Nobody likes a grammar prig, I know. I don’t like them either and, yes, grammar is boring and sometimes complicated. But it does make your meaning clearer and your writing easier to read.
After 13 years of public school, four years of university with a major in English, journalism school with a course dedicated to grammar, and years of writing and working for editors and bosses who exhibited a wide range of grammar pickiness, I’ve learned a few things.
There are things that I wish someone had explained to me early on. Here’s my top ten list (hands off Dave Letterman!) of things I wish I had known earlier than I did:
- While having good grammar doesn’t make your writing sound smart, using bad grammar makes it sound dumb.
- It’s easy to google grammar questions and get quick answers. This is how I was able to prove to a grammar-picky boss that there are no hyphens in “meeting face to face,” as opposed to “a face-to-face meeting” (the latter is an adjectival form necessitating hyphens, whereas the former isn’t).
- Here’s a contender for the most frequent grammar mistake: its vs. it’s. This is one I didn’t get until grade twelve because it goes against logic. Apostrophes, as we all know, usually denote possession. For example, Susie’s car is black. Therefore, many, many, many people think it’s is possessive. It isn’t. This is the exception that proves the rule: It’s is the contraction of it is. Its is the possessive form. For example, It’s raining outside = It is raining outside. Here’s an example of the other kind of its: The car has four wheels. Its tires are black = The car’s tires are black.
To remember this one (it’s easy to get them mixed up), just alway say it is in your head when writing it’s to make sure you’re using the right one.
- People are “who;” things are “that.” So please try not to write, I love people that are friendly. It’s I love people who are friendly. (Sorry for the vacuous examples.) Companies are “that,” not “who”.
- If it’s something you can count, it’s a “number.” If it’s something you can’t count, it’s an “amount.” So, The company had a large number of customers; the website had a large amount of traffic.
- This is related to Number 5. Again, if it’s something you can count, use fewer. If it’s something you can’t count, use less. There were fewer people at this year’s Christmas party. There was also less to drink.
- This one is similar to Number 3: your vs. you’re. Your is the possessive form: Your brother is annoying. You’re is the contraction of you are: You’re the sunshine of my life. (Again, vacuous; sorry.)
- Too = excessive (Too much of a good thing can be bad for you.)
Two = more than one and less than three (I think we all know this one).To = directional
- Lets versus let’s. The former means “allows.” The latter is a contraction of “let us.” The teacher always lets us get away with this one. So I said, “Let’s get out of here.”
- A comma splice error occurs when two sentences (complete thoughts) are joined by a comma. This is done all the time, but is incorrect:I like this sweater, I’m going to buy it.These are two complete thoughts and should be two separate sentences or joined with a conjunction (and, but) or a semicolon:I really this sweater; I’m going to buy it.
Thanks for listening to my rants. Maybe this is completely unimportant to you, or maybe you have some of your own grammar pet peeves to add to my list? Feel free to add your own in the comments!