I try not to get snitty about the crappy English usage of other people. I breathe in through my nostrils and slowly out again with my mouth shaped like an "o," reminding myself that not everyone spent her childhood on the floor of a closet with a two-foot stack of library books and a handful of Chips Ahoy, that not everyone's mind works the way mine does, that not everyone shares my savant-like ability to spot a quotation mark facing the wrong way or a misspelling of "disestablishmentarianism" at a hundred paces. I understand that a lot of schools don't pay enough attention to proper usage, so kids don't learn proper usage and therefore they don't know proper usage as adults. I understand that a person with a learning disability will have a few problems nailing correct spelling, and that a brain geared to math might not bat as well from the other side of the plate. Yes, I can identify and parse a gerundive. It's a curse. Not everyone bears the curse.
It is too "a big deal." You don't have to know how to spell everything in the dictionary, and you don't have to have the serial-semicolon rule embroidered on a pillow, but if you have reached voting age in the United States, you need to know the basics of English usage, because if you don't, you look like an idiot. No, don't. Don't start with that "grammar Nazi" business. Don't get all "nobody gives a shit about that crap" and "it's so anal, who cares" and "well, you know what I mean." I give a shit about that crap. I know it's anal, but I care, and so do a lot of other people — people who respect you, but might respect you less when you dash off an email to the effect of "I'll meet you their"; people in a position to give you a job, who won't because you didn't proofread your cover letter and they don't appreciate your addressing them as "Deer Ms. So-And-So." And no, in fact, I don't know what you mean when you write me a hate mail that reads, "You're site sucks," because that doesn't mean anything. Because it's grammatically incorrect. Because you've substituted a contraction of a verb phrase for an adjective, thus rendering the sentence nonsensical. And it makes you look stupid, and therefore I cannot take you seriously. Sorry, but it's the truth. I do not care that we live in an age of rapid-fire communication, or that the Internet has changed the rules of formal correspondence, or whatever excuse you have for starting sentences with "me and my friend." And, for the record, I know full well that I break the rules of correct usage in my columns all the time. I can break the rules because I know them cold, so don't write and tell me that you've spotted at least sixteen sentence fragments and think you've scored a point off of me. Seriously. You need to know basic rules of English usage. You do not have to use them all the time in every single grocery list you write, and not knowing them all does not in and of itself make you dumb or uneducated; you don't have to spend an hour poring over the dictionary just to send me an email. But you have to try to learn the language, especially in business correspondence, and you have to make an effort to use the language correctly. It's your native tongue, and it's worth doing.
Let me give you a relevant example. I get about ten pitch letters a week from writers wanting to work for Mighty Big TV. Nine out of ten contain one of the following eyesores: letters left off the ends of words; my name spelled incorrectly (it's "Sars" or "Sarah" or "Miss Bunting," not "Sara" or "Shara" or "Sar"); too much punctuation; "R" substituted for "are" or "2" for "to"; "I love you're site." Maybe it's not their fault that they don't know the stuff. They had drunks for English teachers in seventh grade, or they don't read much, or they have more important things to worry about, or they think it's boring and unnecessary. That's fine and dandy, but it's not going to get them a job with me; letters begging for a gig on my "websight" get a form response, and then they get binned. Lovely people, no doubt. Possibly even hilariously funny. But if they can't take five minutes to proofread a letter to an editor at a company for which they would like to work, well, I've got no use for them.
Want a job at MBTV, or anywhere else? Want people you work with to take you seriously? Learn the rules of English usage, and put them into practice. Let's begin.
You're/your. "You're" is a contraction of "you are." "Your" is a modifier. Very simple. Do not use "you're" to modify nouns. "Your keys." "Your desk." Do not use "your" as a second-person verb phrase. "You're up early." "You're leaving?" Here's a phrase with both: "You're moving your car, right?" In other words, you are moving the car that belongs to you. "You're" = verb phrase. "Your" = adjective. Everyone biffs it once in a while, but take it from someone who sees it over and over and over again, every day — it's a glaring error. Learn it, live it, love it.
Speaking of "every day"… "Every day." That's an adjectival or adverbial phrase. "Everyday" is an adjective describing activities, clothing, or whatever. When do you go? "Every day." What do you wear? "Everyday business attire."
Its/it's. Probably the most frequent grammatical error, and thus the most maddening, but it's the same principle as the "you're/your" rule above: "it's" is a contraction of "it is," and "its" is a modifier. Do not use "it's" to modify nouns. "Its trunk." "Its charter." Do not use "its" as a verb phrase. "It's raining." "It's hard to say." Here's a sentence with both: "It's got a dent in its fender." In other words, it has a dent in the fender that belongs to it. Take a minute when you write "it's" or "its" and make sure you've got the right one; people get paranoid that they need an apostrophe, so they'll throw one in when they don't need it. "It's" = verb phrase. "Its" = adjective. Learn it, live it, love it.
They're/their/there. More of the same. "They're" is a contraction of "they are." "Their" is a modifier. "There" is a place. If you don't know which one to use, slow down for a minute and think about which one you need. "They're going there" and "their going there" don't mean the same thing. If "they are" doing something, use "they're." If something belongs to them, use "their." If it's a place they're headed on their trip, use "there." Got it? Good. And it's not spelled "thier." Or "the're." Spell-check is your friend. Learn it, live it, love it.
Who's/whose. Fourth verse, same as the first. "Who's" is a contraction of "who is." "Whose" is a modifier. You'll run into problems with this most often in dependent clauses, like so: "The president, who's also the chairman of the board, is very ill." Because, see, he is also the chairman of the board. Or "the president, whose chairmanship is at stake, is very ill." Because, see, it's his chairmanship. Stop. Look at it. Decide which you need: a verb phrase, or a pronoun. "Who's" also functions as an interrogative, so if you need to ask a question about someone, you don't use "whose." "Who's got the bong?" "Who's coming tonight?" "Who's that?" is correct, and "Whose that?" is incorrect. This is not difficult. One fits in one situation; the other fits in the other. Figure out the situation; use the right one.
Subjective/objective pronouns. Okay, here's the deal with these. If the pronoun is the object of a verb, it takes the objective case. (The objective case means words like "them," "us," "him," "her," and "me.") So many people got drilled as kids not to start sentences with "me and Sharon" blah blah blah that they think they have to put a subjective pronoun into every phrase or it doesn't sound right. Well, that doesn't sound right either; it sounds ignorant. "That's a matter for he and I to decide." Well, no, it isn't. It's a matter for "him and me" to decide, actually. Because "he" and "I" function as objects of the preposition "for." Here's another: "It's between he and I." No, it's between "him and me." Objective pronouns, remember? "Between" is a preposition. Prepositions always activate the objective case — him, her, me — and the subjective case follows the subject. Now here's a famous historical quotation that's not correct: "We have met the enemy, and it is us." "It is we" is correct, because the verb "to be" always takes a subjective pronoun, unless it's in the infinitive. "It is I," but "I've got to be me." I know it's tough to untangle sometimes, but here's the bottom line: if there's a preposition or an "action verb" in the sentence, you use the objective case. "She's coming with"…whom? Me. Us. Them.
Where/we're/were. These aren't even close to each other. "Where" is an interrogative, or an indefinite pronoun. "We're" is a contraction of "we are." "Were" is the past tense of "are." Again, take a second to see that you've used the right one. "Were going to the movies"? Huh?
Then/than. "Then" is an adverb. "Than" is a comparative. One denotes time; the other is the connective tissue of a sentence that signals a comparison, an upcoming subjunctive or dependent clause, or one of those other fun things that sentences contain. "I would rather eat nails than have to sit through another dance recital." "I will eat nails, and then I will sit through another dance recital." See the difference there? "Than again" isn't a phrase. It's "then again." Things do not "cost less then" other things. A "than/then" mistake is usually a careless one, but that doesn't make it less annoying. So proofread, and stop doing it.
Affect/effect. Subtler, but still crucial. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, "affect" is the verb and "effect" is the noun. You "affect" things; you "have an effect on" things. You can also "effect" changes, and in that case the verb doesn't mean "have an effect," but rather "put into effect." With me so far? "The report didn't affect our projections, at least not in its effect on consumers, but it did give us the chance to effect a few changes in the retail workplace." (Yeah, yeah, "affect" can work as a noun, too, but unless you work in the mental-health field, it's not relevant here.) Brass tacks: "affect" is the verb, "effect" is the noun. When in doubt, grab a Webster's and make sure you've got the right one.
Less/fewer. Use "less" for quantity and "fewer" for number. Huh? Okay. You go shopping. You need apples. You don't see as many apples as you saw the last time you went to the store, so you see…what? Fewer apples. That's right. But maybe the store reduced its produce selection, so there's not as much fruit overall. So there's…what? Less fruit. Good. "Many/much" is analogous, and you can use it as a cheat to figure out which one is correct; if it's something you can enumerate, you'd use "many," and if you use "many," "fewer" is correct. If it's something you quantify, you'd use "much," and when you use "much," "less" is correct. Whew — that's complicated. Here's a simpler example: less noise, fewer decibels. Got it? En masse, it's "less." Individual units, "fewer."
The Apostrophe That Came In From The Cold. Ask yourselves: why is the apostrophe there? "Uh…because it's a plural?" Survey says…EHHHHHHH. "Green bean's"? No. "Welcome shopper's"? Absolutely not! Wrong, wrong, wrong. Ignorant, ignorant, ignorant. An apostrophe is used to shorten ("cannot" becomes "can't") or to employ the possessive ("Sarah's"). It is NOT USED in the plural. EVER. It is used at the FRONT of a decade abbreviation ("'80s"), NOT in the middle ("80's"), because you don't mean that something belongs to the number 80. See? Because "eighties" is a plural. It's NOT a possessive. So don't USE the apostrophe, because you don't NEED it. And when you use an apostrophe to denote a possessive with a name or place that ends in "S," you need to add another "S," unless it's a plural ("the Joneses' house"). "The princess's car." "Cletus's truck." The only names that don't take another "S" at the end: Jesus and Moses. Don't question it. Just learn it. Once more, with feeling: PLURALS do NOT take an APOSTROPHE. Under ANY CIRCUMSTANCES. At ALL. No, they sure don't. No, they still don't. No. NO!
Lie/lay. Oh, brother. Even the shittiest English teacher should have drilled you on the difference between lying down and laying something down, but just in case, school's in, and today's lesson is about transitive and intransitive verbs. A transitive verb requires an object or an action; you use a transitive verb to do or place or kick or haul or affect (not "effect," mind) someone or something. Lay is transitive. It is something you do to something else. You cannot just, you know, "lay around." An intransitive verb does not require an object; it's something that the actor can do all on his/her/its own — think, lie, wonder, run, stuff like that. "Lie" is intransitive; it's something you just…do. So can you lay on your bed? No, you can't. You can lie on your bed, and you can lay a book down on your bed. That's all there is to it. You lie; you lay things. (You all can figure out the conjugation of "to get laid" on your own time.)
"Myself" and "me"? Not synonymous. "Myself" is a qualifier used for emphasis, or to mean "I alone" in the objective case. It does not replace the objective pronoun, which is "me." "Just submit the memo to him and myself." No, no, NO. It's not just incorrect — it betrays an ignorance of correct usage. It's one of those errors people make (similar to using "utilize" instead of "use" or "pursuant to" instead of "as we discussed," although these aren't wrong, just pretentious) because they think it makes them sound smarter. Guess what? It doesn't work, because in this instance, it's incorrect. It works here: "I myself would prefer not to drive." Or here: "I don't want to go by myself." Do not substitute it for "me" in prepositional phrases. It's pompous, and it's wrong.
"Judgment." One "e."
"Accommodate." Two "c"s, two "m"s.
Yeah, you. Write those down.
Quotation marks should denote another person speaking, NOT emphasis. And it's "quotation," not "quote." "Quote" is a verb. "Quotation" is a noun.
Which/who/that. Oh, god. I hate which/who/that because it's so difficult to explain clearly, but let's give it a go. To quote MC Hammer, "Ring the bell — school's back in." It's time to learn about restrictive and nonrestrictive clauses. A restrictive clause gives necessary information about the noun it modifies, and is not set off by a comma, like so: "The essay that went up on May 7 stinks." A nonrestrictive clause gives supplemental information about the noun, and the sentence doesn't need it to make sense. It's set off by commas, like so: "The essay, which went up on May 7, stinks." Restrictive clauses use "that." Nonrestrictive clauses use "which." In either case, if "that" or "which" modifies a person, it uses "who." Use the comma as your guide. Well, provided you've used the comma correctly, but don't get me started on that.
Lose/loose. These words do not mean the same thing. Please proofread. Please. "Lose" means misplace. "Loose" means not tight. Not the same thing. They aren't even homophones. Proofread. Proofread again. Get your roommate to proofread. Thank you.
"Irregardless" is not a word. You mean "irrespective." Yes, you do. No, trust me — that's what you mean. Okay, perhaps you mean "regardless." But you don't mean "irregardless," because "irregardless" isn't a word.
Breath/breathe. You "breathe." Or, you "take a breath." Verb gets the "e," noun doesn't. Period.
"Appraise" and "apprise" don't mean the same thing.
Neither do "stationary" and "stationery."
Very unique. "Unique" suggests that nothing else like it exists. So either it's unique, or it isn't. Good luck with that "VERY UNIQUE FLASH WEBSITE DESIGN" business, o spammers of the world, but it's like "pregnant" — either the condition exists, or it doesn't. It's not subject to an adverb.
Web site. Not "sight." Not "cite." SITE.
It's called a shift key. You get two of them with your keyboard — for free! Expend the extra four seconds and capitalize "I" and the first words in sentences. No, no, see, I'm not asking. I'M TELLING YOU.
And while I'm on the subject of free stuff… See "unique." It's free or it isn't. It costs nothing or it doesn't. It's not "absolutely free." It's not "free of charge." It's just free. Free means "absolutely no charge," don't you know. Oh, you didn't know? Well, now you know.
Of/have. I know the contraction of "would have" sounds like "would of." But it's spelled "would've," because it's…the contraction of "would have." Stop. Look at it. "Would of"? Wrong. "Could of"? Also wrong. "Should of"? Yeah, now you've got it.
Advise/advice. "Advise" is the verb. "Advice" is the noun. I get this one a lot because I have an advice column. Where I advise people. When they ask for advice. Okay? Okay. No, it's not a British-ism. You advise people who ask for advice.
Intents and purposes. Yeah, I thought it sounded like "intensive purposes" too, for years. It isn't. "For all intents and purposes." Think it over — "intensive purposes" doesn't make sense, does it? No, not really.
Preventive. Not "preventative." My MS spell-check doesn't flag it, but it's still wrong.
Orientated. Ditto. It's "oriented." Oh, but it's a sentence regarding an orientation? Then say "went through orientation." "Orientated" is absurd.
Conscious/conscience/conscientious. "Conscience" gives you a pang when you do something bad; "conscientious" is the adjective form of "conscience." It's tough to spell — it took me two attempts just now — but you should know what it means. "Conscious" (and "consciousness") — horse of a totally different color. And breed. In fact, it's a cow. It means you're awake, or alive, or not in a coma. Another one where you'll just have to put the brakes on and look at it closely to make sure you've got the right one.
A lot. Not "alot." Unless it's Sir Mixalot. And I think even he hyphenates the damn thing. It is, always has been, and ever shall be two separate words.
All right/altogether. I don't know why "altogether" is fine and "alright" is not, but I do know that I missed "all right" in a fourth-grade spelling bee and I've never forgotten it. Two words again. All. Right. All right? And it's not "alrighty," either. It's "all righty."
Definitely. It is definitely not spelled with an "a," anywhere, at any time, under any circumstances. I cannot STAND seeing "definately." CANNOT STAND IT. Your spell-check should catch that, and if it doesn't, find it yourself.
Separate. The "e"s go at the ends, the "a"s go in the middle. It's not "seperate." Please learn to spell "separate" correctly. Please. Or…wait for it…run a spell-check.
To/too. "Too" means also, or "very much so." "To" doesn't. I know it's tough to catch, such teeny little words that look so much alike, and spell-check is no help. Try. No, try harder than that. Harder. There you go.
Selling cappuccino? Learn how to spell it. C-A-P-P-U-C-C-I-N-O. Write it down. Tattoo it onto your palm. I don't care. Just freakin' learn how to spell the freakin' word. It's not a novelty item anymore. You wouldn't put "cofee" on your little sidewalk chalkboard, would you?
"IMPACT" is NOT a VERB. I don't care if the American Heritage people say it's okay, I don't care if William Safire allows it — it's wrong, wrong, wrong, wrong, WRONG, and Safire is a ninety-million-year-old man who needs to retire and turn his attention full-time to his Hillary Clinton voodoo-doll collection, so turn off CNN where they use it as a verb all the time and start using "affect" or "have an impact upon," because they mean the same thing, and they won't make you sound like an asshole. "Impact" is not a verb. "Impact" is a noun. Argue all you like. I will not hear it. I don't wish to impede the evolution of the language, but "impact" smacks of laziness.
Truly. No "e." None. Not a one. Not "truely." Never ever.
Really, you can avoid these mistakes ninety-nine percent of the time if you 1) enable your spell-check program, 2) enable your grammar-check program, and 3) take five minutes to read over what you've written. Every damn word-processing program in the world has grammar and spelling functions. Use them. It takes maybe a minute and a half to look over an email. Do it. It requires perhaps an extra ten seconds a day, aggregated, to pause and examine which "your" you're using. Take the seconds.
Caring about proper usage doesn't make me "pathetic." Nor does it mean that I need to "get a life," or that I think I'm "better than" people who don't know the rules of usage. Caring means that, as a writer and an editor, and as a reader for that matter, I care how the language is used. I care about the way it looks. I care about split infinitives — not much, but a little. I care about the Oxford comma; I care about the serial semi-colon. I care about how to punctuate an ellipsis. The language is the way we communicate. It's important to know how it works, and it's not pathetic to care about that; it's pathetic that Americans brick grammar and spelling ten times more often than people whose first language isn't even English. It's pathetic that nobody understands why bad grammar is appalling. And it's not necessarily because a person with bad grammar is stupid or uneducated; it's because most people don't care anymore. Nobody learns to diagram a sentence these days. Nobody gives a shit that certain cyber-related entries show up in the 10C that don't in the 9C; nobody even knows what "9C" means, I don't think, except my mother. (It means the Webster's Ninth Collegiate Dictionary, if you care, which most likely you don't.) Nobody is interested in the difference between "evade" and "elude" anymore ("evade" implies intent, if you're interested, which you probably aren't). And it's a pity. In fact, it's both pitiful and pitiable, if you don't mind my saying so. The English language is a snarly, thorny, crabby creature, hard to tame, and I've worked my whole life to get it to come up on the porch and eat scraps without taking my leg off, and I know that other people feel the same way about medicine or the law or selling bonds or whatever and they don't have as much invested in whether "whether" gets used correctly (and not that you, or anyone else, gives a fiddler's fart, but you don't need "or not," because "whether" implies "or not" on its own, so now you know and can continue to use it wrong just like you always have because why should you give a crap), and it bugs the hell out of me that so many people care so little about something they rely on so heavily, and…oh, fine, FINE.
Go ahead. Contribute to the murder of the language. Suit yourselfs. See? I don't care anymore.
Tags: curmudgeoning our friend English