Grammar grouch

I’m not much fun when I have a migraine. Image found on Pinterest.

Migraines are never fun. Some people have migraines far worse than mine, and all I can do is salute them and marvel at their ability to withstand them without threatening to disembowel everyone in their paths. (And I’m still recovering from it now. Geez.)

Me? I turn into a grammar grouch, which is weird for someone who focuses primarily on conversational grammar, not proper formal grammar, and doesn’t tend to be bothered by the occasional non-grammatical utterance because she understands that’s how people talk. (Hey, I’m the Word Nerd, not the Grammar Nerd!)

Friday and Saturday I felt myself sinking into the depths of grouchiness as a migraine settled in and kept me from soaking up daylight (not that I do a lot of that anyway, but still …) and spending time with friends and my dear fur-nephew Charlie.

Aunt Brenda, how can you not want to spend all your free time with me? I’m freakin’ adorable!

On the bright side, at least now it seems I’m getting migraine warnings again for the first time since my stroke, though they differ from before (previously, I had auras; now it’s apparently insomnia, nausea and sinusitis … so basically, my usual life, just kicked up a couple of notches). However, since I didn’t know that’s what they were, I was unprepared, which might have made the grouchiness worse. What I do when I get migraines is retreat into a dark room with minimal sound, which means I spend too much time with my own thoughts and dwell on poor grammar. Pity the poor writer I come across when I’m in such a state; the migraine grammar grouch is kinda mean.

A few things that set her off:

❌ Apostrophe abuse. It’s not just the people who think that plurals are made with apostrophes. That’s only in rare cases when, without apostrophes, a word is formed that isn’t intended, like when talking about grades and more than one A, you’d use A’s because As is a word. More than one Johnson? Use Johnsons rather than Johnson’s unless you’re talking about something that belongs to one Johnson. And Lord, just tell the people who can’t figure out how to make names like Adams plural (Adamses) to give up and change the name because they’re making me cuss.

This is me more often than I’d like to admit. Cartoon by Jon Kudelka found on Proofread Anywhere.

It’s also the people who use apostrophes willy-nilly and, in some cases, create words that don’t exist. It’s either its (possessive) or it’s (it is), but never its’. I’d occasionally see that one from one or two people (at least one of whom is highly educated), but it seems to be spreading, so just stop using that. The last thing we need is to normalize its’. (What even is it? Possessive? Just something to drive me up the wall?)

❌ Hyphens everywhere they shouldn’t be and not where they should be. In general, use hyphens for compound adjectival phrases where people might misunderstand the phrasing to mean something else without the hyphens, especially if used before the word they’re modifying (like “man-eating shark” rather than “man eating shark”). Some phrases, like brand-new, should always be hyphenated. Some, like compound modifiers using -ly adverbs and other modifiers (“frequently misunderstood cause” rather than “frequently-misunderstood cause”), should almost never be hyphenated. And when a phrase is understood regardless of a hyphen (like 18th century script), it usually doesn’t need one.

Also, one does not simply walk into Mordor, but you knew that. Image found on Get It Write Online.

❌ Using “a” when it should be “an” and vice versa. Speaking of 18th century, I’ve seen entirely too many people use “a” in front of it. The general rule to follow when determining whether to use “a” or “an” is whether a soft (mostly vowel) or hard (consonant) sound would follow, not whether the next word begins with a vowel or consonant. Eighteenth is pronounced “ay-TEENTH,” which means “an” would be the correct choice. Nineteeth is pronounced “nine-TEENTH,” so would take “a.” (Yeah, I know, both of those would seem to scream out, on spelling alone, for the correct article, yet …) As for words beginning with “u,” it depends if the word begins with a “yu” sound (used, which would take “a”) or “uh” (unspoken, which would take “an”).

“Historic” and “historical” are sometimes the exception, as the “h” is usually pronounced, but can take “an” depending on the tone of what’s written. But “an history”? No. Just no.

❌ Complete disregard for punctuation. Whether it’s the lack of punctuation, too much, the wrong punctuation, or odd spacing around it (please, never ever put a space before punctuation other than ellipses unless you want editors’ heads to explode), it tells the reader you don’t care, just as much as if you don’t spell-check or fact-check. Punctuation helps people understand what you mean, and the lack of it, or putting it in the wrong place, etc., can completely change the meaning And remember, punctuation can save lives: “Let’s eat, Grandma.” “Let’s eat Grandma.”

Punctuation here counsels those seals to take it easy on all that partying. Image found on The Guardian.

❌ Misplaced modifiers. In general, you’ll want to put the modifier as close to what it’s modifying as possible, or you’ll risk people misunderstanding what you wrote. Or people passing around what you wrote because it cracked them up so much and they want to share the stupidity. Seriously.

The Bryan Writing Center at Blinn College in Texas offers a funny misplaced modifier: “The clerk handed a vanilla ice-cream cone to the boy covered with chocolate.” We would hope it’s the ice-cream cone, not the boy, that’s covered in chocolate, though I wouldn’t sneeze at it if someone offered to cover me in chocolate (good chocolate, not that “chocolate flavored” crap). By re-ordering the sentence (“The clerk handed a vanilla ice cream cone covered with chocolate to the boy.”), we make clear that it’s not the boy covered in chocolate.

Mmmm, chocolate … pardon the drool.

This right here would make me so happy right now. Image found on Country Living.

I make a lot of mistakes in grammar myself, so don’t think my migraine-fueled ire is just for those who write for or to the paper. I cringe oftentimes when reading old Facebook or blog posts with grammatical errors that I know better than to make.

We could all stand to be more careful with our writing, lest we be misunderstood by those who don’t know us or have something to gain.

Perfection won’t happen, but more clarity might. That’s not a bad thing.

More migraines, on the other hand …

Don’t worry, Aunt Brenda, I’ll protect you from migraines. I’ll keep a lookout!

25 thoughts on “Grammar grouch

  1. Interestingly, I am preparing a talk in which I will refer to a child who got all A’s. I thought the apostrophe was needed, though I think my spell-check initially objected. It doesn’t now, so it may be a function of my too-often-misused memory . . . and don’t get me started on my preference for stretched out ellipses. Get well, cuz.

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  2. You misspelled “Adams”. According to my distant relatives Gomez and Morticia, you are supposed to spell it with two “D’s” instead of one.

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  3. I heartily agree with your column, and am reminded of my revulsion when I come across one of the many examples of what I call “the misplaced only.” Often “only” is intended to specify a desired action or idea, but it is too often placed before a verb rather than before the desired thought. Thus, “ I only ate a sandwich for lunch” is said instead of “I ate only a sandwich for lunch.” (What else would you do with a sandwich?) It’s a dilemma.

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    • I tend to write around whom as it’s so often misused, and many times neither who nor whom is needed (blame my tendency to tighten when I’m editing). I did have occasion yesterday to insert whom when which was used instead referring to a person. I’ve done my duty for the week. 😂

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  4. I have a t-shirt with that “Let’s eat Grandma” lesson on it. Saw it in a catalog and had to have it.
    You know, with all the great vaccines and cures we have today, you’d think by now science would have conquered migraines. Anyway, feel better soon!

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