I once had a job opening for an editor on my team. In the middle of an interview, I noticed the candidate–an otherwise very nice man–had a giant piece of spinach wedged into his teeth.
This was no speck; had I a pair of tweezers, I probably could have plucked it out and used it to swaddle a grape.
As hard as it was to watch him smile and answer my questions, the salad to-go didn’t cost him the job. The grammatical errors on his Web site–a spelling error and a missing comma–were another story, though. As gross as the spinach was, I could look away from it. Typos, on the other hand, I could not ignore, and as nice as he was, I had to turn him down.
That’s the thing with bad grammar. It’s the intellectual equivalent of spinach in your teeth, especially when you’re at work or looking for a better job. With that in mind, here are five errors that are easy to prevent. Think of them as mental floss.
1) Be agreeable
When it comes to language, we can’t just agree to disagree–at least not when it comes to subjects and verbs. If your subject is singular, your verb must be, too. Usually, this is easy:
- "The boy eats the pie."
- "The people eat the pie."
It gets trickier when there is a descriptive phrase tucked between the subject and the verb. As peanut butter gives life and meaning to bread, this modifying phrase enhances the meaning of the sentence. But–just as peanut butter doesn’t turn bread into a waffle–a modifier doesn’t change the form of the verb.
So, in American usage, you’d say, "The group of people is eating the pie."
What’s the trick here? Knowing how to identify the subject. In this sentence, "the group" is the subject, not "people." In any sentence, the subject is whoever or whatever is performing the action. In this case, it doesn’t matter if there are 100 students eating pie; the group is the subject of that sentence, and it needs a singular verb.
In a similar vein, I just got a letter home from my daughter’s school that said, "A child reads better if you read to them every day."
Even though an elementary school-age child has the energy of many people, he or she must be talked about in the singular. But if the "he or she" thing feels too stuffy, it’s fine to say, "Children read better if you read to them every day."
We at the Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar consider using the plural this way to be our royal escape hatch.
2) Avoid apostrophe catastrophes
On the bright side, the "pie’s" made by our dorm’s cook in college were delicious. For that, she gets significant credit and my everlasting gratitude. But I did gasp in horror at the sign she made advertising them.
It is a catastrophe of apostrophe to make a plural with an apostrophe-s. Apostrophes are used for possessives. Pies, alas, don’t possess much beyond crust and filling. So unless you’re talking about that, keep the apostrophe out of the recipe. Apostrophes also appear in contractions, which magically appear when you make one word out of two. The apostrophe stands in for the missing letter or letters.
There is one exception, though not all apostrophe zealots agree with me on this point.
You can’t easily write home about all the A’s you got in English class if you don’t stick the apostrophe in there. (It reads as though you’re saying, "I got all As." As what? As if?)
This exception gets some grammar nerds whipped into a lather. Purists view this as an abomination, though the apostrophe zealot in England who sent me e-mail couldn’t give me a better way of writing around the "As" problem. (You can work around this by putting the A in italics, but if you aren’t careful when you change your typeface, you might lose it in the editing phase.)
Language nuts who are more generous with their apostrophes stick them in if’s, and’s, and but’s. That’s too far. Apostrophes do not belong in ifs, ands, or buts, because those plurals are perfectly clear without them. Clarity is the whole point of grammar, and if a rule doesn’t make language more clear, then it’s just silly.
The final tricky situation here is whether possessive nouns that end in s get an apostrophe only, or the apostrophe-s. Unless they’re Moses or Jesus, or some other Biblical entity, they get an apostrophe-s.
I’m not kidding. I have no idea why this is so, but it’s funny, so it’s worth remembering.
3) I seem to have misplaced my modifier
Let’s say you’re trying to sell your grandmother’s antique dresser online. Does this make a good advertisement? Hmm, let’s see.
For sale: Antique dresser for woman with thick legs and large drawers.
It would make a great ad–if you’re trying to sell your desk only to husky women wearing giant underpants. If you want anyone else to consider it, you’ll want to rewrite that sentence so the descriptive modifier isn’t separated from its noun.
For sale: Woman’s antique dresser with thick legs and large drawers.
If you keep your sentence structure simple, you are less likely to misplace a modifier. When in doubt, start with the subject, then move right away to your verb. This can lead to dry writing, but that’s better than inadvertently hilarious writing, like this: Having finished homework, the TV was turned on.
Maybe the technology has improved since the days I used to watch The Muppet Show instead of doing my algebra, but I’ve never known TV to finish its homework.
A great way to avoid making mistakes like this is to write in active voice instead of passive. You know you’re writing in active voice when the subject of your sentence performs the action. A sentence is in passive voice if it’s not clear who did something–in this case, who turned on the TV instead of trying to earn extra credit.
4) Dangerous malapropisms: Say what?
A friend who’s in the media business told me the awkward tale of a colleague who kept saying "antidote" in a meeting, when the word she was grasping for was anecdote.
This is a classic malapropism, when someone misuses a word by confusing it with another word that sounds similar. A number of words sound similar, but mean very different things.
Indicted and inducted form another pair of potentially embarrassing swaps. When a person is indicted, he’s charged with a crime. When a person is inducted, he’s been given a new job or honor (or introduced to a new idea). You’d congratulate someone who’s been inducted, and offer condolences to someone who’s been indicted. Otherwise, you’d be embarrassed.
Conscience and conscious are another tricky pair. But if you stay conscious of the difference, you will have no embarrassing incidents weighing on your conscience.
5) Words to write right: its, it’s, who’s, whose, their, there, they’re
The saying used to be, "On the Internet, no one knows if you’re a dog." (Cats are obvious, though; they always fall asleep on the keyboard.)
Likewise, when you’re talking, no one can tell if you screw up whose and who’s, its and it’s, and there, they’re and their. But when you’re writing, watch out. Screw these up and you’ll look like a fool.
But don’t despair. Or, as grandmothers say, "There, there." You can expand your mind on this front by understanding contractions.
If what you’re really saying is "it is," "there is," or "who is," then use the apostrophe version. So, it’s, there’s, and who’s.
Use its, whose, and theirs for possessives. How do you remember this? Just remember that possessive pronouns have everything–except apostrophes.
Likewise, I have another goofy little trick for keeping their straight from they’re and there. Their is a possessive. It has an i in it. I like owning things. Therefore, the one to use there is their.
There’s, meanwhile, comes with a warning. There’s is short for there is. “There’s a fly in my soup” is correct, if disgusting. But “There’s flies in my soup” is incorrect and even more disgusting. So be careful there. Even one of my smartest high school students–an award-winning writer–made this mistake in a recent piece she wrote for me.
My bet is this is a common mistake because it’s easier to say "there’s" than "there’re," which is the correct verb form whenever you’re dealing with more than one fly. Those two r sounds in a row don’t exactly trip off the tongue. While you can get away with it in speech, the error will be more obvious in writing. So beware.
And now, for two final entrants into the write-it right category: loose and lose.
This one’s easy. Loose rhymes with goose. And as they said in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, "How loose is your goose? Your goose is totally loose"–whatever that means.
Meanwhile, lose is a loser. It has lost its other o. And if you can remember that, you’ll be a winner–grammatically speaking, at least