This month’s column may not appeal to everyone, for I’m going to
write about the grammatical mistakes that annoy me the most. If you’re so
good that you don’t make these mistakes, you don’t need to read further. And
if you make these mistakes all the time, you may be in the subset that
thinks, who cares? All too often I’ve encountered “writers” who take the
following positions: Grammar doesn’t matter. Punctuation doesn’t matter.
Spelling doesn’t matter.
I don’t agree with these statements, nor do I believe that they are
appropriate attitudes for any writer to take. I’m more forgiving to those
who don’t have English as their first language, because I know how hard it
is to write in anything besides your mother tongue. But for everyone else,
grammar is a requirement, a sign of professionalism. Therefore, in this
column I’m going to rant and rave about a few of the mistakes that people
make with great frequency.
A few years ago, Lynne Truss’s book, Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero
Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, surprised the publishing world by
climbing high on the bestseller lists. Now, not everyone may agree with how
she punctuates, but the fact that so many people bought and read this book
is a clear indicator that punctuation matters to many.
Just for emphasis, punctuating properly is not simply a matter of having
a clean manuscript to impress intellectual prigs. Punctuation helps you
convey the meaning that you want to convey – instead of something else
entirely. This is seen in the very title of the book by Lynne Truss, which
is from an incorrectly punctuated definition of a panda. The correctly
punctuated version would be Eats Shoots & Leaves (implying that our
panda is a vegetarian) instead of Eats, Shoots & Leaves (implying
that our panda is a gunslinger in some Western).
But let’s move on to actual examples. The most common mistakes – or at
least, the one that bugs me most – concern apostrophes. Apostrophes (’) are
those funny little marks that look like commas but are placed above as
opposed to below the letters in sentences. And the most frequent mistake
that people make with respect to apostrophes is confusing its and it’s.
It’s can be re-written as It is or It has.
Its is a possessive.
Here are a couple of examples in which these words are used correctly:
It’s time to go. (It is time to go.)
It’s raining. (It is raining.)
The car’s speedometer was broken. Its radio didn’t work, either.
Apostrophes are used improperly, too, in the creation of plurals. If
you’re making plurals, you probably don’t need apostrophes (the exception
seems to be letters, such as when minding p’s and q’s). However, in
general, if you’re writing about more than one boy, you should write boys.
Look! No apostrophe! Nevertheless, many “writers” insert apostrophes
determinedly into their plurals, despite being told repeatedly to cease and
The other main case requiring apostrophes is the possessive. If you want
to indicate that the bike belongs to the boy, you write: the boy’s bike.
If you want to indicate that bikes belong to several boys, you write: the
And here we see, at last, the source of the confusion. Apostrophes are
necessary when creating possessives for nouns. However, apostrophes are not
used when creating possessives for most pronouns. Its, his, hers, theirs,
whose, ours – these are all pronouns, all indicating some degree of
possession, and none of them use apostrophes. It’s unfair, I know, but
that’s how it is.
Of course, there is plenty more to punctuation than mastering the
apostrophe, and you would do well to understand the proper use of periods
and commas, colons and semi-colons, dashes and hyphens, and the other little
marks that help to convey meaning. For more help, go to these websites:
For general assistance:
There are plenty of other websites, as well as books and other media
devoted to this matter.
Good spelling is another fundamental for the writer. The misspellings
that irk me the most are: alot (it should be a lot, and given
how hard my word processor tries to correct this it is amazing how
frequently alot appears in others’ writing). Another gripe: many
people use loose when they mean lose. If you lose
something, that means that you can’t find it; if your pants are loose,
that means you’re dieting successfully. Definately is definitely
not a word, yet it pops up everywhere! Perhaps the saddest, though, is
grammer – which should be spelled grammar – for the latter
spelling is what will help you find what you need.
Admittedly, spelling in English is not easy. Say the following words
aloud: though, tough, bough, cough, through, dough. Even though they
all end in ough, they don’t sound alike. [Editor's note: for
a wonderful example read
Words that do sound alike are the cause of many misspellings
(these words are known as homophones). My favorite example is when a woman
wrote wonton (a type of Chinese cracker) when she actually meant
wanton (used to describe a lusty wench). These sorts of mistakes may
bring smiles to the faces of your readers – but they’re the kind of smiles
that you don’t like, because your readers are laughing at you instead of
with you – and so care is needed. In fact, you need to be especially
careful because spellcheckers can’t catch these mistakes.
Here are a few instances in which the wrong word is often used:
Could of (wrong) instead of could have (right)
Affect instead of effect (visit your dictionaries)
Accept and except (again, visit your dictionaries)
Advise (a verb) and advice (a noun)
Than and then. Than is usually used as a comparative, for
example, “He is older than his sister.” Then is used to indicate what
follows, either in logic or in time: “If all the Weasleys have red hair,
then Ron Weasley has red hair” and “First we went to dinner, then we
went to the movies.”
Again, there are plenty of websites with more information on the matter.
If you search for “common spelling errors” you will find plenty – you may
even find the ones that you make!
Nit-picky readers will note that so far I have only complained about
punctuation and spelling and not about grammar – which, according to the
Merriam-Webster online dictionary’s first definition, is about “the study of
the classes of words… their functions and relations in the sentence.” These
readers may point out that I have not yet justified the title of this
column, “Grammatical Griping.” Another set of readers may contend that this
is splitting hairs, for surely correct punctuation and spelling are
fundamental to good grammar? Besides, if you look at websites devoted to
grammar, there will be sections on punctuation and spelling.
Still, it’s important to remember that writers have to master more than
punctuation and spelling. However, here are a couple of irritating and
all-too-frequently-made grammatical mistakes:
The box of apples are open.
In the sentence above, the subject noun and the verb don’t “agree” – that
is to say, the subject (box) is in the singular and the verb (are)
is in the plural. This is true even though the word apples is closer in the
sentence to the verb. A correct version of the sentence is:
The box of
apples is open.
For more on this topic, search for “Subject Verb Agreement.”
Another irritant concerns the improper use of pronouns:
Harry and me went to the store.
In this example, the writer is using the wrong pronoun (me) in the
subject of the sentence. The word me should only be used as a direct or
indirect object. A correct version of the sentence is:
Harry and I went
to the store.
Also, a word of warning: although you may be comfortable using the
common, everyday pronouns, if you’re writing historical fiction, you may
want to review the proper usage of pronouns such as thou, thee, thy
A third improper instance, adjective instead of adverb:
I write good.
Here the writer is using an adjective (good) when an adverb is needed. A
correct version of the sentence is:
I write well.
There are plenty of other grammatical mistakes made by writers. Creative
typos know no bounds, and there are many ways to incorrectly arrange words
within a sentence. What is the best way to rid your work of these problems?
The first requirement is to know what you should be doing. You will turn up
a huge number of resources if you search on the word “grammar” – make sure
you spell it correctly!
The second requirement is to proof your work, again and again. Even if
you know what you’re doing, errors can creep in – especially if you have
revised and edited your work.
Although this article gives the impression that I’m hard-nosed and strict
in my approach to grammar, I’m well aware that the English language is
changing. There are a several instances in which old-fashioned grammar
dictates that a sentence should be written one way – and yet, more and more,
people are writing these sentences in another way, sometimes for very good
reasons. So in next month column, “Grammatical Groping,” we’ll take a look
at these areas where the use of language is evolving.
In the meantime, if you want to contact me, to tell me your own
grammatical gripes, or because you want to use this article, you can send me
a message at grossackva at yahoo dot com.
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