull reading.

  35. Not only is putting “an” in front of a word with an audible H grammatically incorrect, it’s also uncommonly annoying.

    Amen.

  36. @Johnny B. Truant. An SEO as “search engine optimizer” :)

  37. @Phil, you say that “went” is the past tense of “to be”. Isn’t it the past tense of “to go”? As in, “I went to the river.” The past tense of “to be” is “was”. If I were to chose a synonym for “went” it wouldn’t be “was”, it would be “became”. (Good lord, those last two lines sound insane when I read them back in my head.)

    A parallel construction would be, “I went crazy.” In that case, “crazy” is a state of being, so your conclusion was correct: I (noun) became (verb) crazy (object).

    But is “fishing” a “state of being”? We would say, “I was fishing. I am fishing. I will be fishing.” That appears to be a state of being. But, “I went fishing” and “I was fishing” imply different things.

    I’m stopping now, before I go any deeper down this rabbit hole. I’m not converging on a conclusion any time soon.

    @Marc, not correct. “The committee will consist of Bob, Mr Parsons and I.” Take out Bob and Mr. Parsons: “The committee will consist of I.” No. “The committee will consist of me.”

  38. …but itsn’t communicating about transmission of ideas…

    when Brittany Spears uses ‘literally’ to describe a non-literal situation, the audience understands that the roller coaster* going to hell is a metaphor… incorrect grammar is acceptable, shows personality, and makes you appear less of a douche… and it’s the grammatically correct people that end up looking like they’re “trying to appear smart” or impress people

    if you understand the idea that the person is trying to communicate, then the language has served it’s purpose :)

    I guess I’m not a stickler for anything proper… too many rules makes life boring! ;)

    *btw, roller-coaster with a hyphen.. makes sense, right?

  39. Great post. Thank you for pointing out the subtlety of using articles. My simple rule of thumb is “If it sounds like a vowel, use ‘an’… if it sounds goofy, use ‘a’.”

    Another easy way to improve grammar naturally is to read classic literature (or just books in general). The more you read a certain language being used correctly, the more likely you will use it correctly as well. At least, this is my experience.

  40. Ah, and the axiom proves true yet again:

    “If you’re not pissing people off by talking about grammar, you’re not succeeding.”

  41. Wrong about ‘they’ — it’s increasingly used as a gender-neutral pronoun, singular/plural issues notwithstanding. In fact, historically it was used so, and historically the plural issue was overlooked, so there’s really no good reason not to go back there now that ‘he’ as a universal pronoun is deprecated. Furthermore, openly recommending the replacement of ‘he’ with ‘she’ on anti-sexist grounds is kinda repugnant.

  42. You forgot to mention one of the biggest abuses: using “it’s” when meaning “its.”

    http://tr.im/itsits

  43. Anyone want to fight to the death over this one?

    I HATE HATE HATE not using a final comma in a list, before “and.” Yet one of the guides (I think it’s AP) says that that final comma shouldn’t be there. Strunk & White say it should, and those are some bad mother…shut your mouth!

    EX: I say the following is wrong:

    “I need to get bread, peanut butter, and jelly at the store.”

    But when I write for one magazine client in particular, they always change that to the following on editing:

    “I need to get bread, peanut butter and jelly at the store.”

    UGH.

  44. @Laroquod – A actually agree about using “she.” I’m just stating what’s common, not what feels right to me. I try to avoid it or alternate. Not sure on the “they” thing… will check into it.

    @Sean – One of my favorites, but CB has already done that one.

  45. Interestingly, I was reading the blogs of several noted professional copyeditors earlier this week, and two items struck me:

    First, “an historical” is perfectly okay, since there are many areas of the country (the US) where the “h” is silent, just as it is in “honorable.”

    Second, what you term “subject/predicate disagreement” is increasingly accepted, to avoid the awkward acquiescence to political correctness of “he or she”/”his or her”. A suitable alternative is to alternate the use of genders, but in cases where gender is unknown, “Clearly, this person didn’t know what they were doing” is becoming more common, AND more accepted, by copy and production editors.

    Keep in mind, language (at least, English) is a living language, and to try to proscribe any changes is a losing proposition. (There’s a pun there waiting to come out, but I haven’t the energy at the moment.)

  46. 5 Grammar Mistakes that Make You
    Look Like A Grammar Class Truant!

    …has a nice ring to it too, eh?

    …tis a topic dear to my little heart.

  47. @Drew – oops. Go, Be, yup. My bad, busted.

    @Johnny B. Truant – IIRC in “eats shoots and leaves” that that comma is called an “Oxford comma” for some reason and that it’s a question of style not grammar. I understand that purists (not a prejudicial term) don’t like it. I personally use it for long lists (so I’d side with the editors in your example since it’s a short list, FWIW).

  48. @Phil – I set a trap for anyone who disagreed with me. “Peanut butter and jelly” is also a common phrase in itself, so it can be confusing. That’s why I like the comma – to clearly separate each item.

    Change the list to sandwiches:

    “Our sandwich choices are tuna, ham, turkey, peanut butter and jelly.”

    Are there four sandwich choices or five?

    (If you don’t agree that a peanut butter and jelly sandwich could be confused with a peanut butter sandwich and a jelly sandwich, I think you get the point… you could change the last to “ham and cheese.”)

    Technically, you could require that last “and,” and in my example, you’d say that it’s obviously five sandwiches because if it’s four, there is no final “and.” But it’s also common to remove the final and for stylistic reasons.

    It just feels sloppy to me. And also, you’d pause before that “and” when speaking, so it “sounds” like a comma.

  49. There is a practical reason for saying “an” instead of “a” ahead of historic. “An” is easier to say. But you should write or print it with “a”.

  50. An Historical post! I were going to write about this, but you literally took it right out from under me! So now Tom, Darren, and myself will have to come up with something totally better!

  51. I’m standing behind my “I” at this stage… though I’m hearing what everyone is saying.

    Could it be a UK/US thing? I don’t mean to sound posh, but my best alternative there would be “myself”, as it originally was.

    “Me” just hangs on the end there like a lead sinker.
    ;-)

  52. RE point #1: are you a slum-lord?? Just curious!

    Good article btw.

  53. Thanks for addressing use of “a” and “an.” I’ve been seeing phrases like “an historic” more and more frequently in print and online and wondering whether someone changed the rule while I wasn’t looking!

    I wonder about the use of “whether or not” in the following sentence, though:

    “Whenever you use ‘literally,’ stop and think about whether or not what you’re saying is actually true, in those exact words.”

    I’ve been taught that “whether or not” is equivalent to “regardless of whether,” so if it doesn’t make sense to say “regardless of whether” in the sentence, then you should use “whether” rather than “whether or not.” Any opinions?

  54. Lack of the serial comma makes me nuts in AP style. Ptui. Like you, I much prefer it for clarity.

  55. Awesome article…

    It drives me crazy to see bad grammar in blogs – I know I do it too, but it still drives me nuts!

  56. @Marc – You guys put mayonnaise on French fries. I can’t take anything you say seriously knowing that. :)

    @Alice – Read this: http://www.theeconomyisnthappening.com/blog/personal-musings/mad-hell-anymore/

  57. Once in a blue-moon, the improper use of rule #4 roars with hilarity and leaves permanent imprint in one’s memory. (one’s = my)

    Case in point: a Dave Chapelle skit years ago brought the comic to the Bronx to ask inner-city kids the name of the last Barbara Streisand movie that they had seen… my favorite response: “I don’t know, The Way We Was or somethin’.”

    In this case, I don’t find the young man a chimp – but a genius!

  58. You missed the biggest one of all that Americans tend to love – saying ‘I could care less’ when they mean to say ‘I couldn’t care less’. Now THAT makes you sound like a chimp!

  59. Johnny B!
    I’m Australian… we’re a salt and vinegar nation!
    =p

  60. Phil: You are not alone with your “Save Adverbs” campaign. I used to remind aspiring writers to be offended every time they saw a “Drive Slow” sign. In that way they would understand how so many of us are offended when writers use adjectives instead of adverbs. I like to illustrate my point with the following sentence, “Meanwhile, in the back of the classroom, a student belched quiet!”

  61. Very well done. Everyone needs this. I am not a huge stickler for grammar but reading poor grammar reduces the impact of any article. So a big ‘thumbs up’ on this one!

  62. @Marc – One word: Vegemite. WTF is that stuff? Ground artichokes and bone meal?

  63. I totally abuse the ellipsis… The reason I use it so much is:

    1) I’m used to using my Blackberry Storm keyboard and there isn’t a comma on the main keyboard so you have to switch so I use an ellipsis instead when I’m in a hurry.

    2) I use it as a pause like this. I think I will have…chocolate ice cream! That’s what I want!

    Bryan…

  64. Johnny, I LOVE the examples you’ve chosen to highlight, but I must point out that this very article (and the comments that follow, for that matter) has MANY punctuation errors, most of which involve commas.

    For example, correct use of commas around clauses always results in the comma-surrounded clause being able to be removed from the sentence with the sentence still having valid structure. Check out this one….

    “Number disagreements are irritating to solve, because if you have a bunch of them and are writing about a hypothetical or unknown person, your copy ends up being overrun with awkward ‘he or she’s.’”

    If the clause set off with commas is removed, you have…

    “Number disagreements are irritating to solve your copy ends up being overrun with awkward ‘he or she’s.’”

    …which is obviously incorrect. That comma needs to FOLLOW “because,” not precede it.

    “Number disagreements are irritating to solve because, if you have a bunch of them and are writing about a hypothetical or unknown person, your copy ends up being overrun with awkward ‘he or she’s.’”

    Another note regarding “because” — contrary to what is seen in a number of contemporary dictionaries, “because” is NOT a conjunction! It is a preposition! Thus, only in a series (of reasons for something, one would assume) would “because” ever be preceded by a comma!

  65. For it to be four sandwiches, you’d need another “and” as in, “Our sandwich choices are tuna, ham, turkey and peanut butter and jelly.” To drop the one “and” you already had you’d need to use a colon, as in, “Our sandwich choices are: tuna, ham, turkey, peanut butter, jelly.”

    And since you brought up ellipses … I’ve noticed a habit I have of trying to force people to read my stuff the way I hear it in my head. This leads to dashes, parentheses, and ellipses as I try to insert the pauses where they “should” be. It works in moderation, but once you notice the overuse it’s painful to read.

    Anyone got any tips on appropriate use (or non-use) of these various devices?

  66. I literally could care less about you’re grammer. Its only for loosers. Luckily I’m not an horrible idiot myself, nor is my freind Bob, but if I was yous shouldn’t feel bad for him and I.

    Also, no last serial comma. Fact (and you can’t argue with facts!).

  67. Johnny- Hooray! A grammar article that’s even more nitpicky than I normally get! ;-) I love it.

    The “was/were” subjunctive rule has given me trouble for years. Thanks for the help!

    The “final comma on the list” rule bugs me as well. For years, I learned that you keep it, until I got to college and took a bunch of journalism classes. It most certainly is the AP that marks out the final comma of a list, but only in certain situations.

    As for apostrophes, the AP style rule is that they make single letters plural, like your “Oakland A’s” example. I’m pretty sure it’s for the reason you mention: it would cause a ton of confusion otherwise. Those poor punctuation marks are so abused. I got so sick of seeing people use apostrophes to make words plural that I finally wrote a post about it: http://aquavitacreative.com/blog/michelles-30-second-guide-to-the-apostrophe

    Laroquod- I’ve heard that as well. I hope so, because it’ll certainly make writing a little easier! (The he/she construction gets so unwieldy sometimes.)

  68. @Arp – I’m coining another axiom:

    “Writing about grammar mistakes is like standing naked and covered in barbecue sauce in front of a bunch of starving cannibals and saying, ‘Let me tell you the finer points of eating people.'”

  69. @Michelle — http://www.angryflower.com/aposter.html

    @Johnny, I didn’t realize you were in Cleveland, too. We should get together and talk about that mad affiliate cash you just sent me. (Seriously, though, I’d like to talk to you about another service one or both of us could do, similar to the website setups. Email me if you’re interested.)

  70. Thank you, thank you, thank you! Every time I hear “AN historic” I want to scream. Or at least, sigh loudly.

    But then I read Steve’s comparison to “honorable” and I had to wonder. He makes a good point. Don’t most of us pronounce the “h” in “historic,” but not in “honorable?” It’s not “istoric,” but it is “onorable.”

    And then there’s the abuse, overuse, and misuse of “basically.” Don’t get me started!

  71. Here’s another funism. (I’m coining phrases here, not making mistakes.)

    I love it when you figure out that something is correct, and so you use it correctly. However, because it’s so common to use it incorrectly, people think YOU are the idiot.

    EX: Try saying “I sneaked into the room” and see if you don’t get at least one people looking at you like you have a foot growing out of your head. But if you said the incorrect “snuck,” they don’t even notice.

  72. Oh, and bonus points to anyone who realized that my last post was about how I’m addicted high numbers of comments, that in the comments of that post Brian mentioned that grammar posts always draw zillions of comments, and that I hence wrote my next post about grammar.

  73. 1, 2, and 4 are huge pet peeves! Thanks for your efforts to “de-chimp” the communicating populace.

  74. Every “reality” contest when speaking in the “diary room” always says myself in the wrong place. I hate that.

  75. Very useful article. I share your thoughts on literally. The word is getting rapped in The Netherlands as well. I probably do a Britney myself now and then.

  76. Everyone needs to have these rules burned into their brains. It’s nice to see I’m not the only one who rants about these mistakes!

    Add me to the “Use Apostrophes Correctly” club. I recently saw a preview of a new gardening magazine. It had beautiful images, creative layout and fonts, and mistakes. (“Discovering Dahlia’s”). Siiiiigh.

  77. Score one for everyone who actually notices these things. Seeing grammar mistakes in something that is supposed to be a voice of authority makes me “literally” want to ….. leave the site.

  78. This article was great. #5 drives me figuratively insane! I loved your idea of collecting literally references that aren’t literal, so I set up a Twitter profile to post these when I see them on there. Enjoy, and please @ me any really egregious ones you guys see!

    http://www.twitter.com/notliterally

  79. I did Johnny. That’s why I suggested the alternative post title. You could have tied your old picture in with a new one for this article ; a picture with you and your twitter nuts running from the hall monitor.

  80. There are 69 comments as I’m writing this, so forgive me if I’m repeating anyone.

    I think that the “an” in front of “historic” (and a few other silent H words) stems not from trying to sound educated but from trying to follow the rules. Where I’m from, a lot of people don’t pronounce the H in “historic” very prominently. It’s just an accent thing, really. It comes out more like ‘istoric. Without the H sound, putting “an” in front of it would be correct. Some people, myself included (I believe that’s the correct usage of ‘myself’) tend to pronounce it as a single word: anistoric. When talking fast, that’s just how it comes out. Of course, that’s nowhere near a real word, and in writing, I always write “a historic”.

    I think there needs to be a standard for the he/she problem. I don’t like choosing a gender and sticking with it. I’d like to see a new, gender-neutral word invented to deal with that – and I despise “they” in this context, even though I slip up and use it sometimes myself.

    Lastly, I like to smile and say, “Really? You *literally* [fill in the blank]?” in a sarcastic manner whenever someone says they literally [fill in the blank]. Most everyone realizes their mistake and we have a good laugh. I’ve gotten a few blank stares, though.

    Grammar FTW! LOLZ!!!11

  81. 1. “Clearly, this person didn’t know what they were doing.”

    Is perfectly ok to write. In recent years ‘they’ has replaced the clumsy ‘he/she’ issue.

    2. The Oxford Comma (the comma before the ‘and’) is perfectly acceptable and should always be used for clarity.

    3. You shouldn’t write ‘an historic’ or ‘an hotel’ but its nearly always pronounced.

    4. Re: I and me. Just take the other person out of the sentence and see what you’ve got.

    ‘Mary and I/me went to the cinema’
    ‘I went to the cinema’

    Ok. That’s my two penneth. :-)

  82. I love being a grammar nitpicker, but I also love breaking the rules for the sake of vernacular style. I do it tactfully, though, so I don’t sound like an idiot.

    Johnny — I’m enjoying your presence here on CB.

  83. Strunk and White were able to make their grammar arguments without insulting people’s socio-economic status (and assumed education).

    You might consider doing the same.

  84. Anon,

    You might consider not being an annoying spoilsport. The rules of grammar really aren’t that difficult, and there are plenty of people of low socio-economic status who took the time and effort necessary to learn them.

  85. Good article.

    “An historic” is common in academic writing even though the “h” is sounded. You later ask a hypothetical question “ask yourself if you’d say, ‘an horse’ or ‘an house.’ ”

    I am actually singing the words “an house” in Felix Mendelssohn’s St. Paul oratorio. It’s weird, and I wouldn’t use it online, but I also wouldn’t dismiss it as incorrect.

  86. My grandmother was a grammar teacher so . . . well, you know.

    The “myself” thing drives me nuts. On the other hand, I *do* say “an historic” BUT I pronounce it “an istoric”, with a silent “h”. Same for “herbs”. No “h” sound. Not sure why.

  87. One more for your list: those who say “I could care less” instead of “I couldn’t care less”. Obviously, if you could care less, then you care.

  88. Very elegantly done. As one poster noted, #2 about the plural they is incorrect. I’m just here to offer a source from linguists: http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/?cat=27

  89. Regarding Number 2, isn’t it true that ‘they’ has become acceptable as a singular neutral pronoun? I have been hearing this quite a bit lately.

  90. Awesome post. Always good stuff coming from you.

  91. Ooo you sound like my English teacher :o

  92. Regarding #2: This is also on our list of most common grammatical errors. Our advice to clients (and students) is as follows: if you are referring to people in general, not to a specific person, make the subject plural. By doing so, you can use “they,” “their,” etc. correctly and avoid gender bias.

    Example:
    “If a writer uses bad grammar, they will seem like monkeys.” This is revised to read “If writers use bad grammar, they will seem like monkeys.”

  93. Alright people, I tried to read all your comments, but REALLY. 85 fucking comments? Forget it.

    Anyway. Please don’t start on the “badly/bad” issue. Every time the hubs watches Star Trek, he yells, “Go boldly! It’s go boldly!!”

    I disagree with him, for this reason:

    In English, there are some situations where the a very strict interpretation of the rules results in MORE confusion, not less. Copyblogger covered some situations a while back where you can (and should) bend the rules, because the confusion it would otherwise cause is greater. (Because sometimes, “the needs of the one… outweigh the needs of the many.” Or something.) Their examples, with which I agree completely, are:

    1. Ending a sentence with a preposition
    Do you really want to walk around town saying, “That is the sort of thing up with which I will not put!” (Thank you, Mr. Churchill)? I didn’t think so, you pretentious bastard (I’m talkin’ to you, JBT).

    2. Splitting infinitives
    How do I say “I decided to quickly run away,” without split infinitives, while preserving the meaning of the sentence? “I quickly decided…”? No, because now it sounds like “quickly” modifies “decided”, when it actually modifies “run”. “I decided to run away quickly,” is correct, but sounds…stilted.

    Times like these I wish people would concentrate on the OBVIOUS mistakes (like that/which, which KILLS me every time; or apostrophe abuse, which is RAMPANT), and not nitpick the “rules” that aren’t really rules.

    Anyway – thanks for the grammar talk. You can always count on your grammar geeks to jump in on something like this, J.

  94. Simple way to choose between ‘a’ and ‘an’ that has to be placed infront of a word starting with ‘H’ will be of good help to basic learners of english..

  95. Don’t forget

    “between she and I”

    a usage which has occasionally literally caused a muscle over my left eye to twitch uncontrollably.

  96. Every time someone writes “an historic” in this thread, I hear it in Anna Doolittle’s voice in me ‘ead.

  97. Another one that busts my hump is the improper use of “I”

    Jim and I went to the bar – that’s correct.

    At the bar, two strippers were all over Jim and I. THAT’S WRONG.

    Two strippers were all over Jim and Me. THAT’S RIGHT.

    It’s SO easy to figure it out…just get rid of Jim AND SEE IF IT WORKS.
    Two strippers were all over ME.
    You can never say two strippers were all over I; thus you can never say two strippers were all over Jim and I.

  98. Haha, Trish is so easy to bait.

  99. “I’ll have an half gallon of milk, please” is incorrect for more than the “an.”

    Phrases such as “a half pack” or “a quarter bottle” should be kicked out. You’re talking about a singular unit, so describe it correctly. It would be: “Please may I have half a gallon of milk?” or “I’ll have half a gallon of milk, please” in a polite society that uses English correctly.

  100. I, myself, believe that if I were to spend an hour or two thinking of all the grammatical pet peeves that I have, the list would be practically endless.

  101. You get into arguments over “an historic” because it’s not wrong, though if you wish to find it annoying, that’s your choice. Historically, “an” is used before “h” if the h is silent, *or if the first syllable is unstressed.* Acceptable usage would be “an historical” or “an historic,” but “a history,” since in that case the first syllable is stressed. Your comparisons with monosyllabic words are irrelevant. “An historic” is easier to say if “historic” is pronounced correctly, but the wooden enforcement of the rule that an can only be used before a vowel has probably made it less common.

    On #2, the last few editions of the Chicago Manual of Style have been neutral on the singular use of “they.” The singular they can be found in the writings of:

    Jane Austen
    Geoffrey Chaucer
    Edmund Spenser
    William Shakespeare
    the King James Bible
    Jonathan Swift
    Daniel Defoe
    Percy Shelley
    Lord Byron
    Sir Walter Scott,
    Charles Dickens
    Anthony Trollope
    John Ruskin
    Robert Louis Stevenson
    Walt Whitman
    George Bernard Shaw
    Lewis Carroll
    Oscar Wilde
    Rudyard Kipling
    H. G. Wells
    F. Scott Fitzgerald
    Edith Wharton
    W. H. Auden
    George Orwell
    C. S. Lewis.

  102. #4 is easy to remember with the song “If I were a richman…” I didn’t know that she is the universal pronoun now, thanks for the info, Johnny.

  103. ‘“I decided to run away quickly,” is correct, but sounds…stilted.’

    How about “I decided to run quickly away”- that seems to make more sense to me.

  104. Ken, I disagree on the milk. It comes in half-gallon containers. So what people mean is, “Can I have a half-gallon (container) of milk.” If they are handing you a bucket and asking you to fill it from the cow, *then* they’d ask for a half gallon *of* milk.

    And “run quickly away” reminds me too much of Brave Sir Robin to ever say it with a straight face.

  105. I came here to say exactly what Laroquod (and others) said. The singular “they” is becoming a commonly accepted usage. In fact, it’s only recently that it has been considered incorrect.

    I’d also like to comment on Arp’s comment:

    Another note regarding “because” — contrary to what is seen in a number of contemporary dictionaries, “because” is NOT a conjunction! It is a preposition!

    If contemporary dictionaries state that “because” is a conjunction, perhaps that’s because it’s usage has changed. English is a constantly evolving language. The rules do change over time.

  106. Oh, and thank you Russ for the note about unaccented first syllables. I knew that “an historic” didn’t sound nearly as bad as “an horse” but couldn’t put my finger on why.

  107. My main problem with “an historic” is the way that people use “an” AND stress the H. That’s what makes it feel pretentious.

    Someone with an accent that makes it come out, “an ‘istoric occasion” is fine by me (though not in writing, IMO), but so many people who say it go out of their way to really pronounce that H.

  108. On “to run away quickly,” C. S Lewis argued that the ban against split infinitives was an inappropriate attempt to make English conform to Latin or French uses of the infinitive (which are single words, so they can’t be split). He didn’t hesitate to insert an adverb into the infinitive in his own writings.

  109. What’s with grammar posts that it always get so many comments?

    I don’t know if anyone’s mentioned it but some people pronounce “historic” with a silence “h”. So it makes sense to them to say “an (h)istoric” instead of “a historic”. Just saying.

  110. Grammar Posts seem to get folks revved up; you might as well write about religion or politics.

    Not me of course… I’m calm, collected kind of guy. Some people think I’m a zen master, but I’m not. I’ve simply worked on my disposition for many, many years and so – I’m pretty invincible, emotionally :)

    I don’t give power to outside stimuli, I’m Bamboo.

    That said…. I’D LIKE TO POINT OUT A FEW THINGS!!!

    Here’s an example from a post where I used “their” as singular:

    “Anyone who would be foolish enough to start clapping would immediately be met with the beam of a laser pointer in their eye, courtesy of the M.E.”

    ‘Anyone’ is singular, so if I really wanted to be “proper” I would have used ‘his or her’ to substitute ‘their’. I also could have just used ‘his’ or ‘her’.

    But “their” is clearly the superior option.

    Nothing will kill your copy quicker than trying to always follow the rules here. This is particularly true if you’re writing a post designed to elicit laughs.

    And… as far as using “he” or “she”… Could it possibly be a better solution to simply use the pronoun that is your gender? So if you’re a girl use ‘she’. If you’re a guy use ‘he’.

    Lastly… if I’m not mistaken, I’ve seen, right here on Copyblogger, plural pronouns used to represent the singular.

    BOOYA!

  111. The problem with these sorts of rules is that almost none of us is capable of writing perfectly all the time. Each of us has our (many good writers today avoid the his/her sexism issue by using a predicate plural with a singular subject) own pet hates, but too many of us use them as a highly dubious reason to be snobbish about other people’s writing.

    Just in writing that last paragraph, I showed off my supposed superiority by saying ‘none of us is’ when it’s more natural (but grammatically incorrect) to say ‘none of us are’. But if someone else had used the latter construction, it would be silly for me – or anyone else – to dismiss what they said just because they didn’t know that ‘none’ is a contraction of ‘not one’, and therefore has to take the singular.

    Similarly, nobody in their right mind would write off the opinions of a writer who didn’t know – or, in a particular instance, failed to use – the subjunctive.

    As for ‘myself’, well, yes, it’s too often used inappropriately by people who think that they’re much too important to be merely ‘me’. But it’s also perfectly correct to use it for emphasis (“I saw it myself”) as well as in the reflexive (“He saw himself in the looking glass.”)

    It’s not that I’d argue with many of the points that Johnny Truant made. Or that I’d disagree with his central proposition, which seems to be that you’ll be taken more seriously if you write correctly.

    But too many people are language snobs who dredge up the same few rules (too many of which are based on an extremely shaky understanding of the language) to look down their noses at others.

    And I do think that it’s a mistake (and how many of us completely erroneously believe that it’s wrong to start a sentence with an ‘And’?) to seek to exclude the opinions of those whose English usage isn’t perfect.

    Not least because nearly all of us are chimps at least some of the time.

  112. Your five explanations were great. Now, on another note, please write article to ask people to quit saying “alls” instead of “all.” I couldn’t believe it when I heard a major female news anchor say “alls.”

  113. @Peter – A keen example of what I said up front, and that’s that it’s really a no-win situation.

    But honestly, I think a lot of people are missing the entire point of this post, and that’s the chimps are funny and used to be in that show “Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp.”

  114. I do use “they” as a singular pronoun all the time. However, I like to think of myself as more of an orangutan than a chimp.

    Also, split infinitives aren’t wrong. I agree with Lewis (and Strunk & White), it’s trying to impose Latin grammar on English. It does set classically-educated folks’ teeth on edge, which can be a bug or a feature depending on your goals.

    I’m just laughing watching the comments pile up.

  115. “She” is now the universal pronoun? Umm, what? “He” is and always has been the default, going back to the Bible. Using “she” doesn’t do any justice to women nor does it make any sense. When we say “mankind,” we don’t mean just men. We mean men and women. Using the man as the universal gender produces shorter sentences and maintains historical continuity.

    Even when the politically correct cover both genders, they say “he or she,” not “she or he.” If they use the latter, it is a gimmick and they do not use it consistently.

    I hate when people say “I am going to meet my doctor. I hope they are friendly.” Use “he or she” or don’t be politically correct at all. Don’t use awkward and improper grammar, or we will put you in the chimp category.

  116. Amen to Richard Thripp’s comments on using “he.” And if you don’t know that “mankind” refers to both genders, you’re simply obtuse, at best. Historical continuity is important on many levels, let us not forget.

  117. I’d like to be a purist and agree with you on “he/she” vs. “they.” However, the nice thing about:

    “Clearly, this person didn’t know what they were doing.”

    is that the gender of “this person” is hidden behind a veil of ignorance. That’s a feature, not a bug, and I think the language is simply changing here, and for the better.

    And if one values grace, this sentence:

    “Clearly, this person didn’t know what her or she were doing.”

    lacks it. Further, it forces the writer to conflate two meanings that are distinct:

    1. “He or she” when the gender of “this person” is not known;

    2. “He or she” when the gender of “this person” is known, but the writer does not wish to state it.

    So, on balance, I think using “they” as a gender neutral third person singular has much to recommend it.

  118. I wasn’t aware it was more common today, as you state, that “she” is being used as the universal pronoun. May I ask what your statement is based on? Is this something you believe to have encountered, or something you read was true? Just curious. It just appears to be my experience that “he” is used more commonly. I also find “they” used very frequently, albeit incorrectly.

    krissy knox :)
    check out my twitter:
    http://twitter.com/iamkrissy
    my main blog:
    Sometimes I Think

  119. @Krissy – I have no reference, of course, because I’m sloppy about things like that. I just remember reading it a place or two as being a newer version of the “he” rule for unknowns, and as I said in an earlier comment, it actually strikes me as being overly PC. I’ve also encountered its usage a ton.

  120. I literally thought this article was great!

  121. Are you sure you want to agree with the language geeks at the NYTimes who posted this recent On Language column?

    http://www.nytimes.com/2009/07/26/magazine/26FOB-onlanguage-t.html

    Others have pointed out that lots of people use they (I use it myself,) but this is definitive evidence that your point #2 is actually wrong. ;)

  122. *sigh*

    DISagree, not agree. Edit my comment if you like, post this one as well, whichever you prefer. :)

  123. The incorrect use of the word ‘only’ really annoys me, for example ‘I only eat pizza’ does not mean the same as ‘I eat only pizza’. I see some previous comment posters made that same mistake.

  124. I agree that each of these points are irritating. I’m not perfect, but sometimes it’s discouraging to hear people speak (or write) knowing that they sound like imbeciles.

    The one that gets on my nerves the most lately is the blatant misuse of “bring” and “take”. I get so annoyed with people that my blood pressure rises! Rule of thumb: Substitute “come” for “bring” and “go” for “take” to determine which one to use.

    “I’m going to go to Janet’s party with a bottle of wine.” — “I’m going to take a bottle of wine to Janet’s party.”

    “I’ll come over with the pictures later.” — “I’ll bring the pictures.”

  125. I agree with you on all points, with the exception of “an historical.”

    You should use “an” is the “h” is silent AND if the accent is on the second syllable of a word that starts with an audible “h.” So it would be “a history teacher,” but it would also be “an historical building” inhabited by “an hysterical person.” A horribly inconsistent rule of grammar. But still.

  126. Awesome post, Johnny. I agree (technically) with EACH of your examples, but have to side with others about the usage of he/she. On another topic, I do wish to address your placement of the word “only” within the lead in to your last ‘myself’ example.

    Example of the importance for correct placement of “only” within a sentence: Take the word “only” and cycle it in front of each word of the following sentence. Notice how the meaning of the statement changes with each relocation of the word. ==> He hit me in the arm. (zowee!)

  127. I’ve been trying to teach my 7-year-old proper grammar, so when he says something like, “I runned in a race,” you’ll hear me say, “You did what????”

    Only thing is, it’s backfired. Now he knows it bothers me so much, he does it just to play up.

    The other day I used ‘they’ to refer to a singular person, and he cut in with, “Uh uh uh, that’s UNPROPER grammar, Mama.”

    Great reminders, even for those of us who are supposed to be English teachers. :)

  128. All are absolutely correct of course, excepting the last one. Whilst you are technically correct, it is extremely pedantic! Too further correct you, practically would have the same implication in the stated sentence if one follows the same pedantic rules. The meaning of literally has “literally” evolved to include its use as a superlative. That’s the beauty of language, it evolves and adapts.

  129. Great post, but one nitpick: In Mistake #1, the phrase “refer back” is redundant.

  130. Hey Johnny,

    Great post, and a very good read too.

    I’m sure we’re all guilty of some of these mistakes, I’m sure everyone who has read this will think more, the next time they write a blog post.

    Paul.

  131. Thank you for reviewing these common grammar mistakes. I agree with most of what you say, but I’m wondering where I was when it became more common to use “she” as the universal pronoun. I feel comfortable with “he or she” if the piece is not too long. If I can’t write around the problem, I still use “he” unless I’m bound by a client’s guidelines. Now someone will come around and offer to help me evolve.

  132. Ok, to review…. I live and work at home, so, if I were at work, I would also be was at work. Does that work? In any case, I wouldn’t be eating a waffle….

  133. Nice!
    I blog in English, which is my second language, and have a fear of making stupid mistakes which I never make in my first language. Any tips and wisdom, like in this post, helps. Thanks!

  134. Regarding your point about using a common before the ‘and’ in a list, I remember my English professor telling us about a lawsuit over a will. John, Jim, Jack and Jill were suppose to get equal shares of an estate. Since there was no comma after Jack’s name, John and Jim claimed that the estate should be split into thirds not fourths with Jack and Jill sharing a third.

  135. Wow, “sound like a chimp”, huh? And yet this article — like so many articles on prescriptivist grammar — sounds like it was written by someone with a very poor understanding of linguistics and not a very good understanding of grammar, either.

    1. ““Myself” should only be used reflexively, to refer back to the subject.

    For example:

    “I did the job myself.””

    Actually, that is NOT a reflexive use unless you could “job yourself”. In this case, “myself” is NOT reflexive, it is for emphasis. An example of actual reflexive use would be “I bathed myself.” Feel like an idiot yet?

    2. Actually, it’s not a problem of subject predicate disagreement at all. Those are cases of “singular they”, which has a long history of use (like so many other grammar “mistakes” like split infinitives). See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they

    3. It’s dialectal and doesn’t bother me. I say “an herb”, why should I be so fussy about “an historic”.

    4. If “everyone makes this mistake”, then it’s no longer a mistake. Language change. Marking for the subjunctive has been on the way out for some time. I’m inclined to let it go.

    5. Hyperbole. Look it up.

  136. Jésus Sandoval :

    I myself think you the author literally knew what they was doing when they wrote such An historic article about grammar.

    Congradulation.

  137. Holy Cow

  138. Meg (she who hath no website) said:

    Language change.

    Bonzo agree. Bonzo like bananas, consequence-free sex, and (literal) nit-picking.

    Sorry, I swore earlier I was staying out of this comment thread.

    I need help.

  139. Wow, Brian, you caught a typo! You can pat yourself on the back now! I bet you NEVER make typos or say something wrong because you’re just that perfect! I wish I could be like you, but I’m just human.

  140. Haha, yes to all of the above…yes to them making you sound like a chimp, not to actually committing these grammar violations. The only one I’d add is then vs. than. Somehow people think they are interchangeable when one is a comparison and one references the passing of time. That one drives me bananas.

  141. Are you Meg? Because your comment didn’t exactly paint that picture. Sorry to break the news.

    Grow up and post something that’s not anonymous… no one here takes anyone seriously if they don’t have a site for us to look at. If you’re not building a site, we can’t learn from you, which makes you a simple critic who doesn’t realize that critics can never make typos… it’s the nature of the “I can’t do so I criticize” game.

  142. Some of you may think you’re zinging me, but all I see is that there are 141 comments here and that makes me happy. NOM NOM NOM NOM.

    Stay tuned for my next controversial post, “What’s wrong with every race and religion.”

  143. Great piece. I had a rant about some aspects of this topic myself just last week.

    The thing is that those that are prone to be less concerned with these matters will cry “Oh, language is a growing thing and what you think is “correct” now is actually something that was seen as radical and just totally wrong 40/50 years ago. Let the language grow !”

    Well, yes. The growth and development of language give great pleasures to its lovers.

    BUT [soap_box_mode=ON], in my humble opinion, one must always write in a way that clearly conveys what you want to say. In other words, there should be no ambiguity. One should always write with one’s audience in mind. Too often, lack of thought about even small issues can result in clouded meanings and ambiguity. If queried, the response is all too often “But it’s obvious !!!”

    Often, it ain’t ! [soap_box_mode=OFF]

    One other strange thing … most of the things that make me seethe when the language gets mangled like this are things that I can work out in much the same way that as they are in the examples given here.

    But a lot of the time, the offending piece of text just “sounds” wrong. There’s a beauty to a well-truned phrase. And mangled language just doesn’t sound right – it offends my sense of aesthetics.

    (Sigh) – I must be getting old. I sound like my English teacher from 40 years ago !

    Great post. Thanks.

    Roger

  144. @Meg – No offense, but if you leave a comment where you’re criticizing somebody’s grammar, you’ve got to expect somebody to nitpick you if you make a mistake.

    If I had a nickel for every time my brother gleefully called me up and shouted, “I FOUND A TYPO IN YOUR ARTICLE!”…well, I’d probably have enough change to get a large tea and a coffee cake at Starbucks. :-)

  145. @Johnny- “Stay tuned for my next controversial post, “What’s wrong with every race and religion.””

    I’ll bring popcorn and a lawn chair. That one could get epic.

  146. @Brian

    “Are you Meg? Because your comment didn’t exactly paint that picture. Sorry to break the news.”

    Sorry, I thought this was a comment box, not a canvas. I left my oil paints at home. But no worries! I’m not heartbroken that you can’t put two and two together!

    But yes, that was me, Meg who lists no website, but mostly because I was being lazy tonight, as well as perhaps uncharacteristically sarcastic.

    What can I say, prescriptivism makes me cranky. It’s a common side effect of studying linguistics. Considering how bad linguistics has been used to “prove” that other races are mentally inferior, I get a little testy when people say that if you don’t follow their sociolect/dialect’s set of rules then you “sound like a chimp.” Of course, I’m sure that was not intended like that. Still… sore spot.

  147. Michelle,

    I was not looking for typos in this article. I couldn’t care less if he made a typo, whether in a comment box or article (though especially in a comment as it is more conversational). It’s not like I go around telling people, “Ha! Ha! You said cawtcha instead of caught you!” I’d only say something if I couldn’t understand the person — and certainly he didn’t misunderstand my comment based on one S that didn’t get typed.

    Furthermore, I’m only “nitpicking” because he’s basically saying “these are RULES of grammar you all should follow” and there should be a counter to that as those rules aren’t nearly as solid as he makes them out to be.

  148. I really enjoyed reading this article. I read down the list, thinking, “Hehe, I know somebody who does that. Glad I know better!” until I got to “was/were”. Then I learned something, and I’m always grateful for learning something new. I can think of a lot more, including commonly misspelled words, so you may have just inspired me to write my own blog post on the fine arts of a grammar freak. Great job!

    Diane (http://twitter.com/PandorazBox80)

  149. Wow, this post sure generated a lot of comments!

    What I was taught about the use of ‘me’ or ‘myself’ was that if you took out the other people then the sentence should make sense still; so “The committee will consist of Bob, Mr. Parsons, and myself.” becomes “The committee will consist of myself.”

    Uh uh…. “The committee will consist of me.” sounds much better and therefore the use of ‘me’ is the correct word.

  150. I forgot how much fun this could be. I know that in the 1960’s we were taught “an historic” is proper. And, I think that we were taught “an” before an “h” word is formally correct. But, the discussions above about sometimes yes, sometimes no make the most sense. Of course, there was much less history in the 1960’s.

    I tell graduate students now that that last comma is a matter of taste, but I still use it. Again…in the 1960’s …and so on.

    What gets me riled up is: “There’s two things to say about this.” You hear it from smart CNN people, politicians, etc. It’s becoming the norm and absolutely wrong.

    Now, I literally feel much better.

  151. Meg, it’s obvious that no one ever taught you that the nice thing to do is keep your mouth shut if you don’t have anything nice to say. So I’ll be the first. Nobody is perfect. This article isn’t meant to be taken as gospel. It’s simply meant to be helpful, which everyone but you has found it to be. So please stop making yourself look like the rear end of the high horse you’re riding and be quiet.

    Sincerely, One who has a website and isn’t afraid to show her fallibility on it

  152. Might try taking your own advice, Diane! And I wasn’t the one writing posts about how people sound like chimps if they don’t follow my idea of perfect grammar.

  153. Johnny, it’s (contraction of it and is, not the possessive pronoun) good to see you get all the comment love. Grammar posts are comment magnets every time.

    At risk of being an obnoxious twit, I’ll point out that many of the incorrect usages of “literally” are not grammatically incorrect, but are definitely poor word usage. Hairsplitting aside, whether it’s inappropriate word usage or grammatical errors really doesn’t matter. Either will distract the reader and muddy your efforts to clearly communicate your ideas.

    It’s worth the effort to craft your writing as clearly, cleanly, and correctly as your ability permits.

  154. I am going to challenge you on #4. “If I was” is not always incorrect:

    If I were – something that is never going to happen.
    If I was – something that could happen. For example:

    If I were a cat, I would nap all day.
    If I was driving, I didn’t see you.

    Here is a great blog post that explains it better than me:

    http://iconlogic.blogs.com/weblog/2007/12/grammar-works-2.html

  155. Great piece. Touched on a number of my (least) favourite grammatical annoyances, which annoy me most when I’m the guilty party.

    One that always trips me up is the use of adverbs. For example, regarding improper use of “myself”, you say “… if you’re using it a lot, you’re probably using it wrong.” Should this be “wrongly”, or “incorrectly”, given that it’s describing a verb (i.e. using)? Probably yes, but it can lead to some cumbersome sentences.

    Regardless, good to see there are at least 152 others on this blog who also suffer a language pedantry affliction. Will we ever recover?

  156. @Johnny

    I just did a little research, which I should have done before asking my question!
    I checked out a few sites, here is one of the references I used:
    http://tinyurl.com/qls48x

    First let me say that “she” is not the preferred universal pronoun.

    To give everyone a little history of the use of “universal pronouns”:

    Traditionally, in the history of the world, the most common universal pronoun around the world has been “he.”

    In the 1400s, in parts of Europe (such as England and Ireland), in Australia, and in North America, the universal pronoun began to switch from “he” to “they.” In a short period of time, “they” became common usage, and was used until the 1880s. I found this stated in several websites.

    I state that “they” was common usage until 1880 or later, but actually, the usage of “they” as the universal pronoun has continued for much longer by many people, even through today. However, according to Strunk And White The Elements of Style, using “they” as a singular pronoun is’n’t correct. We can see, however, why the practice continues; using “they” as the universal pronoun, as well as a singular pronoun, had been going on for hundreds of years.

    In 1795 there was a push for gender neutral pronouns worldwide, not just in America and the other countries mentioned above. Many held the belief that using a masculine pronoun for the universal pronoun was sexist, and didn’t want to risk insulting women.

    Then in the 19th Century the tide turned again. There was a push back to making things gender neutral by using “he” as the universal pronoun. It was started by a feministed school teacher. Yes, it was a feminist who wanted to replace “they” with “he” as the universal pronoun. The reason I am mentioning this is to say “they” was correct as a singular pronoun until the 1800s!

    This school teacher had the universal pronouns changed in school books from “they” to “he.” The universal pronoun “he” remained in the school books from the 1800s until 1960, at which point the schools were permitted to change the pronouns.

    suggested solutions for today:
    “He” is used most often in writing. Sometimes “she” is used. “One” can be used, although it can be very cumbersome. “They” is sometimes also used, although Strunk And White The Elements of Style says not to use it. Sometimes a gender is evident and then the appropriate pronoun is used.

    I believe there are those who don’t understand that the universal “he” can be sexless. They don’t understand that “he” can mean “he” or “she.” So they invent pronouns.

    Some of these invented pronouns are:

    S/he The singular pronoun for she or he.
    his/her The singular pronoun for his or her.
    his/r Another variation on the singular pronoun for his or her.
    him/r The objective pronoun for him or her.
    him/rself The reflexive pronoun for himself or herself.

    You get the idea, we could go on and on in making these things up, and many have!

    Now why did I take the time to go into the information above? I wanted to make a few points. First, “she” is not now, nor has ever been the universal pronoun. Secondly, I would say the masculine pronoun “he” has been the universal pronoun more often than not. I’d also like to say that’s nothing to be scared of! Furthermore, “he” is often used in a gender neutral way, just as “man” and “mankind” are used in a gender neutral way.

    Another thing to note is that “they” was used for about 400 years in several areas of the world including America as the universal pronoun before it fell out of usage. Actually, it hasn’t fallen completely out of usage, even today. So you can understand, most likely, why people are still using it at the present, even though it is considered incorrect by many grammarians. It was only replaced a little over 200 years ago by a feminist who changed “they” to “he” as the universal pronoun!

    Finally, I wanted to say that finding a good solution for a universal pronoun is difficult for many.

    I find the invented pronouns just plain goofy! They don’t read well, nor can I retain what they mean, muchless pronounce them if reading the allowed. They’re just plain GOOFY!

    As for me, I’m sticking with the most common universal pronoun at present which is “he.” We all know it means he and she. What’s the hang up?

    krissy knox :)
    check out my twitter:
    http://twitter.com/iamkrissy
    my main blog:
    Sometimes I Think

  157. @Meg – you’re coming off like a pedantic clod. Sorry. “Do you feel like an idiot yet?” What kind of shot is that to take? And are you *seriously* suggesting that the whole chimp thing is some sort of veiled racial insult? Do you *really* want to go there?

    Take the article with a grain of salt. The only rule is that the rules will change over time… so to speak. This is but a snapshot of a language in motion, and with English spoken all over the world, cannot be accurate in every context.

  158. #10: In “a historic” the A is usually pronounced ‘ey’, that keeps the ‘flow’ of the phrase.

  159. Perhaps we should really have a post:

    267 Grammar Rules That Are Redundant, Archaic, In Need Of Updates Or Should Be Collectively Changed.

    We no longer use the same English language that we used in the 10th century, or the 16th century. Perhaps it’s time for another update, now that we’re in, you know… the 21st century… :)

    For example, “he” is not gender neutral, “she” is not either, and “he or she”, “s/he” or any of that gets pretty tedious.

    Why not use “they” and “their”. It’s the perfect word when you don’t know someone’s gender, even though it’s not grammatically correct yet.

    Well, let’s all decide to change the rules!

    Grammar should be here to FACILITATE communication, not hinder it.

    If someone is obsessive over using perfectly correct grammar, it could actually HINDER them from communicating effectively.

    Still, it never ceases to amaze me how popular these grammar discussions are. (Or should that be, “how popular are these grammar discussions”). :D

  160. This post has added much dork-laden glee to my otherwise dull day.

    Reading the comments here has led me to ask about one other aggravation (though this comes from my punctuation wench, not from from grammar wench), and it is this: when did it become acceptable for people to cease using question marks when asking a question? People continually say (note that I don’t say “ask”) things like “What can I say.” PERIOD? What is that about? This distresses me.

    Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m late for my Grammar Geeks Anonymous Meeting. Cheers, all!

  161. Great article thanks and extremely useful so I will be sharing it far and wide – despite the fact that I’m pretty sure I occasionally flout at least two of the rules. Whilst in confession mode, I also split my infinitives (if I think it makes a sentence read better) and I regularly abuse dashes and points of elipsis.

    Might as well just end it all next time I’m swinging from that tree …

  162. Why do English teachers in school find it very difficult to teach the subjunctive mood of the verb to their students? Yet you explained it very well and made it so easy to understand! :)

    Great write-up! I, too, am obsessed in finding grammatical errors on blogs (though, of course, at times, I make mistakes, too.).

  163. Great post. My two pet peeves are “your” when “you’re” is appropriate.
    And of course the famous word “irregardless” – yikes. Gives me the shivers just writing it.

  164. Hi Johnny,

    Well, I must admit I am a little nervous to leave a comment that will be full of bad grammar and punctuation. I wouldn’t want anyone to burn me at the stake. ;-)

    I’ve heard both sides of this story. Some bloggers insist that grammar is not that important, but that a little bad grammar shows their personality. However, even with personality and flare the “loose” vs “lose” is a pet peeve of mine.

    One thing is for sure, good grammar or not, to stir up some traffic all you have to do is piss off a couple people and you’re golden. I’ve never taken a negative comment as a bad thing because it causes controversy which then brings the crowds. So, good for you!

    By the way, one of my weaknesses is using commas everywhere and way too much…maybe you can do an article on punctuation next time! Thanks!!

    Coree

  165. Melissa,

    It’s a rhetorical question, so it’s more like a statement than a regular question because the speaker does not expect — nor is even asking for — a response. One might say that using a question mark is more “correct”, but there’s a certain logic to using the period which I can appreciate. Like other parts of language, punctuation is also subject to change. I particularly like the interrobang.

  166. At last. The ‘H’ issue resolved. I was always taught to use ‘an’ before ‘h’ at school, but it sounds so wrong and is awkward to use when speaking. I now feel free to move forward with my life. LOL.

    I like getting the grammar correct when writing and I am scared to write too much here in case it’s all wrong. :-)

    Christine

  167. Actually, your error 2 has nothing to do with subject/predicate agreement.

    You give the example “Clearly, this person didn’t know what they were doing.” This sentence has two clauses, and the subject and predicate of each clause agree. The singular subject “person” agrees with the predicate “did . . . know” because the past tense “did” (like almost all past tense verbs) works for both singular and plural. The plural subject “they” agrees with the plural predicate “were.”

    The relevant grammar rule is that a pronoun should agree in number with its antecedent. In your example, the antecedent of the plural pronoun “they” is the singular noun “person.”

    I enjoyed your article. It’s always interesting to read a discussion of language use.

  168. Excellent.

  169. Why am I still reading this blog I ask myself. I should be asleep. It’s nearly 3.00am here. Please stop posting – I need to be up in four hours …

  170. I LOVE this post! (Sorry for the all caps.)

    1. Myself? It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard when I hear it used wrong. If you wouldn’t use “myself” in a sentence if the other people weren’t in the sentence, then don’t use it. I know that’s a bad sentence, but it tells the tale.” i.e., Sam and myself are going to the mall. Myself is going to the mall. (uh… no.)
    Sam and I are going to the mall. I am going to the mall.
    It’s easy to figure out.
    2. The subject/predicate thing requires creative writing to make it match. I avoid it and don’t flinch too much I hear it; but when I see it written I’m not impressed.
    3. I learned “a” is used with consonants and “an” is used with vowels, or things that sound like a vowel. “H” is a consonant, so use “a historic”, except in your example of “hour” when it sounds like a vowel so use “an.”
    4. Was/were… there are other issues with this that are unrelated to this complaint “we was going to town…” ???
    5. I literally love this! Great visuals! I call people on this when I hear it because the visuals of the “literal” statement are typically funny I can get away with it without offending. I then blame in on my journalism degree and the faculty supervisor that ripped my writing to shreds when I wrote for the Oklahoma Daily many years ago.

    A couple of other pet peeves come to mind: unique and first annual. If it’s the first, it’s only one. It’s not annual until it happens again. Unique means one of a kind. It can’t be most unique or quite unique. It’s either one of a kind or it’s not.

    You’ve obviously hit a nerve to get so many comments, but you hit the nail so squarely on the head I had to add my two cents.
    Feel free us use that sentence in any post about overused metaphors.

    I’ve been lurking for a very long time, but I’ll stop lurking & lend my support.
    Thanks,
    Jan

  171. @Christine your teachers probably meant use “an” before a mute “h”, the mute must not be coming across.

    @Paul Hancox, how beautiful is something like “they is an historian”? :)

  172. I meant *the mute part* must not be coming across. heh

  173. Good points. The “literally” that bothered me most in recent memory was when IBM used it in their Smarter Planet campaign: “changing the way the world literally works”. I couldn’t contrive a way for this sentence to work, for any sense of the word!

  174. All good ones, but the misuse of “literally” makes me (not-literally) want to pull out my hair. Argh!

  175. @Rick. That was over 30 yrs ago, so maybe as a child, I didn’t understand the lesson.

    This is such a fun subject and I’m as happy as a pig in poo reading the posts. lol. Lately I’ve had to relax my view of the English language. It is evolving constantly and things that were not okay a long time ago, seem to be acceptable now. My partners English is not good, but my maths are lousy and he is a whiz on that score.

    My partner struggles with ‘take & bring’. I’m always correcting him and can’t seem to explain it sufficiently. Anyone got any help on that one. It is a source of amusement between the two of us.

    Christine

  176. I love that people responding (favourably) to articles about poor grammar/spelling feel the need to apologise for their own, known negligence. It’s hand-in-hand with wanting to appear intelligent in any of the ways mentioned in the post.

    What this post disregards is the evolutionary nature of language.

    I take particular exception with the “subject/predicate disagreement”. Given gender sensitivities these days, it seems perfectly reasonable to stretch the ‘ye olde rules of grammar’ and use ‘they’ as an androgynous reference. It sounds fine and makes perfect sense to everyone reading it.

    Also, try telling Gwen Stefani’s fans that ‘were’ is the correct word to use in a subjunctive mood.

    Even if you’re completely right on that point, her milkshake brings all the boys to the yard, and most certainly it’s better than yours.

    I do agree with you on the ‘literally’ point. That shits me because it’s plain stupid. I think you could make aN hilarious blog collecting ‘literally’ faux pas.

  177. Christine: Take it there, bring it here.

  178. Then let me be the first to say you are nitpicking. These are not errors, they’re in modern usage. I can’t even agree that they aren’t helpful. “They” is widely used for “he/she”, and with good reason. “Was” may sound less Ivy League to you than “were” in conditionals, but just leave those lovely shores and go round the world and you’ll find many local idioms actually prefer it.
    The comma before “and” is one of British versus US useage, the Brits leave it out, the Yanks put it in.
    I’d say there are quite enough linguistic challenges to worldwide communications without dwelling on such issues of, shall we say, taste. And I’d hestitate to equate people who make mistakes with chimps. Watch out, that “chimp” might just speak a language or two you don’t.

  179. @Drew : I shall give it a go. Nothing else has worked and it’s probably because he doesn’t care, but your explanation is perfect. Thanks

  180. Thank you for the learning, Johnny. It’s very nice to be in the orbit of cool cats who care. Best regards, P. :)

  181. Kay, Toronto, Canada :

    I require constant reminders although I excelled in grammar in my youth and even worked as a junior editor years ago. I appreciate that you cover a few common errors to brush up on, rather than a long list that is likely to blur together.

    The best tip I ever received from an editor: If you do not have access to an editor have anyone read your piece before publishing. Any sentence they stumble on should be checked for errors, or simplified if none found. If your guinea pig stumbles, others will too even if the grammar is officially correct.

  182. The H in Herb is not silent.

  183. I hate to leave a negative comment, but the use of “me”, as suggested in the point about incorrect uses of “myself”, is wrong. The correct word is “I”.

    This is a clear case of how the English language is being butchered by Americanisation.

  184. what about there’s?

    everyone goofs this one up, even on TV :)

    For example, “There’s free hot dogs.”

    No, “There are free hot dogs.”

  185. Lachy: There already is such a blog. I’m surprised no one’s mentioned it before now.

    Re: “it’s more common today to use ‘she’ as the universal pronoun.” This clause is somewhat ambiguous. Does it mean that “she” is being used as a universal pronoun more often than “he” or just more often than previously. If nothing else, I can vouch for the latter meaning. Just read through any rulebook published by White Wolf Games.

    Re: “Someone else and me” vs. “someone else and I”
    I think the problem here is that sooner or later children inevitably say, “Me and so-and-so did X” which Mom then corrects without explanation to “So-and-so and I did X.” It’s the lack of explanation that’s the problem. Repeat this often enough, and they grow up convinced that “So-and-so and I” is always correct regardless of context. The incorrect use of “myself” probably results from someone figuring out that “so-and-so and I” is not always correct, but not having a good grip on the actual rule. BTW, I remember being taught in grammar school that putting oneself last in a list of people was considered polite. I don’t know if this is any kind of standard explanation.

    My personal pet language peeve is semantic rather than grammatical. An example that I’ve been subjected to more times than I care to think about is the Amtrak conductor’s announcement on pulling into a small town train station, “All doors will not open at the next station stop.” I always want to ask if we’re supposed to go out the windows.

  186. @Johnny B. Truant “I feel badly” is a bete noir, no? But I think you’re right on that one. If badly modifies feel then it seems to imply you have problems emoting. Nobody would say “I feel happily for you” which I think is the giveaway. And regardless of strict correctness (which is sometimes very often in the eye of the beholder), usage generally wins out in the end.

  187. Stop, can’t we use “their” instead of “he or she”? I’ve seen it in British press if I’m not mistaken.

  188. @Meg: whether or not a question is rhetorical has precious little (read: nothing) to do with punctuation. Questions, by definition, require question MARKS. Else, they are statements. End of story.

  189. I hate to break this to you Johnny, but I think you are literally in danger of sounding like an elephants butt (did I just make an incorrect use of ‘literally’ there?).

    Don’t get me wrong, I’m all for continual improvement and your article is nothing short of enlightening to a dunce like me, but correcting the errors you have so skillfully pointed out will not bring in an additional dime of revenue on a sales letter and nor will they enhance the value of a blog post.

    Given that the point of written text is to communicate a message from writer to reader, sweating over irrelevant grammatical errors is like a baseball pitcher worrying about dirt on his shirt when in fact he can’t throw! Work on points for style later – get the message across first.

  190. Have to disagree on #2. I’ve been a professional copywriter for the last 6 years, and if I had to say ‘he or she’ instead of the singular ‘they’ job would be literally impossible.

    Well, practically impossible, anyway.

  191. Precious tips.

  192. Like others, I’m not too bothered by the use of “they” when it’s intended as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. I’d rather we had a unique word (other than “it”, which would sound even worse), but I think the singular “they” is fast becoming standard usage. The more general point about subject-verb agreement is important, though.

    The misuse of “literally” bugs the heck out of me too. I realise that many people use it as an intensifier, a sort of “super-really”, but in the long run, that seems likely to cause confusion. Sometimes it’s obvious from context, but it wouldn’t be if I said, “I was literally foaming at the mouth…”

  193. I’d just point out that you always need to keep in mind your audience. Certainly there are rules that apply in any situation but language is a living, breathing thing and must be flexible. If you don’t buy that, then thou must returnist thou to ye olde Englishe.

  194. Here’s a blog post I wrote in September 2008:

    I recently heard a story on a national radio program that began with this line: “There’s tales, there’s tall tales, and then there’s super-sized tales.” Too bad there’s no agreement between the subjects and verbs in that sentence.

    I’ve noticed this error a lot lately. When using the word “there’s” – the contraction for “there is” – some writers are failing to consider the number of the subject that follows the singular verb “is.”

    In the example above, “tales” is a plural subject, so it requires a plural verb; in this case, the word “are.” The contractions should be dropped and the sentence re-written this way: There are tales, there are tall tales, and then there are super-sized tales.

    Contractions can help your writing sound more natural. Just remember to consider the number of the verb you’re contracting and the subject that follows it.

  195. How about this one– “people that” instead of “people who”. Ugh. I encounter this in almost every article I edit. It’s a widespread problem that must be eradicated, by force, if necessary! Just kidding, sort of. Thanks for sharing.

  196. What a sizzling debate. Here’s my contribution.

    Write like you talk–only better.

    As many bloggers know, conversational writing is easy, effective and engaging.

    Only better. Apply the grammar and punctuation rules that help us communicate better, as in the difference between its and it’s, the most common mistake. Dump the rest, as in the pretentious subjunctive and the cumbersome he or she construction to make subject-predicate agreement work.

  197. @Scott G : If I have a peeve, it’s that one. I’ve even started saying ‘There’s some…’ and rapidly correcting myself.

    @Andy Wood : I get the gist of your post and mostly agree. If everyone spoke ‘perfect’ English, well, it isn’t worth thinking about. It’s a tricky language and to expect the whole blogging world to have a handle on it is outrageous.

    My partner just stated “It is the idyosyncratic nature of English that gives it some vitality and character”.

    Christine

  198. I’ve got my own pet peeves, too:

    * “I would of” instead of “I would have”
    * “I seen” instead of “I saw”
    * “technically” misused in the same way as “literally”

    … and something we discussed on Twitter recently:

    * “My bad”

  199. Who WERE Michael Jackson?

  200. If I had to choose one thing to judge the merits of a piece of writing, it is the quality of the content, not the grammar. If you use perfect English and your writing is repetitive, boring or borders on plagiarism, then correct verb-subject agreement means little to me.

    I know it’s not an either/or dilemma but I think being overly critical of the precise use of language is a misplaced & exaggerated concern. Other elements of communication are far more important. It’s the message, not the medium.

  201. @Melissa

    With language, there is no such thing as “end of story”. Grammar isn’t set in stone. It’s ever-changing based on the needs and even whims of its users.

  202. To all those against using “literally” less than literally, how do you feel about “really”? Are you all so picky about it?

    Example:
    “Mom’s really going to lose her head when she sees this!”

  203. So seriously, nobody remembers Lancelot Link, Secret Chimp?

  204. than? how about then
    That’s not being picky – they have 2 different meanings

  205. “This is a clear case of how the English language is being butchered by Americanisation.”

    To think that two nations, over a period of more than 200 years, would develop separations in their common language… unthinkable!

    We may have a lot of bad habits in this country, but I daresay that the English currently spoken in Great Britain is a far cry from the English that was spoken there 200 years ago.

  206. @Meg the problem in your example is not the use of “really” or “literally” specifically, the problem is that the sentence is metaphorical and using either of those words (or any like them) turns that metaphor into a factual statement (which, of course, makes for a pretty silly statement in this case).

    No, mom won’t *really* lose her head. Nor would she *literally* lose her head. But there is a difference in connotation between “really” and “literally”. Whereas “really” is very generic (wow, that building is really big!), “literally” is very specific (that book is literally 2 inches thick). Over time, that may change, but right now, using “literally” (where “really” might otherwise be used) is an annoyance to many – myself included.

  207. @Daniel,

    The point of those examples is that “literally” is just going the same way as “really” did. In many dialects, it is already just about equivalent — regardless of how much it annoys you. Something else will take its place (or has). Semantic shift happens in every living language.

  208. OK, I have to ask about my pet peeve “impacted”. In the medical world, this is something that would require the use of suppositories. However, it figuratively drives me up the wall when I hear that “Joe Sixpack impacted the team with his star performance”. Anyone else bothered by this one?

  209. A side note on “literally”- I’ve been tracking uses of it on Twitter since this post went up, and besides all of the misuses of it, I’m also surprised at how often people use it to make the mundane seem slightly more interesting.

    Some examples:

    “I’m literally at TCBY eating yogurt.”
    “I literally don’t know what I’m going to do.”

    While I guess literally is used accurately in these cases, it just seems unnecessary most of the time.

  210. I like the ‘no excuses’ tonality of this article. A worthy cause indeed for those writers who take pride in their craft to rise up and counter the onslaught of excuses for poor grammar–from just being conversational to Blackberry and text language.

    It has been said that education is expensive, but not as expensive as ignorance. With these writing habits becoming widely acceptable, what will be the cost?

  211. Some of this gets down to whether you’re speaking American English or some other form. Brits say “an historic,” as well as things like “the band ARE performing tonight.” The Irish use “yourself” differently: “It’ll just be him, me and yourself in attendance.”

    Brits and Canadians also pronounce “lieutenant” as “lufftenant,” but spell it the same way Americans do.

    So, perhaps some caveats are in order when making posts such as this?

  212. @Smitty777

    I’m not sure I see the problem. It’s just the preterit of impact, which can mean “to have a direct effect on”. And I’m fairly sure that usage predates the medical one. You may think “impacted” medically, but I don’t think it’s the first thing that comes to mind for most people.

    Funny, though, how some terms become used by the medical community and lose their other meanings. For example, the standard English words for male and female genitalia meant “tail” and “sheath” respectively in Latin.

    I don’t think that’ll happen with “impacted”, though. It has been relatively stable even since ancient Latin times.

  213. @Smitty777, as bad as that is, it doesn’t get the nails-on-the-blackboard shiver up my spine that comes with “impactful”. “Joe Sixpack’s performance was uniquely impactful.” Gaaaahhhh … my fingers didn’t even want to type that.

  214. Wonderful post, J!

    I literally went back and corrected my latest post’s mistakes like a man on fire. If I was half as smart as you, I wouldn’t need to read this blog, but an historian once said they believe in continuing education for all! I need more help with my blog… I wish it wasn’t just myself doing all the work.

    :)

    In all seriousness, this article was practical and I was able to put it to use immediately. A hundred times, thank you!

    Latest Post:
    The Coolest Tango Shoe Contest Ever!

  215. I ain’t seen no gooder debate in an comments section in an long time. I like what Johnny had wrote. Its literally earth shaking. We all gots things we could get improved on with grammar. Irregardless: if you had went to look up a lot of this stuff you would have saw that its rite.

  216. The whole point of the word “literally” is to distinguish from “metaphorically.” If you’re just going to use it the same way we use the pointless word “really,” you might as well say “really,” it’s less pompous. Also it doesn’t make you look like a chimp.

    @Smitty, oh yes, “impacted” makes me want to, well, impact someone. “Impactful” gets even more bonus points.

    By the way, for those taking notes, notice how much more attention this post gets from Johnny not trying to have the entire discussion in the post. Sure, some of these are subject to regional variation or can be argued for as common usage. That’s the strength of blogs–the opportunity to expand, question, and discuss.

    Also, comment addict that he is, I think he may have in fact perished of happiness.

  217. @Sonia – Exactly. I’m reading them all but don’t feel the need to jump in on everything. Here’s why:

    1. I do not know everything.
    2. There are as many people vehemently fighting on one side of an issue as there are on the other.
    3. Chimps are funny.
    4. This post is currently the ninth most popular post on Copyblogger, ranking by number of comments and pingbacks. That makes me happy.

  218. Smitty777 (#208) wrote:
    “OK, I have to ask about my pet peeve “impacted”. In the medical world, this is something that would require the use of suppositories.”

    If you have been given suppositories for your impacted wisdom tooth, you need to change your dentist.

  219. Thank you Peter. I knew that joke was in there somewhere, I just couldn’t dig it out.

  220. Interesting to note that in 2001, the Houghton Mifflin company included a question in a survey about using “impact” as a verb in the way that Smitty777 objects to. Apparently, 85% of the usage panel disapproved of that usage despite the fact that it has been common since 1935 (according to them). So it looks like “impacted” means nothing more than “wedged” according to most. Funny, because it is improperly used so often. I’m even guilty of it.

  221. Subjects, verbs, nouns, reflexive, etc….gosh this really brought back memories of English 101. Thanks for the refresher. I know I’m guilty of sounding like a chimp sometimes. It’s amazing how once you’ve written your article or post and then proof it before you publish and find all kinds of horrors.

    Just make sure you always proof (2 or 3 times) whatever you’re getting ready to publish.

  222. Carlin had a great bit at the beginning of his Parental Advisory album called “Offensive Language”. In it, he talks about how he won’t use certain words: “I will not say ‘concept’ when I mean ‘idea’. I will not say ‘impacted’ when I mean ‘affected'” – among many other examples. Great bit.

  223. Great post on the misuse of “myself.” Corporate people in my business writing classes love the word. I tell them they probably shouldn’t be emailing about what they do to themselves in that reflexive manner. That advice seems to help them break the habit!

  224. @PeterAndrew- that’s great! So that’s what I’ve been doing wrong all these years.

    My biggest gripe is the “nouning” of this adverb (another pet peeve: verbing nouns). That is, it should be “Joe Sixpack hand an impact on the outcome of the game”.

  225. @Peter Andrew & Drew, laughing.

  226. Great blog, interesting content…. recognize that i made all these grammatical mistakes

  227. Great post, Johnny.

    I’m a grammar geek and a recovering prescriptivist. So while I’ve learned to cautiously hold my tongue during conversations in social settings, as a freelance copyeditor/proofreader and a woman on a mission, I love to “red-pencil” written work.

    … Making the English-speaking world a better place, one word at a time. :-)

    It’s great to see so many comments here and to know that so many people are passionate about grammar and usage! I’m looking forward to some downtime, when I’ll have a chance to read through everyone’s comments.

  228. Incorrect use of the word ‘literally’ pisses me off the most. I hear it everywhere. Sometimes it makes me want to scream at the person talking.

  229. Now here’s one that I have only heard Americans use : “I drug the boat up the beach.” Huh? There’s only one description of the word drug that I’ve ever read, but I am using English dictionaries, not American or Australian.

    In England, you only have to travel a few k’s/miles and you have English that is nowhere near the ‘Queens English’ and it is one of the wonderful reasons for visiting that part of the world. Come to Australia for a visit. The ‘English’ here would make your toes curl.

    I have a book of ‘Strine’ in front of me. That’s our National language (tongue in cheek) Strine is short for Australian. LOL.

    The Authors first words to his startled parents were, “Hey youse! Gimmier lickerish trap an some chicken-an look, fellers, no hens.” Quoted from the book.

    I can translate in another post if you’d like.

    All your fantastic comments are really/literally making me rethink my ideas in a positive way. The best thing is to have a sense of humour and thanks for some of the hilarious input.

  230. For all intensive purposes, I hardly never sound like a chimp. More importantly, I’m ambivalent about sounding like a chimp. I prefer screeching hyena.

  231. These are great. I’m a grammar nazi, so I get down right indignant when people misuse words. The an historic one is pretty bad.

    Does anyone remember being told not to use a colon after a verb?

    Incorrect- My favorite foods are: chicken, fish, and macaroni

    Correct- My favorite foods are the following: chicken, fish, and macaroni.

  232. Nice but you left our my most hated one. It makes me grind me teeth and want to punch the person who writes it. “Who wants to go to the mall with Beth and I?” (for example) Instead of the correct “Beth and ME”

  233. Jeffrey – Yes, I’m familiar with the colon rule (from CMOS, I think), and I see that “error” all the time.

    I regularly copyedit legal treatises (in which there are a lot of block quotes, preceded by language like “Justice Scalia reasoned” or “According to the case law” — and then the author will use a colon after “reasoned” or “law”).

    I fear I’m fighting an uphill battle with that colon.

  234. So, how is my colon LOL in my last post? Do I need a colon:oscopy?

  235. .

    1. I’m with you on this one. I do think myself has developed an emphatic role which I can sometimes tolerate, but most times it sounds stupid.

    2. Sorry, can’t agree with you on your example here. This ship has sailed. They has taken on a role as gender-neutral singular and there’s no going back. Your best hope is to learn to love it. Try it out at least twice a day till it feels natural. Otherwise, you are doomed to fuddyduddyville.

    3. I will join you in strangling anyone who does this. They deserve nothing less.

    4. I’m with you here. I don’t lose sleep over it, but the world would be a more lovely place if the subjunctive were better respected.

    5. Yes. Obviously. Absolutely right. And if literally loses its meaning how will we distinguish the real from the false? Other than common sense, I mean. I hate relying on that. (Literally hate it.)

  236. You are right in was and were thing, i keep ask people which one should i use when say “I”, all of them said was is fine !….. i know it !

  237. Appropriate use of “literally” — http://peopleofwalmart.com/?p=228

  238. Drew – I can’t email you. WTF is with that? Can’t find you on Twitter either, so I’m exploiting CB comments.

    Get me on Twitter so I can respond – @johnnybtruant.

  239. Absolutely wonderful post! I couldn’t agree more.

  240. Extremely helpful!!! Specially the “literally” tip! I always make a mistake on that one.

  241. We are not amused…

    From the Oxford English Dictionary:

    The word they (with its counterparts them, their, and themselves) as a singular pronoun to refer to a person of unspecified sex has been used since at least the 16th century.

  242. I don’t like using the word literally. It makes it seem like I am bragging and is just filling up space with no need for it.

  243. I concur with victor on “they,” as far as I can remembre, “they” is the right way to talk of a person of an unknown sex.

    Dictionary.com Unabridged usage note goes:
    “Long before the use of generic he was condemned as sexist, the pronouns they, their, and them were used in educated speech and in all but the most formal writing to refer to indefinite pronouns and to singular nouns of general personal reference, probably because such nouns are often not felt to be exclusively singular: If anyone calls, tell them I’ll be back at six. Everyone began looking for their books at once. Such use is not a recent development, nor is it a mark of ignorance. Shakespeare, Swift, Shelley, Scott, and Dickens, as well as many other English and American writers, have used they and its forms to refer to singular antecedents. Already widespread in the language (though still rejected as ungrammatical by some), this use of they, their, and them is increasing in all but the most conservatively edited American English. This increased use is at least partly impelled by the desire to avoid the sexist implications of he as a pronoun of general reference. […]”

  244. RE: Point #1, the issue of “myself”

    I’ll have to thank Ms. Bock, my 5th grade English teacher for giving me the simplest of litmus tests.

    The easiest way to prove (or figure out) that “myself” is wrong is to leave Bob and Mr. Parsons out of the sentence.

    If you’re ever in doubt, try to say:
    “The committee will consist of myself.”
    Doesn’t work, does it?

    But this does:
    “The committee will consist of me.”

    When it doubt, the simplest way to figure out what to use is to leave the other folks out of the sentence.

    Then, of course, add them back in:
    “The committee will consist of Bob, Mr. Parsons and me.”

  245. Johnny, my host broke my email. Following you now on Twitter. DM me.

  246. Great piece of writing. I always enjoy reading posts on grammar and spelling because I’m one of those people that spots mistakes within text online, magazines and even in books. As you say, once or twice is acceptable, any more and my interest is lost.
    Thanks for clearing up the ‘H’ thing, I must admit I agree with you, but whether I always follow that rule, I could not say for certain.

  247. When interesting titles go bad. Article good. Misleading title that had nothing to do with the post bad. An historically bad title myself was not soon to forget.

  248. Denise Milligan :

    Nice article, and no argument with the grammar points. However…. (there’s always one of those) I have to add that I have a close friend who is highly educated in language and grammar and she has taught me to get off my high horse (in most cases). Although we may not like it, language changes. And there are always those that hate to let go. But subject / predicate disagreement is commonplace — so we might as well accept it.

  249. I have one…

    In the rule Was vs Were, what would be the case in the event it was used to describe an action of someone else, i.e. “they were point at him”. That doesn’t sound “hypothectical” it sounds factual. And “They was pointing at him” just sounds incorrect.

  250. I’m sorry, but your example for the second mistake is actually grammatically correct. Please read:
    http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Singular_they and pay close attention to the section containing “Epicene they has indeterminate gender”

    Thank you.

  251. I’d like to add 2 misused words that drive me batty–just for good measure ;)

    The misuse of hopefully & “i feel nauseous” <–hmm, I stand corrected, Merriam-Webster says "I feel nauseous" is acceptable.
    http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/nauseous
    Thoughts ?

  252. @April – I actually mentioned nauseous/nauseated on my blog and everyone jumped all over me saying that nauseous is correct. It was more fun when nauseous just meant “inducing nausea” and people who said, “I’m nauseous” were just insulting themselves.

    @EVERYONE IN THE WORLD – Okay, okay… “they” is acceptable as a singular.

  253. “…so if you’re using it a lot, you’re probably using it wrong.”

    Shouldn’t this say “you’re probably using it incorrectly?”

    or at worst “wrongly?”

    “using it wrong” sounds wrong to me.

  254. This made my day! Grammar nerdery is a wonderful thing. xo
    (Before anyone yells, I know nerdery isn’t a word :p)

  255. I have to stop following this thread, as it shows all signs of going on forever. But until then …

    “Wrongly” sounds wrong just about any way I can think to use it. Least-wrong would be, “That is a wrongly used word.” However even in that case I prefer “misused”.

    Please, Johnny, lock the comments so I can get back to work!

  256. Oh, and I believe “nerdery” is actually where you grow nerds.

  257. Lynne Truss’ cute book, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves is perfect on this point, though she does go on a bit longer than necessary. Pretty entertaining stuff! Thanks for this post, John!

  258. Very interesting article! Many people with native language different than english do common sense errors in their blogs instead promoting clean and crisp language…

  259. There is literally a blog that tracks literally:
    http://literally.barelyfitz.com/

    Great article!

  260. OK, grammar gods and goddesses, how do you punctuate “dos and don’ts”? Is it “do’s and don’ts” or “do’s and dont’s” or something else?

    This was driving me crazy the other day. Every source I checked seemed to have a different opinion.

    What do you think?

  261. Actually, when used as in the example above, “myself” was used as an intensifier. The sentence would still make sense without it and could be moved: “I, myself, did the job.”
    “Myself” is used reflexively when the speaker is both the subject and the object in the sentence, as is,
    “I hit myself with the hammer.” (direct object) OR “I looked at myself in the mirror.” (object of the preposition) OR “I gave myself a haircut.” (indirect object)

  262. Actually, when used as in the example above, “myself” was used as an intensifier. The sentence would still make sense without it and could be moved: “I, myself, did the job.”
    “Myself” is used reflexively when the speaker is both the subject and the object in the sentence, as in,
    “I hit myself with the hammer.” (direct object) OR “I looked at myself in the mirror.” (object of the preposition) OR “I gave myself a haircut.” (indirect object)

  263. @Carolyn

    There really isn’t a correction punctuation for ‘dos and don’ts’, since neither of those are technically nouns; they cannot technically even take a plural! Doesn’t mean you shouldn’t use the phrase — it’s it a great phrase. Fly, be free.

  264. @Jodi

    Ooops, sorry. I mistook you for Carolyn…

  265. BTW I hope everyone who has been reading this thread realise that only about 10% of people notice what they think is poor grammar, and even of those, and only about 10% of *those* people actually think that it defines you, online.

    Don’t worry about grammar. Worry about fluency. And if you already have it, then stop worrying about language and get on with it.

  266. Laroquod said at 6:31 am:
    “BTW I hope everyone who has been reading this thread realise that only about 10% of people notice what they think is poor grammar…”

    Well, yes. But that means that 10 percent of your readers stop mid-sentence to think: “Oooh, look. He doesn’t know that it should be ‘me’ rather than ‘myself’ there.” Or: “Oooh, look. He split an infinitive.” (No, I know there’s nothing wrong with splitting an infinitive, but some of my readers do.) Or: “Oooh, look. He doesn’t know the difference between ‘less’ and ‘fewer’.”

    To me, writing should be invisible. If anyone stops mid-sentence to admire the craftsmanship that went into the creation of my deathless prose (an unlikely scenario, I admit), then that’s just as bad as their stopping mid-sentence to pick up on my poor English usage.

    I am trying to communicate a very specific message, and anything that undermines my communication is defeating my object.

    And, according to Laroquod’s statistics, a full 10 percent of my readers will stumble over my errors. So I try to avoid them. Just as I try to avoid showing off in a way that might impress (and so interrupt the flow of) another 10 percent.

    So I’ll always strive (and all too often fail) to make what I’m saying clear to everyone–not just 90 percent of my readership–by making my use of language invisible.

    Of course, none of this works for a readership that comprises professional writers, because everyone in that group will scrutinize every word.

  267. Eew. I don’t like the idea that “writing should be invisible” at all.

    Good writing CAN be invisible, and if that’s your personal goal then there’s nothing wrong with that, but SHOULD? That’s a bit like saying good food should be tasteless.

  268. No, Marc. It’s like saying that one should be able to enjoy good food without being constantly aware of every single process that went on in the kitchen to produce it.

    But you’re right: that ‘should’ may be too prescriptive. I should have said that I recommend that good writers–like good chefs–should focus on their goals (to turn on readers or diners) rather than to show off too obviously their technical skills.

    Thanks for correcting me.

  269. Wow, you literally cut poeple up – including myself – chewed them, and and then spat them out! Truth is, I hate the man or woman who makes these mistakes, too. I mean, come on, is it really that hard that they can’t get it right? Are they an hillbilly or something? If I was a real writer, I wouldn’t make these mistakes. Ever. ;)

  270. Just so everyone knows, this post has made me paranoid. I find myself tripping over some simple stuff recently, and have acquiesced on using “they” as a singular pronoun for an unknown person even though I bristle at it. See how flexible I am?

  271. I’m so glad someone had the guts to write this. It just drives me crazy (literally!) when I read a blog with many typographical and grammatical errors. Another mistake I hear and see quite often is the use of “I” at the end of a sentence when it should be “me”. Example, “That belongs to my sister and I” is incorrect. If you were to leave out “my sister and” it would be “That belongs to me”, therefore the correct word is “me”. Just sayin’.

  272. Chimps abound, apparently. Have you considered why some people seem to prefer using ‘an’ before ‘historic’? Could it concern something other than simply just ignorance?

    It’s obviously more a matter of ease of pronunciation than it is of grammar. That it shows up in writing demonstrates the way in which grammar is shaped.

    People who seriously get annoyed at these transgressions, like Ms. Manners here, bore me.

  273. Oh Johnny… you had me. I was literally (ha) going to start telling all that would listen about your brilliance, your beauty (surely all grammar snobs are beautiful), your… hmmm, what is the word? Your rightness. And then, much to my chagrin, you committed one of my own pet peeves in comment #19. Did you really do something “totally retarded”? Really? You cannot come up with a better choice of words? Just tell me that you spontaneously developed a 23rd chromosome and all will be right in the world.

    Except for commenter #116’s “historical continuity is best” – perhaps we should think hard about that one. Me thinks that the wife of (insert property owner’s name here) doth not think what she thinks she means. There are plenty of other instances where history has not proven to be “best” in terms of grammar and vocabulary. Would you like another example: ain’t used to be an acceptable contraction.

  274. Wait, wait, wait. Hold on. What do you mean, “ain’t” ain’t acceptable any more? :-D

  275. @Sarah Turner (#81): I’m sure that most of the nits in the article and comments are now well and truly picked, but I was struck by your use of “two penneth”. I’m not sure if this is acceptable in US English, but on my side of the pond it would be written as “two pennyworth” or “two penn’orth” (both pronounced as “two penneth”).

    Incidentally, how long does a comment need to be in order to be worth two pennies?

  276. I write both in French and in English, and, like Johnny B. Truant, I find that I’m more and more paranoid about my writing. That’s a good thing. Keeps me on my toes ;)

  277. @ Mike, who said “if you understand the idea that the person is trying to communicate, then the language has served it’s purpose :)” Hm…
    and
    “I guess I’m not a stickler for anything proper… too many rules makes life boring! ;)”

    Boy, I don’t want to be driving next to you. You probably share the belief of those who fail to use turn signals because driving is “more interesting.” Without rules, chaos ensues.

  278. @ Chris Raymond

    There are writers who are as dangerous as bad drivers. But they’re few and far between, and their number mostly comprises right-wing ideologues who encourage morons to commit hate crimes.

    Not knowing when it’s correct to use ‘myself’, or being unaware that the ‘h’ in ‘historic’ should not be aspirated, and that therefore the word is preceded by an ‘an’ is really not all that dangerous.

    Of course, it’s important to use English as well as one can, if only because there’s a risk that highly educated (or hopelessly pedantic, depending on one’s point of view) readers will either dismiss one’s message, or will lose concentration because they’re stopping three times in every sentence to gloat over errors.

    But there is another side to that coin. There’s much too much snobbishness about correct usage, a great deal of which is motivated by a slightly sad need to put down others. (Obviously, I’m not accusing you personally of that.)

    I try to write as well as I know how. But I’m only too acutely aware of the fact that I all too often make mistakes. Which may be why I never try to humiliate anyone else when they do.

    The chances of my ever successfully constructing a bookcase are minimal. The chances of my ever returning a tennis serve are similar.

    I’m not ashamed of my failings in carpentry and sport, and, in the unlikely event that I ever attempt either, I wouldn’t appreciate a professional telling me how unutterably bad I am.

    People become good carpenters and sports stars only because they’re encouraged. And it’s the same for writers. Pointing and laughing are bad ways to foster talent.

    Those who are interested in writing will quickly discover the basic rules, and will – like the rest of us – embark on a lifetime of learning.

    Those who have no talent will quickly fall by the wayside. Why waste time abusing them?

  279. To put what Peter Andrew said about “rules” more succinctly, take a look at the difference between prescriptivsm and descriptivism.

  280. Absolutely, Cassie. I have an acute case of irritable larynx syndrome.

  281. Great post,
    One really easy tip to add to them is this:
    Make sure you check a post or comment before hitting the send button. Spelling can really give things away and I have found there are certain words that my fingers just don’t want to spell correctly. The most common one for me is ‘because’ which my fingers nearly always want to spell ‘becasue’!!!!

  282. Let’s not forget the rampant misuse of “hopefully” and “disinterested”:

    “Hopefully we’ll qualify for the Olympics.” WRONG
    “We’re hopeful we’ll qualify for the Olympics.” CORRECT

    Hopefully: being hopeful: “Hopefully, he put his hand on her knee.”

    “I’m disinterested in your opinion about my behavior.” WRONG
    “I’m uninterested in your opinion about my behavor.”

    Disinterested = impartial
    Uninterested = not interested

    My five cents,
    Maggy

  283. Maggie, “hopefully” has been used in that “wrong” sense since the early 1700s and to call its use “rampant” is almost an understatement! I think we can finally consider that a correct meaning.

    Meanings change. The word “meat” used to mean “food” in general. I’m sure some people disagreed with that usage for a while. But after a while even the most pedantic just have to let go. And I think nearly three centuries is long enough.

  284. Thanks to this great post and all the comments, plus my decades of experience, I’ve come up with my own top-5 list, which I’ve posted on 3 times this week.
    1. confusing possessives and contractions, as in “its” and “it’s”
    2. mixing up other words that sound similar, such as “then” and “than”
    3. using “I” or “myself” when you should use “me”
    4. not respecting the difference between “that,” “which” and “who”
    5.uncertainty about “he/she/it/they” and the words that go with them

  285. @Marc A good rule of thumb is to use “me” when it’s in a prepositional phrase. I don’t understand why so many people are afraid of the word “me.” The worst offense I’ve ever heard/read was from a college-educated colleague who actually said: “I will put it on her and I’s calendar.”

  286. Don’t worry, Johnny. *I* remember Lancelot Link, even if nobody else does. You are not crazy.

    (Inflammatory, perhaps, judging by the length of this comment list, but not crazy!)

  287. I support the use of “literally” for emphasis. Usually, there’s not a lot of room for misinterpretation with its use and can paint amusing mental images.

  288. Patty O'Heater :

    There’s nothing wrong at all with using “an” in front of a word like historic. It sounds better. The annoyance is when the word “a” is pronounced “eh” by Americans who have no idea about the correct pronunciation of the English language.

    Of course you don’t say “an horse” or “an house” because it sounds wrong. That is all it takes – how does it sound best. Of course, the words have to be pronounced correctly, something most Americans seem incapable of.

    I agree wholeheartedly with the rest of the list though!

  289. I learned that the rule about using “an” in front of a word beginning with an H was as follows:

    If the H word in question is a multi-syllabic word, you use “a” or “an” depending on where the stress lies in the word. If the stress is on the first syllable, you use “a,” as in “a HOSpital.” If the stress is on the second syllable, you use “an,” as in “an hisTORic.” People try to argue on that one, but I don’t know anyone who says “HIStoric.” If you stress the second syllable, you naturally tend to drop the H, or at least put less emphasis on it. This is how you would manage to read a history book to learn about an historical event, and be correct.

    It is a rather outdated rule that continues to change over time as we continue to pronounce things differently. Language shifts, but at this point in time, it is still acceptable. People will get angry at you for it, but people will always be there to defend you for it as well because technically both are correct.

    Overall, I don’t think anyone really cares, and either way is publishable. Give it another couple of decades, and it may be gone forever.

  290. Oh crap, that first sentence is supposed to say “the rule… IS as follows.”

    I bet I’ll get nailed for that one.

  291. @Meg – I have found your attitude fascinating and I’d like to pose you a question. Children in my classes regularly ask “Can I lend a pen?” when they haven’t brought one of their own. My usual response is “No – if you haven’t got a pen, you’ll find it difficult to lend one” and then we have a discussion about the difference between ‘lend’ and ‘borrow’. Do you think this is an example of language constantly changing, which I suppose could reasonably be claimed given the number of times I hear it in a week? Or are they getting it wrong and therefore should be corrected?

  292. @Alistair

    “Do you think this is an example of language constantly changing, which I suppose could reasonably be claimed given the number of times I hear it in a week? Or are they getting it wrong and therefore should be corrected?”

    That’s tricky because it’s not an either/or case. When new language variations pop up, in most cases they are considered “wrong”. However, they are the source of language change and, when adopted by enough people (especially people with power) they are considered legitimate language changes.

    I’m actually sort of curious about this as I can’t recall hearing someone use lend in that way. Can you tell me where this is? I wonder how they’ve come to acquire this variation.

    Should you correct them? At the very least, they should know the more standard meaning of the word lend. I’m not against teaching grammar as there is a way of talking and writing that is perceived as more prestigious in academic and political circles. People should have access to that so that they can be best understood by others outside their immediate social groups, and also so that they have more opportunities for social advancement.

    The problem I have is when people act like that so-called “standard English” is the ONLY way one should ever speak (even though, I guarantee, they do not speak it all the time, either, unless they define “standard English” and simply “the way I talk” — which isn’t far from the truth in some cases). And what is worse is when they call people who do not speak what they perceive as standard English stupid or otherwise less human (“…sound like a chimp”). So, in correcting the children, just be respectful and understand that perhaps in the dialect they’ve grown up in that is perfectly “correct” and understood. But explain to them, too, that in school it has a different meaning and you want them to use that meaning for practice.

    Of course, whether your correcting has much effect is another matter entirely. Peers have more influence on our speech than teachers or even parents. However, awareness can be a powerful thing and if you can make them more aware of language variation — and that different varieties are more appropriate on different occasions — they’ll be much better off.

  293. @Alistair Keep up the good work and continue correcting. I recently came to the conclusion that language is an evolving thing but there are some words, quite a lot of them, that are exempt from this theory. Lend & borrow being two of them.

  294. I agree, Christine. While language does evolve, there are some very basic words that this theory doesn’t apply to, like lend and borrow.

    Another example is BRING and TAKE — these two little words have been corrupted by so many. I think it starts early; some teachers (and parents) aren’t taking the time to instill valuable lessons in basic grammar and vocabulary. And that really makes me sad.

  295. @Cassie How funny. I was going to mention ‘bring’ and ‘take’, but I have written previously about these two words.

    My partner just can’t work it out no matter how much explaining I do, not that he tries too much either and it is now quite a joke between the two of us.

    I would be pulling my hair out if I didn’t see the funny side of things.

  296. @Cassie — Similarly, few (including several dictionaries) fail to distinguish between “accountable” and “responsible” with the result that we now have a society that is seldom “accountable” when they are found “responsible”.

    “Cleaning up the spilled milk is an act of accountability for whomever was responsible for spilling the milk.”

  297. @Meg

    This lend/borrow issue isn’t a variation due to dialect. I’ve heard it in schools in Liverpool and Manchester, which are very different. It’s due entirely to ignorance. I’m also pleased to be able to tell you that my correcting them does have an effect and they generally subsequently ask to borrow a pen the next time.

    A very good friend of mine, an English teacher, used to tell me that there was no such thing as correct spelling, for precisely the same reason – that language is constantly evolving. I told him this is completely ridiculous. I have also been told that as a Science teacher, I should ignore misspellings and grammatical errors as we should be focusing solely on the Science. However, my argument is that being able to communicate effectively is part of being a scientist, and if pupils are unable to do that then they are not being good scientists.

    The British Government had a great idea in the 60s; they decided the best way of teaching English was to encourage pupils to write phonetically. Sure, it was much easier than getting the ‘right’ spelling. Unfortunately, it was much more difficult to read because of all of the possible phonetic variations and led, ultimately, to a generation that struggled – and still struggles – with literacy.

    I absolutely accept that language changes constantly, that new words are introduced (I’m sure ‘blogging’ wasn’t in common usage before twenty or even ten years ago) and that definitions change (eg. gay). However, we have to aim to uphold the standards so that people can communicate effectively.

    By the way, I have a feeling that the reference to chimps was probably made in humour and not intended to cause offence.

  298. I don’t have time to read this massive line of comments, so please forgive me if I’m repeating anyone. The reason many people use “an” with “historic” is because “history” came to English by way of Old French (“histoire”), in which the “h” is silent.

  299. @Alistair

    “This lend/borrow issue isn’t a variation due to dialect. I’ve heard it in schools in Liverpool and Manchester, which are very different.”

    They may sound very different to you, but to a complete outsider there will probably be far more similarities than differences. The fact that it is that widespread actually points to there being more going on than just a few ignorant kids. After all, if they’re *just* ignorant, why would so many kids be using the word the same way? Where are they getting it from?

    Other than being young, are there any other similarities between the kids socially? Are they of a similar social class, for example? In addition to the geographical variation that we call dialects, there are also sociolects, language varieties among certain social groups (which can be defined not just by social class, but also gender, age, ethnicity, even attitudes, etc.).

    “By the way, I have a feeling that the reference to chimps was probably made in humour and not intended to cause offence.”

    The two are not mutually exclusive. Much humor (perhaps all) has to do with one person or group being “put down” or otherwise having their social status taken down a notch. It may seem funny to you if you’re outside that group, but often it IS offensive to those within the group.

    By the way, I agree with you about teaching proper spelling – at least as much as it can be taught. Knowing standardized spelling makes it not only easier to be understood, it also makes it easier to recognize words quickly when reading. Also, knowing how to do things the “standard” way is useful for those occasions when it is important. Again, it is not necessary that the students always spell correctly. However, I believe that standard spelling is the most appropriate choice for academic papers – in whatever class they’re taking.

    On a somewhat related note, people shouldn’t assume that kids using weird spelling while texting or IMing means that they can’t spell right in other situations. Such spelling isn’t used because they’re necessarily ignorant of proper spelling, or even because the new spellings are more efficient (they sometimes aren’t), but rather because they identify the writers as members of certain social groups, i.e. young people who aren’t “noobs” online. That’s pretty much how slang works offline, too.

  300. I can’t stand the improper use of I for me. It kills me much more than the five listed here. Another case of people trying to sound intelligent. Arrgh.

  301. Very interesting grammar read, expecially for me as a learner of the English language. I was just wondering why “Bob, Mr. Parsons and me.” should be the right choice and not “Bob, Mr. Parsons and I” (See “1. Improper use of “myself””).

  302. D.A. Gutierrez :

    @Bernhard,
    The answer to your question is this:

    Drop Bob and Mr. Parsons from the sentence. In other words:

    “The committee will consist of ____.”

    Which word sounds correct in that sentence?
    It is definitely “me”, as you would never say “The committee will consist of I.”

    Then you just add Bob and Mr. Parsons back into the sentence:
    “The committee will consist of Bob, Mr. Parsons, and me.”

    You can check my comment (above) for more detail, or click here: http://www.copyblogger.com/grammar-chimpanzee/#comment-722267

  303. Is “Off of” becoming mainstream? Andy Barrie, host of a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation (CBC) morning show uses it and today (December 22, 2009) the weather guy referred to the wind coming off of Lake Ontario. Some would argue that it is correct if we hear it on the CBC. Anyone?

    BTW.
    If found these uses on copyblooger.com:

    Five Cool Links to Kick Off the Week | Copyblogger
    I know I’ll be riffing off of it for the rest of the year. …
    http://www.copyblogger.com/cool-links/
    10 Effective Ways to Get More Blog Subscribers | Copyblogger
    … site. And make sure it’s original content, not something recycled off of …
    http://www.copyblogger.com/10-effective-ways-to-get-more-blog-subscribers/

  304. I just re-read my own blog entry and found a spelling error. Spell checkers have become my crutch.

  305. The CBC is certainly not an authority. In addition to some of their usage, there is the matter of how they pronounce many words. I must admit, however, that they do pay attention even if it takes many years. About 15 years ago I started a campaign to get them to pronounce “Hiroshima” correctly. If felt that if we were going to “remember it”, we should learn how to pronounce it. A couple of years ago they finally changed their internal guide and now pronounce “Hiroshima” properly . . . well, most of the time! Best regards from another Anton!

  306. God save me I am still reading all these comments!

    I’m an Ellipsisaholic…

    … and I would like to know what bastard killed the serial comma?

    (See what I did there?)

    Thanks for the laughs, folks! Write on!

  307. In the “about the author” section, it says “almost certainly”, which is yet another grammar mistake that will make you sound like a chimp. ;D

  308. I just love it when a favourite maverick shows his anal side!
    Hear, hear, though – I agree with everything you said (‘an historic’ is one of my particular pet peeves).
    In case you’re wondering, my spelling and punctuation are UK style … a whole other blog post, maybe.

  309. When a person is slated with selecting the committee, then including oneself in the committee is a reflexive act.

    So, were I given the task of selecting a committee I might say “I’ve selected a committee that includes John, Irene and myself.” The use of “myself” emphasizes the reflexive nature of the choice.

    The sentence: “The committee will consist of Bob, Mr. Parsons, and myself” tells me the writer is the one who selected the committee while “The committee will consist of Bob, Mr. Parsons, and me” indicates someone else selected the committee. The speaker is just an object put in the committee with the other objects.

    The two sentences say something different.

  310. Awesome Article …. Dear friend some times mistakes becomes so common that become part of writing

  311. Need to watch out for these grammar mistakes.

  312. Thanks for addressing use of “a” and “an.” I’ve been seeing phrases like “an historic” increasingly more frequently in print an internet-based and wondering whether someone changed the rule while I wasn’t looking!

    I wonder about using “whether or not” in the following sentence, though:

    “Whenever you utilize ‘literally,’ stop and think about whether what you’re saying is actually true, in those exact words.”

    I’ve been taught that “whether or not” is equivalent to “regardless of whether,” so if it doesn’t seem sensible to express “regardless of whether” in the sentence, then you should use “whether” instead of “whether or not.” Any opinions?

  313. As a foreigner I’m terrified to write here, but I’m looking for an answer to a small argument I’m having with my husband.
    I ask him: would you like a toast ?
    He responds: Yes Thank You
    To my ears, that sounds so strange, Im used to hearing, Yes please
    Ever since I came to US, I’ve been reading the morning paper with a marker and a dictionary. Unfortunatley there’s a lot of mistakes printed, and somtimes asking natives to explain, I get a lot of contradicting responses ?

    • I think both are okay. It might seem less strange if you think of “Yes, please” as a complete thought but think of “Yes, thank you” as two thoughts: “Yes” = an answer to your question, plus “Thank you” as something tagged on to express gratitude for the offer. Hell, I think even, “Yes, please. Thank you.” Would be fine.

      But I don’t think that’s a grammatical matter… just personal style/preference.