10 Grammar & Usage-Related New Year’s Resolutions

2012 is almost over, and the predicted apocalypse was (again) a flop-- so it’s time to get your shit together for 2013! I know you have probably already purchased a gym membership and sworn off quadruple mocha cappuccinos, but did you consider the health of your writing? Well, you should—it’s lookin’ kinda flabby! Here are 10 grammar-related resolutions to get your writing back in shape.

1. I will stop using the plural pronouns their, them, and they to refer to a single subject without a defined gender.

I don’t even know you, but I know you are guilty of this (because I am):

  • When an employee gets a new computer, they have to set up their preferences.
  • I picked a name for the Secret Santa gift exchange, but I don’t know what to get them.

Grammatically, these sentences are awful, though they are not uncommon in today’s vernacular. Note how the verb in the second part of the first sentence also becomes plural even though it’s clearly a single person the sentence is referring to in the first part. *Shudder*

Traditionally, English uses the pronoun he to refer to any person whose gender is unknown. In the sentences above, an employee and a name both refer to a single person whose gender is not specified. However, our culture is changing, and we no longer accept he or other male-gendered pronouns and nouns to serve as defaults because we feel it’s sexist. Our culture has changed, but our language has not; there are no gender neutral singular pronouns with the exception of it¸ and we don’t use the word it in reference to people. It’s rude. Only animals and things can be its.

So what are we to do? The proper way to deal with this is to use his or her, him or her, he or she.

  • When an employee gets a new computer, he or she has to set up his or her preferences.
  • I picked a name for the Secret Santa gift exchange, but I don’t know what to get him or her.

Ok, I know you hate the way that sounds. And it might still be considered sexist because he appears first. The best way to avoid these pitfalls is to recast the sentence to make the subject plural to begin with:

  • When employees get a new computer, they have to set up their preferences.

When making it plural is not an option, you may have to give the sentence a bigger makeover to get it to work without offending either the grammarians or the flag-bearers-for-fairness:

  • I don’t know what to get for the person I selected for the Secret Santa gift exchange.

2. I will not use the word are instead of our  even if they kind of sound the same when spoken aloud.

Are is the verb to be conjugated into the simple present tense, and our is a possessive pronoun.

  • This is our finest hour. – Correct usage
  • This is are finest hour. – Incorrect usage

3. I will not use an apostrophe before the s when creating plurals out of commonly-used acronyms.

Consider acronyms like CEO and DVD. All you need to do to make them plural is add an s. Also, the s should be lowercase while the rest of the acronym should be in capital letters.

  • DVDs not DVD’s is the proper way to refer to more than one DVD.
  • CEOs not CEO’s is the proper way to refer to more than one CEO.

4. I will not mix my metaphors.

Watching CNN recently, the broadcaster explained that the coming financial apocalypse is being called “a fiscal cliff” because the economy will “hit a wall.” So, are we at the top of the cliff running toward the edge, or are we already at the bottom, running toward the wall? While not completely broken, when using a cliff as a metaphor, most people assume you are talking about falling off a cliff from up high. I suppose you could also face disaster if you were to run quickly toward the bottom of a cliff—or a wall. Both are unpleasant to be sure. However, it’s a bad use of metaphor. Then again, the media often bungles perfectly good metaphors.

5. I will not use whom just because I don’t understand how it is used, and I am worried that the Grammarians will get me if I use who instead whom.

Lately, I have noticed my colleagues using whom often and incorrectly. Thanks to LitReactor, the word is out that I am a grammar nerd, so it could be that people I work with and hang out with feel suddenly insecure about their written communications to me. I find that writers, when they want to sound like they know what they are doing but don’t want to actually look up the rule, overcompensate by using words and usages that sound smart. Perhaps I am over-analyzing, but I have never seen whom (and whomever) used so frequently and so incorrectly.

For the record, both who and whom are pronouns. (Same goes for whoever and whomever.) However, they have different jobs in the sentence. Who is a subject. Whom is an object.

Subjects do things. Who is a subject like I, we, they, she, he, it.

  • Who threw the ball? I/we/they/she/he/it threw the ball.

Objects have things done to them. Whom is an object like me, us, them, her, him, it.

  • To whom was the ball thrown? It was thrown to me/us/them/her/him/it.

I am going to steal Grammar Girl’s excellent example of how to remember subjects and objects. Consider this sentence:

  • I love you.

I is the subject of the sentence. You is object of the sentence. You are the object of my love. And if you were to ask for clarification, you might ask, Whom do you love? To which I would reply, I love you.

Here is an incorrect usage that I have seen recently:

  • Whomever spilled coffee all over the floor in the kitchen should clean it up.

Here, whomever is being used a subject for the verb spilled. It should be whoever because we are talking about the doer of the spilling.

Consider another way to say it. Does it make sense to say:

  • Whom spilled the coffee all over the floor?

Nope. It should be:

  • Who spilled the coffee all over the floor?

Ok, now you know, so spread the word.

6. I will ensure that my subjects agree with my verbs in number no matter how far apart they are in a sentence.

A sentence must have a subject and a verb. The subject, as you just learned, is the doer of something, and the thing being done is the verb. Verbs are often called action words because they describe an action being performed. The verb in a sentence must always be conjugated for the proper number of subjects doing that verb. For instance, if the subject is singular, the verb must also be conjugated for a singular subject.

For example, Sarah is a singular subject (one person)

  • Sarah eats sandwiches.

Sarah and Bob is a plural subject (two people)

  • Sarah and Bob eat sandwiches.

In the first example, the verb is conjugated for a single person—eats—and in the second example, the verb is conjugated for multiple people—eat. This might seem simple enough, but if your verb is placed far from the subject, sometimes writers forget what the subject was and conjugate wrong. For example:

  • Sarah, the girl from my chemistry class, and her hot-stuff boy-toy, Bob, eats sandwiches.  – Incorrect
  • Sarah, the girl from my chemistry class, and her hot-stuff boy-toy, Bob, eat sandwiches. – Correct

With so much information between the two subjects, it can be easy to forget that the verb to eat needs to be conjugated for a plural subject and not just for the subject placed nearest to the verb in the sentence—Bob.

7. I will not use a word that is ridiculous just because it made it into a dictionary.

I hate to break it to you, but dictionaries do not dictate good usage. Yes, you have been lied to. Just because a word has made it into a dictionary does not make it a good word. Dictionaries admit words on a sort of democratic basis. If enough people say something, it becomes a word. We seem to have this fascination with things being a word or not being a word (probably residual effects of schoolyard taunts), but I am here to tell you that just because something has been deemed a word by some dictionary at some time in history, it does not mean you should use it.

Let’s take the word irregardless for example. According to Merriam-Webster.com, irregardless has been a word (officially) since the 1920’s. It cites several instances in which the word was used. Notice, however, that the dictionary notes that the word is “nonstandard” and that it was likely a “blend of irrespective and regardless”.  So, the dictionary says it’s a word, but it also says it’s a word that became popular over time and that is not, exactly, a word that should be used in lieu of either regardless or irrespective. Either of those words would be a much better choice than irregardless.

A dictionary is a great place to find out how words evolved. Some words fall out of favor, some become popular, some are combined with other words to create new words, but that doesn’t always mean you should use them. Consider this—when Sarah Palin’s refudiate becomes a word, are you going to use it?

8. I will recognize the difference between login and log in.

Log in is a verb + preposition pairing. A login is a noun created by people using the verb + preposition pairing as noun. A person must enter his or her login in order to log in to the system. Get it! Got it? Good.

9. I will not type two spaces at the end of a sentence.

This might be harder for some people than for others. I think if you learned to type after 1990, then you probably never put two spaces after a sentence ever. If that’s you, go ahead and skip to number 10.

If, however, you learned to type before the swinging 90s, then you might need to be released from your double-tap prison. Again, in the olden days, we had to deal with typewriters and printing presses, so rules were created to accommodate their shortcomings. Rob Hart’s excellent article Down With the Double Tap offers more explanation about why this practice became the norm. Nowadays, we have computers, so the reasons no longer apply. The number one reason why you can give your space bar a break is this: YOUR COMPUTER DOES IT FOR YOU! Unless you still write on a typewriter. Stop. Double-spacing. After. Every. Period.

10. I will read LitReactor every day and do whatever Taylor tells me to do.

Happy New Year, everyone! Thanks for reading! I look forward to lecturing you with nit-picky grammar rules in the new year!

Want to take your writing to the next level? Check out our slate of online workshops.

Taylor Houston

Column by Taylor Houston

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer and volunteers on the marketing committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education. She has a BA in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College and attended Penn State's MFA program in Creative Nonfiction. She has taught writing at all levels from middle school to college to adult, and she is the creator of Writer’s Cramp, a class for adults who just want to write!

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justkristin's picture
justkristin from the basement is reading whatever is within reach December 31, 2012 - 4:17pm

The only item on the above list with which I disagree is the first one. "They" as a singular pronoun for a person of unspecified or unknown gender is not new (http://chronicle.com/blogs/linguafranca/2012/01/05/dogma-and-evidence/), nor is it necessarily frowned upon (http://oxforddictionaries.com/words/he-or-she-versus-they), and it serves a purpose for which there are only clunky alternatives. Lexicon Valley has a fantastic episode about this topic called "<a href="http://www.slate.com/articles/podcasts/lexicon_valley/2012/05/lexicon_valley_seeking_a_gender_neutral_alternative_to_he_and_she_.html">For He/She's a Jolly Bad Pronoun</a>" which covers both sides of the argument quite well.

For me, though, the decision was made with aesthetics as the arbiter. There is no beauty in the sound of "he/she", and little more in the linguistic contortions that would allow us to avoid pronouns altogether. Ugly-sounding prose and twisted syntax are results of grammatical pedantry up with which I will not put. :)

Dave Reuss's picture
Dave Reuss from Bozeman is reading Now is the Hour December 31, 2012 - 4:32pm

11) Keep consistency with em dashes (in your opening paragraph).

12) And consistency with punctuation in sentences that end with quotations. ("...regardless”. vs. "hit a wall.”) :-)

Sorry, I couldn't help myself. Nothing but love, Taylor. Your columns are my favorite.


Barry Cunningham's picture
Barry Cunningham December 31, 2012 - 5:16pm

"With some much information between the two subjects..." is so wrong. Also, "irregardless" may be used overtime, but it became popular over time.

Joshua Chaplinsky's picture
Joshua Chaplinsky from New York is reading a lot more during the quarantine December 31, 2012 - 5:41pm

Thanks, @Barry. Fixed.

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Durango, Colorado but living in Portland, Oregon is reading The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart December 31, 2012 - 6:36pm

Ah, the dangers of writing a grammar column.


A Happy New Year to you all. 

SammyB's picture
SammyB from Las Vegas is reading currently too many to list December 31, 2012 - 9:37pm

This covers the most common mistakes. I have a rocky relationship with grammar. Sometimes I do really well with it and at other times I can't string a sentence together. Part of it, which is the case for many, is the issue of thinking about it too much. If you overthink it, then you tend to make the wrong choices.

Courtney's picture
Courtney from the Midwest is reading Monkey: A Journey to the West and a thousand college textbooks December 31, 2012 - 11:20pm

I'm both an obsessive, nit-picky grammar nerd and drunk, so this is my response to three points and Dave's response for the entertainment of all reading the comments.

1. Shouldn't writing reflect common usage in some cases? In dialogue, specifically. When I first learned that prepositions should never hang, I always wrote it that way, even in dialogue; then I realized, because of reading J.K. Rowling, that you should follow grammar rules in dialogue and break the commonly broken ones in dialogue because that's how people actually fucking speak.

2. Ew. Do people make this mistake? I'm sad now.

6. I only know this because I studied the shit out of multiple foreign languages. (Almost said "student" instead of "foreign," because I'm drunk.) Studying foreign languages is so helpful to writing; it's unreal. It's honestly improved both my grammar (by learning how to describe rules that I couldn't fully articulate in English but could apply well because I know the language well) and by understanding the differences between English and others. Like, in Spanish, adjectives come after nouns, and a lot of Spanish cultures are that way in mindset -- a fat person isn't a girl, a girl is fat. In English, we say "fat girl," but in Spanish, we say "girl fat." Does this make sense?

@Dave I don't keep consistent, but it's because I don't buy into either of the "punctuation must come before/after quotations and parentheses" camp. I base mine on whether it's a side-bar to the sentence, in which case I place the period outside of the side-bar, or whether it's necessary to the sentence, in which case I place the punctation inside the side-bar. Unless it's dialogue. Then it's always inside the puncutation.

Dale Eldon's picture
Dale Eldon January 1, 2013 - 4:29am

Great points! I'm good with our/are, but sometimes the fingers get confused even though my brain knows better. Who vs Whom has always been a hard one for me, and using They for single person when keeping it non-specific.

I really love reading these articles, I'm working to learn as much as I can about grammar since I'm an author, and I want to send out MSs as clean as possible. :^)

Stephen_Inf's picture
Stephen_Inf from Illinois is reading Whiskey Tango Foxtrot January 1, 2013 - 7:34am

Damn it. You don't know how hard it's going to be to undo 25 years of double-tap programming. I blame Mavis Beacon.

Irene L. Pynn's picture
Irene L. Pynn January 1, 2013 - 8:44am

"Every day" vs. "everyday?" :)

Heath Alberts's picture
Heath Alberts January 1, 2013 - 1:06pm

Misuse of "Decimated" and "Nauseous" are my two big ones. The problem is so ubiquitous, that even the news media are using the words incorrectly.


Cpm1991's picture
Cpm1991 January 1, 2013 - 1:21pm

Those referred to as 'acronyms', aren't.



Cary Ferguson's picture
Cary Ferguson January 1, 2013 - 1:32pm

I promise to not split infinitives. And like never use like or as out of context or like start those strings of words with a conjunction. Gawsh! Its toats not air conditioning when u can't communicate in a proper and acceptable fashion.

Courtney's picture
Courtney from the Midwest is reading Monkey: A Journey to the West and a thousand college textbooks January 1, 2013 - 1:58pm

@Stephen I learned typing from Mavis Beacon! It was a CD for a computer in 1999, though, so I don't know what's different. I typed 120 wpm at seven years old because of that thing.

Diana Wilson's picture
Diana Wilson January 1, 2013 - 3:25pm

um... from section 1: "even though it’s clearly a single person to who the sentence is referring"

see section 5 ;)

ktshorter's picture
ktshorter from Easton, MD is reading Vox January 1, 2013 - 4:19pm

Of all these, the 'double-tap' after sentences is my worst offense. It's too difficult not to (I guess that shows my age). 

Stephen_Inf's picture
Stephen_Inf from Illinois is reading Whiskey Tango Foxtrot January 1, 2013 - 4:48pm

@Courtney Yeah, Mavis Beacon kept me from ever having to take a typing class in school. The late 1980s version was probably a little less sophisticated (for starters, it came on a 5 1/4" floppy disk), but I doubt there have been major advances in typing tutor technology over the last 25 years.

Steven Sandor's picture
Steven Sandor January 1, 2013 - 5:44pm

From example 1: "When employees get a new computer, they have to set up their preferences."

Well, that's all well and good if the company is very cheap and can only afford one computer that all employees have to share. But, I think there is still a massive flaw in the sentence, the mix of singular and plural. It should be "When employees get NEW COMPUTERS, they have to set up their preferences."

Now we have plural agreement!

Covewriter's picture
Covewriter from Nashville, Tennessee is reading & Sons January 1, 2013 - 11:16pm

This is what I'M taking away from the double space after sentences. Correct me  if I am wrong: Printed out stories should have double spaces after sentences, but since we are printing from a computer we only need to tap one space and the computer will do the other space for us? Is that correct? And does it matter so much in the scheme of things? 

Scott Reese's picture
Scott Reese January 2, 2013 - 4:52am

BAHH! Number ten should be every day!

bmartin2009's picture
bmartin2009 from St. Paul, Minnesota is reading Dune January 2, 2013 - 7:54am

Still no love for my two pet peeves: "impactful" and "every day" vs. "everyday".

Taylor's picture
Taylor from Durango, Colorado but living in Portland, Oregon is reading The Paradox Hotel by Rob Hart January 3, 2013 - 8:37am

Ok. I can admit when I am wrong:

An acronym is a word made up of the first letters of words. It must also be read as a word, like NASA or NATO. An initialism is a word made up of the first letters of words, and it is not read as a word, like CEO or DVD. I honestly had never heard of an initialism until now, so I apologize for leading anyone astray. However, the rule holds true for either:  you no longer need an apostrophe to make it into a plural.

Thanks, Diana. I saw that as soon as it was published. It's hard to see my own errors when I am editing no matter how many times I read through the article, but then as soon as it gets posted, they jump out at me. You are right, I used who when I should have used whom. *Sigh*

Yes, Steven, making computers plural does make that a much better sentence. That said, I have worked at some very cheap places. Actually, when I worked for the State of Washington, employees shared computers, desks, and chairs. I kid you not. It was like musical desks every day. If you came late, you could expect to stand the entire day.

Every day, I write columns about everyday mistakes. I also make mistakes sometimes. It was a typo, people.

I stand firm on the their issue. Find a way around it.

Whenever I write one of these top ten articles, I find it amazing how many people take the time to point out all of my errors. I should just be glad that you read my articles so closely, right? I do find it encouraging that people care enough about quality writing to stand up for it.

Thank you for reading.


SarahElizabeth's picture
SarahElizabeth from Pennsylvania is reading All the Light We Cannot See; Monster January 5, 2013 - 3:43pm

As a proofreader, grammar is close to my heart. I will say, I think the whole "he or she" thing is silly. I realize we're all for gender equality and all that, but at some point, we need to grow up and realize that we should not make a pretzel of the English language just so that people's feelings aren't hurt. And I've never actually known anyone who felt hurt because they were of the opposite gender than the one chosen. I've seen "she" used instead of "he" and thought that worked fine, too. IMO, just pick one and stick to it. Consistency is key here.

SarahElizabeth's picture
SarahElizabeth from Pennsylvania is reading All the Light We Cannot See; Monster January 5, 2013 - 3:46pm

And, yes, UGH for "impactful." Really, really bad. Worse than a misused "myself."

"Myself went to the self-help workshop. It was very impactful." What was? Your self or the workshop? What was your self doing wandering around without you? (Whenever I see that, I always think of this disembodied self wandering around alone.)

Ray Richards's picture
Ray Richards from Michigan and Iowa is reading The Great Shark Hunt by Hunter S. Thompson January 9, 2013 - 7:56pm

How do I hide the gender of my secret santa?

Maureen McIlwain's picture
Maureen McIlwain February 14, 2013 - 7:16pm

Re: use of 1920's in comment #7, please refer to #3 - same applies with reference to dates, decades, etc as to acronyms. There is no need for an apostrophe. The dates are neither contractions nor possessive of anything.