29 September 2018

Where's a Grammar Cop When You Need One?

I doubt the Grammar Police are always pleased with me. I make a lot of mistakes, stylewise, in my fiction writing. Some of them are intentional, though--I love to splice commas, split infinitives, fragment sentences, etc.--and most of the others I try to catch and correct during the rewriting/editing phase, so overall I hope the final product wouldn't have made my late great high-school English teacher too unhappy. I also try to be lenient in forgiving some of the errors I see in the speech and writing of others.

But let's face it, there are some things about grammar, word usage, punctuation, etc., that we as educated adults really ought to know, and that we as writers are expected to know. (Newscasters are a whole different story. They should know the rules, too, but usually don't.)

After a lot of thought, a short nap, and three cinnamon rolls, I have put together a list of grammar issues that a lot of folks seem to find difficult. Some of the items that involve word choices are easy, and have a definite right-or-wrong answer. If you violate those, you probably deserve a visit by the Grammar Squad ("Hands up, bud, and step away from that keyboard!"). Other items are sort of iffy; you say tomayto and I say tomotto. On several of them I'm sure we'll disagree.

Even so . . . here's my list:

nauseated/nauseous -- They don't mean the same thing. If you're sick, you're nauseated. If you're making me sick, you're nauseous.

feeling badly about something -- It's impossible. You might feel bad about it, but feeling badly is no more correct than feeling goodly.

everyday/every day -- Everyday is a one-word adjective, and shouldn't be used any other way. "These are my everyday shoes--the ones I wear every day."

into/in to -- You get into your car and drive in to your office. Unless maybe you crash into your office. I still remember the news article I read about someone turning himself into police. A shapeshifter, maybe?

prostrate/prostate -- One's a position and one's a gland. "He's prostrate because he's having trouble with his prostate."

irregardless -- It's a useless word. It means regardless. Same goes for inflammable (which means flammable), utilize (which means use), and preplanning (which means planning).

alright/all right -- It's not all right to write alright. If there is such a word, there shouldn't be. Same thing goes for alot.

blond/blonde -- There's a lot of disagreement about this one. Yes, blond is masculine and blonde is feminine, but I prefer to use blonde as a noun and blond as an adjective. "The blonde had blond hair."

continuous/continual -- They're not the same. Continuous means uninterrupted and never stopping. Continual means often repeated, or frequently.

momentarily -- This means for a moment, as in "I was momentarily speechless." It does not mean soon. If your pilot announces, during takeoff, "We'll be in the air momentarily" . . . that's not good.

hone in -- You can't hone in on something. You home in on it, like a homing beacon.

principle/principal -- Educational principles are upheld by the principal (your "pal"). NOTE: As the person assigned to change the weekly motivational message on our high-school bulletin board, I once posted "It's not school we hate, it's the principal of the thing." I thought it was clever. The administration did not. (An unfortunately true story.)

with baited breath -- It's bated breath. Unless you've eaten a can of worms.

loath/loathe -- I'm loath to tell you how much I loathe seeing this misused.

peaked my interest -- Should be piqued.

slight of hand -- Should be sleight of hand.

If worse comes to worse -- Should be if worse comes to worst.

to all intensive purposes -- Should be to all intents and purposes.

wringer/ringer -- Why do half the writers I read say "He looked like he'd been through the ringer"? Those of us who remember old-timey washing machines prefer wringer.

wrack/rack -- Personally, it's nerve-wracking to see this written nerve-racking. But apparently either spelling is acceptable. Oh well.

comprise/compose -- Comprise means to include. Compose means to make up. According to The Elements of Style, "A zoo comprises animals, but animals compose a zoo."

convince/persuade -- Convince involves thought. Persuade involves action. "He convinced her she was wrong; he persuaded her to go home."

literally -- This means actually, not figuratively. If you say, "I literally jumped from the frying pan into the fire, " I wish you a speedy recovery.

restauranteur -- No such word. It should be restaurateur.

expresso -- Should be espresso.

1980's -- Should be 1980s.

less/fewer -- Yes, I know, we learned this as children. Even so, people get it wrong all the time. Fewer refers to units. Less refers to things that can't be counted. "I've been reading less fiction and buying fewer novels."

first come, first serve -- Should be first come, first served.

give them free reign -- Should be give them free rein.

I could care less -- I have no idea where this got started, and I couldn't care less.

compliment/complement -- To compliment is to praise. To complement is to enhance or add to. "He complimented her on the way her scarf complemented her outfit."

insure/ensure -- If money or a policy is not involved, use ensure.

affect/effect -- Affect is a verb. Effect is a noun.

data and media -- Since the form is plural, these nouns supposedly need verbs like are or were. BUT . . . when I worked for IBM, we burst into hysterical laughter anytime we heard someone say "The data are correct." I think collective nouns like this should be treated as singular, and use verbs like is or was. (And it's dayta, not datta.)

Gone With the Wind -- In a title, capitalize all words (even prepositions) that are longer than three letters.

a two bit operation -- This makes for slow, tedious reading. Hyphenating multi-word adjectives like two-bit (or multi-word) can increase the pace: one-horse town, easy-to-read book, three-alarm fire, elementary-school teacher, high-risk operation, holier-than-thou smirk. It can also prevent misunderstandings: I'm a short-story writer, not a short story writer. My five-year-old grandson is a short story writer.

a/an -- Pronunciation, not spelling, should determine which one is used: a uniform, a European vacation, an SASE, a historical site, an hour and a half.

the Internet -- Some capitalize it, some don't (especially when it's used as an adjective). I usually capitalize it.

From Noon Till Three -- The use of till (instead of until or 'til) is perfectly acceptable.

Texas/TX -- Unless you're addressing an envelope, don't use two-letter postal abbreviations for state names. Spell them out.

imply/infer -- A writer or speaker implies. A reader or listener infers.

hopefully -- This is an adverb describing hope. "The survivors listened hopefully for the sound of a search plane." It's incorrect to say "Hopefully, I'll finish this column by Saturday." (But I still say it. This is one of those rules that I happily ignore.)

i.e./e.g. -- I.e. means "that is" or "in other words." E.g. means "for example."

ironic -- A hurricane during your wedding reception isn't ironic. Getting run over by a Budweiser truck on your way to an AA meeting is ironic.

T-shirt/tee shirt -- The correct term is T-shirt. Hint: the shirt looks like a T when it's on a coat hanger.

writing time -- I prefer using a.m. and p.m., rather than AM and PM.

dialogue and fellowship -- These are nouns, not verbs. Don't say, unless you're a Baptist minister, "Come fellowship with us."

invite -- This is a verb, not a noun. Don't say, "I just received my invite to the party."

y'all/ya'll -- It's y'all. The apostrophe stands in for the missing ou in you all.

Miss Jane/Ms. Jane -- It's Miss Jane, and has nothing to do with whether she's married. The Miss along with the first name is a polite expression of familiarity, especially in the South, and is used when Ms. Doe or Mrs. Doe might sound too stiff and formal. Think "Miss Ellie" on Dallas.

italics/quotes -- Use italics for the names of novels, novellas, plays, books, movies, TV series, ships, aircraft, albums, court cases, works of art, newspapers, comic strips, and magazines. Use quotation marks for the names of poems, short stories, articles, chapters, TV episodes, and songs.

short-lived -- This deals more with speaking than writing, but short-lived should be pronounced with a long "i" as in "life," not with a short "i" as in "give." (I think James Lincoln Warren is the only person who's ever agreed with me on this, but he's a good ally to have.)

Seamus -- Another pronunciation thing. Everyone knows Sean is pronounced "Shawn," but only Irish private eyes seem to know that Seamus is pronounced "Shamus."

may/might -- May implies permission. Might implies choice. "Johnny may go to the movies" usually means his mom says it's okay. "Johnny might go to the movies" means he hasn't made up his mind.

historic/historical -- Historic means something that's famous or important. Historical just means something that happened in the past.

What's irritating is to carelessly misspeak or miswrite something even though you really know the right way to say or write it. Long ago, an English teacher (another true story) asked a question of one of my classmates, and got what she considered to be a not-specific-enough response. She looked at the offending student and said, too quickly, "I want a pacific answer." The guy replied, "Hawaii."

With regard to written mistakes, a magazine editor once told me she doesn't mind seeing an extra apostrophe in "its" or an apostrophe missing from "it's" in a manuscript--she just assumes the writer happened to type it wrong. But if she sees that same error two or three times in the same manuscript, that's a different matter. Suddenly the writer isn't careless--he's dumb. And the manuscript gets rejected.

Okay. Had enough of this? Me too. My interest may have been momentarily peaked, but I would literally be loathe to hone in on it everyday.

Irregardless, what are some of your pet peeves, about misuse of the written/spoken word? Does it make you feel badly? Continually nauseous?

Or could you care less?


  1. I have so much to say. I love this kind of stuff. Okay, first, wow. I always thought inflammable meant not flammable. I just read this helpful article about this issue: https://www.merriam-webster.com/words-at-play/flammable-or-inflammable Thanks, John, for helping me learn something I should have known.

    Turning to convince and persuade, I learned the difference differently: that you persuade someone else but only you can be convinced. Hmmmm.

    Moving on to (right, not onto?) nerve-wracking versus -racking, I spent time researching this spelling last year, and felt confident at the end of my endeavor that no w is needed.

    I love your examples, especially your unamused principal and the can of worms. In fact, I love this whole post. I couldn't care more!

  2. Hey Barb. Yep, nerve-racking is apparently okay, even though it still sounds wrong to me. And by the way, if you ever want a lesson in how not to write, read the movie reviews on IMDB. Seriously. I don't think I've ever seen it/it's used correctly in those things.

    As for right vs. wrong, remember that some of this stuff is my opinion only. (Our TV weatherman loves to say "The datta are correct.) But I do think the whole subject of word choice and word usage is fun.

  3. John,
    Now this is a damn good and useful posting. Cool.

  4. Sorry. In the previous comment, I meant "its/it's." Poor choice of words.

  5. This post is beautiful. I nearly, (not literally), brought tears to my eyes. I have to admit that the difference convince and persuade had not occurred to me and I thank you. I believe that I have made a citizen's arrest concerning all of the others at one time or another.
    The plague of apostrophes in attempted plurals drives me nearly insane.
    May I add "bring" and "take"? No one seems to take anything anywhere anymore; they bring it. Bring implies motion toward, whereas take implies motion away. "Bring the red book to me,but take the blue one to the library". "Please bring the box in from the car. When you leave, take an umbrella."
    Bless you, John Floyd!

  6. This is so useful! Great reminders for all of us not to get sloppy.

  7. Many years ago I purchased a book called Room's Dictionary of Confusables by Adrian Room. Best place to sort through infer/imply, flaunt/flout, principle/principal, etc.

  8. Great post, John. Some words you clarified I may have gotten wrong in the past, so I'm taking note of those. Your examples were terrific and very helpful for remembering. I am surprised at how long the list is!

  9. "Affect" can also be a noun, as in, "She was a quiet person and whenever she spoke, her affect was flat." Accent on the first syllable.

    My daughter, when she was little, watched Dallas & enjoyed watching the character "Miss Sue Ellie". Never figured out if she meant Miss Ellie or Sue Ellen. I've reached such an advanced age now that even up north, many people call me Miss Elizabeth. A little boy I used to know called me "Mibizif".

  10. Great stuff!! Very useful and “We’ll be in the air momentarily” cracked me up.

    I find affect/effect especially tough when reading because in most instances affect is a verb and effect a noun but in rare usage the opposite can be true: such as “To effect change, get involved” and, as noted above, the specialized use of affect as a noun.

    On a different note: Mystery/crime blog aficionado The Rap Sheet just posted a second annual list of their favorite mystery and crime blogs, including Sleuthsayers. Congrats to all Sleuths!

    Best wishes,
    Peter DiChellis

  11. "The men that were in the car that was speeding" - no, it should be, "the men who were in the car that was speeding." People are "who", things are "that".

  12. Tonette -- Many thanks! As for your "apostrophes in attempted plurals," I share your pain. If I see one more mailbox with "The Smith's" printed on the side, I'll probably join you in the mental ward. All this stuff is kinda fascinating, in a sad way.

    Thanks, Jacqueline, for stopping in, here. Yes, many of these language mistakes are (too) easy to make.

    Rob, I didn't know about Room's Dictionary, but sounds as if I need to. Thanks.

    Hey Jan! Yep, the list could've actually been a lot longer. As mentioned, this whole subject is one that's fascinating to me, and to most writers.

    To Miss Elizabeth: Thanks for the note, on "affect." And as for "Miss," my 92-year-old mother is still "Miss Carolyn" to most of the folks in my hometown. When I was very small, all the neighbors were Mr. Bo, Mr. Ollie, Miss Betty, Miss Dorothy, etc. etc.--we seldom used last names.

    Peter--thanks a lot! And thank you for the info, about The Rap Sheet. Glad to hear we made their list.

    Eve, that's another misuse that happens all the time. We could go on and on . . .

  13. I am a grumpy grammarian. The thing that burns me: how anyone can think they can be a writer without mastering basic grammar. Object/subject pronoun misuse is rampant. I try to teach the rules as an aside in my Crafting a Novel course, and I can't, because so many would-be writers have no idea what a subject or object *is*. These are the tools of our trade! How can anyone expect to be an author without knowing how to use the tools? (hits head against desk)

  14. Melodie, it's enough to make anyone grumpy. And to those of us who teach or have taught writing, it's SO disappointing to find out how big a problem this is. It's even a little insulting: no one would ever attempt to paint a masterpiece or compose a musical score without training, and yet so-called writers try to (and honestly believe they can) write a bestseller without a knowledge of the basics.

    No wonder you have those forehead-shaped dents in your desk.

  15. I thoroughly enjoyed this - wish it were in a .pdf so that I could print it. One tiny, itsy-bitsy, little comment: "Irregardless" PLEASE tell me you were being facetious. :-)

  16. Thanks, Cat. I appreciate your chiming in, here. As for irregardless, what I've always heard is that the prefix (ir-) duplicates the suffix (-less) and is therefore unnecessary. So "regardless" is the correct word.

  17. Very thorough! The only addition I can think of is pore over/pour over. I picture maple syrup coating the pages that are being poured over, for some reason. So sticky!

  18. Good stuff, John. Who doesn't need a reminder from time to time?

  19. Thanks, Kaye! Oh, there could be plenty of additions--and yes, I hate to hear someone say they poured over a certain book. Makes for soggy reading. Another is wench/winch (one of my favorites).

    Hey John! I suspect an ex-journalist like you wouldn't need as many reminders as I do.

    Thanks to both of you for stopping in at SleuthSayers!


  20. Great list, John. The one that drives me the nutsiest is when people don't know a subjective from an objective pronoun, as in when they say or write, "Me and her went to the store."

  21. I agree, Earl. Or "She went to the store for you and I." The wildest thing is that you hear the "for you and I" phrase again and again, even from folks who should know better.

    Your assignment, Mr. Staggs, is to go out and save the world from this kind of thing!! (Talk about impossible missions . . .)

  22. John, I love these lists. They're always a good reminder to pay attention to every word and expression while we write and edit. Other than the usual its/it's, alright/all right and some others, my favorite examples here are momentarily and principle/principal. Both made me laugh. I have to disagree with your pronunciation of short-lived and an historical. These differences may be regional (New England), but they're mine and I love them. ;-))

    Thanks for posting these, and I hope you have more to come.

  23. Thanks, Susan! Yes, some of these are based more on my opinion than on fact, but they seem to make sense to me (If something has a short life, I would think it's pronounced short-lived with a long i). And there is WIDE disagreement about the blond/blonde issue. Sometimes I guess the important thing is consistency: don't spell a word (like nerve-wracking) one way and then spell it a different way later, in the same story, or use Internet once and internet the next time. Thanks again for the comment!


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