Certain things that come across one’s desktop, on the internet, are hard to turn away from. Train wrecks, for example. For me, this list includes commentary about grammatical errors and proper language use.
I find this sort of discussion interesting because I’m an anthropologist, and probably also because I’ve spend a lot of time 100% immersed in a language or two other than my native English. This training and this experience each make me think about how we make meaning linguistically. Also, as a parent, I have observed how a child goes through the process of first, and quickly, learning how to use language properly, then spends the next several years learning how to use it wrong by following our arcane rules. And, as a writer – well, you can imagine.
Today I was inspired to write my own version of one of those posts on grammatical errors and quirks. I came across Bill Murphey Jr’s post “17 Grammar Mistakes You Really Need to Stop Correcting, Like Now” via Stumble Upon. Bill’s main point is to cool off the conversation a bit and tell people to lighten up on the grammar correcting.
I’m not too concerned about that. Excessive grammar correcting certainly is annoying, but my main interest in this topic is not the nature of language policing so much as it is the nature of language, as well as simply knowing what is considered righter vs. wronger. As it were.
So, I took Bill’s list of grammar issues, deleted a few, and created my own commentary on them. And resorted them. And here goes:
Further versus farther
Futher is a word’s word. It works with concepts, or as a marker for where the thing you are saying is going. Farther is about physical distance. This is easy to remember. “Farther” has “far” in it. “Those who go farther have indeed gone far.” Not, “Those who have gone further have indeed gone fur.” Meanwhile, we use the word “furthermore,” derived from “further” but there is no such thing as “farthermore.” Not yet, anyway.
(Actually, “farthermore” was a word at one time, but our language has moved further along and it no longer is.)
dot dot dot vs em-dash
Don’t use “…” to break up sentences. Use a long dash (an em-dash). An ellipsis is a part of quoted text that is left out. The same word, ellipsis, is also used to refer to the three dots that we put in the ellipsis. So, if you type dot-dot-dot make sure that something is truly missing there.
It is not uncommon for people to use double negatives when they are trying to look like they are not uneducated. Outside of certain contexts, this is always bad. If a logic algorithm has to be applied to your sentence to understand what it means, you messed up. Don’t do that.
That is the “proper” double negative I’m recommending against. The hauty tauty classist double negative. The other kind is the kind that just makes things wrong, but in a way, it is more linguistically acceptable even if grammatically the equivalent of crushing baby kittens.
I ain’t never going to do that. Or, even, a term like “irregardless,” where afixes or words conflict with each other in a way that seems to cancel out. In language, we often add bits to a word or phrase to add emphasis or, perhaps absurdly, underscore something by negating it. Irregard, if it was a word, would be without regard. Regardless is without regard. So, if we really want to make the point that there is very little regard, we say it both ways at the same time: irregardless of grammatical proscription! This would be a sort of double negative you should avoid in proper and clear writing, and keep in your toolkit for dialog or ironic phrasing.
i.e. versus e.g.
i.e. stands for the latin id est.
e.g. stands for the latin exemplī grātiā
Id est means “that is.” Use i.e. to prefix an example of something that elaborates a term or phrase. The Doctor’s time travel machine, i.e., the Tardis.
Exemplī grātiā means “for example.” Just like it sounds.
Time machines, e.g., The Doctor’s Tardis, or Dr. Emmett Brown’s DeLorean.
See the difference? Not much of a difference. But there is a difference.
E.g. is usually followed by a comma, just as you might say, “I would like dessert, for example, ice cream” = “I would like dessert, e.g., ice cream.”
I like to think of e.g. as plural, in a sense. Examples.
I.e. can be thought of as “in other words.” So, I might say, “I don’t like desserts like flan, i.e. slimy icky stuff.”
In writing, if you find yourself saying “in other words” a lot, you should revise and perhaps use the “other words” that were your afterthought as your actual words. So, perhaps, if you find yourself using “i.e.” you should revise as well. Either way, if someone complains to you about your use of i.e. vs e.g. you could probably make a case that your word choice was correct no matter what you did.
Incomplete comparisons are less annoying.
Than what??? Less annoying than what????
A sentence that is an incomplete comparison may not be incomplete at all if the larger context keys the reader in to what is being compared. The Prius and the Smart Car get great gas mileage. The Chevy Volt gets better gas mileage. This is less of a grammatical problem than a marketing problem. Out of context incomplete comparisons reflect incomplete thinking.
(By the way, we’re not talking about semicolons here, but that would have been a great place to use one: “The Prius and the Smart Car get great gas mileage; the Chevy Volt gets better gas mileage.”)
Into versus “in to”
This one can be tricky. “Into” is a preposition. Note that the word “position” is in “preposition.” “Into” pretty much only means that something is moving from and to particular positions. The words “to” and “in” do a lot more work than the prepositional. Generally, if “in to” and “into” both seem right, you want “into.”
There are some odd exceptions. “He walked into the room” is correct. But if he is a burglar and he gets there by force, he broke in. So, you would not say “He broke into the room,” but rather, “he broke in to the room.” He did, however, burgle his way into the room.
Also, the “to” can be possessed by a verb following the term, demanding “in to” instead of “into.” He went into the room where he left his wallet. He opened the door of the room and went in to get his wallet.
Prepositions are not always about space, in the usual sense, so of course, “into” is also used for other kinds of transitions. If life gives you lemons, make them into lemonade.
Regardless of what people tell you, irregardless is a word. But, it is a word that even the dictionary says should be avoided. Instead of sneaking quietly into speech and becoming a normal word that means the same thing as “regardless” it annoyed grammar experts early on (as far back as the 1920s) and was stigmatized. So, now, “irregardless” is a signal that you don’t care about the quality of your spoken or written word. In good writing, “irregardless” should be confined to dialog spoken by characters that you want to look a little careless or poorly educated.
Leaving off the “ly” ending for adverbs
If you want to use an adverb, a word that modifies a verb, you generally need the “ly”. But if you are using a lot of adverbs in your writing, you probably want to delete some of them. A well chosen verb hardly needs such help in eloquently written verbiage. After you’ve written something, go on a ly-hunt. Search for the string “ly_” (note the space) and revise as appropriately. I mean, appropriate.
In the old days you could leave off the -ly to make more impactful text. Bill gives the example of an Apple marketing campaign that used “Think different” instead of “Think differently.”
This method of catching our attention was overused and that ship has sailed.
Me versus I
This is one of those important distinctions that is very easy in certain circumstances and very hard in other circumstances. So, the way to get it right is to restate a sentence in such a way as to make the distinction unambiguous, then revise as if necessary.
For example, you can see that “I wrote a blog post” is correct and “Me wrote a blog post” is Tarzan-talk.
The confusion comes when the simple “I/me” part of the sentence is joined with others.
Jose and I/me went to the movies.
Jose took Jasper and I/me to the movies.
Simply picking the “I” over the “me” in these sentences might sound to some to be “better” because culturally we have come to expect to be corrected more often when misusing “me.” In other words, always opting for “I” is a way to sound like you are not uneducated.
In most cases, the way to figure this out is to remove the second person, the one that is a name and not a pronoun, and see how it sounds.
“Jose and me went to the movies” does not sound a lot different than “Jose and I went to the movies” but the difference becomes clear when we ask Jose to leave the sentence. Compare “Me went to the movies” with “I went to the movies.” I am the subject of the sentence, so I get to be I, not me.
“Jose took Jasper and I to the movies” and “Jose took Jasper and me to the movies” also don’t sound all that different, but compare “Jose took I to the movies” with “Jose took me to the movies.” I am the object of the sentence, and so “me” is correct, and when we parse it out this way, “me” sounds correct.
Me can forgive Tarzan for getting this wrong.
One or two spaces after a period
In the old days, you put two pieces of lead after the period in order to make sentences look normal. This practice continued with non-proportional typefaces on typewriters and other machines.
People will tell you that modern fonts don’t require this, so you should not do it. However, there is a missing part of the story often conveniently ignored.
In the less old days, people who used computing technology to manipulate text could use a .__ (a period and two spaces) as distinct from ._ (period and one space) to tell the difference between the end of a sentence (with a full stop period) and an abbreviation.
Had we continued, as a society, to use period-space-space, this convenience could have been preserved. But we din’t. So that was ruined.
Now, of course, when you are fingering your smart device and hit the space twice, the app automatically puts in a period.
You can tell me again and again to use only one space after a period. But my thumb will ignore you.
An infinitive is a form of a verb that has the “to” attached. In some languages the “to” is so attached to the word that you can’t fit any other words in there. E.g., in upcountry Swahili, “ku” is “to” and “do” is “fanya” so “to do” is kufanya. One word. I imagine that the fact that many languages have infinitives that are pre-stuck together had led to the convention that one does not split them by adding extra words between the “to” and the “verb.”
(There is actually quite a bit of ink spilt over the history of this rule.)
In my view, the ability to split infinitives is really cool feature of English and there should be no rule against it. However, since we often split our infinitives with adverbs, and adverbs are overly used, hunt for split infinitives not so much to unsplit them but to identify adverb overuse.
That versus which
After you’ve written your text, go on a which hunt and change the whiches to thats. But, you can leave the whiches that start independant clauses. In other words, if the part of the sentence that stats with which could more or less be a separate sentence, and/or if you can remove it from the sentence and still have a sentence, it is probably OK.
I think that for a time the word “that” sounded more pedestrian than the word “which,” which is a guess on my part, I’m not sure, so people who wanted to write good seeded their sentences with random whiches. Never trust a random which.
The Oxford comma
Also known as the Harvard comma or, perhaps most correctly, the serial comma. In fact, I’m rather shocked that which of these terms to use is not itself a major battle among language mavens.
The Oxford comma is the last comma in a list, before the last item and before the “and” that separates out the last item. Always use this comma. Often, it is not necessary, but when it is necessary, it is sometimes really necessary. So just use it all the time and avoid certain embarrassing, though often hilarious, mistakes.
I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and Humpty Dumpty.
I love my parents, Lady Gaga and Humpty Dumpty.
They or Their as a gender neutral term, instead of the singular Him, her, his, hers.
English lacks a gender-neutral singular possessive term. Also, English lacks (in common use) a term that is not so strictly gender binary.
Using the plural as a gender neutral is natural, since there is a kind of plurality (his’s, hers’s, or neithers’s).
New terms and new uses tend to grate, but a new term is less likely to be accepted and more likely to bother people than a re-use of an existing term. What needs to happen here, probably, is that the purveyors of proper language (elementary school teachers and the like) need to not correct students who use the plural form as a gender non-specific one.
Who versus that
This is simple. “Who” is about people, “That” is about things. More obviously incorrect and underscoring the point that who is people is the substitution of “The people who do that” with “The people what do that.”
So when it comes to referring to people as that or what, who would do that?
Less versus fewer
Less and more refer to changing amounts of something you don’t count in whole numbers. More or less rain, love, or apple cider. Fewer and more refer to things counted in whole numbers.
The fact that “more” is in both of these sets may be the cause of confusion between “Fewer” and “Less.”
Fewer trains pass by my house these days, so we have less noise around here. Not, less trains pass by my house these days, so we have fewer noise around here. But, we do have less train traffic these days, so we have fewer instances of annoying noise events.