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
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
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
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
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.
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 in. Faze
is the verb meaning "to disturb." Here's a sentence that uses both: I was not
fazed when my job was phased out.
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.
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
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.
Ironically, the term ironic is often misused. Most of the
time when people say something is ironic, what they really mean is it
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
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
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
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.)