Columns > Published on January 14th, 2020

2020 Hindsight: 10 Years Worth of Grammar Advice

A decade ago, I decided it was my duty to help people with a less-than-solid understanding of English grammar. To that end, I opened a Twitter account (@writerscramp1—because someone had already taken writerscramp. Jerk.) and popped up a writing class through the Seattle arts organization Fremont Abbey. For a few months, a small group of people showed up regularly and let me lecture them about grammar and craft.

In October of 2010, my husband got a new job in Portland, OR, so I said goodbye to my class (whom I still miss!) and moved south. In my new home, I looked online for a local writing community and followed a few Portland area writers. One of them was Chuck Palahniuk. (Ever heard of him???) Not long after I started following Mr. Palahniuk, a call went out from his Twitter feed for writers to submit articles for a new site dedicated to the craft of writing.

Not expecting much, I sent a few of my class plans from the Fremont Abbey and, well, here I am. I’ve been writing for LitReactor since it started in 2011. Here is a link to my first article. The header pic is inspired by CLIFFHANGER, which was filmed in my hometown! It was MEANT TO BE.

A LOT has changed in the last 10 years—I moved from one city to another, bought a house in that new city/sold it/bought a house in the burbs, gave birth to 3 humans, changed jobs 3 times, attended 3 funerals, and paid off a car. I have given up a lot things—my sleep, my lowrise jeans, my favorite radio station, my sanity—but I won’t give up LitReactor or my love of learning and teaching English grammar. 

However, anyone who has had to teach a thing usually discovers something they did not know—about the subject and about themselves. Here are a few things I've learned in the last decade. 


THE TRIED AND TRUE

Use the correct word

While I agree that words shift their meanings over time, there are some words that are similar to other words that have distinctly different meanings. Eight-ish years ago, I wrote an article about words that are commonly confused for each other like assent/consent, disinterested/uninterested, and deserts/deserts/desserts. It was called 10 Words You Literally Didn't Know You Were Getting Wrong. It is one of the most popular articles I have written for LitReactor. After re-reading it, I still agree that it’s necessary to use the correct word—if only to ensure (not INsure or ASsure) your meaning is clear. However, I will concede that there is humor in using the word literally as a way to exaggerate something that is not ACTUALLY going to happen. 

I believe now more than ever that correct usage is a must, and that it's worth learning what words really mean, especially when it's so common to see them used wrongly. When the world seems to latch on to a particular word, it helps to know what it means (and does not mean). 

NOTE: I wrote another article after that called 10 MORE Words You Literally Didn't Know You Were Getting Wrong, if you want to check that one out as well.

Words have history

In the years since I wrote those articles (plus two others on the origins of common phrases like what the dickens and freeze the balls off a brass monkey that you can read here and here), I have grown interested in more than just the meaning of words, but how they came to have that meaning. I follow @merriamwebster for a daily dose of definitions, and I think twice about my wording. In 2018, I formed a stalker-like obsession with Noah Webster, the Inventor of American English. I read several books about him, and even checked out a REAL BOOK from the Portland Public Library. (I didn’t return that book for months, either, and I racked up enough late fees to have purchased the book a few times over.)  Noah gave us the first American dictionary. He recorded over 70,000 simplified spellings of English words, and he advocated for simplified spelling rules that eliminated useless letters like the u in colour and honour. He also gave America some of the first standardized methods for teaching children to read and write. He was obsessed with language and with improving how people used English, and I learned to love the process of word-making even more for having learned this fascinating bit of American history. 

Now if I could just quit my day job and go back to school to study linguistics...

Expletives are my f*cking favorite words

As I mentioned, I have three small kids, and, no, I haven’t learned not to swear in front of them. In fact, I am probably worse about swearing than I ever was before. All the stress and sleep deprivation has made me into a foul-mouthed mom-ster. Thankfully, when my children inevitably call me out for ruining their lives, I can tell them I have at least taught them some of the most versatile words in the English language. Here’s a few words I wrote on the subject in 2016 that I still swear by (pun intended):

Expletives are the best words in the world. They are old as fuck. And some, like tits, fart, and shit haven’t changed in hundreds of years! Swear words are versatile, interesting, varied, and easily understood across language barriers. The meaning and severity vary by context and inflection, and they can be used as almost any part of speech:

  • Noun: What the fuck is that?
  • Verb: I fucked up.
  • Gerund: Fucking is a great way to burn calories.
  • Progressive verb: This blinking bulb has been fucking with my sanity.
  • Adjective (present participle): This is fucking crazy.
  • Interjection: Fuck!
  • Imperative verb: Fuck off!

And so many more—the multitudes of uses have no end! And they are SO EASY TO LEARN.  If you have small children in your life, then you know first-hand how quickly children pick up how to accurately and effectively apply expletives in the appropriate context without having to be taught. They couldn’t hear you when you told them to pick up their socks, but they heard you loud and clear when you muttered “shit” while trying to locate your glasses. Cheeky little fuckers.

For the love of all that is good

Stop using an apostrophe to create a plural initialism or acronym (look below for the difference between the two.)

  • DVDs
  • CEOs
  • PMs
  • MP3s
  • WMDs
  • MILFs
  • DILFs

Where I work, people write “We have two PM’s on this project.” I want to DIE. Alas, it is not my job to correct people, so I will just rant about it here. Thank you and goodbye.

I CAN CHANGE

Not all commas are necessary…

I learned to loosen my grip on a few comma rules, like the comma before an address in a VERY short sentence. It’s perfectly okay to write “Hi Bob” instead of “Hi, Bob.” There, I said it!

I don’t advocate ignoring the rule completely, but I do think there are a few instances in which that comma doesn’t add anything and removing it doesn’t take anything away. The meaning is the same with or without that comma. 

Another instance in which I am finding myself less inclined to use a comma is between two simple, but independent, clauses that are linked with and and which have the same subject. For instance:

I went to the Apple store and I spent a fortune.

Technically, I went to the Apple store and I spent a fortune are both independent clauses and should be tied together with a “, and”. But as I is the subject in both clauses, it seems unnecessary to add the pause. Of course, you could write it as

I went to the Apple store and spent a fortune.

But I like the emphasis the second adds, but without the pause adding a comma would create. 

NOTE: I wrote more about this in my column 5 Old School Writing Rules That Need To Retire if you want to check it out.

…not even *gulp* the Oxford Comma

I know, I know—Grammarians LOVE to discuss the Oxford Comma, but I have given this a disgusting amount of thought. The Oxford rule is that that there should always be a comma before and or or in a series of three or more items. I still agree with this 99% of the time, but I will admit that there are a few cases in which the sentence is so simple that that last comma is not needed. If you are, in fact, just listing three things that are similar then, NO, a comma before the and doesn’t add any value. For example:

Go find your shoes, jacket, and socks!

Though it pains me to say it, you COULD write 

Go find your shoes, jacket and socks!

without losing any meaning or risking confusing your reader.

But unless you are REALLY making sure that comma IS NOT needed, I think most writers should use it. I also think that style guides should acknowledge the nuance and not just advocate for one way or the other. It's not all or nothing, and we should learn more about WHY a comma should be used instead of just memorizing rules about when it should be used.

My current employer does not use the Oxford Comma in the style guide and most of the people I work with know this and exclude that comma. So, this an example of a real sentence that a coworker wrote in an email sent to me.

Taylor, Jessica and Bob are going to finish the project.

I read this sentence six or seven times. I even discussed it with other members of my team, wondering why the writer had decided to tell me that Jessica and Bob were going to finish the project that I was working on. Was I getting reassigned? Or FIRED?

What the writer meant was that ALL THREE of us are supposed to finish the project, but I read it like she was letting me know that just Jessica and Bob were on it. The email had me as the primary recipient, but other people had been copied, so it seemed like she was talking TO ME, but she was explaining something to the whole group. A tiny comma would have saved me at least 20 minutes of confusion and wondering if I should update my resume.

I get it, "meme" is here to stay. 

Six-ish years ago, I wrote a rant about social media terms that I was sick of hearing called 10 Social Media Words That Need To Die. Granted, some of the words I mentioned, like green and twee did not come from social media, and some of the words, like hashtag exist precisely because of social media. I re-read my rant recently and found I have grown accustomed to most of these terms and really don’t find them as offensive as I once did. I even had to laugh that some person—RECENTLY—commented “Ok, boomer” because, yeah, I did sound like a whiny old coot. I still get annoyed at how the media and the world will latch onto a word or term and use it relentlessly until the word itself becomes a rhetorical force that exists apart from whatever the actual or historical meaning of that word is—e.g. boomer or millennial.  At the same time, I realize that words and language are an ever-evolving thing, and the meaning of a word is not inherent in the word or its genesis. 

The point is, I don’t agree with 2014 Taylor about these words anymore. Most of them are here to stay, and I’m ok with that. The more I learn about the way that language evolves, the more I appreciate a language created by those who speak it. 

Thanks for all the fesh*—

Or should I say, thanks for all the writing advice. If there is ONE HAZARD about writing about writing, it’s that you (by that I mean ) will make at least one mistake or typo in every article, and someone will call me out on it. Thanks to most of you for your diligence. Some of you were just being petty, though—admit it! If you want to see an example of the good work these smart asses do, just check out the comment section on this article I wrote on typos a few years back.

However, I will admit I've learned a thing or two from someone's correction. Quite a few years ago, one of these know-it-alls taught me the difference between an acronym and an initialism. I did not know there was a distinction, so I was forced to go look it up.

If you didn’t know either, here is the breakdown (copy and pasted from one of my own comments and modified from Grammar Girl’s explanation):

·       Initialisms are made from the first letter (or letters) of a string of words, but can't be pronounced as words themselves. Examples include FBI, CIA, FYI (for your information), and PR (public relations).

·       Acronyms are made from the first letter (or letters) of a string of words but are pronounced as if they were words themselves. Examples include NASA, NIMBY (not in my backyard), and hazmat (hazardous materials).

·       Abbreviations are any shortened form of a word. Examples include Oct. (October) and etc. (etcetera).

FUN FACT: the pictures in that article are from the ACTUAL buildings in downtown Portland near where I work and park. They kill me EVERY TIME I SEE THEM. I am actually a ghost.

*I know, I know. It’s FISH. I did that on purpose. Even my husband just walked by me while I was writing that and said “Um, honey, that’s supposed to say fish.” 

Looking forward to the next 10

Writing and teaching grammar has been a true joy, and landing this gig with LitReactor made me a better writer and a better person. I have taught more Basic Grammar classes than I can count (16? 20? 22?), but I look forward to EVERY SINGLE ONE. I look forward to the stumping questions from the students. I love talking about, writing about, and thinking about grammar. And the more I learn, the more I want to learn. 

I know it sounds crazy, but I can’t get tired of the topic. Just now, my 2nd grader was learning about common and proper nouns, and we had a long car conversation about the distinction between the two. It was one of my favorite parenting moments so far! Me and my kid talking about grammar! I loved every minute of it.

I can’t wait to see what I will have learned by 2030.

About the author

Taylor Houston is a genuine Word Nerd living in Portland, OR where she works as a technical writer for an engineering firm and volunteers on the planning committee for Wordstock, a local organization dedicated to writing education.

She holds a degree in Creative Writing and Spanish from Hamilton College in Clinton, NY. In the English graduate program at Penn State, she taught college composition courses and hosted a poetry club for a group of high school writers.

While living in Seattle, Taylor started and taught a free writing class called Writer’s Cramp (see the website). She has also taught middle school Language Arts & Spanish, tutored college students, and mentored at several Seattle writing establishments such as Richard Hugo House. She’s presented on panels at Associated Writing Programs Conference and the Pennsylvania College English Conference and led writing groups in New York, Pennsylvania, and Colorado for writers of all ages & abilities. She loves to read, write, teach & debate the Oxford Comma with anyone who will stand still long enough.

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