Wednesday, March 05, 2008

National Grammar Day (one day late)

I can't believe I missed this. I am a grammar queen, grammar nazi, grammar bit**. I've been called them all. I don't proclaim to always use correct grammar, nor do I proclaim to know it all.

However, I do get my panties in a bunch when it comes to misplaced apostrophes (e.g., "apostrophe's"), people not knowing the difference between "their," "they're," and "there," signs that contain too many quote marks (e.g., "Today's Special") and other miscellaneous mistakes that make me cringe as if I'd just heard fingernails sliding down a chalkboard. *Shiver*

Yet I try not to be a jerk about it; instead, I try to spread the word in a friendly way and attempt to educate the masses about correct grammar usage. It's not that difficult and it would make reading a lot easier on the old eyeballs, not to mention help encourage others to use correct grammar. It seems like these days I see a lot more sloppy writing, especially on blogs, though I've seen it on internet news sites as well.

Since I don't like to be a cynic, I don't lean toward the idea that our grammar and spelling is going to hell in a handbasket, though some days I do begin to wonder! Instead, I'll just continue on my path, editing and educating one day at a time. :)

Check it out: National Grammar Day

And now, without further ado, the Top 10 Grammar Tips:

1. Me, myself & I
A million well-meaning parents are to blame for the rampant abuse of the letter I.

"It's Bathsheba and I, not Bathsheba and me." How many times have you heard that?

Sometimes, "Bathsheba and me" is correct. It depends on whether you are the subject or object of the sentence.

You can figure this out easily by leaving Bathsheba out of the question. You wouldn't say "Me went to the store” unless you were Cookie Monster. So "Bathsheba and I" is right here. Nor would you say "Jocko gave I the ball." This is why "Bathsheba gave me the ball" is correct, as is "Bathsheba gave Jocko and me the ball."

Myself, meanwhile, is not a fancy substitute for me. It’s a reflexive pronoun. You use it for emphasis, or to refer back to yourself. For example:

· I looked at myself in the mirror.

· I, myself, never eat live goldfish.

Do not, for the love of grammar, say “Talk to myself about your problems.” That’s just wrong.

2. Is it “good” or “well”?

There are people out there who insist that “I am well” is the only acceptable answer to the question, “How are you?”

They are wrong, bless their starchy little hearts.

It is true that adverbs modify verbs, and “am” is a form of the verb “to be.” This is a special kind of verb. Called a “linking verb,” it connects a subject to additional information. It’s not an action verb.

Just as the sentence “Kermit the frog is green” is correct, while “Kermit the frog is greenly” is not, “I am good” is a correct way to answer the question.

Here’s the kicker, though. “I am well” works, too. It has a slightly different meaning, and describes your state of health. So, if you want to reveal your glowing physical condition, by all means say, “I am well.” If you merely want to say stuff in your life is hunky-dory, “I am good” is just fine.

3. Less vs. fewer

While there are some people who insist the distinction between these words is meaningless, we decline to attend their party. Your speech and writing will be more elegant if you know the difference:

- Use “less” when you’re talking about an amount of something that can’t be divided into units. For example, “I have less time than I once did.”

- Use “fewer” when you’re talking about a quantity that can be divided or measured. For example, “I spend fewer hours watching TV than I once did.”

This can get tricky.

For example, is it “fewer than 50 percent of voters showed up at the polls”? Or is it “less than 50 percent”? In this case, we’d recommend going with “fewer than 50 percent”—Latin for per hundred—because the voters didn’t show up as one big group. “Fewer than 50 people in 100 showed up.” They showed up one at a time, or maybe in groups of two. But even if entire book clubs arrived together, the individual units matter.

We’d say “He used less than 50 percent of an egg in his cake batter.” Even though per cent literally means per hundred, you still wouldn’t divide an egg into 100 pieces unless you were performing some sort of unusual religious miracle akin to the loaves and fishes, but for vegetarians.

This is a really minor point, and people might persuasively argue either side. Let’s just say if you find yourself in this sort of debate, actually caring about the outcome, you should feel good about your regard for language.

4. Which vs. that

Use "that" for dependent clauses and "which" for independent ones. In other words, if the meaning of your sentence depends on a qualifying statement, use "that."

Here’s an example using "that":

- The dog that barked is mine. (This means the quiet dog isn’t yours.)

Here’s an example using “which”:

- The dog, which barked at a tree, crossed the road. (There is no other dog. This one first barked at a tree, then crossed the road. Why did the dog cross the road? Probably to meet the chicken on the other side.)

Some people insist there is no difference, and you can use whatever you want. You definitely can find examples in fine literature of “which” being used in dependent clauses. But a newspaper editor wouldn’t permit it. And, if you set off a “that” clause with a comma, you’d just be wrong.

Right: He put the cup on the table, which had a wobbly leg.

Wrong: He put the cup on the table, that had a wobbly leg.

5. i.e. vs. e.g.

The New York Times called Latin a dead language that’s still twitching a bit. That twitching, we think, comes whenever people misuse Latin, making the language roll over just a bit in its grave. Here’s how to remember when to use i.e., and when to use e.g.

- i.e. stands for id est (that is).
Use it when you’re explaining something. You can remember this by pretending that the i.e. really stands for “in essence.”

I like cats and dogs, i.e., animals you can teach to go to the bathroom outside.

- e.g. stands for exempli gratia (for example).
You can remember this by pretending that e.g. stands for example given.

I like big dogs, e.g., Golden Retrievers and German Shepherds.

In American English, set off both i.e. and e.g. with commas.

6. affect vs. effect

Generally, affect is a verb, and effect is a noun. There are a couple of exceptions:

- to “effect change” means to bring about change.

- To have a flat “affect” means you don’t show a lot of personality.

These exceptions aren’t all that common. It’s pretty stiff to use “effect” as a verb of change, and “affect” as a noun is usually reserved for clinical settings. If you can simply remember to use affect as a verb and effect as a noun, you will almost always be right.

7. insure vs. ensure

Insure and ensure are sound-alike words with slightly different meanings. We even see these words messed up in well-edited publications such as The New York Times and The New Yorker.

- Insure means to protect against risk.

- Ensure means to make certain.

Use “insure” when you’re talking about things that are related to insurance—you know, those bills you pay twice a year?

Use “ensure” when you’re not talking about anything you’d pay premiums to protect. Use insure when you’re actually talking about insurance. You can get away with using these words interchangeably, and indeed, some dictionaries list them as such. But why muddy the waters? We love a fine distinction; it makes language infinitely richer.

A similar-sounding word—“assure”—means to convince someone or make someone confident.

8. To split, or not to split: the truth about split infinitives

An infinitive is a “to” plus a verb, e.g. “to tickle.”

Generations of teachers have reprimanded their students for splitting infinitives and sticking an adverb between the “to” and the verb.

It turns out all those teachers were needlessly stiff. We can follow the lead of Gene Roddenberry’s “Star Trek,”—to boldly go where English teachers said we mustn’t.

The bias against split infinitives came from grammarians who wanted English to be more like Latin. In Latin, you can’t split an infinitive. It’s one word.

In English, there is sometimes good reason to split the pair with a modifier. If, for example, you were complaining that the president plans to almost triple your taxes, then you’d be perfectly justified in splitting the infinitive. One alternative—to say he plans almost to triple your taxes—makes it sound as though the plan isn’t complete. The other—to say he plans to triple almost your taxes—is unacceptably stilted.

Generally, it’s a fine practice to keep the infinitive whole. This gives you the best shot at clarity. But when an exception arises, don’t hesitate to boldly go.

9. A preposition you can’t refuse

You can’t end a sentence with a preposition. Chances are, you’ve heard this from a well-meaning teacher. This isn’t true, though. Experts think this is a bit like the ban on split infinitives—another vestige of our language’s love affair with Latin. In Latin, preposition means “put before,” so how could it possibly be used at the end of a sentence ?

You might have memorized list of prepositions when you were in school. It’s worth remembering, though, that words on that list don’t always function as prepositions. Sometimes, they can be adverbs. Here, they’re fine at the end of sentences.

For example, “Let’s give them something to talk about,” a line from a very kicky Bonnie Raitt song. Some purists might say, “No, no. It must be ‘Let’s give them something about which to talk’.” This is unnecessarily stilted. It’s turned “about” from an adverb to a preposition (a word before a noun), but it’s only made the sentence stilted—not more correct.

There is one case where a preposition shouldn’t come at the end of the sentence. “Where’s he at?” is an unpleasant idiom. The “at” is unnecessary. Where provides all you need to know about his location.

10. Conjunction function

Don’t start a sentence with a conjunction. This is another one of those fake English-teacher rules. You probably wouldn’t want to start a sentence in a really formal paper with a conjunction—for, and, nor, but, or, yet, and so. But there’s no problem in most other cases. Award-winning journalists, novelists, and other writers do it all the time. Same with sentence fragments. We’ve been told not to use them, but when we do it with a light hand, they can improve the flow of our writing, making it easier to understand.

© Martha Brockenbrough, The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar

1 comment:

Paul said...

Hi Sarah,

Sorry, at this time I don't know of someone who would be able to host you. Best of luck. I would but we have a small house (and a baby and cats).