Grammar Rules For The Nerds In Tweed & Everyone Else

I love Fark. If you haven’t read their “news” stories, you really should. You are in for a treat. Diverging from their normal “news of the weird” types of posts, Fark links to this Lit Reactor post by John Gingerich entitled 20 Common Grammar Mistakes that (Almost) Everyone Makes. To encourage you to hit the link and read the gems, I am not going to copy here the usage rules, but I will point you in the right direction with the instances of grammar danger, a few of which hit my pet peeve list:

Who and Whom

Which and That

Lay and Lie

Moot

Continual and Continuous

Envy and Jealousy

Nor

May and Might

Whether and If

Fewer and Less

Farther and Further

Since and Because

Disinterested and Uninterested

Anxious

Different Than and Different From

Bring and Take

Impactful (*hint: it isn’t a word and neither is irregardless)

Affect and Effect

Irony and Coincidence

Nauseous

Perhaps my favorite part of the article is Gingerich’s acknowledgement that grammar is an “ultra-micro component in the larger picture.” However, it is worth paying attention to the rules when your audience may demand such attention or when failure to fix may distract attention in unintended ways. How’s that for a mouthful?

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Free, Online Grammar Tool – After The Deadline

I have mentioned a few of these automated editing solutions in the Studio before, but this one is worth a mention if for no other reason than it is FREE. It also works by bookmarklet, which I think is pretty cool. After The Deadline .   Hit the jump and access the Demo tool on the web. Paste your text in the box and hit the “check” button. You will see underlines where potential errors may lie and a click on the underlined term(s) shows the reason for the flag. The tool checks spelling, style and grammar, with color coded underlines for each change. If the quick explanation isn’t enough, you can get more from the “explain” link. There is also a bookmarklet and an extension for Chrome, and an extension for Firefox, a plug-in for Windows Live Writer, and a downloadable plug in for OpenOffice’s word processor. Very nice indeed.

If you have Jetpack installed on your WordPress blog, you are probably familiar with this tool – it is the dedicated grammar checker included with the plug in.

Check it out – it’s free, after all.

Grammarly: Your Robotic Writing Assistant

There are those out there claiming that good grammar is outdated. And then there are those out there looking to turn a buck helping you fix your grammar and proofread your opus (opuses? opera?). Should you choose to pay attention to your grammar, you can turn to the online service Grammarly to afford you that second set of eyes. Grammarly doesn’t beat around the bush: the site proudly proclaims it to be “The World’s Most Accurate Grammar Checker.” Grammarly offers both online checking and integration with your local software – Microsoft Office Word, PowerPoint, Outlook, etc.  Grammarly checks for spelling, punctuation, and simple grammar checking, as well as highlights potential plagiaristic moments in your missive.  Grammatical errors are indicated in red and clicking on the error will reveal a pop up card explaining the wrong and the “write” of it. You can choose to “see less” of the explanation in the cards, and there are up and down buttons to give feedback on the feedback that is given to you in the card.

Word from reviewers is that Grammarly is near the top of the class when it comes to online grammar support, but that it falls a bit short as a local add-on, with much better options out there in WhiteSmoke or Writer’s Workbench. The other downside for me was a monthly subscription cost. For on-line, I would prefer a one-off option for the occasional support, rather than be required to pump in $20 or so bucks a month for a slightly better editor and checker than my word processor provides.

That said, those who make their living writing, or students whose grades depend upon quality written product, might find the money well spent. It’s always nice to have another tool to fit in you writer’s tool belt.

Apparently, Good Grammar Is Outdated And Optional

DISCLAIMER: I did not run this post through the AP Style Book’s Grammar Editor and my blog editor doesn’t have spell-check. I still read it a second time to make sure I crossed my t’s and dotted my i’s. I’m old-fashioned like that.

My spouse, who often goes by the self-annointed nickname “Conan the Grammarian”, forwarded this little gem to me this morning – Good Grammar Is Old Fashioned, Unecessary and Bad For Your Career. Leaving aside omission of the serial comma, I have a few nits to pick with this statement.

First, let’s talk about the author. Penelope Trunk’s bio reads as follows:

Penelope Trunk is the founder of three startups, most recently Brazen Careerist, a professional social network for young people. Previously she worked in marketing at Fortune 500 companies including Mattel and Hyundai. Her blog about career advice, blog.penelopetrunk.com, receives half a million visits a month and is syndicated in more than 200 newspapers. She frequently appears as a workplace commentator on CNN, 20/20 and FOX News. She’s also the author of Brazen Careerist: The New Rules for Success, a bestselling career advice book for Generation Y.

Ms. Trunk “advertises” her blog post with the blurb:

The cost of perfect grammar — even spelling — is just too high. Learn to live with sloppiness. It just might help your career.

Next, I moved on to the post :

Why do so many people care about grammar and spelling? Seriously. There is very little in this world that warrants text-based perfection. Are you writing the copy for a billboard in Times Square that is only three words? Don’t have a typo.

Otherwise….

Let’s see. The second sentence is incomplete. In fact, it is an adverb. An adverb that means in a serious manner, to an alarmingly grave extent, or with genuine, earnest intent. But what in a serious manner, to an alarmingly grave extent or with genuine earnest intent? Adverbs are modifiers and I cannot tell from this single adverb sentence exactly what seriously is modifying here. When someone asks me to take something seriously, then I really need to know to what I am supposed to accord the weight. Is it the question that precedes the statement? Is it the sentence that follows? I can’t tell, so I think I will skip right over the seriously. It is seriously lacking in the action and object vital to conveying the point.

Not content to impress upon us that brevity is our friend with the single adverb sentence, Ms. Trunk then uses an even more nuclear tool, the single adverb paragraph. It is a complete sentence in that it is followed by a period and an ellipses. Lawyers are very familiar with the ellipses: we regularly quote from cases, statutes, and authorities, while attempting to fit within space constraints. In formal writing, ellipses are used to show places where words have been omitted from a quote. Where the omission is within a sentence, the reader will see three dots. Where the omission is at the end of a sentence, the reader will see a period in the normal place, followed by three dots. So, according to general understanding, “Otherwise….” is a complete sentence and, in this case, a complete paragraph.  

For the record, otherwise means under other circumstances, in another manner, in other respects. The implication is that, when you use “otherwise”, you will then find out what should happen in those other circumstances, manners, or respects.

In informal text, ellipses, which should be used sparingly, also can be employed to show uncertainty or a trailing off of the writer’s train of thought. I am guessing that is what Trunk is trying to do here. Functionally, she is making a point in her first paragraph about how outdated grammar is, but then suggests that she is faltering in her resolve with her uncertain “devil’s advocate” “otherwise….” standing alone in its own, tiny paragraph. Her point would have been much sharper if she made the “Times Square” statement the first sentence of the next paragraph, started the next sentence with “otherwise,” and then finished that sentence, explaining that “in other contexts, good grammar and punctuation is unecessary and potentially harmful.”

What is she trying to say here? I don’t know with certainty.  There is too much ambiguity arising out of her use of these terms and placement of the paragraph breaks for me to fully fathom her message. Presumably, in her first “two” paragraphs, Ms. Trunk believes that grammer is important for the three-word billboard in Times Square, but nowhere else. Especially not in blog posts attempting to make a point about the futility of grammar.

Is this true, lawyers? What about in drafting legislation? What about in writing a brief to be filed with a court? How about in a legally-binding agreement?

I clicked on a few links in her post to glean a greater understanding of her message. I believe her underlying point is that writing with rhythm and cadence is far more important than writing with clarity. And, by clarity, I mean following certain basic rules regarding grammar and usage so that the import of the message is not lost in creative innovation. How about in venues that depend heavily on that clarity.

She also seems to be saying that our limited energy should be spent writing, and not worrying about grammar. But that really does depend upon the audience and your purpose, doesn’t it? If you can attend to both your content and your structure, why wouldn’t you?

Ms. Trunk also believes that the real reason that people note grammar is to help them separate the well-educated from the riff-raff. She seems to believe that grammar rules are a snob’s best friend. Where has Ms. Trunk been hanging out?

Here is my take on grammar and usage. Examine your purpose and know your audience. Tailor your “perfectionism” to the setting. I concede that word choice and the grammar rules themselves are not black and white – take a look on the internet to see the disputes that abound concerning use of contractions and splitting infinitives. Nonetheless. whether Ms. Trunk likes it or not, bad grammar in almost any context muddies up the message and can even actively distract from it. There are many fora in which creative “rule-breaking” is permitted and even encouraged, but business writing is not one of them. In law, a mispelled word or misplaced punctuation mark can mean the difference between yes and no.

At its very core, language is a communication tool. We speak and write to ensure our message is heard. The grammar rules are meant to give us a framework upon which to lay our word choices, to encourage a foundation enabling us to reduce the guesswork that would prevail if there were no rules.

Do you remember that famous scene in the movie Airplane, when Barbara Billingsly steps forward to tell the flight attendent, I mean stewardess (see, I can accept change): “Oh Stewardess, I speak Jive”? Have you ever tried to “understand” the lyrics in a rap song?  Don’t get me wrong here, people. I love rap music. But I believe that the deviations in the language used in rap music or within other groups often may be intentionally difficult to parse chiefly due to the singer’s or speaker’s desire to target his message to that particular audience, and not to the larger group. What if you need to reach the larger group? Does rap work in that context? While there are those few examples of judges taking liberties with the language in their decisions, I know that I would not risk a client’s cause with taking those same liberties in a brief or contract.

I believe that, in order to use language to best effect, the writer should be mindful of both the rules of grammar and the meanings of words. Without a working understanding of both, the writer may be incapable of communicating his message to his audience. The code is there to help reduce misunderstandings. You can certainly break those rules, but you risk losing the message in the murk. Your gamble, I suppose.

I think it is easy for someone like Ms. Trunk to flaunt the rules of grammar with wild abandon: she is well-educated and knows the rules well enough to break them. But what about someone who is unwittingly or unknowingly breaking those rules? If language and grammar are not important, then why would Ms. Trunk suggest that it is a good idea to hire someone to help you write your resume?

Beyond Spell Check: Phras.In

Let’s face it. Even the most editorially-inclined among us has come to rely on the spellchecker as a second set of eyes to minimize spelling gaffs and basic punctuation issues. But maybe your writing issues are deeper than spelling and spacing. For you, there is Phras.In (link here). This web-based, beta tool will take alternative versions of a phrase, run them both through a Google search and compare the results. The phrasing that yields the most hits wins.

Phras.In is built on the assumption that the crowd rules the day. This, of course, is not necessarily true when it comes to proper English grammar and usage. However, it is certainly true of colloqial phrasings or commonly-accepted wordings. Thus, as indicated on the site, Phras.In’s best use might be for someone who speaks English as a second language and who wants to adopt a more natural, native tone.

So, how does it work? You are given two boxes in which to type your alternative phrasings. As you type them, the number of Google hits for the phrases are displayed to the right. The phrase “the cow jumped over the moon” received 48,300 hits, while the phrase “the moon was jumped over by the cow” got a whopping 27 hits, primarily from sites explaining the perils of the passive voice. I knew this because I hit the “contextualize” button, which reveals a few lines from the website surrounding the desired phrase.

Phras.In worked fast and well for general purpose comparison. If nothing else, it saves you the time and effort of crafting your own Google search and reviewing all of the page results. Well done, Francesco!

Don't Tell Them, Show Them – Writing Rules

This list has been floating around for years. Nonetheless, I thought I would share it since it popped up again in my reader this morning and it always gives me a chuckle. Sometimes, the best way to make a point is to “show, don’t tell” (was that a cliche?) so here goes nothing:

Twenty-six “Golden” Rules for Writing Well

  1. Don’t abbrev.
     
  2. Check to see if you any words out.
     
  3. Be carefully to use adjectives and adverbs correct.
     
  4. About sentence fragments.
     
  5. When dangling, don’t use participles.
     
  6. Don’t use no double negatives.
     
  7. Each pronoun agrees with their antecedent.
     
  8. Just between you and I, case is important.
     
  9. Join clauses good, like a conjunction should.
     
  10. Don’t use commas, that aren’t necessary.
     
  11. Its important to use apostrophe’s right.
     
  12. It’s better not to unnecessarily split an infinitive.
     
  13. Never leave a transitive verb just lay there without an object.
     
  14. Only Proper Nouns should be capitalized. also a sentence should begin with a capital letter and end with a full stop
     
  15. Use hyphens in compound-words, not just in any two-word phrase.
     
  16. In letters compositions reports and things like that we use commas to keep a string of items apart.
     
  17. Watch out for irregular verbs that have creeped into our language.
     
  18. Verbs has to agree with their subjects.
     
  19. Avoid unnecessary redundancy.
     
  20. A writer mustn’t shift your point of view.
     
  21. Don’t write a run-on sentence you’ve got to punctuate it.
     
  22. A preposition isn’t a good thing to end a sentence with.
     
  23. Avoid cliches like the plague.
     
  24. 1 final thing is to never start a sentence with a number.
     
  25. Always check your work for accuracy and completeness.

Get it?

Hat tip to far too many people to list here.

Collection of On-Line Resources for Writers

Pens and their marks
Image by pigpogm via Flickr

“I” before “e” except after “c.” Sometimes, one needs a little refresher course on usage and grammar and, yes, even spelling. If you qualify, then consider heading over to this comprehensive list of writing resources compiled by David Stoner at the Writing Workshop. Stoner includes general resources, rhetoric, style guides, grammar guides, dictionaries and lexicographic resources, genre-based resources, literary terms, mechanics, writers groups and much more. While some of the resources may not appeal to you and your particular writing style, there definitely is something for everyone here.

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Suffering the Consequences of Incomprehensibility

1st third of 16th century
Image via Wikipedia

Haven’t posted one of these in the while. The ABA Journal reports here on another lawyer taking a beating from a judge for poor writing. The Dayton, Florida lawyer, David W. Glasser, was the attorney on the receiving end of U.S. District Judge Gregory Presnell’s ire. Apparently, Attorney Glasser filed a Motion to Dismiss with the District Court and Judge Presnell denied the Motion without prejudice. Attached to the Judge’s Denial is a copy of the original Motion complete with red editing marks. The Judge ordered Glasser to copy his client on the criticism.

I read the ABA’s blurb listing the grammatical errors pointed out by the Judge: several examples of excess spacing; typographical errors; incorrect placement of punctuation outside of quotation marks; incorrect capitalization; wrong word use; and, one very long sentence. Procedural errors aside, I thought to myself “sure, these are problems, but the Judge’s actions seem pretty harsh.” And then I read the example quoted by the Journal:

“A review counsel’s file subsequent to the court order indicates that for some reason full which counsel is unaware, the defendant named in the complaint was changed to the current defendant. Counsel believes this was changed by counsel’s prior assistant it was no longer with counsel’s firm.”

Whaaaat? Case closed.

[if you really want to, you can read the Motion here]

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Write With The Best Of 'Em

style
Image by delgrosso via Flickr

Thanks to Raymond Ward at the (new) legal writer for this handy tip: free on-line style guides!  College style guides predominate but there are more than enough options to satisfy the curious grammar and usage student.

Great stuff, Ray!

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Write With The Best Of ‘Em

style
Image by delgrosso via Flickr

Thanks to Raymond Ward at the (new) legal writer for this handy tip: free on-line style guides!  College style guides predominate but there are more than enough options to satisfy the curious grammar and usage student.

Great stuff, Ray!

Reblog this post [with Zemanta]