Cats, Dogs, and Grammar

When I’m not writing irresistible blog posts (*ahem*) I actually make a living by fixing people’s grammar. As a freelance editor and English tutor, mostly, but occasionally for free in conversation. I really try to keep that knee-jerk reaction under control, though.

Grammar is descriptive rather than prescriptive, meaning that what is “correct” changes over time, according to the way people really use words in speaking and writing. Unlike in science, there are very few absolute laws in grammar. So anyone who tries to collar you and tell you that ending a sentence with a preposition is a cardinal sin is probably just…overreacting.

Overreacting. Image courtesy of stock.xchng and xvoltagex

That being said, the goal of language is to communicate, and to accomplish that, the way we use language has to be standardized. Publications like the MLA Handbook, the Chicago Manual of Style, and the Associated Press Stylebook exist to teach us how to write standard English (and even write with style). And because of them, here are a few of my pet peeves from the last few weeks:

1. Take your sentences to the gym

I think of a sentence as a person going for a workout. Get rid of all the extra flab, and you’ve got a toned, healthy, athletic body. You can’t get attached to that extra bit of tummy fat; it’s about the health and fitness of the whole body. So for the sake of the sentence’s health, ask yourself, “Can I say the same thing in fewer words?”

Image courtesy of stock.xchng and ctr

2. “The difference between the right word and the almost right word…”

“…is the difference between lightning and the lightning bug” (Mark Twain). I love big words. I am enraptured by big words. My favorite word in English is tintinnabulation. (Go look that one up for a grin.) But every word has a shade of meaning, and you have to choose the one that best suits your sentence. So don’t use incursion when you mean raid, or hirsute when you mean bearded. There’s a time and a place for big words, but they’re not one-size-fits-all. Make sure you understand what you’re really saying.

Image courtesy of stock.xchng and Catrya

3. Be nice to apostrophes

This one’s best explained with a couple of formulas and a picture.

Your=belonging to you
You’re=you are
You’re about to step on your French poodle.

Whose=belonging to whom
Who’s=who is
Whose French poodle is that? Who’s a French poodle? 

(Note: who’se is not a thing…)

There=a place
Their=belonging to them
They’re=they are
They’re picking up their French poodle from there.

Poor poodle.

Image courtesy of stock.xchng and crs_171

Loving the grammar (or need some more help)? Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips is one of my favorite quick-reference websites. I also just found out that Grammar Girl has a whole Pinterest board of hilarious cartoons for grammar nerds. Enjoy!

Do you have any pet grammar peeves? Feel free to share them in the comments!

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