Tag Archives: mistakes

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.”

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”)

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 Voxy.com that also appeared on Ragan.com)

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

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