Category Archives: Grammar Monkeys

Grammar Monkeys blog archive

GMlogoThis page contains an archive of all the posts I wrote for the now-defunct Wichita Eagle Grammar Monkeys blog from 2009 to 2012.

Grammar Monkeys podcasts are still available on iTunes.

Style and grammar, or why lots of things aren’t ‘wrong’

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on June 4, 2012.

What do we talk about when we talk about grammar?

Strictly speaking, grammar is the unique patterns of a language, the system of how speakers can put together words and sentences. Grammar encompasses morphology (how to form words), syntax (how to form sentences) and semantics (what words and sentences mean). This is what linguists talk about when they talk about grammar.

The following areas are not grammar in the strict definition, but fall under the larger definition of grammar as “rules and principles of language”: punctuation, phonology (the sound system), orthoepy (correct pronunciation), orthography (correct spelling) and lexicon (vocabulary and usage). These (plus morphology, syntax and semantics) are what most people talk about when they talk about grammar.

The second definition of grammar is pretty broad, but there are language-related rules that fall outside of grammar. Many of these are style rules: whether to put the period inside or outside of quotation marks, whether e-mail is hyphenated or a single word, and so on. Style rules are set to ensure consistency in writing, so readers aren’t distracted by small differences. (And yes, readers do notice when things aren’t consistent.)
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To whom it may concern

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on May 7, 2012.

“Who” and “whom”’ cause all sorts of problems for writers. No one seems to know when to use which one, and whether to even bother with “whom” at all. More on that in a minute.

The basics:
“Who” is a subject pronoun. It is the subject of a verb, even if that verb is in a dependent clause.
“Whom” is an object pronoun. It is the object of a verb or a preposition.

The trick:
Substitute “he” or “him” to determine whether to use “who” or “whom.” If “he” makes sense, use “who.” If “him” makes sense, you can use “whom” (both have an M).
– The employee, who/whom the boss promoted after only six months, ended up doing well in her new post. (The boss promoted HE? No, the boss promoted HIM = whom)
– The employee, who/whom everyone said was incompetent, got promoted after only six months.
(Everyone said HIM was incompetent? No, everyone said HE was incompetent = who). This one is wrong a lot — editors change a lot of overcorrected “whoms.”
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Grammar costs nothing

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on March 2, 2012.

It’s National Grammar Day, the day each year when we celebrate grammar in all its glamour. Yes, the two words are related, and yes, grammar deserves a celebration. Grammar is what makes communication possible — it allows a person to convey ideas through language, and allows others to understand those ideas.

Why we need grammar

However, too often “rules” of grammar are used as a cudgel to bash anyone who steps out of line. The cudgel approach causes two problems, though: first, many “rules” that are used to smite the “barbarians” have no basis in English grammar and are just a bunch of peeves that have been passed down for generations; second, the division of people into the “civilized” and the “barbarians” — and the snooty correction of the latter by the former — doesn’t help the cause of clear communication but instead ticks off the people labeled as barbarians and distances them from the value of standard English.

This is not to say that grammar isn’t important, or that there’s no need for a standard of communication, particularly in writing. Good grammar enables readers to center on the message, rather than puzzling over what a sentence is attempting to say. Good grammar, correct spelling and proper punctuation lend credibility and authority to a piece of communication.

But the important thing is that grammar is not a “secret handshake” or code available only to those invited to the club — anyone can learn the rules of standard English. All it takes is time and inclination; like manners, grammar costs nothing. There are hundreds of books out there on grammar, language and writing, many of which are available at your local library or even free for download (make sure you don’t pick one that’s a collection of peeves). Plus, there are a multitude of websites, podcasts, videos and Twitter streams that offer tips and direction — all free.

While grammar costs nothing, ignoring it might cost quite a bit: Research has found that not only do readers notice mistakes, they engage less with websites that have language errors, and they are far less likely to buy something from a website that has even a single misspelling. (Spelling isn’t grammar, but it falls under the broad “rules of language” definition of grammar that many people use.)

So if for no other reason than the bottom line, grammar deserves a celebration. But while we’re at it, let’s go ahead and celebrate the beauty, richness and complexity of English for its own sake.

The year in typos (or should we say “typo’s”)

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Dec. 31, 2011.

I’ve been taking pictures all year of errors I’ve spotted “in the wild” — on signs, in stores and other places out and about. Most were the “grocer’s apostrophe” — using an apostrophe to make a plural. But there were a few other types, and a couple of two-fers to boot. Enjoy.

The “warning” “sign”

Underlining and bold face exist for emphasis. Quotation marks serve their own purpose. But that doesn’t stop people from mixing them.
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Just you and I: Subject and object pronouns

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Dec. 13, 2011.

When some of us were kids, we’d get corrected if we announced to our mothers or teachers a sentence along the lines of: “Me and her are going snake-hunting in the creek.” “It’s ‘she and I,’” they’d say, apparently more concerned about proper grammar than the state of our shoes after the excursion.

But they were right: when the pronouns are the subject of the sentence, we need to use the subject forms: I, we, you, she, he and they.

Conventions of English dictate that you don’t start a pair with “I,” but it’s not grammatically incorrect to say “I and my cousins went bungee-jumping in New Zealand.” (It does sound a bit odd, though.)

But we tend to run into problems with object constructions. We get so conditioned to say “you and I” that we want to use it everywhere, as in: “Just between you and I, his feet smell terrible.” However, “between” is a preposition, so we need to use the object forms: me, us, you, him, her and them. So “between you and me” is correct. The same goes for “Doodle’s going with Cindy and me on the snake hunt.”

Between you and me, a quick way to determine the correct word is to replace the pair of pronouns with “we” or “us.” If “we” sounds right, use the subject forms. If “us” sounds right, use the object forms.

“[Me and her] -> us are going snake-hunting in the creek” Nope. Use the subject pronouns here: She and I.

“Just between [you and I] -> we, his feet smell terrible.” Nope. Use the object pronouns here: you and me.

And watch out for snakes in the creek.

 

Gradations of graduation

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Nov. 28, 2011.

We had a question about graduation and the correct way to express it: Should you use “from” or is it correct to leave that out?

The correct usage is “graduate from” a school: “Mayim Bialik graduated from UCLA with a Ph.D. in neuroscience.”

The usage “was graduated from” — as in, “Herbert West was graduated from Miskatonic University” — is the original construction, but is now considered archaic (and a bit pretentious).

It’s also correct to use “graduate” by itself as an intransitive: “Though he studied at Harvard, Bill Gates did not graduate.”

But the form “she graduated college” is labeled in various usage guides as “poor wording” (Garner’s), “patently incorrect” (Miss Thistlebottom’s Hobgoblins), “wrong” (Woe Is I), “best avoided” (The New Fowler’s) and “Jethro-esque” (Lapsing Into a Comma). Use it at your peril.

And once a person has graduated, he is an alumnus, she is an alumna, either one is an alum, and both together are alumni — “alumni” is plural and should not be used to refer to one person. The diploma may not be in Latin anymore, but that term is.