Have you ever heard of Hartman’s Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation? It’s kind of a mouthful, but the tenet basically says that when you write about punctuation or grammar, there’s a good chance you’ll make an error in your punctuation or grammar.
Tag Archives: grammar
You might consider grammar an annoying technicality, a minuscule detail of speech and writing not worth much effort.
But a study last year from the Society for Human Resources and Management shows that 45% of employers plan to increase training for grammar and other language skills (meaning they’re unhappy with the levels now).
So what you say does matter as much as how you say it, especially in a professional environment. We’ve compiled a list of the top mistakes people make whether drafting an office memo or just chatting with coworkers around the water cooler.
1. “Fewer” vs. “Less”
Use “fewer” when discussing countable objects. For example, “He ate five fewer chocolates than the other guy,” or “fewer than 20 employees attended the meeting.”
Use “less” for intangible concepts, like time. For example, “I spent less than one hour finishing this report.”
2. “It’s vs. “Its”
Normally, an apostrophe symbolizes possession. As in, “I took the dog’s bone.” But because apostrophes also usually replace omitted letters — like “don’t” — the “it’s” vs. “its” decision gets complicated.
Use “its” as the possessive pronoun: “I took its bone.” For the shortened version of “it is” use the version with the apostrophe. As in, “it’s raining.”
3. Dangling Modifiers
These are ambiguous, adjectival clauses at the beginning or end of sentences that often don’t modify the right word or phrase.
For example, if you say, “Rotting in the refrigerator, our office manager threw the fruit in the garbage.” The structure of that sentence implies your office manager is a zombie trapped in a chilly kitchen appliance.
Make sure to place the modifying clause right next to the word or phrase it intends to describe. The correct version reads, “Our office manager threw the fruit, rotting in the refrigerator, in the garbage.”
4. “Who” vs. “Whom”
Earlier this year, “The New Republic” published a review of Mark Leibovich’s “This Town.” Regardless of his opinions, the author deserves praise. The title reads, “Careful Whom You Call A Hypocrite, Washington.” Yes, Alec MacGillis. Just yes.
When considering whether to use “who” or “whom,” you have to rearrange the sentence in your own head. In the aforementioned case, “whom you call a hypocrite” changes to “you call whom a hypocrite.” “Whom” suits the sentence instead of “who” because the word functions as the object of the sentence, not the subject.
It’s not always easy to tell subjects from objects but to use an over-simplified yet good, general rule: subjects start sentences (or clauses), and objects end them.
For reference, “who is a hypocrite?” would be a perfectly grammatically correct question to ask.
5. Me, Myself, And I
Deciding when to use me, myself, or I also falls under the subject/object discussion. “Me” always functions as the object (except in that case); “I” is always the subject. And you only use “myself” when you’ve referred to yourself earlier in the sentence. It’s called a reflexive pronoun — it corresponds to a pronoun previously in the sentence. For example, “I made myself breakfast” not “my friend and myself made lunch.”
To decide usage in “someone else and me/I” situations, take the other person out of the sentence. “My co-worker and I went to lunch.” Is “I went to lunch” correct? You’re good then.
6. “Lie” vs. “Lay”
Dear everyone, stop saying: “I’m going to go lay down.” The word “lay” must have an object. Someone lays something somewhere. You lie. Unless you lay, which means lie but in the past tense. Okay, just look at the chart.
7. Irregular Verbs
The English language has quite a few surprises.We can’t list all the irregular verbs, but be aware they do exist. For example, no past tense exists for the word “broadcast.” “Broadcasted” isn’t a word. You’d say, “Yesterday, CNN broadcast a show.”
“Sneak” and “hang” also fall into the category of irregular verbs. Because the list of irregular verbs (and how to conjugate them) is so extensive, you’ll have to look into them individually.
8. “Nor” vs. “Or”
Use “nor” before the second or farther of two alternatives when “neither” introduces the first. Think of it as “or” for negative sentences, and it’s not optional. For example, “Neither my boss nor I understand the new program.” You can also use nor with a negative first clause or sentence including “not.” For example, “My boss didn’t understand the program, nor did I.”
9. “Then” vs. “Than”
There’s a simple distinction between these two words. Use “then” when discussing time. As in, “We had a meeting, and then we went to lunch.” Include “than” in comparisons. “This meeting was more productive than the last one.”
10. Ending Sentences With Prepositions
First of all, don’t do it — usually. Second, for those who don’t know, prepositions are any words that a squirrel can “run” with a tree (i.e. The squirrel ran around, by, through, up, down, around, etc. the tree).
“My boss explained company policy, which we had to abide by” sounds awful. In most cases, you can just transpose the preposition to the beginning of the clause. “My boss explained company policy, by which we had to abide,” or better yet, rephrase the sentence to avoid this problem: “My boss explained the mandatory company policy.”
11. Subject (And Possessive Pronoun) And Verb Agreement
This rule seems a bit counterintuitive, but most plural subjects take verbs without an “s.” For example, “she types,” but “they type.” The pronoun agreement comes into play when you add a possessive element to these sentences. “She types on her computer,” and “they type on their computers.”
As a caveat, the pronoun “someone” requires “her or his” as the possessive.
Feel free to email your boss with any questions. The Wall Street Journal thinks he or she will appreciate it.
cross posted from Business Insider.
There are definite rules for its use, but many writers use commas subjectively, leading to disagreement (and acrimony) whenever writers or editors discuss this modest punctuation mark.
This week, I’m tackling another punctuation mark—the apostrophe. The rules for the apostrophe are much more definite, but they are frequently misapplied. So misunderstanding often ensues when it comes to the apostrophe.
Here are some rules for its use.
1. An apostrophe is used to show the possessive case of proper nouns.
• Allison Jones’ article (one person named Jones)
• The Joneses’ article (two or more people named Jones)
2. If a singular or plural word does not end in s, add ’s to form the possessive.
• a child’s wants
• the men’s concerns
• the people’s choice
• everyone’s answer
3. If a proper noun or name ends in a silent s, z, or x, add an ’s
• Theroux’s “The Mosquito Coast”
4. Do not use ’s with possessive pronouns: his, hers, ours, its, yours, theirs, whose.
• The article was hers.
• I have not seen its equal.
5. Use ’s only after the last word of a compound term.
• my father-in-law’s book
• an editor in chief’s decision
• someone else’s problem
6. When showing joint possession with an organization’s or business firm’s name, use the possessive only in the last word.
• the Food and Drug Administration’s policy
• Hammond and Horn’s study
7. Do not use an apostrophe to indicate the plural of a name, an all-capital abbreviation, or of numerals.
• Veterans Affairs
• musicians union
• a woman in her 40s
• during the late 1990s (1990’s—no, no, no, a thousand times no.)
8. Use ’s to indicate the plural of letters, signs, or symbols when s alone would be confusing.
• Please spell out all the &’s.
• She got eight A’s and two B’s on her last report card.
9. When units of time or money are used as possessive adjectives, add ’s.
• a day’s wait
• a dollar’s worth
• six months’ gestation
• two weeks’ notice (The movie title was not punctuated correctly.)
10. When a word ends in an apostrophe, no period or comma should be placed between the word and the apostrophe.
• The last book on the shelf was the Smiths’.
Laura Hale Brockway is medical writer and editor and author of the blog Impertinent Remarks.
If you think an apostrophe was one of the 12 disciples of Jesus, you will never work for me. If you think a semicolon is a regular colon with an identity crisis, I will not hire you. If you scatter commas into a sentence with all the discrimination of a shotgun, you might make it to the foyer before we politely escort you from the building.
Some might call my approach to grammar extreme, but I prefer Lynne Truss’s more cuddly phraseology: I am a grammar “stickler.” And, like Truss — author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves — I have a “zero tolerance approach” to grammar mistakes that make people look stupid.
Now, Truss and I disagree on what it means to have “zero tolerance.” She thinks that people who mix up their itses “deserve to be struck by lightning, hacked up on the spot and buried in an unmarked grave,” while I just think they deserve to be passed over for a job — even if they are otherwise qualified for the position.
Everyone who applies for a position at either of my companies, iFixit or Dozuki, takes a mandatory grammar test. Extenuating circumstances aside (dyslexia, English language learners, etc.), if job hopefuls can’t distinguish between “to” and “too,” their applications go into the bin.
Of course, we write for a living. iFixit.com is the world’s largest online repair manual, and Dozuki helps companies write their own technical documentation, like paperless work instructions and step-by-step user manuals. So, it makes sense that we’ve made a preemptive strike against groan-worthy grammar errors.
But grammar is relevant for all companies. Yes, language is constantly changing, but that doesn’t make grammar unimportant. Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can’t tell the difference between their, there, and they’re.
Good grammar makes good business sense — and not just when it comes to hiring writers. Writing isn’t in the official job description of most people in our office. Still, we give our grammar test to everybody, including our salespeople, our operations staff, and our programmers.
On the face of it, my zero tolerance approach to grammar errors might seem a little unfair. After all, grammar has nothing to do with job performance, or creativity, or intelligence, right?
Wrong. If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use “it’s,” then that’s not a learning curve I’m comfortable with. So, even in this hyper-competitive market, I will pass on a great programmer who cannot write.
Grammar signifies more than just a person’s ability to remember high school English. I’ve found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing — like stocking shelves or labeling parts.
In the same vein, programmers who pay attention to how they construct written language also tend to pay a lot more attention to how they code. You see, at its core, code is prose. Great programmers are more than just code monkeys; according to Stanford programming legend Donald Knuth they are “essayists who work with traditional aesthetic and literary forms.” The point: programming should be easily understood by real human beings — not just computers.
And just like good writing and good grammar, when it comes to programming, the devil’s in the details. In fact, when it comes to my whole business, details are everything.
I hire people who care about those details. Applicants who don’t think writing is important are likely to think lots of other (important) things also aren’t important. And I guarantee that even if other companies aren’t issuing grammar tests, they pay attention to sloppy mistakes on résumés. After all, sloppy is as sloppy does.
That’s why I grammar test people who walk in the door looking for a job. Grammar is my litmus test. All applicants say they’re detail-oriented; I just make my employees prove it.