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Grammar Pet Peeves

This page last updated December 31, 2015


OK, I know this has nothing to do with roads, but besides being a road geek, I'm also a grammar nerd (yes, one of those people.)  With the advent of the Internet (thanks Al Gore!), we get to see everyone's writing skills on a daily basis and even with spell-checkers and grammar-checkers (which unfortunately are not always correct for a variety of reasons), it's obvious that grammar isn't everyone's strength.  To hopefully help folks who want to improve their grammar, here is a discussion of the most common errors I see with suggestions on how to easily correct them.  I know this can be a touchy topic for some people, and I don't mean to offend anyone or sound sanctimonious, so please don't take anything below that way.  I know I'm not perfect either-- spelling is actually my challenge at times.  And all I'm really trying to do is impress all my former English teachers.  :-)

Me and I
As a child, many of us were scolded by teachers for saying things like Me and Johnny went to school.  It should, of course, be Johnny and I went to school.  As a result, people often use "I" every time they refer to themselves and someone else.  However, many times, using "me" is actually correct.  Without getting into the technical details, the easiest way to know which to use is to drop the other person from the sentence and see how it sounds.  For instance, if you want to know which to use in the sentence Bob came with Suzy and I to the movie, drop "Suzy" and say what you're left with: Bob came with I to the movie.  That obviously sounds wrong, so try it with "me" instead: Bob came with me to the movie.  That sounds better and is indeed correct-- the pronouns used for the part of speech don't change just because there's another person.  So the sentence should be Bob came with Suzy and me to the movie.  Or here's another one that trips lots of folks up: We're meeting at Brenda's and I's house.  Drop "Brenda" and say what's left: We're meeting at I's house. Hopefully that sounds as bad to you as it does to me!  Of course, it's We're meeting at my house.  So the correct sentence is We're meeting at Brenda's and my house.  Again, the pronouns don't change just because you add someone else to it.  And regardless of which pronoun is used, always put the other person or entity before the "me" or "I".

Us and We
In this case, I'm talking about sentences like Us men are going to the game or That is up to we employees to decide.  Are those correct?  Just like with the me/I situation above, drop the extra word after "we" or "us" and see if it works: Us are going to the game and That is up to we to decide.  When you do this, you can instinctively tell that both are wrong.  The correct shortened sentences are We are going to the game and That is up to us to decide, so the corrected original sentences would be We men are going to the game and That is up to us employees to decide.  Again, all you have to do is simplify the sentence and see which pronoun "sounds right".

Your and You're
"Your" is the possessive of you (What's your problem?) while "you're" is the contraction of "you are" (You're going to freak out.)  Here's a sentence that uses both: You're going to change your mind.  If you're not sure whether to use "your" or "you're", ask yourself if you can substitute "you are" in the sentence; if you can, then use "you're"; if not, then use "your".  (Here's a little reminder from Ross on Friends: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=STYDAb_iCjg.)

"There" is a location (We're going there.) while "their" is the possessive of they (What's their problem?) and "they're" is the contraction of "they are" (They're going to freak out.)  Here's a sentence that uses all three: They're going to drive their car there.

Its vs. It's
"Its" is the possessive form of it (What is its problem?) while "it's" is the contraction of "it is" (It's going to rain.)  Note that "its" is the only possessive that does not use an apostrophe (see next topic.)  Here's a sentence that uses both: It's taking its sweet time.  If you're not sure whether to use "its" or "it's", ask yourself if you can substitute "it is"; if you can, then use "it's"; if not, then use "its".

Apostrophes with plurals and possessives
Apostrophe misuse with plurals and possessives is rampant.  People either use too many apostrophes or none at all.  But it's not that hard to know when to use an apostrophe and when not to.  Possessives always have an apostrophe (except for its, as discussed above) while plurals don't-- it's really that easy.  Here's an example that uses both: Bob's eyes are blue.  There are two eyes (plural) that belong to Bob (possessive).  For singular nouns that end in an "s", you still add an apostrophe and another "s" at the end for possessives: That's the boss's office.  But to make a plural possessive, you generally just add an apostrophe; the other "s" is assumed: The parking lot has space for 20 customers' vehicles.  Note, however, that adding another "s" after the apostrophe in such a situation is considered acceptable, although not standard.

Apostrophes with decades (e.g. the 90's)
When referring to decades using numbers, the 90's is acceptable, but the '90s (the apostrophe implies that "19" is missing) or even just the 90s are preferable. 

Mute point
I guess people think the term is mute point because the point that is being made should be muted (silenced) since it's irrelevant, but the correct term is actually moot point.  "Moot" means something that is open for debate.  So when you say something is a "moot point", what you're saying is that its only relevance now is that you could debate about it.  Another way of saying it is that "it's academic."

Could care less
You could care less about grammar?  Really?  Then that means that you really do care about it!  After all, if you could care less about something, then you must currently care some amount about it.  What people are trying to say when they (mis)use that expression is that they don't care at all about something.  Therefore, the correct expression is could not care less, or couldn't care less.  When you say that, you're saying that you already care the least amount possible; ergo, you cannot care any less about it.  I think people have just gotten lazy in their speech patterns and couldn't care less has become could care less.  But it's still wrong, even if you couldn't care less.

Hung vs. hanged
When pictures are put on the wall, they are hung.  When a person is executed using a rope, they are hanged.

Faze vs. phase
I would like to say that people who get this wrong don't faze me, but I'd be lying!  Phase is a noun meaning a stage or period of a process (i.e. We're in the first phase of the renovation.
Phase can also be used as a verb in the terms phase out or phase inFaze is the verb meaning "to disturb."  Here's a sentence that uses both: I was not fazed when my job was phased out

Daylight Savings Time
The correct term is Daylight Saving Time (no "s" on "Saving").  More appropriately, it should be daylight-saving time.  Why?  Because it's a time when we're saving daylight, thus a "daylight-saving time".  Daylight Saving Time (capitalized) is also a proper noun and can be written thusly.

Misuse of "Standard Time"
Speaking of Daylight Saving Time, this one is more obscure and not really a grammatical error, but I'll mention it anyway.  Many people think that the term Standard Time means the time that is the "normal" or "standard" time in the place where they live.  So to sound official and/or "proper" when scheduling appointments or meetings, especially with people in other time zones, they'll say something like The conference call starts at 9:00 am Central Standard Time.  However, most of the year in most of the country, this is actually incorrect.  Why?  Because the term Standard Time refers to the time in a place that is based on the standardized system using a one hour offset
per time zone going east or west from the Prime Meridian in Greenwich, England.  When Daylight Saving Time (DST) is in effect in a location, the time is shifted one hour from the standard which means it's no longer "standard".  For instance, 9:00 am Standard Time is 10:00 am DST.  This becomes relevant when using calendaring or other time-based applications that convert time across time zones; using the wrong designation may cause things to be off by an hour.  If you want to avoid all of that, just say The conference call starts at 9:00 am Central Time.  This is generic and presumes DST when applicable and, consequently, is how the US television networks report their broadcast schedules.  The only exception to using that would be if you're in one of those unusual (and perhaps enlightened) places such as Arizona that doesn't observe DST; then you may need to be explicit.

Who vs. Whom
Many people use whom to sound proper or even snooty, but there are only certain cases when you should use whom and it's not snooty when used correctly.  Whom should be used when it's the object of the sentence, but that's the technical explanation.  The easiest way to know when to use whom is to ask yourself if the question you are asking or the question form of the statement you are making could be answered by saying "him" or "he".  If the answer is "him", use whom-- "him" and "whom" sound similar, so it's easy to remember.  If it's "he", use who.  For instance, (Who/Whom) is going to the store?  Answer: He is.  Therefore, the correct question is Who is going to the store?  Another example: (Who/whom) do I love?  Answer: I love him.  Therefore, the correct question is Whom do I love?  One last example that's a little more complicated: Bob, (who/whom) you probably remember, is back.  Change it to a question: (Who/whom) do you probably remember?  Answer: You remember him.  Therefore, the correct sentence is Bob, whom you probably remember, is back.

Irony vs. Coincidence
Ironically, the term ironic is often misused.  Most of the time when people say something is ironic, what they really mean is it was coincidental.  Irony is when something happens that would not be expected based on the intrinsic circumstances of the situation.  For instance, a fire station catching on fire and burning down is ironic.  However, someone being convicted of murder 10 years to the day after the murder happened is just coincidence.  There's nothing special about that day that would make you think they would or would not be convicted, so it's just a coincidence that it happened on that day.  Only use ironic when it's something that on its face would seem contradictory or paradoxical; otherwise, use coincidental.  By the way, most of the things in Alannis Morisette's song "Ironic" are coincidental, not ironic.

Lots of people say things like I literally died when he told me that.  Really?  You literally died?  If so, then you wouldn't be talking about it because you'd be dead.  When you stick the word literally into a sentence, it's supposed to mean that whatever you're saying is exactly what happened (usually something unexpected.)  But the word has been literally misused by literally so many people for literally so long now that some dictionaries now literally include a definition literally equating the word to the real word that people should use: virtually.

This is really more of a math faux pas than a grammar one.  Whenever I see a sign or menu in a restaurant or store listing something for "
.75" (or ".25", ".50", etc.), I really want to get the item in question and give the cashier a penny and tell them to keep the change.  That's because .75 is 3/4th of a cent, so one penny would pay for it with 1/4th of a cent left over.  Of course, what they really mean is the item is 75 cents, which is correctly written either "75" (no decimal) or "$0.75" (3/4th of a dollar.)

Improper use of quotes for emphasis
I hate seeing signs like "Do not" park here!  The quotes around Do not are intended to emphasize those words, but that's an improper use.  Quotes are properly used to indicate spoken dialog, a direct quotation, a title, an undefined term, a term used outside its normal usage, a nickname, or irony or sarcasm.  So a sign reading "Do not" park here! could be interpreted as the author either saying "do not" in a sarcastic manner, as in "do not (ha ha) park here" (think of the quotes as the speaker using "air quotes"), or that it means something not consistent with its normal meaning, for which I can't even think of an example in this case.  Instead, the correct way to emphasize something in print is to use capital letters, bold type, italics, and/or underlining, e.g. DO NOT park here!

Improper use of all caps
For some reason, lots of folks like to use all-caps for short words, especially technical ones.  This has resulted in sentences like My MAC gets a lot of SPAM when I access the WEB.  But words should only be written in all-caps if it's an acronym for something or
it's for emphasis (as noted in the topic above.)  Since neither MAC nor SPAM nor WEB are an acronym for anything in this case, they should not be written in capital letters unless it's for emphasis.  Barring that, the sentence should be My Mac gets a lot of spam when I access the web.  Mac has a capital M because it's a proper noun (it's short for "Macintosh"); the other terms should all be lower-case (although Web with a capital W would also be acceptable since it's a shortened version of the proper name World Wide Web.)

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