Five Uncommon Grammar Errors To Avoid

Grammar is a huge PITA.

It’s like your lawn. You know you need to keep it well-maintained, but there are little trouble spots that give you fits. Sometimes there are spots you don’t even know you missed, until it overgrows and the neighbors start complaining.

There are plenty of “grammar error” posts that will point out the obvious errors that most people make, like the there/their/they’re or its/it’s errors. But these are a few of the lesser-known errors that you may be making and not even realize it.

Photo of a mean teacher

I feel like a grouchy teacher when I write these posts.

1. Who/That

Other than a fun little cheer for the New Orleans Saints, this is a common one people make when referring to people or companies.

  • Wrong: Companies who practice green manufacturing can get government grants.
  • Wrong: People that like peanut butter and bologna are weird.
  • Right: Companies that practice green manufacturing can get government grants.
  • Right: People who like peanut butter and bologna just have different tastes, that’s all.

2. Singular vs. Plural Matching

This is always a tricky one for me. I always get tripped up when a phrase uses both a singular and plural item, like neither of these sandwiches. In other words, is it “Neither of these sandwichesis” or “Neither of these sandwiches are vegetarian?” My first inclination is to make “sandwiches” match the verb “are.”

But I would be wrong. According to Purdue’s Online Writing Lab, since “neither” is singular, treat “neither of these sandwiches” as a singular noun and make the verb match — “neither of these sandwiches is vegetarian.”

3. Not all adverbs need to end in -ly.

On an episode of Celebrity Apprentice, Donald Trump wrongly corrected Cindy Lauper when she said “I feel bad.”

“Badly,” corrected Trump. But he was badly mistaken.

Action verbs will often add -ly to the end of a verb: “He sings badly.” “She writes sloppily.” “They argue loudly.” But adverbs that modify linking verbs — like “to be” (I am, you are) — don’t use ly. In other words, you wouldn’t say “He is tiredly” or “She lies downly.”

When Cindy Lauper said “I feel bad,” “feel” was a linking verb. The easiest way to tell if a verb is really a linking verb is to substitute “am” with the verb in question. If the sentence still works — “I feel bad” = “I am bad” — then the verb is a linking verb, and the adverb should not end in -ly.

In fact, the only time you would say “I feel badly” is if you have lost the ability to touch things with any kind of dexterity or success.

4. Good vs. Well

This is another tricky one, because people use”good” and “well” interchangeably.

    • Wrong: I sing good.
    • Wrong: Dinner tastes well.
    • Right: I sing well.
    • Right: Dinner tastes good.

The difference is whether well/good is an adverb or an adjective. Good is an adjective, but well is an adverb. Remember, an adverb modifies a verb — How do I sing? I sing well — but an adjective modifies a noun — What tastes good? Dinner tastes good. That’s because an adjective will also follow sense-verbs and be-verbs, so you can look good, smell good, feel good, be good. But you don’t look well, smell well, feel well, or be well, unless you’re discussing your ninja-like prowess at these skills.

5. Me vs. I

This one drives me crazy, not because people use the wrong word (okay, that too), but because the rule is still erroneously taught in our schools.

Which is correct:

    • “Would you like to go to lunch with Doug and I?”
    • “Would you like to go to lunch with Doug and me?”Believe it or not, it’s Doug and me. Here’s another one.
      • Doug and me went to lunch.
      • Doug and I went to lunch.

      That one is a little easier. It’s Doug and I.

      I could explain the rule about how it all has to do with who is the subject and who is the object of the sentence and blah blah blah. But that doesn’t matter. Here’s the easy way to figure out whether to use I or me in a sentence:

      Take out “Doug and,” and see what sounds correct.

      • “Would you like to go to lunch with me?”
      • “I went to lunch.”The problem is, we have been hammered to say “Doug and I” by our elementary school teachers for so long that the rule is firmly, but mistakenly, wedged into our brains (and they’re still doing it). Just remove the “_____ and” in your head, and you’ll have your answer.

Five Punctuation Errors Exploded

We had such great success with our Five Grammar Myths Exploded post, and I’m such an attention whore, that I wanted to follow up with Five Punctuation Errors Exploded. Plus, I’m a bit of a Word Nerd and Punctuation Prude (but not a Grammar Granny), that I wanted to talk about a few of the punctuation errors I see people make over and over.

Unfortunately, a lot of these errors are perpetuated by Microsoft Word’s Grammar Checker. Others are perpetuated by English and writing teachers who are still teaching the same errors they learned when they were writing their lessons on slate tablets. And still others are inexplicable. No one knows why they do it, but they do it.

Here are the five most common ones I’ve seen.

1. Don’t use apostrophes for anything but possessive pluralization: This one sets my teeth on edge, more than any other. An apostrophe is absolutely, positively, without exception used to show possessive or contractions. It is never, ever, ever used to show plurals.

With one exception. (More on that in a minute.)

First, don’t write things like DVD’s, CDs, CEO’s, 1990’s, or any abbreviation or acronym. The proper pluralization is DVDs, CDs, CEOs, and 1990s. No question.

The one exception is if you are pluralizing a single letter. The Oakland A’s, five Model T’s.

So the rule for apostrophes is just to leave it out for plurals, unless you’re pluralizing a single letter.

(Update: More than a few people pointed out that apostrophes are also used for contractions, which I knew, but forgot to mention. Thanks for the reminder, everyone.)

2. I give a f— about the Oxford comma: This one is actually optional, but I love the Oxford Comma. So if you were to ask me the first line of the Oxford Comma song by Vampire Weekend, the answer is “I do!”

The Oxford comma — also called the Harvard comma or Serial comma — is the comma that appears before “and” in a list. Red, white, and blue. Moe, Larry, and Curly. That comma there before “and” is the Oxford comma.

There are some writing styles that forbid it, like AP Style. Others allow it, like MLA and APA.

The problem is some Oxford comma-haters will remove it as a knee jerk reaction. See an Oxford comma, yank it out. That leads to problems, like the famous example of the book author who wrote in his dedication, “To my parents, the Pope and Mother Teresa.” Or the gay church in Dallas that has “3,500 members, a full choir, a violinist and long-stemmed roses in the bathroom.”

Punctuation is designed to make language more readable and understandable. And sometimes removing a comma just because you’re “supposed to” can make the problem worse.

Bottom line: Using the Oxford comma isn’t wrong. It’s strictly a style issue.

3. Hyphens are dying: Some people say the hyphen is old-fashioned. Others would say it’s old fashioned. Either way, the hyphen is falling out of favor with most grammarians and editors. In fact, the sixth edition of the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, editors removed hyphens from 16,000 entries. An article in the BBC said words like fig-leaf, pot-belly, and pigeon-hole are now fig leaf, pot belly, and pigeonhole.

The Online Writing Lab (OWL) at Purdue is very thorough on the subject of hyphens. They have eight examples of when it should be used. The three most important are:

  • Use a hyphen to join two or more words serving as a single adjective before a noun:

a one-way street
chocolate-covered peanuts
well-known author

  • However, when compound modifiers come after a noun, they are not hyphenated:

The peanuts were chocolate covered.
The author was well known.

  • Use a hyphen to avoid confusion or an awkward combination of letters:

re-sign a petition (vs. resign from a job)
semi-independent (but semiconscious)
shell-like (but childlike)

Unfortunately, there’s no one rule that will explain all hyphens. If you’re not sure what to do, check Purdue’s OWL.

4. Proper use of the en (–) and em (—) dash: I love dashes. More powerful than commas, but not as sentence-stopping as a period. An em dash — which is the really long dash; so called because it’s the approximate width of the letter m — is used to separate parenthetical thoughts in your writing.

The en dash — it’s the approximate width of the letter n — is used to show a range between numbers.

I will be in Orlando, Florida from January 21 – 28.
Admission is $3 for ages 4 – 12.

Create the em dash with SHIFT+OPT+hyphen (Mac)/CTRL+ALT+hyphen (Windows). Create the en dash with OPT+hyphen (Mac)/ALT+hyphen (Windows). You can also turn on “Create em dash” in Word; anytime you type a double dash (–), Word will replace it with an em dash.

The other question I see a lot is whether to put a space between the em dash and a word. There doesn’t seem to be any consensus on whether to do it or not. The Chicago Manual of Style says there shouldn’t be any spaces—like this—between dashes and text. But the AP Stylebook — which is correct in all things except my beloved Oxford comma — says it’s okay to have a space between dashes and text (like I just did there).

The basic rule is the em dash is used in text, the en dash is used to show a range between numbers.

5. Punctuation always goes inside quotation marks: This is a simple one, but one that people don’t always understand. Basically, all punctuation goes inside quotation marks when you’re writing a quote.

“Where are you going?” she asked.
“None of your business!” he said.
“Jeez, you’re always such a jerk,” she said.

The punctuation in the last example is the one that usually trips people up. The entire sentence actually ends with “she said,” which is why the period goes at the very end. The actual quote — Jeez, you’re always such a jerk — ends with a comma, which goes inside the quote.

Now, if she says something else afterward, that’s actually a separate sentence, and doesn’t need a “she said” to go with it.

“Jeez, you’re always such a jerk,” she said. “I don’t know why I married you in the first place.”

Even other quotation marks will go inside the final quotation mark.

“And then I said, ‘that sounds like a load of BS!'” he shouted over the music.

Notice the use of the single quotation mark around ‘that sounds like a load of BS!’ That’s how you show you’re quoting something within another quote. But then if you look very closely at the end of the example, you’ll see the single quote and the double quote mashed together. It’s a little sloppy and hard to see, but that’s just how it is.

Bottom line: All punctuation goes inside a quotation mark, including other quotation marks.

(Special thanks to Bil Browning of the Bilerico Project for recommending this final item for the list.)

What about you? What are some of your punctuation pet peeves? What bugs you, or what do you struggle with? Leave a comment, and we’ll do a followup post.

Apostrophe photo: Melita Dennett
Comma photo: Leo Reynolds

Five Grammar Myths Exploded

I love language, and I’m a stickler for grammar and punctuation. I don’t always know the names of the rules, or how to diagram a sentence, but I know what’s right, and what’s not.

So as a professional wordsmith, and self-confessed know-it-all, I want to explode five common grammar myths I hear rather frequently.

  1. You can’t end your sentences with a preposition: According to Grant Barrett and Martha Barnette, hosts of at A Way With Words, an NPR radio show for Word Nerds, this is a tired old proscriptiondating back from the 17th century.Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty said it best in her podcast:

    A key point, you might say the Quick and Dirty Tip, is that the sentence doesn’t work if you leave off the preposition. You can’t say, “What did you step?” You need to say, “What did you step on?” to make a grammatical sentence.

    I can hear some of you gnashing your teeth right now, while you think, “What about saying, ‘On what did you step?’”

    But really, have you ever heard anyone talk that way? I’ve read long, contorted arguments from noted grammarians about why it’s OK to end sentences with prepositions when the preposition isn’t extraneous (1), but the driving point still seems to be, “Nobody in their right mind talks this way.” Yes, you could say, “On what did you step?” but not even grammarians think you should.

    Or in the famous words of Winston Churchill, “this is utter nonsense, up with which I shall not put.

  2. Don’t split infinitives: Patricia O’Connor, author of Woe Is I, says this is a bunch of hooey. She lays the blame at the feet of Henry Alford, a Latinist and Dean of Canterbury in the 1800s, for foisting this crap on us.Alford published a grammar book in 1864, A Plea for the Queen’s English, where he used several Latin rules to create English rules, like the idea that the word “to” is part of an infinitive, and thus should be inseparable. O’Connor’s book is much bigger and more popular, and she says Alford is dead wrong.

    Part of the problem is that infinitives in Latin are single words, while they’re two words in English: to go, to run, to lift, to look. Alford figured if they can’t be split in his dead language of choice, they shouldn’t be split in the language everyone else was using.

    Look, English isn’t Latin, so we shouldn’t be bound by rules that guys with funny beards tried to impose on us, especially when they had no foundation to begin with. (This same kind of Latin = English is the reason for the “don’t end your sentences with a preposition” myth too.)

  3. It’s an historic occasion: Use “an” when a word starts with a vowel sound, like “an NBA referee.” Bottom line: does “historic” start with a vowel sound? No. So stop saying “an historic.” The reason some people do it is because the British do it. Why do the British do it? Because in some regions of the country, and with a Cockney accent, they sometimes drop the H sound from words like her, he, or his. (And yet they stick it on words like herbal. Go figure) A dropped H means a word starts with a vowel sound, and hence the “an” in front of it. So people who want to sound like they’re educated in England will do the whole “an historic” thing.
  4. Alright isn’t all right:Turns out it is, much to my relief. I have been using “alright” for years, and was told recently it was wrong. It was a dark day.However, Gabe Doyle, a 4th year computational psycholinguistics graduate student at UC-San Diego (i.e. he’s smarter than you) and owner of the Motivated Grammar blog, says you can. “Alright is a common, 100-year-old alternate spelling of all right, presumably created on analogy to already and although.” So if a 4th year computational psycholinguist on the Internet says it’s true, that’s good enough for me.
  5. Don’t start sentences with And, But, or Or: That might have been true once, but not anymore. It’s a modern invention of writing and language, and there’s nothing wrong with it. Patricia O’Connor says we’ve been starting sentences with And and other conjunctions since the 10th century. She says that other than a bunch of high school English teachers driving themselves to hysterics, there’s no proof we can’t do this.

Explosion photo: Veo