A grammar geek’s gentle guidance on 5 ghastly gaffes

In response to recent disparaging of linguists and their fervent devotion to getting things right, the author graciously offers a handful of tips to help you, dear reader, to avoid screwing up.

A recent study conducted by scientists at the University of Michigan concluded that people obsessed with grammar aren’t as nice as other folks.

As a grammar geek, I took offense to this. Well, that’s an overstatement. I guess I was just disappointed in the generalization, as I consider myself a nice guy and think most would agree.

After all, at the agency where I work, many refer to me as a grammar guru or their writing sensei—much nicer terms than “geek” or, even worse, the dreaded “Grammar Nazi.” True, I’m always watching out for grammar, spelling and punctuation errors.

Because we work in PR and write for journalists, it’s my job to stay abreast of Associated Press guidelines, but I don’t take a “holier than thou” approach to sharing this knowledge.

Needless to say, in my 30-year career—10 spent as a journalist and 20 as a PR professional with an eye to writing—I’ve seen my fair share of grammatical mistakes. However, there are five that I continue to see every day.

Here they are, along with corrections delivered in a kind and constructive manner:

1. And…action!

Most of the time, you want the subject of your sentence to perform the action. This is called active voice. Consider the sentence “The team reviewed the proposal.” In this example, the team (the subject) is doing the action—reviewing the proposal, the object of the sentence.

In passive voice, the sentence structure flips, so the target of the action moves to the subject position. Thus, the above would be written “The proposal was reviewed by the team.” In this passive sentence, the subject isn’t doing anything; instead, it is the receiver of the action.

Although passive writing isn’t incorrect, you can see how it changes the tone of your sentence. It often sounds lazy or clumsy. Active voice is more concise and direct, which is preferable, especially in business writing.

2. Pronoun problems

Simply put, pronouns and their antecedent nouns must agree in number. In other words, if the noun is singular, the pronoun should be singular; the same goes for plurals. Makes sense, right? That doesn’t stop people’s love of the word “their” and using it with singular nouns. For example:

  • Incorrect: Everyone should bring their notebook to this meeting.
  • Correct: Everyone should bring his or her notebook to this meeting.
  • Incorrect: The company will showcase their new products at the event.
  • Correct: The company will showcase its new products at the event.

3. Is that a thing?

To the untrained ear, that and who might seem interchangeable in a sentence. Consider your choice here:

We invited celebrities that/who live in the L.A. area to the VIP event.

While “celebrities that live in the L.A. area” might not sound wrong, it is. That is used when referring to things; who is always in reference to people. Fortunately, once you know this rule, it’s easy to remember. Don’t you wish everything in the world of grammar was that easy?

4. Attack of the apostrophes

Think you’re seeing apostrophes everywhere?

(I contend apostrophes warrant a place on this grammar list, even though it’s technically punctuation.) This often misused punctuation mark is used to show only two things:

1. Possession

2. Omission (of letters or numbers)

Here’s one, short paragraph containing an array of examples:

The brand’s ad campaign began in the ’80s. Though younger consumers probably won’t relate to the commercial, it was among their parents’ favorites.

Here’s a breakdown:

  • Brand’s. To show possession for a singular noun not ending in s, simply add ‘s.
  • ’80s. The apostrophe replaces the missing 19. (Putting it after the zero, as in 1980’s, would be incorrect.)
  • Don’t. As an irregular contraction for “do not,” don’t requires an apostrophe.
  • Parents’. For a plural noun ending in s, add only an apostrophe after the s.

So, that’s the easy part.

Where it gets tricky is when a singular noun ends in s. For example, would it be boss’ or boss’s? That’s a trick question, because it would depend upon the word that follows. You should add ‘s unless the next word begins with s. Thus, it would be boss’s office but the boss’ seat. Confused yet?

5. It’s gonna be all right

Choosing between it’s and its is still one of the most common linguistic mistakes people make. That’s not me starting to get nasty; I’m just citing a fact.

Let’s start with it’s, because it’s easier (you catch that?). It’s is a contraction for it is or it has. That’s all it is; nothing else.

Example: It’s beginning to look like rain.

Its , without the apostrophe, is possessive. You only use it when you are trying to show that something belongs to “it”-whatever it is.

Example: The dog was tugging at its leash.

If you’re ever not certain which to use, a simple trick is to read the sentence by inserting “it is” or “it has” instead to see if it still makes sense. If it doesn’t, “its” is probably correct. Using the example above, “The dog was tugging at it is leash” should guide you in the right direction.

As I’ve shown, grammar mistakes can be both easily fixable and a little complex, especially when there are exceptions to the rule. (Don’t get me started on hyphenation.) If writing is among your responsibilities, using proper grammar should be important to you, but nobody is expecting you to become an expert overnight.

Simply take the time to check your work-consulting reliable sources such as “The Elements of Style,” Grammar Girl’s online posts or Ragan’s vast archive of writing guidelines. Apply what you’ve learned each time you write something new, and you’ll certainly get better over time.

See? I told you grammar geeks can be nice.

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