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


Continual and Continuous

Envy and Jealousy


May and Might

Whether and If

Fewer and Less

Farther and Further

Since and Because

Disinterested and Uninterested


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


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?


Apparently, Good Grammar Is Outdated And Optional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,, 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.


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!

Granular Social Networking Stats

Maybe I should have said tabular, but still, this free report from Experian Simmons, entitled the 2010 Social Networking Report contains lots of data on recent increases in social media usage, confirming suspicions that social media networking is indeed on the steep rise. The entire report can be downloaded after filling out some basic information or you can view it online (link here). I thought it worthwhile to quote the follownig two paragraphs from the introduction to give a flavor for the findings:

The 2010 Social Networking Report provides the hard data behind this consumer revolution, including the fact that fully 66% of online Americans use social networking sites today, up from just 20% in 2007. Social networking is an increasingly addictive activity, with nearly half of those who access such sites (43%) reporting that they visit them multiple times per day. While users of social networking sites may have initially signed up to better keep in touch with friends, a growing number say they now use sites like Facebook to connect with family members. An astounding 70% of social networkers keep in touch with family via their various online networks, up from 61% a year ago.

Fully two-thirds of all online adults today have visited a social networking site in the last 30 days, up from 53% in 2008 and 20% in 2007. Social networks have most thoroughly penetrated the young adult market, as nearly 9-in-10 online 18-to 34-year-olds visit such sites today. But even older Americans are tapping into social networks, with 41% of online adults age 50 and older making monthly visits to sites like Facebook, MySpace and Twitter.

Bringing Style Up To Speed

Back in April (link here), I breathed a sigh of relief as the AP announced it was now permissible to write website, instead of web site. I am back to tell you that the 2010 AP Stylebook Online (link here) is now out in all its glory, with more help for other modern terms. Some history on the Stylebook:

The Stylebook was first produced in 1953 as a stapled collection of rules totaling 60 pages, and has grown to a publication of more than 450 pages today. The book’s creation was prompted in part by a technical change in the way the AP transmitted news as well as a need for consistency among a worldwide editorial staff that produced stories for newspapers with a variety of style preferences. There have been major periodic revisions over the past few decades, the last in 2008, and the print edition is now updated annually.

The new guidelines include many entries pertaining to social media usage. Many will come as no surprise (new ways to use the terms “fan”, “friend”, “trending”, “retweet”, “unfriend” and “follow”). Others make me scratch my head a bit (separating out smartphone into smart phone and hyphenating e-reader). Thankfully, the AP guidelines discuss some common sense rules for journalists as to how to use (and not use) social media in their research and reporting. As well as a healthy dose of acronyms generated by the texting generation. Go figure. From the site:

The new Social Media Guidelines section includes information and policies on using tools like Facebook and Twitter, how journalists can apply them to their work and how to verify sources found through them. Also included are 42 separate entries on such terms as app, blogs, click-throughs, friend and unfriend, metadata, RSS, search engine optimization, smart phone, trending, widget and wiki.

Just so you know, Web is capitalized when it is used as the shortened form of World Wide Web and e-mail is still hyphenated. You can buy the Stylebook here (link).

Grammar Tweets

Need grammar advice in 140 characters or less? Check out ThatWhichMatter ( @thatwhichmatter ) on Twitter for helpful grammar hints. Because sometimes it helps to be reminded whether “between” or “among” is more appropriate in your context before you ask the question.

Hat tip to Lifehacker.