Bad grammar

I’ve always had a problem with split infinitives. That is, I seem to always be guilty of writing them. My publisher at a newsletter publishing company where I worked ten years ago used to always correct me. I would argue with him that the sentence doesn’t sound right when it’s grammatically correct. Sometimes it sounded downright awkward – so I’d end up rewriting the sentence completely.

Like my former publisher, I have my own grammatical pet peeves – some are worse than others. Sometimes I wonder if grammatical and punctuation errors will become accepted because their use is so commonplace, now that so many people can self-publish on websites, blogs, e-newsletters and more. I hope not. We need to preserve good grammar in the English language, and I think it’s up to all content creators to take this responsibility seriously.

Here are my top five grammar/punctuation pet peeves.

1. Using a hyphen with adverbs ending in “ly.”

I am surprised at how often I see this mistake (even by editors). For example, a “recently released book” would never be “recently-released book.” Basically, –ly words used as adverbs don’t get hyphenated because they aren’t modifying the noun. For example, “newly-published report” is incorrect, because the adverb “newly” does not modify the noun “report.” “Newly” modifies “published,” so the hyphen is unnecessary. Easy rule of thumb: Never hyphenate an “ly” adverb.

2. Ignoring pronoun-antecedent agreement.

Yes, I had to look up that term to figure out what it’s called when a plural pronoun is used to refer to one person. This is another one of those grammar errors I see quite often. For example, “Everyone should bring their lunches.” “Everyone” is the antecedent and is singular. “Their” is the pronoun referring to “everyone,” and is plural. Unfortunately, Zynga’s Farmville, which has some 80 million players, proliferates this grammar error with messages that use “they” when referring to a single person (not that I play Farmville, of course).

3. Not hyphenating compound modifiers that come directly before a noun.

If a compound adjective isn’t hyphenated, then the sentence is unclear. For example, tomorrow we’ll have our round-table discussion. Without the hyphen, it is a round discussion. Another example: A small business man has a different meaning than small-business man. Without the hyphen, it is a small man. A rule of thumb: Without the hyphenation, the first modifier (adjective) is modifying the second modifier, and not the noun. So go ahead and hyphenate it.

4. Using or not using a contraction.

By definition, a contraction is when you contract two words, such as “you’re” for “you are.” The apostrophe mark clarifies the meaning of the word, so readers don’t think you mean “your.” Seems clear enough, right? Missing or improper contractions change the meaning of words completely. A common mistake seems to be the use of “it’s” and “its.” The contracted form, “it’s” is contracting the two words “it is.” Example: It’s not nice to fool Mother Nature. Read the sentence by making the contraction into two words. The word “its” is actually a possessive form of it. Easy rule of thumb: If it is not meant to be two words, don’t make it a contraction.

5. Using or not using the serial comma.

This is a pet peeve only because some people are adamant that their way is the right way, no matter how ambiguous the sentence might get. The serial comma is the final comma before the last item in a series of three or more items. The publishing company I mentioned earlier adhered to a style guide that never used the serial comma. Example: I went for a bike ride with my sister, a friend, and a neighbor. My editor would have removed that final comma. The sentence would become: I went for a bike ride with my sister, a friend and a neighbor. The second sentence makes it sound like my sister is a friend and a neighbor.

Then when I went to work for a different company, they corrected me the other way. By then, I had a habit of not using the serial comma because the previous company had broken my habit of using it. It took me years to break the new habit. Does that mean one company was right, and the other was wrong?

In this case, I think they were both right some of the time. There’s a difference between grammar rules and grammar preferences – and understanding this is important. But, some rules have to change when they just don’t make sense anymore (such as the split infinitive rule).

Certainly, there are circumstances, such as how you write on Twitter or in text messages, in which grammar rules don’t apply. A young friend of mine sends me emails that are written like text messages. It’s as if he’s forgotten how to write a proper sentence. Perhaps he has forgotten. If everyone stops caring about grammar and punctuation, perhaps everyone will forget.

What are your grammatical or punctuation pet peeves?

[Image: Paul V8]