Category Archives: Grammar Monkeys

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.)

Style dictates how words (and numbers) get rendered, how punctuation gets used and how text and graphics get formatted, as well as bigger-picture things like which vulgarities are acceptable for publication and in what contexts, jargon and euphemisms to avoid, and so on. But the thing about style is that many of the rules are decided arbitrarily — and writing that diverges from a particular style isn’t necessarily wrong. So people who hyperventilate over, for example, someone using — or leaving out — an Oxford comma, are wasting their breath. Either choice is OK (as long as the sentence is clear), but a publication’s style dictates which way to go.

Most newspapers in the U.S. follow Associated Press style, and most have a “house” style guide that addresses local usages and policies and notes divergences from AP style. Book publishers tend toward the Chicago Manual of Style, academia goes with APA style or MLA style, and Yahoo has its own style guide focused on websites and other online media. Users of any of these are familiar with the minutiae therein and will take pleasure in the satirical style guide “Write More Good,” by the Bureau Chiefs of @FakeAPStylebook.

Most editors also refer to usage manuals such as Garner’s and Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage, as well as general style guides such as Strunk and White’s venerable (or fusty, choose your adjective)  “The Elements of Style.”

Stylebooks usually cover grammar and usage matters too, but there are lots of conventions in writing that are strictly matters of style — arbitrarily decided — and have no bearing on grammar. These include spelling numbers out or using figures, certain punctuation preferences, putting titles in italics or quotes, British vs. American spellings* and usages, and so on.

Saying Sept. 1, 2011, is no more or less correct than saying September 1st, 2011, or 1 September 2011 — but one follows AP style and the others don’t. It’s not “wrong” to put a period outside of quotation marks, or inside, for that matter: one is typical of British style and one is more common in the U.S. “Towards” means the same thing as “toward” — neither is inferior — but it may not be the preferred form in the style of a publication.

The important thing to remember is that many aspects of written language are determined by style, not grammar — and just because something diverges from a particular style does not mean it’s wrong.

* “Write More Good” illustrates this point thus: “caliber/calibre: The diameter of a gun barrel; the diametre of a gun barrle.”

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.”
Continue reading To whom it may concern

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

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.

When spell-check won’t help: How typos sneak into writing

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Oct. 18, 2011.

(Revised from a guest post originally written for that also appeared on

Writers and editors have a lot to juggle in making prose presentable: big-picture items like accuracy, clarity, flow and structure, as well as details like grammar, spelling, punctuation and word choice. Details matter: one wrong word — even one wrong letter — can change the meaning of a sentence, or make it confusing. This is why editors especially need a keen eye for detail (plus a sense for smooth writing, and that little bell in your head that goes off when something seems not quite right).

One of the regular features Grammar Monkeys does on Twitter is “When spell-check won’t help”: sentences that have a wrong word that’s still a word. It’s not flagged by spell-check, but it’s a mistake that can throw the whole sentence off — or make it unintentionally funny. We find a lot of these in copy, and now people tweet them to us as well (thanks to @grammarsnark, @madbeyond, @EATutor and @bergly for some of the examples below).

These errors fall into several types:
Continue reading When spell-check won’t help: How typos sneak into writing

The world’s a smorgasbord for English

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on Aug. 30, 2011.

“English doesn’t borrow from other languages. English follows other languages down dark alleys, knocks them over and goes through their pockets for loose grammar.”

The origin of this quote is uncertain, but its accuracy is not in doubt: As languages go, English takes what it needs from wherever it can.

Of the hundreds of thousands of words that make up English, the vast majority come from either Germanic or Latin sources.

Most of our short one- and two-syllable words for common objects, actions and qualities (house, hat, run, sing, green, etc.) and basic bits of grammar (the, one, and, in, etc.) are Germanic.

Most of our longer words — ones that have a root and a prefix or suffix — are Latin, or Greek. These would include such patriotic words as independence, constitution and government, and such workaday words as computer, television and refrigerator.

But English is not at all particular about where it picks up its words: The world’s languages are just one big smorgasbord (that one’s from Swedish) for our mother tongue to nibble from. Continue reading The world’s a smorgasbord for English

Corrections with a smile

Originally posted on Grammar Monkeys on July 26, 2011.

I ran across an interesting post over the weekend that asks: “Why do people hate on those of us who know grammar? Why is it insulting to have your language skills corrected?”

The author, Claiborne L., a professional writer and editor, makes some excellent points in the post, and also links to a howlingly funny collection of obnoxious responses to language mistakes on Facebook. But she sums it up by saying that people knowledgeable about language should approach corrections as advice from a peer, not as diktats from on high. “Check the attitude,” she says, “and offer only the instruction.”

As an editor, I realize that I fall closer to “fussbudget” than “freewheeler.” That’s the job of an editor: to clarify, streamline — and correct.

But her post made me think, why DO people hate having their language corrected, and hate the people who do it? Aside from the fact that most people dislike being told they’re wrong about anything, there are a few other reasons that seem specific to corrections of grammar.
Continue reading Corrections with a smile