angry grammar nerd

What with a birthday in November and Christmas the next month, the end of the year is usually characterized by the offspring demanding that I tell them something I want that they can wrap and put on the table/under the tree. At 73, and living in a house full of the accumulated stuff of 40 years, I don’t always find that easy. Usually I pick a couple of art books that I’d enjoy looking at but would feel guilty buying for myself.

But this year, my older daughter outdid herself with this coffee mug. (I’ve redacted most of a certain word on the off chance that anybody here still has sensibilities that can be outraged, but I expect y’all can fill in the blanks.) It’s the perfect present for a nitpicky writer mother. And while I’m enjoying my morning coffee, maybe it’ll remind me to stop fretting over things that I cannot change. Forget stolen elections; let’s fight apostrophe abuse.

Oh, wait. I can’t stop apostrophe abuse either, can I?

52 comments

  1. My Mother (former School Teacher) would get nick-picky on the use of “can” vs the use of “may”.

    In her mind, “can” meant “you have the ability to do something” and “may” meant “you have permission to do something”. 😉

    On the other hand, Mom would say “Paul, you can (or may) set the table” and mean it to be a command (ie Paul, set the table).

    Of course, her Crazy Son would say something like “Yes, I’m able to set the table” and earn her Dark Brown Look (also known as her School Teacher Look). 😉

    She knew what I was doing but of course I would often be getting ready to obey her command. 😆

  2. Happy New Year, Margaret! If you have space in your concerns for the woes of the apostrophe, perhaps you might say a prayer for the worst and most frequently abused of the punctuation marks: the colon. It’s almost never used where it would be appropriate, and frequently appears where it has no business. Why, a multitude of non-fiction writers ravish it brutally every day. Their mechanism is the subtitle. (I envision a future muckraker fulminating over this in a volume titled Subtitles: The shameless exploitation of innocent colons.)

    If we can get some justice for the colon, after that we could tackle the Oxford comma! But all things in their proper order.

  3. Is it just me, or does it seem that people are having more and more problems with past tense verbs? I see a lot of improper past tense constructions, and the past perfect seems to be dying. (Subject – verb agreement is another place I see difficulties. I think young people can’t remember what the subject of their thought IS, and they pick a verb form that seems to work.)

    1. No, grammar just hasn’t been taught for a couple generations now.

      As a brightly obnoxious home schooled freshman in college in 1998, I was assigned a room mate who was her high school’s valedictorian. I had tested out of Freshman English and Communication courses, and told to just go take a literature course, any, please, and they’d count it as fulfilling all three for general requirements.
      My room mate was slightly baffled by all things I did, but satisfied that I was merely weird, as home schoolers are supposed to be. Then she came back in tears with her first paper, which had red pencil all over it. Not just because it had red pencil, and a bad grade, but because she had to revise it and she did not understand what was wrong.

      “Let me see,” I said, and took it from her. All her problems were grammatical. Mine tends towards colloquial on purpose, protective camauflage, but I know how to write properly. I fixed her subject/verb disagreements, stopped her switching persons and tenses mid-sentence, fixed a few mixed up you’res and yours and all of that. She wasn’t sure I knew what I was doing until she took it back to her instructor and my changes had turned it into an A paper with no red pencil.

      This is how we know I’m not all that smart: I ended up editing nine dorm mates freshman English papers that year and never even thought I could charge them.

      I say grammar hasn’t been taught for a couple generations, because now I have a son as old as I was in fall of ’98. I won’t say it’s every school that isn’t teaching grammar, but I think it’s enough schools to generalize to not being taught.

      1. There must be something in that – I was never taught how to diagram sentences, but I picked up correct grammar just because … OK, I read omnivorously, and just had a sense from all that when things were wrong. Taking German in HS and college helped, weirdly enough.
        Then I went to work for a woman who was a firm believer in the Oxford comma, and of whom we used to jest that she had been married three times – twice to mere mortals and once to the Chicago Manual of Style. But I am still sometimes uncertain of how it all works…

        1. In High School in the mid 1960s, I was taught how to diagram sentences, and still have a passing familiarity with grammatical tenses. On the other hand, I’m fond of “ain’t”, but I don’t expect perfection from anybody, not least from myself. [grin]

      2. I think you’re right, Holly. It’s not that they can’t manage subject-verb agreement, it’s that they don’t know it is even a thing.

      3. A local public district has stopped grading for grammar after the second grade, because the state assessment is on “ideas, not composition.” So the transfer kids get to Day Job and the English and Reading teachers cry. I might be the last cohort who got the full “grammar, diagramming, tenses and moods” package. Latin also helped, and German just cemented what Latin started.

        FWIW, when I was an instructor at Flat State U, I graded for grammar. It was in the syllabus. When the students complained that I should focus on their ideas, I pointed out that if I couldn’t understand what they were trying to say, how could I grade it? After much grousing, moaning, and grumbling, they grudgingly agreed that I had a point. This was an intro history class in the early 2000s.

        1. I used to have them do drafts. I would mark and comment on grammar in the draft but not grade it. I did tell them that if the grammar was not corrected in the final draft then I WOULD grade for grammar and that it would hurt. I also got that “focus on ideas” complaint and told them exactly what you did. Once I said that, I usually got grudging agreement. I also borrowed an idea from a colleague and if things were too ugly, had them come to my office and read the thing out loud. That usually ended after a couple of sentences when they realized that THEY didn’t even know what they were talking about.

      4. Holly, you just made my day… I’m trying to remember how to get a word out of my root spelling dictionary. I was absolutely sure that it was “camoflauge,” so I grumbled and added it. Sigh… “Camouflage.” All through my current WIP, so I will have to do a careful search and replace before I can wrap it up.

        Tense problems are not just in fanfic, unfortunately. (Hah! Added that one – fanfic – to the browser dictionary, I was right the first time!) Almost all of the KU that I’ve been reading lately is riddled with them. I’ve had to learn to ignore the itch and go with the flow.

    2. I have never been able to take arguments about tenses seriously since I read The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy with its references to Dr. Dan Streetmentioner’s book about grammar for the time traveler.

      I do, however, get quite annoyed at people who persistently get close to but not quite the right word in certain contexts, thus completely mucking up their entire thought. For example, the increasingly common use of “ancestors” when “descendants” is meant, and vice versa. See also the frequent use of “horde” when “hoard” is meant, and vice versa. People who write that dragons accumulate a “horde” of treasure, or that a “hoard” of soldiers attacked the castle, ought to be strung up by their thumbs.

      1. Re: horde/hoard

        what if i am talking an extremely valuable collection of golem soldiers…

        1. Of course, at this time of year the entire subject is moot. Grammar got run over by a reindeer.

      2. I’ve given up on expecting someone to write “running the gantlet”, but it’s not worth throwing down the gauntlet.

      3. Well…

        HORDE = a f-ing mob
        HOARD = a f-ing pile of stuff

        …but the mug would have to be taller. I fear a mug twelve feet tall couldn’t accommodate all of the mistakes I’ve seen oh, so many times.
        ———————————
        Not everybody should go to college. Some folks, you send ’em to college and you just wind up with an educated idiot.

    3. I am somewhat guilty of that, primarily when writing blog comments, which may get assembled out of bits between interruptions, strung together with commas and semicolons. Then it might get edited a few times. And by then I know what I *meant* to say, but I’m blind to how the structure looks at that point.

    4. Tense errors are often found in conjunction with mood errors. I find such things particularly irritating in narrative writing, and these days they seem to be everywhere. But then, most “writers” only qualify for the title by virtue of their ownership of a copy of Word and an Amazon account.

    1. I’ll ask our Katie where she found it. I’m pretty sure she ordered it online.

  4. I know all of these, but my fingers keep typing the wrong F***ing one! And I don’t see it until my Beta readers start marking them. And worse, think I need it explained in words of one syllable.

    1. I’m familiar with this problem. I know the difference between “there,” “their,” and “they’re,” but in the midst of trying to write 2000 words in an hour, the wrong one often comes off the fingers.

  5. Your mug elaborates on my Third Rule For Better Writing, and is just a bit more forceful.

    I read Fan Fiction, and I find it unfortunate that so many people try to write stories without first learning how to write English. I call them ‘graduates of the Infinite Number Of Monkeys School Of Writing’ and enablers of Sturgeon’s Law: ‘Ninety percent of everything is crap’.

    In a long, drawn-out moment of frustration I formulated a set of rules which, if followed, would do much to improve the situation:

    Eight Rules For Better Writing

    1. Spelling. Check it. Then check it again.

    2. Punctuation. Use it! Correctly! Commas don’t cost you anything.

    3. Swapped words. Spell Check won’t find them! Look for: you’re – your, who’s – whose, they’re – their – there, its – it’s, that – than – then, lose – loose, and about 40 other annoying sets.

    4. Capitalize ALL of the appropriate words, and ONLY the appropriate words. Use Capitalization for Emphasis — SPARINGLY.

    5. Sentences. Don’t just string a bunch of words together. You have to choose your words carefully, fit them together correctly, and ensure that they say exactly what you want them to say. Your sentence must END when its task is complete! There are no prizes for atrocious 400-word run-on sentences.

    6. Paragraphs. When you start a new theme, for extra emphasis, or every time a different character speaks. Paragraph breaks don’t cost anything, either.

    7. Properly quote all dialogue. Missing quotes are confusing and annoying.

    8. Tenses. Don’t mix past and present tense in your exposition. Past tense usually works best in a narrative story, and most stories are narratives. Dialogue can be present or past tense, depending on what your character is talking about, BUT NOT BOTH!

    Following those rules won’t guarantee a good story, but ignoring them will guarantee a bad one.

    1. Never mind fan fiction, I would really like indie authors to follow these rules before they hit “publish.”

          1. Unfortunately, the only revenge you can get is upon your readers. English won’t care.

    2. Present vs. past tense. English teachers in my area are pushing “the literary present tense” for expository writing. The history department insists on past tense “because these events are over, and are in the past.” That might be contributing to some of the fan-fic follies, but should not carry over into professional writing.

      1. I find stories written in present tense intensely annoying. 😛

        Maybe I just haven’t read any good ones?

        1. Present tense in storytelling is overused and detrimental to the tale more often than not. Yet it can be justified in a narrow range of circumstances. If handled well, it promotes the sense of immediacy: that the action happening right now is immensely important. But few are the writers who can pull it off consistently. One who generally does a decent job with it is novelist Greg Iles. I can’t come up with any other names, though.

        2. I find it distracting until I get into the swing of the story. Then it’s not noticeable and therefore useless.

      2. I indulged in some past/present jumping around in my chapter for Atlanta Nights. Quite a number of people notice it.

  6. I just stumbled across “dawned” instead of “donned”: He dawned his armor. I thought it was just a typo and grumbled quietly to myself. Then it repeated, several times. I think the author doesn’t know the correct word.

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