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Grammar and Language Problems Every Writer Should Avoid

9

February 20, 2013 by Nathaniel Tower

Whenever I think of grammar and the English language, I picture John Goodman’s character from The Big Lebowski shouting, “Am I the only one around here who gives a shit about the rules?”

Now, I’m not one to threaten someone with a gun over a little mistake, but I do have my fair share of frustrations with writers today.

We’re all aware of books like Eats, Shoots & Leaves that are dedicated to pointing out punctuation errors and grammatical problems. Do we really need another one of these lists?

Based on what I’ve read, we apparently need a lot more of them.

Even if the general population has been ruined by the evasiveness and damaging effects of texting and instant messaging, it’s important for writers to know and follow the rules. For the record, I have no quibbles with instant messaging. Without it, I would not have the proficient typing skills I have today. Of course, like anything else, many people abuse these forms of communication in a way that has ultimately led to the degradation of the language.

But haven’t there always been typos and spelling errors and grammar errors throughout society?

Many editors these days expect to proof something quickly for content. Without paying too much attention to grammar and the rules, stories are approved and published. Who can blame these editors or authors? With so much content available to read, there isn’t always enough time to glean each piece perfectly. Besides, if most people don’t know the difference, why does it really matter if the author uses “every day” or “everyday”?

Well, it does matter. If we forsake the rules of the language, what will become of it?

I’m no dinosaur (even if I don’t have a smartphone). I believe that language lives and breathes and adapts (you know, a lot of people would’ve written “breaths” there [and even more people would’ve written “alot”]). We need to preserve the language. If we let all the rules go away, how will we communicate? If we let someone bowl over the line, where will we draw a new line?

Here are five grammar and language problems I think every writer should avoid. I chose these for a variety of reasons, including their ubiquitous presence in today’s society, by commercial writers and amateur writers alike.

1. Pronoun Agreement

When I talk about pronouns in the classroom, I like to joke that they’re like regular nouns, only they get paid more. That doesn’t mean we should abuse them.

Pronouns need to agree with their antecedents (notice how the word “pronouns” agrees with the word “their”).

I see this problem the most in a sentence like this:

“A student needs to turn in their homework.”

Wait. I thought there was only one student. Why is that student turning in the homework of multiple people?

This problem is everywhere. People ignore the rules out of fear of sexism. There is no singular pronoun that is gender neutral in our language. Here’s the general thought process: I can’t say “A student needs to turn in his homework” because that implies that I’m a pig who thinks all students are males. Fine. Say “his or her” homework. Or you can say “Students need to turn in their homework.” Whatever you do, just make sure your pronouns agree.

My friend and fellow writer Joani Reese tells her students to make the initial noun plural in order to avoid this problem. It can be awkward to always say his or her. I’m definitely on board with Joani’s suggestion. (Note: It’s spelled “definitely” and not “defiantly”)

And while we’re on the subject of pronouns, “I’s” is never a word. If you’ve ever seen a season of The Bachelor, you know what I’m talking about.

2. It’s “would’ve” not “would of”

Johnny would of gotten an A on his test, but he didn’t know the language.

Would’ve is the contraction form of would have. I guess we get “of” from the sound, but to me it sounds more like “ve” anyway.

So, should’ve, would’ve, could’ve.

I would of gotten published by that magazine, but I didn’t because I should of known how to write better.

3. Apostrophes: They don’t make things plural

When did it become the norm to toss an apostrophe on any pluralized word?

The student’s like eating their cookie’s.

So, um, what does that student own in that sentence. And what about the cookie?

Apostrophes are used to show possession or indicate the absence of letters (such as in could’ve). Don’t use one to make a word plural. Even if you want to talk about the 1960s. Just add the ‘s’ at the end. No apostrophe. Trust me on this.

I won’t get into the whole s’s or s’ bit right now. There’s only so much time.

4. If you do something every day, then it is an everyday thing.

How have we botched this so much? I see this everywhere. Shampoo bottles (use this wash everyday), department stores (use your credit card and save 5% everyday), and a million other places.

“Everyday” is an adjective. It modifies a noun or pronoun.

Washing hair is an everyday thing.

I wash my hair every day.

5. Its versus it’s

Yeah, it’s another apostrophe issue. But it deserves recognition on its own.

See what I did there?

If you want to avoid this little problem, then always say “it is” and never “it’s.” It is a mistake you’ll never make again.

***

I’m not a grammar snob. At least I try not to be one. I don’t correct the speech of others. I don’t reject a story outright because of a few grammatical errors (but please make sure your first sentence is perfect). I just want to bring a little sanity back to our communication. When professional advertisers can’t get it right, aren’t we all doomed?

As writers, you need to be aware that some editors will reject your work if it is sloppy, no matter how great the story is. I have certainly rejected work that was poorly edited. Our staff typically won’t read very far into a poorly written submission before rejecting it. A general rule of thumb is only submit work that is publication ready.

Share your own grammar and language nits by leaving a comment below.

9 thoughts on “Grammar and Language Problems Every Writer Should Avoid

  1. Lx says:

    Here’s one that has editors here in this shop divided: “The percentage of male deer are…” or “is” ? I held my own with “IS” (referring to THE PERCENTAGE) but I was over-ruled by “content specialists” who pointed out that “deer” is plural. I have gone insane over this argument but no luck.

    • I agree with you, Alex. Look at the bold example below.

      Here’s what Grammar Girl says:

      “It’s a little more complicated with the word percentage. The same rules I just told you apply when you are talking about a percentage of something: singular something, singular verb; plural something, plural verb. But when you are talking about the percentage of something, then it is always singular (6).

      A percentage of the chocolate chips were missing.

      The percentage of chocolate chips missing was shocking.

      Also, for percentage, the order of the sentence matters. If the percentage phrase comes later in the sentence, you need a singular verb (2).

      A percentage of the chocolate chips were missing.

      There is a large percentage of chocolate chips missing.

      In summary, “the percentage” is singular, regardless of the prepositional phrase, and therefore the verb should be singular. Boom!

  2. Nice post, Nate. Another thing that has slid a bamboo shoot under my fingernails, is the constant misuse of “less”, especially in advertising. Less describes something that is not quantifiable, e.g. less water, less verbiage, less angst. Fewer should be used to quantify the quantifiable, e.g. fewer drops of water, fewer words, fewer breakdowns. If you can count it, it should be “fewer,” not “less”. Am I wrong to go bat-crap every time I see or hear this?

    • Stephen, I don’t think you’re wrong to feel that way. The “every day/everyday” mix-up drives me nuts. Target has it in all the ads for the RedCard. All kinds of face washes and shampoos have it wrong. Other stores screw it up all the time. Why are they paying these people when they can’t do their job right?

  3. Hi Nate,

    Timely post that really resonates with me. Robert Vaughan and Joani Reese are mutual friends and associates and we’ve chewed on this issue too. Although, unlike the three of you, I am not a professional teacher of English language arts or writing. However, I am a recovering public school practitioner of 25 years and I have also taught Fine Arts at both the college undergrad and grad school level where the grammar issue has caused much gnashing of teeth, pulling of hair and rending of garments. (no Oxford comma, it’s unAmerican!) I must say that, although the students can be vexing, I am particularly perturbed when massive crimes against grammar are committed in the professional writing of colleagues. (especially in memos written in Comic Sans font, but that’s a whole nother issue 😉 I do have some pet peeves with invented words like “nother” and “whelp” and “Imma” but then the word “dis” has actually been officially admitted to the lexicon, so what can we do but acknowledge the barbarians at the gates. 🙂

  4. Elementary school was called “grammar school” not all that long ago…..

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