20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes

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I’ve edited a monthly magazine for more than six years, and it’s a job that’s come with more frustration than reward. If there’s one thing I am grateful for — and it sure isn’t the pay — it’s that my work has allowed endless time to hone my craft to Louis Skolnick levels of grammar geekery.

As someone who slings red ink for a living, let me tell you: grammar is an ultra-micro component in the larger picture; it lies somewhere in the final steps of the editing trail; and as such it’s an overrated quasi-irrelevancy in the creative process, perpetuated into importance primarily by bitter nerds who accumulate tweed jackets and crippling inferiority complexes. But experience has also taught me that readers, for better or worse, will approach your work with a jaundiced eye and an itch to judge. While your grammar shouldn’t be a reflection of your creative powers or writing abilities, let’s face it — it usually is.

Below are 20 common grammar mistakes I see routinely, not only in editorial queries and submissions, but in print: in HR manuals, blogs, magazines, newspapers, trade journals, and even best selling novels. If it makes you feel any better, I’ve made each of these mistakes a hundred times, and I know some of the best authors in history have lived to see these very toadstools appear in print. Let's hope you can learn from some of their more famous mistakes.

Who and Whom

This one opens a big can of worms. “Who” is a subjective — or nominative — pronoun, along with "he," "she," "it," "we," and "they." It’s used when the pronoun acts as the subject of a clause. “Whom” is an objective pronoun, along with "him," "her," "it", "us," and "them." It’s used when the pronoun acts as the object of a clause. Using “who” or “whom” depends on whether you’re referring to the subject or object of a sentence. When in doubt, substitute “who” with the subjective pronouns “he” or “she,” e.g., Who loves you? cf., He loves me. Similarly, you can also substitute “whom” with the objective pronouns “him” or “her.” e.g., I consulted an attorney whom I met in New York. cf., I consulted him.

Which and That

This is one of the most common mistakes out there, and understandably so. “That” is a restrictive pronoun. It’s vital to the noun to which it’s referring.  e.g., I don’t trust fruits and vegetables that aren’t organic. Here, I’m referring to all non-organic fruits or vegetables. In other words, I only trust fruits and vegetables that are organic. “Which” introduces a relative clause. It allows qualifiers that may not be essential. e.g., I recommend you eat only organic fruits and vegetables, which are available in area grocery stores. In this case, you don’t have to go to a specific grocery store to obtain organic fruits and vegetables. “Which” qualifies, “that” restricts. “Which” is more ambiguous however, and by virtue of its meaning is flexible enough to be used in many restrictive clauses. e.g., The house, which is burning, is mine. e.g., The house that is burning is mine.

Lay and Lie

This is the crown jewel of all grammatical errors. “Lay” is a transitive verb. It requires a direct subject and one or more objects. Its present tense is “lay” (e.g., I lay the pencil on the table) and its past tense is “laid” (e.g., Yesterday I laid the pencil on the table). “Lie” is an intransitive verb. It needs no object. Its present tense is “lie” (e.g., The Andes mountains lie between Chile and Argentina) and its past tense is “lay” (e.g., The man lay waiting for an ambulance). The most common mistake occurs when the writer uses the past tense of the transitive “lay” (e.g., I laid on the bed) when he/she actually means the intransitive past tense of “lie" (e.g., I lay on the bed).

Moot

Contrary to common misuse, “moot” doesn’t imply something is superfluous. It means a subject is disputable or open to discussion. e.g., The idea that commercial zoning should be allowed in the residential neighborhood was a moot point for the council.

Continual and Continuous

They’re similar, but there’s a difference. “Continual” means something that's always occurring, with obvious lapses in time. “Continuous” means something continues without any stops or gaps in between. e.g., The continual music next door made it the worst night of studying ever. e.g., Her continuous talking prevented him from concentrating.

Envy and Jealousy

The word “envy” implies a longing for someone else’s good fortunes. “Jealousy” is far more nefarious. It’s a fear of rivalry, often present in sexual situations. “Envy” is when you covet your friend’s good looks. “Jealousy” is what happens when your significant other swoons over your good-looking friend.

Nor

“Nor” expresses a negative condition. It literally means "and not." You’re obligated to use the “nor” form if your sentence expresses a negative and follows it with another negative condition. “Neither the men nor the women were drunk” is a correct sentence because “nor” expresses that the women held the same negative condition as the men. The old rule is that “nor” typically follows “neither,” and “or” follows “either.” However, if neither “either” nor “neither” is used in a sentence, you should use “nor” to express a second negative, as long as the second negative is a verb. If the second negative is a noun, adjective, or adverb, you would use “or,” because the initial negative transfers to all conditions. e.g., He won’t eat broccoli or asparagus. The negative condition expressing the first noun (broccoli) is also used for the second (asparagus).

May and Might

“May” implies a possibility. “Might” implies far more uncertainty. “You may get drunk if you have two shots in ten minutes” implies a real possibility of drunkenness. “You might get a ticket if you operate a tug boat while drunk” implies a possibility that is far more remote. Someone who says “I may have more wine” could mean he/she doesn't want more wine right now, or that he/she “might” not want any at all. Given the speaker’s indecision on the matter, “might” would be correct.

Whether and If 

Many writers seem to assume that “whether” is interchangeable with “if." It isn’t. “Whether” expresses a condition where there are two or more alternatives. “If” expresses a condition where there are no alternatives. e.g., I don’t know whether I’ll get drunk tonight. e.g., I can get drunk tonight if I have money for booze.

Fewer and Less

“Less” is reserved for hypothetical quantities. “Few” and “fewer” are for things you can quantify. e.g., The firm has fewer than ten employees. e.g., The firm is less successful now that we have only ten employees.

Farther and Further

The word “farther” implies a measurable distance. “Further” should be reserved for abstract lengths you can't always measure. e.g., I threw the ball ten feet farther than Bill. e.g., The financial crisis caused further implications.

Since and Because

“Since” refers to time. “Because” refers to causation. e.g., Since I quit drinking I’ve married and had two children. e.g., Because I quit drinking I no longer wake up in my own vomit.

Disinterested and Uninterested

Contrary to popular usage, these words aren’t synonymous. A “disinterested” person is someone who’s impartial. For example, a hedge fund manager might take interest in a headline regarding the performance of a popular stock, even if he's never invested in it. He’s “disinterested,” i.e., he doesn’t seek to gain financially from the transaction he’s witnessed. Judges and referees are supposed to be "disinterested." If the sentence you’re using implies someone who couldn't care less, chances are you’ll want to use “uninterested.”

Anxious

Unless you’re frightened of them, you shouldn’t say you’re “anxious to see your friends.” You’re actually “eager,” or "excited." To be “anxious” implies a looming fear, dread or anxiety. It doesn’t mean you’re looking forward to something.

Different Than and Different From

This is a tough one. Words like “rather” and “faster” are comparative adjectives, and are used to show comparison with the preposition “than,” (e.g., greater than, less than, faster than, rather than). The adjective “different” is used to draw distinction. So, when “different” is followed by a  preposition, it should be “from,” similar to “separate from,” “distinct from,” or “away from.” e.g., My living situation in New York was different from home. There are rare cases where “different than” is appropriate, if “than” operates as a conjunction. e.g., Development is different in New York than in Los Angeles. When in doubt, use “different from.”

Bring and Take

In order to employ proper usage of “bring” or “take,” the writer must know whether the object is being moved toward or away from the subject. If it is toward, use “bring.” If it is away, use “take.” Your spouse may tell you to “take your clothes to the cleaners.” The owner of the dry cleaners would say “bring your clothes to the cleaners.”

Impactful

It isn't a word. "Impact" can be used as a noun (e.g., The impact of the crash was severe) or a transitive verb (e.g., The crash impacted my ability to walk or hold a job). "Impactful" is a made-up buzzword, colligated by the modern marketing industry in their endless attempts to decode the innumerable nuances of human behavior into a string of mindless metrics. Seriously, stop saying this.

Affect and Effect

Here’s a trick to help you remember: “Affect” is almost always a verb (e.g., Facebook affects people’s attention spans), and “effect” is almost always a noun (e.g., Facebook's effects can also be positive). “Affect” means to influence or produce an impression — to cause hence, an effect. “Effect” is the thing produced by the affecting agent; it describes the result or outcome. There are some exceptions. “Effect” may be used as a transitive verb, which means to bring about or make happen. e.g., My new computer effected a much-needed transition from magazines to Web porn. There are similarly rare examples where “affect” can be a noun. e.g., His lack of affect made him seem like a shallow person.

Irony and Coincidence

Too many people claim something is the former when they actually mean the latter. For example, it’s not “ironic” that “Barbara moved from California to New York, where she ended up meeting and falling in love with a fellow Californian.” The fact that they’re both from California is a "coincidence." "Irony" is the incongruity in a series of events between the expected results and the actual results. "Coincidence" is a series of events that appear planned when they’re actually accidental. So, it would be "ironic" if “Barbara moved from California to New York to escape California men, but the first man she ended up meeting and falling in love with was a fellow Californian.”

Nauseous

Undoubtedly the most common mistake I encounter. Contrary to almost ubiquitous misuse, to be “nauseous” doesn’t mean you’ve been sickened: it actually means you possess the ability to produce nausea in others. e.g., That week-old hot dog is nauseous. When you find yourself disgusted or made ill by a nauseating agent, you are actually “nauseated.” e.g., I was nauseated after falling into that dumpster behind the Planned Parenthood. Stop embarrassing yourself.


If you’re looking for a practical, quick guide to proper grammar, I suggest the tried-and-true classic The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White. A few of these examples are listed in the book, and there are plenty more. Good luck!


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

Image of The Elements of Style (4th Edition)
Author: William Strunk, E. B. White
Price: $9.18
Publisher: Longman (1999)
Binding: Hardcover, 105 pages
Jon Gingerich

Column by Jon Gingerich

Jon Gingerich is editor of O'Dwyer's magazine in New York. His fiction has been published in literary journals such as The Oyez Review, Pleiades, Helix Magazine, as well as The New York Press, London’s Litro magazine, and many others. He currently writes about politics and media trends at www.odwyerpr.com. Jon holds an MFA in creative writing from The New School. Some of his published fiction can be found at www.jongingerich.com.

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Mark's picture
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Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water February 1, 2012 - 11:52pm

IMHO, some of these points are moot . . .

Indeed. While others are false. And still others are non-controversial.

 

However, grammar is never wrong or mistaken.

 

Really? You've never encountered broken grammar? The original title to this aricle was grammatically flawed, just mildly, as it put the mind into a recursive spiral trying to choose whether people get the rules wrong versus what it could mean to be wrong about the common mistakes.

Let's start with a definition, the first one that comes up just glancing at onelook.com:

grammar

noun
▸the set of rules that describe the structure of a language and control the way that sentences are formed

As a grammar is a set of combinatorial rules, it encompasses both diction (word choice) and syntax (word order.)  It even encompasses things like gendered endings and rules for subject-verb agreement.  Follow the grammatical rules that other native speakers of your dialect generally know and follow and people will understand what you're talking about. Mess up moderately and you might sound dull-witted or poorly educated.  Mess up too much and you've unavoidably fractured or damaged the semantics or intended meanings.

Children learn a grammar through experience and exposure.  Mostly through conversation with other native speakers of their own dialect. Just as young speakers of Scottish Gaelic learn that word order is strictly verb–subject–object, regardless if you're asking a question or giving a command or simply observing something, speakers of most dialects of English almost never put the verb first, except in certain classes of questions.

Am I right?  

If "John was running" sounds natural and right to you and "Running was John" doesn't then you understand your native tongue. But to speakers of Scotish Gaelic, putting the verb first just sounds right and feels natural.  And that's how children learn their native grammar: Exposure and repetition. Conversation and listening. Experience combined with an evolved cognitive apparatus in the human brain that's hungry to imprint a language.  

Later, in primary education (what English speakers used to call "grammar school") they drill you (or once did) in a bunch of rules or principles that attempt to formalize what you've already mostly learned implicitly, intuitively, and by exposure.

Closer to home for American speakers: if you ask a native speaker of U.S. Urban Black English (some people say "Ebonics") how her sister is occupied of late, and she says:

1. She be working at the optometrist's office.

That means something different from:

2. She working at the optometrist's office.

One of these means the sister is employed there generally, as an ongoing state of affairs, and could be true even if it's Sunday and the office is closed. The other construction more narrowly suggests that the sister is likely to be at work this very moment.

Compare the most common Standard American English version:

3. She's working at the optometrist's office.

Notice that 3 falls into ambiguity pretty easily.  Standard American English lacks the precise marking of this difference between right now and an ongoing state of affairs--at least in this instance--unless we append additional phrasing and explanation.

Standard American English is a political convenience and a genralization.  It's broadcaster speak.  Every region in this large country has its own dialect and none of them are wrong.  But each and every one of them has legal (rule-governed) constructions that make sense to other native speakers, while constructions that break these rules range from mildly offputting to total gibberish.


I realize I'm borrowing, paraphrasing, or adapting from other works for some of the examples above.  To get even more of the story, in particular, check out Our Magnificient Bastard Tongue by John McWhorter.


My favorite non-grammatical English utterance is this one:

"Why I eyes ya!"

"Why I eyes ya!"  

I've been known to leap from behind sofas and shout it. Not because it means anything, but because it's fun. I learned it from the cat in the video below. I forgive her for bad grammar because the amazing thing is that she speaks at all.

 

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words February 1, 2012 - 11:54pm

I use "it's" as my preferred form for both possesive and contraction, in better parallel with the rest of English usage for other nouns and pronouns.

possessive pronouns never take apostrophes.

 

tjanke's picture
tjanke February 2, 2012 - 1:28am

Well done.  Would that my students could grasp these nuances.  It would make my life so much easier, much less frustrating. 

I am disturbed, however, by your use of a semi-colon and conjunction together: "...it lies somewhere in the final steps of the editing trail; and as such it’s an overrated quasi-irrelevancy in the creative process...".  Call me old-fashioned, but the semi-colon is used alone to join independent clauses.  

Still, I deeply appreciate the clear, concise explanations.  In spite of the prevailing -- and misinformed -- attitude that grammar/usage/punctuation is purely subjective and open to one's individual interpretaion, standardization provides much-needed clarity to writing, and it seldom interferes with tone, intent, or creativity.

 

Amy Patterson Black's picture
Amy Patterson Black from Ohio is reading Mistborn by Brandon Sanderson February 2, 2012 - 3:15am

You are making my brain hurt....

Mark's picture
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Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water February 2, 2012 - 3:21am

You are making my brain hurt....

scroll up a bit and watch the cat; she's zazzy, hypoallergenic, and brain-soothing.

RobH's picture
RobH February 2, 2012 - 3:27am

What a terrible article. Half the so-called grammar mistakes pointed out here aren't even mistakes.

dith's picture
dith February 2, 2012 - 12:19pm

Jon, that Planned Parenthood joke is lame and fucked-up and completely out of place in an otherwise terrific piece about common usage errors. Not to mention it's spectacularly ill-timed. Might I suggest a revision?

ex0du5's picture
ex0du5 February 2, 2012 - 1:38pm

Really? You've never encountered broken grammar? The original title to this aricle was grammatically flawed, just mildly, as it put the mind into a recursive spiral trying to choose whether people get the rules wrong versus what it could mean to be wrong about the common mistakes.

I've encountered grammar that was difficult to understand.  However, that is precisely why I am so quick to (often) point out that there is no right or wrong here - because people have a long history of attacking what they have difficulty understanding.  Hawaiian aboriginals have a long history of oppression by English speakers who kept them out of the job force and even used physical violence and overt oppression in their school system because of the aboriginal's pidgin.  Other creoles around the world have faced similar tactics, and it is very common for people to assume that because their particular dialect's structure is not being followed by a speaker, the speaker is less intelligent.

In fact, you make that leap.  Which is sad.  Obviously, it's no longer acceptable to say that because someone is not one's own skin color, they must be dumb.  Similarly, it's not acceptable to say that about gender.  Ethnic beliefs and enculturation still have to fight against bias, though, and fighting against blanket judgements based on criteria unrelated to what is being judged is an important social battle.

One's particular choice of grammatical structure is completely uncorrelated with intelligence, and likely just an indicator of their family and cultural upbringing.  All dialects are valid language, which is obvious - if they've grown to be recognised as dialects there is scientific eviddence that a group of people are using them to communicate.
 

Let's start with a definition, the first one that comes up just glancing at onelook.com:

grammar

noun
▸the set of rules that describe the structure of a language and control the way that sentences are formed

Why, in an article supporting precision, do you turn to an informal definition of grammar that uses terms vaguely? 

Actually, that question is rhetorical.  The answer is to obviously support the case being made.  The definition is actually fairly good if your intentions are not to bend it to a point.  The formal definition of grammar (in the formal theory of languages, which is the mathematical formulation of language - which also was my concentration in one of majors in college) is much more clear on the structural role of grammar.  There are many different theories of grammar, but they all are clear on one important point: grammar is syntactical.  It can be formally verified against construction rules of sentences.  The grammar of a sentence can be tree diagrammed, assigning the structural roles to each word.

This is completely different from semantics, which requires a model or interpretation to assign meanings to sentences. Although we have dictionaries and related that try to give us meanings in words, it's well-known that this cannot be done consistently because of the circular reference problem, and this must ultimately be done in our brains relating verbal or written symbols with experiences.

Any time two words can be placed in the same position in a sentence and take the same sentence role, the distinction being made is semantic.  You have two nouns?  They differ by semantics.  The comments about transitivity of verbs, for instance, are syntactic.  The comments on "moot", "nauseous", etc. are semantic.

Semantics are one of the more dynamic areas of language evolution because they are so easily interchanged.  "Fast" was not always a speed or similar to "quick" - in fact, it had quite an opposite meaning which is still sometimes used (eg. held fast).  When we say something is "cool" it is not always an indication of temperature - it could mean it is also "hot"!

Syntax changes more slowly, but it too changes.  Nouns become adverbified (don't choke on that word - fight the eye twitch!).  Intransitive verbs add subjects, and transitives lose them.  Europeans and the Indian subcontinent do not all share the same grammatical structure that we inherited from Protoindoeuropean (PIE).

Look, my point is that it is fine to tell people how many people use a word, so that when they use it, they may try (if they want) to communicate with expectations.  But it is wrong to tell people that one's own prefferred syntax and semantics is the only way to communicate.  That falls quickly to bigotry.  And it is also factually incorrect. 

And (if you will allow the conjunction beginning these past few sentences), just to be clear, the advice you give in many of these points is not how many people use the words, so you are failing to even represent the modern syntactic and semantic structure of the common English dialects.  You are instead proposing that people change their common usage. Now, you are using historical usage in many instances, which rarely works as an argument for language change (except to those who feel a need to be "right" to feel better than others).  Better arguments for language change typically are: it's easier, it's funnier, or the old standby: it's clearer.  As an editor, you might want to look to editing for one of those goals over historical consistency.  You won't gain readers if you start regressing to Old English or PIE.

 

Liana's picture
Liana from Romania and Texas is reading Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee and loving it! February 2, 2012 - 1:53pm

When I saw that there was a magazine entry about grammar, I thought, "this is not gonna get any responses." Many people flee when they hear the G word. Boy was I wrong.

I just want to point out, Mark, that there are some geniuses in the 20th/21st century who are known for coining new words in their books. Joyce did, and Cormac McCarthy still does, brilliantly. Or rather, his books are enbrillianted by coined words.

dadge's picture
dadge February 2, 2012 - 2:24pm

Liana: "When I saw that there was a magazine entry about grammar, I thought, "this is not gonna get any responses." Many people flee when they hear the G word. Boy was I wrong."

You sure were. It's pretty well known in the media business that language errors (real or imagined) are one of the top response-generating topics. This field even has a name: peevology, and this blogpost is a good example. And like most other blogposts on this topic, it's of very little use because much of it is bullshit. If you want to educate yourself on this topic, read a book, not a blogpost by some guy who knows just as much about the language as you do.

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Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water February 2, 2012 - 2:57pm

I've encountered grammar that was difficult to understand.  However, that is precisely why I am so quick to (often) point out that there is no right or wrong here - because people have a long history of attacking what they have difficulty understanding.  Hawaiian aboriginals have a long history of oppression by English speakers who kept them out of the job force and even used physical violence and overt oppression in their school system because of the aboriginal's pidgin.  Other creoles around the world have faced similar tactics, and it is very common for people to assume that because their particular dialect's structure is not being followed by a speaker, the speaker is less intelligent.

In fact, you make that leap.  Which is sad.

Are you kidding me? Please try again. The example adapted regarding Urban Black English demonstrates that dialect being more agile and precise than the nearest standard English equivalency. If anything, I'm showing the "non-standard" dialect that belongs to a strong ethnic group as smarter than homogenized Standard American English. It's going to be hard to have an intelligent debate if you warp what I'm saying into a reactionary racist paradigm that's quite the opposite of what I've just presented.

My larger point is that every dialect is not only valid, but rule-governed.  Each dialect has "legal" constructions that follow a deeper grammar. I don't make that claim to the purpose of swaying everyone to one particular dialect or oppressing anyone who speaks a different dialect. Rather, I'm pointing out that any and every dialect has a structure.  People internalize the "rules" of that structure and learn to use them, even if they've never studied those rules in a formalized way.

Another point I was making is that syntax and semantics are both, in important ways, subsumed under the topic of grammar.  It's actually more of a layman's thing to insist on the word "syntax," narrowly, when discussing word order, because syntax is utterly governed by the total combinatorial rules of grammar.  Some language specialists tend to just say "grammar" when discussing the ways in which the words of a language may be legally combined.  And yes, "legally combined" is figurative language that translates into what are meaningful constructions for native speakers.  When we get the grammar right, it means something, which returns us to considerations of semantics.  The deepest nitpickery in this discussion so far is your insistence on forcibly separating basic aspects of grammar which work necessarily together when they work at all.  

Jon's article title may have been more robustly fitting and minutely accurate if he'd said something like: "20 Common Grammar and Usage Mistakes that Almost Everyone Makes." That would cover the purely syntactic problems, if some of his gripes fall neatly into that domain.  But again, that's a level of nitpickery which goes well beyond my own original points, which are all driven more toward basic understanding.

I reverted to a basic definition to make and to clear up some basic points. Not just for you, but for others who are reading and responding.  Comment #50 (I believe it was. End of the first page on this thread as it parses for me) came from someone who seemed to believe that no one learns anything about grammar except from snobby little books.  I wanted to point out that everyone learns grammar when they learn to speak their native dialect.  That's a point that isn't broadly or generally understood.  

You clearly understand more on the topic than suggested by the one superficial statement I quoted: "Grammar is never wrong or mistaken." That's a false statement.  A dialect is never wrong or mistaken, and a people is never wrong for speaking a minority dialect, even if it brings unfair bias and persecution against them.  (Something I don't particpate in and shame on you for insinuating that.  Sloppy ad hominem argumentation.)  But as each and every dialect has formation rules and legal constructions (a grammar,) it's entirely possible to make grammar mistakes within the framework of speaking or writing that particular dialect.  When my niece was younger, she'd sometimes internalize what she thought was a general rule and then extend it in inappropriate ways. Little kids do this all the time. For example, if it's okay to say: "He preached a sermon yesterday," why can't we also say: "He speaked at a conference last week."  If I can say: "I guided my class into a new exercise," then why can't my niece say: "I rided a horse yesterday."

Kids do this sort of thing because their minds are pre-wired to formulate and use general rules of grammar. And they often get it wrong for the perfectly good reason that natural languages do evolve and are historical and cultural "accidents" or accretions to begin with.  The legal constructions in any language or dialect are rule-governed and may be described in formalized ways, but it's a much more complex formulation than a little child can arrive at through the first exercises of native reasoning.  It isn't an act of bigotry or superiority when we chuckle and gently correct them--it's the transmission of culture and preparation for a world where that child will be unfairly judged, especially if he or she ceases to learn.

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Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water February 2, 2012 - 3:26pm

When I saw that there was a magazine entry about grammar, I thought, "this is not gonna get any responses." Many people flee when they hear the G word. Boy was I wrong.

I just want to point out, Mark, that there are some geniuses in the 20th/21st century who are known for coining new words in their books. Joyce did, and Cormac McCarthy still does, brilliantly. Or rather, his books are enbrillianted by coined words.

Hey Liana!  Good to see you.

To be clear, I wasn't arguing that no one has achieved a worthwhile coinage since Shakespeare. I was disputing the implied argument from an earlier commenter that we can't rightly object to the garish forced coinages that roll out of marketing departments (like "impactful") since Shakespeare himself invented words.

Specious reasoning, I thought, and a facile comparison. The people who push new words and artifical culture for purely market driven reasons should, most of them, stick to catchy slogans, like "Where's the Beef?" instead of expecting all of us to latch on to words like "impactful."

They aren't Joyce's peers, either.

And Joyce, as arrogant as he was (and oh, he was!) when asked for the one writer who would be his desert island choice (you know, you're stranded and you've only got one collection to read... people have been asking that for ages) he said: "I would like to say Dante, but I'd have to take the Englishman instead, because he is richer."**

Despite intense personal pride and Irish nationalism, besides, Joyce begrudgingly proclaimed the Bard.


**Thanks to Harold Bloom for teaching me so much about Shakespeare and about genius.

malcolmr's picture
malcolmr February 2, 2012 - 8:50pm

Your list is missing an entry:

Using the word "Grammar" when you mean "Language".

"Grammar" is defined as "the study of syntax and inflection". Most of the errors on your list are semantic, not syntactical. 

malcolmr's picture
malcolmr February 2, 2012 - 9:01pm

It is also worth quoting Chaucer at this point:

Ye knowe eek, that in forme of speche is chaunge
Withinne a thousand yeer, and wordes tho
That hadden prys, now wonder nyce and straunge
Us thinketh hem; and yet they spake hem so,
And spedde as wel in love as men now do;
Eek for to winne love in sondry ages,
In sondry londes, sondry ben usages.

Geoffrey Chaucer - Troilus and Criseyde (1385)

ashton's picture
ashton February 3, 2012 - 12:50am

May and Might...I thought "might" is just the simple past tense of "may", that's all.

Liana's picture
Liana from Romania and Texas is reading Disgrace by J.M. Coetzee and loving it! February 3, 2012 - 2:27am

Hi Vig (I still like that nickname)!

True, we can't all just say "I can modify language any old way I want because Shakespeare did it." One reason why introducing words into language worked for him was that he may still be the most read literary writer of all time (is he??). I suspect McCarthy, for one (don't know about Joyce), coins words (and resurrects archaic ones) for the beauty of it, with no ambitions of actually seeing them take off outside of his books.

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words February 3, 2012 - 3:04am

May and Might...I thought "might" is just the simple past tense of "may", that's all.

Modal and semi-modal verbs have multiple personalities.

Mightn't we agree?

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drcow from Ontario, Canada is reading The Stone Carvers by Jane Urquhart February 3, 2012 - 2:32pm

@malcolmr - thanks for that! 

@ex0du5 - You're stressing that better communication happens through evolution of usage.  The two do not go perfectly hand in hand, as any parent of teens and twenty-somethings (of all cultural backgrounds) knows. Linguistic evolution is messy and confusing to be caught up in (thanks for the post-colonial lesson btw). With practically any way of communicating, form and function combine and convey meaning, and the ever-present rules that make communicating possible are part of this process. Breaking rules can be fun, inventive and meaningful, and they are accepted when done with full knowledge of what one is doing and intending. Or not.... Example: My kid says something I fail to understand because the meaning has been fractured by his broken grammar. When pointing out my problem getting his meaning, I'm told "you KNOW what I mean".  But actually I don't. His lack of clarity is a marvelous evasion technique (meaningful in itself, right?). Linguistic evolution = better communication?  Sometimes...but not fully.  No superiority intended.  

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Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water February 3, 2012 - 11:27pm

Your list is missing an entry:

 

Using the word "Grammar" when you mean "Language".


"Grammar" is defined as "the study of syntax and inflection". Most of the errors on your list are semantic, not syntactical.

Here's a semantic argument for you:  What you've offered isn't the only definition of "grammar."  As I pointed out in earlier comments, it also means:

noun
▸the set of rules that describe the structure of a language and control the way that sentences are formed

The definition I've referenced is more encompassing as it covers syntax and inflection, but it also covers gender, case endings, suffix rules, noun declensions, verb conjugations, and lists of bizarre and oddball exceptions to each and every general rule that logic might suggest, since natural languages are never rigorously groomed or sorted by elementary logic.

What's more, the larger, more encompassing definition of grammar is useful and not merely a synonym for "language." Here's a case explaining why:

Suppose a kid uses a translation dictionary to meticulously render an English sentence into German in a tedioius one-word-at-a-time fashion.  Then the cobbled sentence becomes a paragraph and the paragraph becomes a love letter to a German sweetheart. The letter flies into the mail or these days, into cyberspace, the kid is all proud of himself, and the recipient of the letter reads it and laughs until she's in tears. Why? Because the case endings and orderings of parts of speech and so forth are so vastly different between the two languages that translation requires a more holistic and understanding-based approach.  You can't go one word at a time and cobble something together without the result looking ridiculous.  

Here's what happens when I use the first sentence I think of and put it into an ordinary translation program to go from English to German. And then I take the output and just as mechanically translate it from German back into English:

1. The little boy and girl walked their dog by the lake yesterday.

2. Der kleine Junge und das Mädchen gingen ihr Hund durch den See gestern.

3. The small boy and the girl went their dog through the lake yesterday.

That one came out only mildly flawed compared with the way this goes sometimes.  We could say it's a limitation of the translation software, sure, but equally bad errors and much worse creep in when someone without understanding rotely uses a translation dictionary.  It would have been just as bad for young and untutored penpals one hundred years ago.

When the kid asks: "Why did my letter turn out so ridiculous?" One answer is: "Because German and English are different languages."  Sadly though, most kids will say "Duh!" to that and look at you like you've just given your reason for something as being "because I said so."

On the other hand, if you say "Because German and English have different grammars," the kid might say: "Oh, what does that mean?" or Oh, how does that work exactly?" This response may lead to learning something.

If you answered the connundrum of the deeply flawed letter with "Because each language has its own syntax," you would be giving a very partial and imperfect answer.  It isn't enough to pluck the desired words out of a translation dictionary and then use some abstract formula for rearranging them into the right word order.  Doesn't work--because you haven't also dealt with gender and suffix rules and illogical but commonly observed exceptions to all the rules  You could answer with something like: "Because German and English have different syntax, case markings, suffix rules, verb conjugation rules, noun declension rules, and so forth."

But another way of saying all that is: German and English have different grammars.  

That's a valid and encompassing answer. Listing all the elements that make up a grammar is what you do next, when the kid is curious enough to ask you what your first answer means.

Distinctions like when to use 'Who' versus 'Whom' can only be answered by looking at the full context of implicated sentences and considering whatever general rules or principles we can extrapolate and use.  Having the definitions of individual words, in isolation, can't answer questions of this kind.  And looking at word order without any index for combinatiorial rules and exceptions can't provide a full answer, either. And that's why--however stuffy or old-fashioned or eventually by-passed by the evolution of language this may be--it's for right now a grammatical distinction. Jon made several grammatical distinctions in his original article. And he made a few points that might not fit perfectly under the grammar umbrella, but would have been perfectly covered if he'd worked in a term like "usage," as well. In my opinion, the minor flaws in his article don't begin to justify all of the misguided and heavyhanded corrections. 

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Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water February 3, 2012 - 11:56pm

Hi Vig (I still like that nickname)!

True, we can't all just say "I can modify language any old way I want because Shakespeare did it." One reason why introducing words into language worked for him was that he may still be the most read literary writer of all time (is he??). I suspect McCarthy, for one (don't know about Joyce), coins words (and resurrects archaic ones) for the beauty of it, with no ambitions of actually seeing them take off outside of his books.

Did Shakespeare's neologisms and innovations work for him because he's one of the most-read writers of all time, or is he one of the most-read writers of all time because his innovations worked for him?  I'd argue the later.  He isn't great because we remember him, we remember him because he was great.

When a genius invents a new word or an entirely new way of using an old word like "gossip" or "radiance," (or one of about 1700 more he invented,) the new use may perk the ears of the audience, but it likely won't sound ugly or forced, even at first blush and to his contemporaries.

And by a decade or a century later it still sounds fresh and right.

By four centuries later, select bits of his language are so steeped in the everyday speech that people don't know who they're quoting when they say it, and still other bits have zest when pointed out. But much of the work is sadly inaccessible to most casual users of the language. Not as inaccessible as the Middle English of Chaucer, by a longshot, but we still must become experts and specialists to appreciate Shakespeare as fully as the typical theatre goer once could. And I know that Liana, with a Ph.D. in English literature, gets what I'm saying, but I probably sound like a nut or fetishist or authoritarian twat to people who lack the same learning. It's brutal on the face of it, but I am resolved.

DooDawDay's picture
DooDawDay February 4, 2012 - 5:04am

Accidentally learned something. THANK YOU STUMBLEUPON!

ShaneFromaggio's picture
ShaneFromaggio February 4, 2012 - 1:47pm

Very interesting and useful article.  I learned. I laughed. I cried.

I was going to take the following query to a different forum, but after reading the comments responding to your article, I believe this will be a more viable source for the information I am seeking.

Whilst attempting to pull the stick out of one's anus, what proves to be the most efficient lubricant?

Thanks in advance for your assistance.
 

DavIng's picture
DavIng February 4, 2012 - 6:08pm

The marketing hacks of late 20th and early 21st centuries are not his peers.

Language is defined by culture, and only interpreted by academia. In terms of creating culture, yes, the marketing hacks of the late 20th and early 21st centuries are the peers of Shakespeare. It can be tempting to bash a word like "impactful" because we can remember a time when that word had not quite entered the vernacular and was still improper, but once it becomes common enough (and I don't know whether impactful has), it enters the vernacular and ceases to be improper. Those that continue to deny it's existence find themselves in the woeful land of factual  inaccuracy.

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Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water February 4, 2012 - 9:46pm

It can be tempting to bash a word like "impactful" because we can remember a time when that word had not quite entered the vernacular and was still improper, but once it becomes common enough (and I don't know whether impactful has), it enters the vernacular and ceases to be improper.

I don't find it improper, I find it distasteful. I don't deny its existence, I deny its elegance. At this precise moment in history and to an ear that's tuned like mine, it sounds forced and arbitrary, artificial, manufactured instead of born. Maybe that will change. Someday, maybe "impactful" will ring just like "distasteful" or "artificial" instead of only evoking these words.  But in agreeing with the author of the article on this point of taste, I don't speak for academia, I speak only for myself.

Also, I speak in full awareness that the grammarians of previous centuries have waged stupid little wars and lost.  There never really was a strong reason, in English, not to end a sentence with a preposition--to name one sure instance of the oft repeated bogus rule. Nineteenth and early twentieth century grammarians or grammar enthusiasts insisted it was a rule and they have lost.  

People of a certain set would warp the language every which way not to end on a preposition. In retort, it was Winston Churchill who said: "This is the kind of arrant pedantry up with which I will not put."

Some combination of acute common sense, good breeding, and fine wit told him there are some things you shouldn't put up with. And he was right. A few of the language highbrows of his day were probably trying to make English grammar cohere exactly as Latin grammar does, and there are some perfectly good reasons why it does not, never has, and never will.

People who push hard prescriptive rules about grammar tend to lose in the long run, and often look foolish to posterity. On that point, we're quite agreed. But there's still an argument to be made for educated taste, even or especially in the gray zones.

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Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water February 5, 2012 - 1:20am

Questionable to counterfeit coinage of "impactful" aside, another problem with cramming variations on the word "impact" into most every newscast, meeting of your marketing department, or sentence, is that all variations of "impact" cease to have one. It's a problem that's endemic to any media buzzword and the machines that make them. Overuse renders the would-be attention grabbing or formerly powerful word lame. A word intended to have an impact soon doesn't because it drips with triteness and hyperbole.

The same thing has happened to the word "relevant." There was a time when it was a perfectly good word. And it still can be. When someone says: "I believe this point is relevant to our debate, because..." and then lists actual reasons supporting the claim of relevancy, the word has lived true to its grammatical and semantic function within that sentence. It has a referential index.

On the other hand, consider when an airhead on TV says: "I think his music is just so relevant right now." And stops there, with widening eyes, nodding "meaningfully" at the co-host or camera. What does it mean? It may be that the comment is about a pop star who doesn't even have a defined political position or a clear message, but we're all supposed to nod in time with the airhead like the meaning is obvious. The word "relevant," at that moment, has ceased to have real meaning. It's become a media buzzword instead. It gets used for "truthiness" instead of truth.

And that's the deeper problem when any word becomes a media darling. It gets repeated so often and used so loosely that there might as well be a parrot on your shoulder saying it. If an actual bird, no one would be bothered that it's an imitative and plainly incoherent simulation of speech. A real parrot plays an honest trick and isn't fooling even itself. The human parrot is "funnier," in a certain sense of that word, but the real one is more amusing.

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susitucker February 5, 2012 - 4:55pm

I'm a little late to the game here, but I would like to suggest adding "number and amount" to the "fewer and less" category. It drives me nuts to hear someone say "the amount of chairs" or the like.

David Andrew Ingram's picture
David Andrew Ingram February 5, 2012 - 5:58pm

With regard to " wether and if ". I dont think that there is a possibility of more than ONE alternitive!!!!!!!!  Let alone TWO or MORE.

MikeAlx's picture
MikeAlx February 5, 2012 - 7:33pm

Re: "Less and Fewer" - to be pedantic, I would say it's discretely countable things rather than just quantifiable ones that require "fewer". For example, water is quantifiable (eg by volume), but unless you've found some way to count molecules, it isn't discretely countable; so it's "less water", not "fewer water".

A good illustration of the distinction is money and coins. If I steal a pound off you, you have "less money", but you also have "fewer coins". The coins are discretely countable items; the money has a quantifiable value, but it is abstract and could be expressed in many different ways.

Off the top of my head, "fewer" seems generally to apply to plurals and "less" to singulars, but I wouldn't be surprised if there were some exceptions to this.

Mr Worry's picture
Mr Worry February 6, 2012 - 12:55am

This is an interesting article. However, most of these problems are a matter of lexis or semantics, not grammar. It seems that ever since Lynn Truss' book, "Eats, Shoots and Leaves", was published, people use the word "grammar" to mean lexis, punctuation and spelling, as well as actual grammar.

Language changes as its use changes: the speakers or writers (or texters) of a language determine its rules by global consensus, not a set of grammar books written in the 19th century. There has never been a central academy that set out the unbreakable rules of English grammar, has there? I wonder how many of those who replied to this article are teachers of English. As a teacher of English as a second language, I believe that English is in a unique period of change, since, for perhaps the first time in its history, it is now being used by more non-native speakers than it is by native speakers. Will grammar rules that add very little in terms of clarifying meaning, but add to the number of potential errors, disappear as non-native speakers break these unnecessary rules? Personally, I hope so. For example, what exactly does the third person singular present simple "verb + s" add to the clarity of discourse? Very little in my view. "He live in London" is exactly as easily understood and clear in its meaning as "He lives in London", I feel. Of course, I try to help my students use English as closely to my amorphous notion of standard English  (which I suspect for most teachers is the more formal end of their particular idiolect) but I strongly believe that in a hundred years or so, if there are still people to speak English, they will not be speaking it using quite as many arbitrary and ultimately unhelpful rules as they currently are. I'm not talking about things like "many" and "much", which serve a useful function of distinguishing between countable and uncountable nouns, but rather nit-picking and outdated issues, such as worrying about the use of "like" rather than "such as" or "for example", which seem more about trying to stake a claim to holding a superior level of control and knowledge over your fellow user of English. A concern for accuracy is important when inaccuracy interferes with communication of meaning, but otherwise it can merely hint at fairly unattractive personality traits.

villephant's picture
villephant February 6, 2012 - 2:28am

I would like to point out a grammical error if I could, despite the irony. In the paragraph about disinerested and uninterested the last sentence you have 'someone who couldn't care less' I do believe it should be someone who could care less, using couldn't implies that they could care more. Right?

yes, those who "could not care less" could care more. they can care A LOT more... in fact, anything they do that is not what they are doing right now would be caring more... because they COULD NOT care less...

do you understand this? if you could care LESS that means you care to some extent enough that there are some levels of caring that are below your current level.

this is a subject i wish i couldn't care less about, but in actual fact i could care less... i think i couldn't care more about people using this wrong, because it has become the norm so much so that people like you start trying to tell people using it correctly they are using it wrong, and your justification doesn't even make sense... because of course you can care more than NOT CARING... if you were to not be able to care more, that means you care the most you possibly could.

i don't know how to say this any other way. the only time i want to hear people say "i could care less" is when they are being sarcastic, or if they find out someone they know has cancer and they say "i could care less about them" because they actually mean they care about them. although you would probably think them an arsehole.

[/rant]

Justin Nanu's picture
Justin Nanu February 6, 2012 - 2:46am

If the purpose of words is to communicate and communication is not static then how can anybody say that the meaning of any word is anything but the way it is used? If people use nauseous to mean one thing, then it means that thing. If people use impactful as a word to describe something, then impactful should indeed be a word used to describe that thing. Language is a tool to communicate. As long as you receive my message and interpret it in the way that I want you to interpret it then what difference does it make if I used the language in the way that it was intended to be used or in the way a dictionary says it should be used? 

JYH's picture
JYH from the place is reading the thing February 6, 2012 - 2:48am

I could care less -- that is to say, the object whose (?) importance is in question is, now that I'm thinking about it, perhaps not even worth the amount (?) I do care -- that is to say, I could care less, given that (?) my mind is capable of more than pure reactions (insofar as the mind is a conscious thing, able to intentionally assign value to things) -- that is to say, there is an ambivalence which may (?) be tipped further (?) towards (?) uncaring.

Steven Wadas's picture
Steven Wadas February 6, 2012 - 1:10pm

Thank you, Jon, great article.

Do you ever find yourself hearing someone saying "I'm nauseous" and thinking, because of the error, "you certainly are"?

 

Mar Rojo's picture
Mar Rojo February 6, 2012 - 1:43pm

I'm not sure where those ideas of "less" and "fewer" come from. I agree with this, and not the limited "rule" found above.

<The idea that less can’t be used with count nouns isn’t well supported; it’s a rule that hasn’t ever been strictly followed, especially for count nouns that can be perceived as masses.  Groceries lend themselves to perception as a mass, so it’s no surprise that “10 items or less” is favored now, just as it has been historically.>

Gabe Doyle. http://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/

Mar

 

purplebananas's picture
purplebananas February 6, 2012 - 4:17pm

A lot of the points you make aren't about grammar (syntax) they are about semantics. I can see how the difference between affect and effect is syntactical because it concerns the difference in syntactic category, but the difference between jealousy and envy is purely semantical. As for 'impactful', if enough people use it to mean the same thing then it IS a word; language is an evolving thing and its usage cannot wholly be dictated by publishers and editors. Meaning comes from the masses I'm afraid...

postpomo's picture
postpomo from Canada is reading words words words February 6, 2012 - 6:59pm

<The idea that less can’t be used with count nouns isn’t well supported; it’s a rule that hasn’t ever been strictly followed, especially for count nouns that can be perceived as masses.  Groceries lend themselves to perception as a mass, so it’s no surprise that “10 items or less” is favored now, just as it has been historically.>

Groceries aren't countable. You don't have 1 grocery and 2 groceries. Items are countable. My frustration isn't over fewer/less, but over people who bring 20 items to the express checkout.

I've noticed that liquids, which aren't coutable, unless using a measure, have become countable as a shorthand.

I'll have a water, a coffee, and a tea. I guess it's become so common that we've dropped glass, cup and mug.

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Mark from Lexington, Kentucky is reading The Chronology of Water February 6, 2012 - 8:03pm

Language changes as its use changes: the speakers or writers (or texters) of a language determine its rules by global consensus, not a set of grammar books written in the 19th century. There has never been a central academy that set out the unbreakable rules of English grammar, has there? I wonder how many of those who replied to this article are teachers of English. As a teacher of English as a second language, I believe that English is in a unique period of change, since, for perhaps the first time in its history, it is now being used by more non-native speakers than it is by native speakers. Will grammar rules that add very little in terms of clarifying meaning, but add to the number of potential errors, disappear as non-native speakers break these unnecessary rules? Personally, I hope so.

The English language has weathered all sorts of radical changes in the past, including some sets of changes that tended to simplify its use. According to McWhorter's book, when Vikings took over the lands where the Anglo-Saxon tongue was on its way to becoming modern English, they divested our language of many complications on the nature of unstressed suffixes and other flourishes that were the norm for various Proto-Germanic languages.

I would say there's a significant difference between the direct and utter malleability of our language when it took this beating from the Vikings as compared with today, and it's this: the very earliest iterations of the English language did not have a literature or a culture of literacy.

There were no scholars in that day defending their conceptions of the right or best use of English against foreign or degenerative influences because scholars in that day did not take vernacular languages seriously. Europeans who were literate at all did their serious intellectual work in Latin. Educated people everywhere thought of the common tongue spoken around them as an expedience for daily life and a practical necessity, but too vulgar for recording.

This lack of recording makes the early English language a subject of educated guesswork.  Specialists in the field can make interesting and compelling cases for their claims, but often it requires knowing and making inferences based upon a great deal of surrounding cultural data, as well as general and comparative knowledge about the way languages evolve and transform.

I agree with the general points that a language belongs to the people who use it and it evolves and transforms over time. But I think it's generally a good thing that the English language now has its own literature (or several) and several traditions or cultures of literacy are supported by, built from, and woven into it. Unlike Medieval times, it is now generally agreed that scholars may carry on debates and important books and papers may be written in the languages of common or daily speech. Western cultures no longer require people who speak English or Spanish or German in daily life to also master Latin and Greek if they wish to commit thoughts to writing and be taken seriously by educated peers. I might argue that it's a huge step forward for egalitarianism and the culture of learning and literacy and even for informed participation in democracy when people may participate in the intellectual debate and cultural criticism of their times using the very language that's been on their lips since early childhood.

This idea was practically heretical in the Middle Ages.  Learned scholars thought of common or "vulgar" tongues as incapable of carrying our finer thoughts. And so scriptures and sermons were maintained and carried out in Latin and spoken like magic spells at each public service before ears of thousands who could not discern the meaning of the words. This elitist practice pertained not only to religion, but also to the secular scholarship and critical debate of those days.

Where I depart from the person I've quoted to lead these comments is in the apparent inference or implication that the English language is a rough and ready consensus and a product of the moment, only, a fluid construction that belongs somehow more truly to the 14-year-old kid with texting thumbs but who's never heard of Ernest Hemingway or to the first-generation immigrant who's learned English just well enough to drive a cab in New York City. Emphatically, English belongs to these people and to just as many as will come, but not more truly than it belongs to the culture of people who read and write books. I belong to the culture of people who read and write books in English and who engage in cultural criticism and philosophical debate. I find the language I learned in childhood fitting for these higher cultural pursuits and I have a fluency in my language that the average 14-year-old X-box addict or Lithuanian cab driver necessarily lacks.

I could be put to just as much disadvantage as any immigrant quite easily. For example, if I moved to France next week, I would be satisfied during the next six months when my French is just good enough to successfully order a meal. I wouldn't expect to discuss Rosseau or Descartes with Parisian natives except with the humility of realizing that my expressions, in French, would sound like a form of baby talk.  It would require a great deal of patience on the educated listener's part. This in mind, if I wrote a book from my tables at Parisian cafes next year, I'd probably write it in English, where I have the greatest fluency. By next year, having spent a full year in France, my conversational fluency in French would greatly surpass what it is right now, and I'd carry on in public and casual conversations with a great deal more confidence than I have in my conversational French this very moment. But I'd still know, even a year from now, that I'm not at a place of writing my books in French and expecting to achieve subtlety and finesse. I certainly wouldn't expect the Parisan native, hearing my barbarisms, to proclaim the wish for the French language to be raided and simplified by more people such as myself. France has a culture and French speaking peoples have a literature (or several) and to seriously produce philosophy, fiction, or cultural criticism in French, a new learner needs to respect these facts and take some time with the history and related traditions. It's true for English, as well.

I write these things not to sound or feel superior, but to add to the understanding and contribute to the intellectual culture around LitReactor. I am Director of Education for this website and a servant to the community of aspiring and emerging authors it supports.

Boone Spaulding's picture
Boone Spaulding from Coldwater, Michigan, U.S.A. is reading Solarcide Presents: Nova Parade February 6, 2012 - 10:36pm

Loved the grammar shortlist but the discussions/comments were really instructive. On the subjects of debate here, I've found David Foster Wallace's "Authority and American Usage" from his Consider The Lobster the last, best word on the whole descriptive-linguistics-vs.-prescriptive-grammar debate...(not to mention George Orwell's "Politics and the English Language" regarding grammar and the conditions of class and power)...

Mar Rojo's picture
Mar Rojo February 7, 2012 - 4:42am

<Groceries aren't countable.>

In whose mindset?

Mar Rojo's picture
Mar Rojo February 7, 2012 - 4:47am

Boone, have you spent time at Language Log?

http://languagelog.ldc.upenn.edu/nll/

And what do you all think of this quote?

"Laymen are generally lousy linguists: they do not know what questions to ask, they do not know how to look for answers to them and they are too ready to accept generalizations to which they could easily find counter examples."
---James D. McCawley

Mar Rojo's picture
Mar Rojo February 7, 2012 - 4:58am

My opinion:

We should ask why The Cambridge Grammar of English (CGEL) is hundreds of pages long, while most pedagogical grammars are just over a hundred. Most students will never need most of what can be found in CGEL. They can make do with the pedagogical grammars. But, if one is going to rely on the latter grammars to get one through life's daily communications, one should not then go on to thinking that the information found in such grammars is all there is to usage.

One should not dictate half-truths as if they were the whole story.

 

Mar Rojo's picture
Mar Rojo February 7, 2012 - 7:44am

Again, I'm not sure where this "rule" comes from.

<“Since” refers to time. “Because” refers to causation. e.g., Since I quit drinking I’ve married and had two children. e.g., Because I quit drinking I no longer wake up in my own vomit.>

"Since" has (both) a causal sense and a temporal sense, and as such, can only become a problem when both senses are meaningful in the same context. The word has been used as a causal conjunction as far back as Shakespeare, and probably longer. Use it carefully and you'll be fine.

Mar Rojo's picture
Mar Rojo February 7, 2012 - 7:33am

On "nauseous".

There is no basis for the belief that "nauseous" has but one meaning. The OED lists three senses of the word, and all have been in existence since the 17th century.

Amin Sofi's picture
Amin Sofi February 7, 2012 - 10:30am

Very useful article. thanks.

JanetClare's picture
JanetClare February 7, 2012 - 11:12am

I'm always bothered by towards because why have the s? Toward does it. Right?

Mar Rojo's picture
Mar Rojo February 7, 2012 - 11:29am

Why have variants at all, JanetClare?

IrwinD's picture
IrwinD February 7, 2012 - 12:47pm

Your rule regarding use of may versus might omits the use of may to grant permission, as in "You may take another cookie." In certain technical writing, might is used to suggest choice rather than than may, where may is reserved for granting permission. "When considering a desktop computer, you might choose either a Mac or a PC. However, you may pay with either cash or credit card."

Irwin

drcow's picture
drcow from Ontario, Canada is reading The Stone Carvers by Jane Urquhart February 7, 2012 - 2:35pm

@DavIng ...."those that"?   *shudders*

AnWulf's picture
AnWulf from Tungol Earþ February 7, 2012 - 5:03pm

Interesting writ but a lot of them are your personal preferences rather than grammatical mistakes.

Moot ... OED: 2 North American having little or no practical relevancethe whole matter is becoming increasingly moot ... This come from law school where they hold "moot" court ... one that is fake ... to give the students practice in arguing in court. That the "moot" court is not real. It is irrelevant. The meaning carried on past law school and is now in widespread use. BTW, moot is also still a noun and can be found in compounds as in folkmoot or a prefix as in gemoot.

Might/May ... OED: Traditionalists insist that one should distinguish between may (present tense) and might (past tense) in expressing possibility: I may have some dessert if I’m still hungry; she might have known her killer. However, this distinction is rarely observed today, and may and might are generally acceptable in either case: she may have visited yesterday; I might go and have a cup of tea.

Whether/If ... OED: If and whether are more or less interchangeable in sentences like I’ll see if he left an address and I’ll see whether he left an address, although whether is generally regarded as more formal ...

Farther/Further ... OED: Is there any difference between further and farther in she moved further down the train and she moved farther down the train? Both words share the same roots: in the sentences given above, where the sense is ‘at, to, or by a greater distance’, there is no difference in meaning, and both are equally correct.

Moreover, if we dig into the etymology of father, it states: variant of further ... Vowel change influenced by the root vowel, and confusion with M.E. ferþeren "to assist, promote, advance". There is no historical basis for the notion that farther is of physical distance and further of degree or quality.

Since/Because ... Because is the latecomer here. It is from French par cause. OED for since: 2 [conjunction] for the reason that; becausedelegates were delighted, since better protection of rhino reserves will help protect other rare species

Disinterested/Uninterested ... I think someone else covered this in detail.

Anxious ... OED: 2 very eager or concerned to do something or for something to happen: the company was anxious to avoid any trouble ... Anxious and eager both mean ‘looking forward to something’, but they have different overtones. Eager suggests enthusiasm about something and a positive outlook: I’m eager to get started on my vacation. Anxious implies worry about something: I’m anxious to get started before it rains.

Impactful ... There's nothing wrong with this word. OED: having a major impact or effect: an eye-catching and impactful design

Naseous ... OED: 1 affected with nausea; feeling inclined to vomit: a rancid odour that made him nauseous

&#039;Irwin Raymund Bilog's picture
'Irwin Raymund Bilog February 7, 2012 - 5:16pm

glad it's not about the usual "you're and your" or other trite and obvious slips. i learned something today. thanks! \;^)