My top 10 grammar pet peeves

By | April 26, 2016

I like to tell my writing students that I have exactly 4,345 pet peeves that involve incorrect grammar, sloppy expression and all-round bad writing. Some smile when I say this. Some look quite disheartened, perhaps thinking I am going to list them all on the board.

Herewith, my top ten grammar pet peeves:

1 Its versus it’s: the first is the possessive form (The company lost its triple A credit rating); the second is the contraction for “it is”.

2 Fewer versus less: the first applies to countable things, the second applies to non-countable. Joan has fewer dimes than Bob. Tim has less money than Betty. The use of fractions doesn’t change the rule. Fewer than half of all students passed the exam. There can be exceptions to this rule (this is the English language, after all). If the item is singular, we usually go with less, e.g., one less banana.

3 Superlative versus comparative: if you’re comparing two things, then use the comparative form. John is smarter than his brother. If you’re comparing three or more things, use the superlative form. John is the smartest rocket scientist at NASA. Even the New York Times gets this wrong sometimes: From its opening moments, the debate devolved into a series of searing exchanges over one overarching theme: which of the two Democrats was the most progressive. This should be changed to: … was the more progressive. Shame on you NYT!

4 Literally: literally means that something actually happens, in real time, in real space. I literally split my pants laughing means you now need to repair your pants before you can go out in public.

5 His/hers: the battle for non-sexist language was won many moons ago. Instead of the awkward his/hers, use their, now acceptable for both singular and plural. Each student should bring their book to class tomorrow.

6 Basically: in business world we almost never need to use this word. Basically we’re going to attack this deficit with courage and vigour. Please write We’re going to attack this deficit with courage and vigour. Use basically when it means fundamentally, e.g., John is basically a good person.

7 Dangling clauses: there’s a high-rise tower in downtown Vancouver with the following text, written by an artist, on the outside of the building: lying on top of a building the clouds looked no nearer than when I was lying on the street. Sadly, the artist didn’t run a grammar check before sending the text to the architect. The opening clause, lying on top of a building, requires “I” to be the subject of the sentence. (who is doing the lying? I am.) So a correction might read: lying on top of a building I saw that the clouds looked no nearer than when I was lying on the street. For shame, Liam Gillick, wherever you are.

8 Sentence fragments: unless we’re writing advertising copy or news headlines, we should always write in complete sentences, with subjects and verbs. Not fragments. Like this. Or this.

9 Incorrect use of the semi-colon: this one really annoys me. There are two correct uses for the semi-colon. One is to connect items in a list that contain commas. The biggest cities in Canada are Toronto, Ontario; Montreal, Quebec; and Vancouver, British Columbia. The other correct use is to join two or more independent clauses, each of which has a subject and verb. I came; I saw; I conquered.

10 Comma splice: don’t use a comma to join independent clauses. I went to the store, I bought some bread is incorrect. Solutions? Break the sentence into two sentences. I went to the store. I bought some bread. Or use a semi-colon. I went to the store; I bought some bread. Or just insert “and” after the sentence. I went to the store, and I bought some bread.

End of lecture, class.

PHOTO AT TOP: Colville, my black English Lab, has yet to break any writing rules. He’s not a pet peeve at all!

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