“You’re only given a little spark of madness. If you lose that, you’re nothing.” – Robin Williams
This is my little spark of madness: My work as a writer and editor demands attention to details, and whether I’m wrong or right, I am teaching grammar to those who—for one reason or another—have missed the grammar train when it stopped at their depot. I missed it the first time, the second time, and a few other times. My mind had retained little of the English lessons I studied in school, and for many years, I didn’t know that I didn’t know. It took the editor of my first published book, many years later, to wake me in time to hop on that train the next time it arrived. She taught me how to edit, to find and correct my mistakes.
I don’t recall exactly when it happened, but one day I realized that if I wanted to be a writer, I had to push myself to learn the basics of writing—grammar, sentence structure, punctuation, spelling, the works—because without it, I was nothing. I never considered taking a writing course, because I’m a trial and error learner. And even now, if I’m not quite sure of something, I absolutely stop what I’m doing and look it up. My little spark of madness has turned into a roaring inferno of pickiness that often gets me in trouble for correcting friends, family, and strangers online. It has become a lesson on how to make enemies and insult friends. But I can’t help it; it’s what I do. And if I’ve learned anything at all these many years of teaching myself, it’s that one must have a desire to learn, the spark that becomes a flame.
As one might expect from a grammar fanatic, I’ve been keeping a list of grammar faults that drive me nuts. I don’t know why these words are such a problem for people to remember, but I have a few ideas.
Cell phones and other electronic devices make it difficult and time-consuming to proofread and correct our mistakes. Some of us are too busy to care about grammar, and we make excuses. “It’s just Facebook!” we sputter. “It’s Twitter! WTF? Nobody cares about typos anymore!”—never mind they aren’t always accidental typos, but more often a lack of knowledge about correct usage.
Some folks do care. People who respect the written word care. We have the technology to send instant messages, but we don’t realize that by doing so, we become teachers whose work others may read and accept as gospel. But we’re all responsible for getting it right, because a simple misspelled word or mislaid phrase can morph into a grammar centipede with many legs—the more we see something written incorrectly, the more we tend to accept it as fact, and given the massive audience of social media, our grammatical sins may then reach out in all directions to enter the minds of those who think they know, but do not, those who probably missed the grammar train time after time after time.
I wonder if today’s students simply aren’t taught enough about the basics of grammar. Are teachers spending adequate time drilling the lessons into our children’s heads? The growing opinion seems to be that if we make mistakes, we have machines to fix them. But those machines don’t work by themselves; it takes human minds and hands to operate them.
Except for learning to read from the famous Dick and Jane books in first, second, and third grades, I don’t recall studying much else. (This was toward the end of the Great Depression, when some poor children were lucky to see the inside of a school.)
It wasn’t until I was in my teens that I began to take a real interest in my high school English classes. But after I graduated, married, and got busy raising a family, the desire to put those lessons to use was just not there.
Then, at some point along the way, I remembered that I had wanted to write. So I wrote some poetry, then a Frankenstein’s monster I proudly called a novel. I found a publisher and sent the “book” out over the transom … and all six pounds of typing paper came back with a very nice rejection letter. What I had produced was badly written. Yet, I didn’t know how bad it was, and I didn’t fully realize the importance of getting it right. I had heard that if you wanted to publish a book, an editor at a publishing house would clean up the mistakes for you. That may have been true at one time, but certainly not when I began writing.
I wish I still had that first novel—its title was “Forgive My Ashes,” and a few months after it was rejected, I burned the damn thing one flaming, smoking page after another. It was nine years before I attempted to write another novel, but this time I learned that writing a book is more than just typing page after page of tripe.
And speaking of learning the basics of writing in school, I don’t understand how some people can graduate from high school and be admitted to a university without a basic understanding of the rules of grammar. Yet it happens. How do those people even get OUT of high school without knowing, let alone get INTO schools of higher learning and eventually graduate still not knowing?
I had a friend who worked in a high-powered company, earning good money, but who graduated from college without knowing that grandfather, grandmother, grandchild, for example, are each written as one word. To my friend, they were Grand Father, Grand Mother, Grand Child, etc. There are other examples, but these are enough to send my detail-oriented, OCD-picky author’s brain to a mental institution! Anyone who has ever read a book that mentioned grandparents should have at least learned by osmosis how to spell those familiar words.
In my educated but humble opinion, people who make a lot of grammatical errors may not read enough. I have instructed students during school visits to read, read, read! Because by reading, one gets automatic lessons in writing, sentence structure, plotting, punctuation, and spelling. Whether they realize it or not, they are learning by repetition; by seeing the written words enough times that it automatically soaks into their mind.
Grammatical blunders seemed to have increased after word processors came into common use. Typing on a word processor at 120 wpm allows us to type errors faster than we can spot them. And when we read from a screen, our eyes tend to zip ahead and we often fail to catch those mistakes. Spellcheckers are a big help, but only if one actually bothers to use them. Even so, they can’t catch everything. On the other hand, writing our stories on a pad of paper forces us to pay attention due to strong eye, hand, and mind connections.
Here is a short list of hair-pulling grammatical sins that make me cringe:
Wrong: If we would have been asked, or if we would have gone.
Correct: If we had been asked. If we had gone.
Wrong: I would of gone with him.
Correct: I would’ve gone with him.
Would’ve is the contraction for would have, but to our ears it sounds like would of.
Wrong: Noone (OMG, I hate this one!)
Correct: No one is two words.
Users may assume this odd word is like anyone or someone, so surely it must be noone.
Wrong: Will you go with? May I come with? Etc.
Correct: Will you go with me? You may come with me.
With whom? I always ask myself. This is an incomplete sentence commonly used in Wisconsin, and maybe other places I’m not aware of.
Wrong: I have less clothes than Mary.
Correct: No, you have fewer clothes than Mary.
The simple rule is to use less for singular nouns and fewer for plural nouns. The Chicago Manual of Style recommends using the “singular or plural” framework. (For lack of a better example, Cindy pays less rent for her apartment and she has fewer visitors.)
Wrong: He graduated college. (No no no, he did not graduate college!)
Correct: He graduated from college.
The verb graduate means to raise gradually by degrees or stages. If you graduated college, you raised the building, not yourself.
Wrong: He has alot of friends.
Correct: (Two words.) He has a lot of friends.
May be confused with allot or allotment, which means to give something to somebody as a share of what’s available or what has to be done.
Wrong: She stood at the podium.
Correct: She stood at the lectern.
A lectern is a reading stand and a podium is a stage or platform. Thus, a lectern stands on a podium and the reader stands behind the lectern to read or speak.
Wrong: Now and again.
Correct: Now and then.
These examples are sometimes used both ways, but generally they mean from time to time; once in a while; occasionally. Now and then we go off to the country.
Wrong: Hun or Hunny
Correct: Honey or Hon (a term of endearment)
I am not a Hun. A Hun is a member of a warlike Asiatic nomadic people who invaded and ravaged Europe in the 4th–5th centuries: derogatory, informal, slang, a reckless or uncivilized destroyer. https://en.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/Hun