Get Grammatical or Get Lost

by James Scott Bell
@jamesscottbell

No, I’m not telling the ungrammatical to take a hike. But I am saying that without a basic understanding of certain rules of our language, your thoughts will be in danger of getting lost on the reader.

As a public service, here are a few of the errors I frequently come across so you, dear writer, may avoid them:

Uninterested v. Disinterested

Uninterested means not interested in something. Disinterested means objective.

“Many young people today are disinterested in marriage.” WRONG.

A good umpire is disinterested in the outcome of a game, but he should never be uninterested.

Yet virtually every time I see disinterested it’s misused. Maybe people think it sounds more sophisticated. That excuse doesn’t interest me at all.

Begs the Question

You’ll read or hear this almost every day. Like on the news, when a talking head spouts, “He said cows should be outlawed, which begs the question: Where will we get our steaks?”

No! Begs the question does not mean demands that the question be asked. That doesn’t even make sense on its face. If a question demands to be asked, it isn’t begging, is it?

Question begging is actually a fallacy of logic. It means someone has assumed, rather than proved, a premise. Thus, in a debate, you might hear, “My esteemed opponent has begged the question.”

This is a fight we’ve probably lost, but I can’t help digging in my heels. Whenever I hear someone on TV casually drop “That begs the question…” I always beg to differ.

The Wandering I

It was drummed into us as kids that using me instead of I is wrong.

“Me and Henry rode bikes today.”

“No, dear, that’s Henry and I.”

So the kid starts saying things like:

“That belongs to Henry and I.”

Wrong-o. But it’s a mistake made all the time. I heard this on TV the other day: “That means a lot to my wife and I.”

Ack!

You can easily determine the correct usage by removing the first noun from the sentence. Would you say, “That means a lot to I”? Of course not. “That means a lot to me” is correct, so stick the wife back in there and you’ve got it right.

“Henry and me went to the store.” Would you say, “Me went to the store”? Only if you’re Tarzan. Otherwise, “Henry and I …” is correct.

Its v. It’s

It is so easy to make this mistake, because it’s looks like a possessive since we use the apostrophe that way in other places. The cat’s mat is on the floor can easily become, in another context, It’s mat is on the floor.

It’s (did you see that?) tricky because it’s is really a contraction, a combo of it and is; and its is possessive, but without the apostrophe.

When I’m typing fast, I sometimes make this mistake, and its it’s irritating. Just train yourself to take a little pause and ask, “Do I mean it is?” Then type accordingly.

i.e. v. e.g.

E.g. is short for the Latin phrase exempli gratia, which means “for example.”

“There are lots of ways to lose money in Vegas, e.g., blackjack and craps.”

I.e. is short for id est, “that is.”

“The police who violated the Fourth Amendment—i.e., busted down the guy’s door—should have secured a warrant.”

In other words, e.g. sets up one or more examples, while i.e. supports just one clarification.

An easy way to remember this is to think of the e in e.g. as standing for example, and the i in i.e. as standing for in other words.

Also, when you use either of these babies in a sentence, they are lowercase and followed by a comma, e.g., The boys will get to pick among their favorite games, e.g., Bone Storm and Gilstrap’s Revenge. 

Literally

My head literally explodes when I hear people misuse literally.

No it doesn’t, for literally means exactly, in a factual sense. People misuse literally because they think it provides added force to their point: He was literally as big as a house! 

Don’t use literally unless you are trying to make clear an actual fact. And you don’t have to use figuratively at all. When you say He was as big as a house people will understand what you’re trying to convey. You don’t have to gild the lily, as they say (which reminds me that you should avoid clichés like the plague).

Complement v. Compliment

When something goes with something else and produces a nice effect, it complements the other thing. “Her orange scarf complemented her ensemble.”

A compliment is something nice you say about somebody. “The speaker paid Mrs. Hanson a compliment.”

You most often find this error when these words are used in their –ary form, as in this example I came across recently: “If you’re not sure where to begin, try taking a picture of a single book against a simple, complimentary (but not overpowering) background.”

No, the wallpaper is not paying the book a compliment. 

Now, I admit I am no grammar expert. I still think a gerund is a fuzzy pet you keep in a cage. But when I’m unsure about some usage rule, I’ll pause to do a quick search on the internet, or look up the issue in one of my reference books (my favorite is Write Right! by Jan Venolia.)

So what are your pet peeves of language blundering?

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75 thoughts on “Get Grammatical or Get Lost

  1. If I may, I would have to say my “favorite” (if that’s the right word here) is the misuse/confusion of BRING and TAKE, especially by talking heads (or their writers).
    “Bring” implies movement with something towards an object, “Take” implies movement of something away from an object i.e., ( 😀 )
    “Bring your first draft with you when you come, but take out the trash before you leave…”

    And of course all those other homophonous typos (following your its/it’s example):
    There, their, they’re…
    Your, you’re, yore (well, not so often, but I have seen it a time or two, which leads me to)…
    To, too, two…

    Hopefully this isn’t picking too many nits… (It’s not knits, is it? I ask, scratching my head…)

    • That reminds me of when my sister was my mother’s caregiver, though some called her my mother’s caretaker. Caregiver is the better word 🙂

  2. You’ve hit three of my “favorites.” Between you and I, this column literally begs the question whether some people should be aloud to wright. Its a shame when language doesn’t get it’s do, e.g. these semantic foe pa’s.

  3. You’ve hit three of my “favorites.” Between you and I, this column literally begs the question whether some people should be aloud to wright. Its a shame when language doesn’t get it’s do, e.g. these semantic foe pa’s.

  4. I hesitate to comment because I see grammar mistakes in my own writing all the time even when I know better. But here it goes. I cringe when I see words/phrases that sound alike getting mixed up, like two and too, a lot and alot, their and there . . . you get the idea. Oh, and I don’t like it when effect and affect are mixed up. But like I said, I try not to be two:-) upset about it because I make mistakes myself.

    • I hear you, Priscilla. We all make mistakes, which is why a good copy editor comes in handy. Unfortunately, this breed is dying out. They are not being trained in school or on the job (under the tutelage of a grizzled vet, like in the old days). More’s the pity.

      • A couple of books can help: I just finished Carol Saller, The Subversive Copy Editor. #amreading Dreyer’s English. Dreyer suggests that childhood and youth spent nose-in-book seems to be a sine qua non of being a good copy editor. (He also informs us where to look to learn if a particular foreign-language-into-English phrase needs to be italicized or not. I did not check “sine….”)

  5. I always have to stop and think and it’s vs. its. I know what they mean but like you when I’m in a hurry, I’ll type it wrong. Then there is farther vs. further, affect vs. effect… No wonder I’ve heard English is the hardest language to learn!

    Good post, James!

  6. Thanks for that advice on I versus me. I feel rude when I use ‘me’ in text or conversation. It’s so automatically cemented in my brain that I don’t even see it when I type it. Maybe I can replace my mother’s voice with your voice advising me to take the first noun out of the sentence, lol.

  7. Between vs. among. “Between the three of them.” I fear the word “among” has vanished from the written language. Little trick: Between has “tw” as in two. It’s always two, nevermore. No, never more. Hey, I’ll get the hang of this language thing yet. Still hacking at it.

    • That’s a great trick, Dan! I was not aware of it. Now I won’t forget it. Reminds me of Jack Sprat (who ate no fat) and his wife (who ate no lean). “And so betwixt them both they licked the platter clean.” (I never got that one. Mrs. Sprat must have died early.)

      And you’re right, among is a classy word.

  8. I get the vapors when someone tries to express their lack of interest in something by saying “I could care less,” when they meant to say “I couldn’t care less.”

  9. me vs myself
    The one that sends my hands rushing to my ears or my eyes rushing to the ceiling is the misuse of self. People think that me is informal and myself is formal. Wrong. Self is reflexive, only used when the speaker is reflecting on the word I that came earlier in the sentence.

    I will do that myself.
    Please bring extra folding chairs for my wife and me. Not: for my wife and myself.

  10. Thank you, Jim, for a clear explanation of “beg the question.” As used commonly by the media, it’s never made sense to me. I feel better now that a scholar like you has verified that fallacy of logic.

    Any tricks to remember when to use “imply” vs. “infer”? I look them up in Struck and White every time but still can’t get them straight.

  11. My favorites are “peek”, “peak”, and “pique.” I once watched a movie with subtitles where all three words were used incorrectly in the subtitles! Something like: “His interest was peaked, so he piqued out the window at the mountain peek.”

    It was so excessive, I decided the subtitler (is that a word?) must have done it on purpose.

  12. Last night I shot an elephant in my pajamas. How he got in my pajamas, I’ll never know.

    I’m sure you’re familiar with the Grouch Marx quote from Animal Crackers. Verbal ambiguity is for comedians, not writers!

    Great topic.

    • Historical footnote: one of my best friends from high school worked for Groucho for a few years, and was instrumental in getting Animal Crackers re-released and out of legal hell. I went to the premiere with him and sat right in front of…Groucho.

  13. Misused words and phrases are my bugbears. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve highlighted something in a manuscript I’m editing and explained to the author, “This doesn’t mean what you think it does. It doesn’t even convey what you’re trying to say.” I provide the actual meaning of the word or phrase they’ve used, as well as the correct word and its definition to help them understand why their choice doesn’t work.

    From dozens of enthusiastic reviews of books I’ve read and wanted to throw against the wall, I know not every reader registers those mistakes. But the more prevalent misused words and phrases become, the more readers become inured to them. I fear future generations may never learn the importance of precise wording because no one will care (or know the difference) any longer.

    Thanks for letting me know I’m not alone in appreciating proper grammar.

    • I fear future generations may never learn the importance of precise wording because no one will care (or know the difference) any longer.

      Exactly my fear, too, Suzanne. I’m not putting down my pitchfork, though!

    • Yeah, I figured. It will forever drive me nuts, though.

      Like people all of a sudden pronouncing negotiation as nego-SEE-ation. When the heck did THAT start happening?

  14. I like to refer to Chicago Manual’s 30+ pages on this (good) topic. The two I find myself focusing on:

    1. “that/which”: I’ve studied this in depth but still catch myself missing the subtleties in the differences in restrictive vs. nonrestrictive usage. And British authors seem to have missed the whole point on this! Ha Ha.

    2. “a/an”: I’ve got this one down except for one right on my turf: “an historical.” It’s not. The “H” in “historical” is a sibilant consonant. Hence, it take “a.” So I’m sticking with my latest subtitle (…: A Historical Novel) until someone talks me out of it. [and, which, I might add, I can change instantly in KDP]

  15. PS Jim,

    I’m working my way though LAST 50 PAGES. At the end, my chapters get really short, i.e. lots of white space. Not sure if this begs the question or not, but can I also think of this as Last 12,500 words?

    • Of course you can, Nancy. When you know the fundamentals, you can do whatever works for your particular story. Shorter scenes at the end of thrillers is a common move.

  16. Pique/peak/peek—e.g., I took a peek at his essay on Pike’s Peak and it really piqued my interest.

    Pored/poured—i.e., when someone says, “I poured over the pages of your book.” I wonder why they would want to damage my book that way! 😉

  17. As a line editor for the last decade (and a newspaper copy editor for a decade before that), I regularly see these:

    “Jack Daniels” instead of the correct “Jack Daniel’s”

    “Vice-like grip” instead if the correct “vise-like grip” (which I’d suggest getting rid of in any case)

    “”She got off of the couch” instead of “she got off the couch”

    “He hit him in the face and he hit him back” and other pronoun garble

    There’s many more, but I see these most often.

    • Good ones.

      Here in L.A. we have the wonderful Musso & Frank Grill, the iconic Hollywood restaurant opened in 1919. Yet some writers have called is Musso & Frank’s!

  18. By the way, I think the “begs the question” argument is long lost. The world had decided it wants a different definition. It’s like trying to maintain a hard line on “decimate” as “eliminate by a tenth” or “diva” as “an opera singer of a multi-level octave range.”

  19. Gilstrap’s Revenge is indeed a thing to behold!

    Hey, I think you’re being to hard on begging the question. Phrases mean different things and language evolves. Of I’m in the middle of gunfight in July, and I say, “Man, it’s really hot out there,” I could mean either that it’s dangerous or that the temperature is high.

    When I say that the congressman’s declaration that we need a new snail darter shelter begs the question of where the money is coming from, that is a perfectly fine use of words. The phrase needn’t be specific to the logical fallacy.

    • John, I would be more charitable toward it if it made sense on its face, but as I explained, it simply does not. But making sense doesn’t seem to be a priority these days, so I have to sit back and pretend I could care less.

  20. This isone that seems like it should be blatantly obvious to anyone, but apparently isn’t.

    The contraction for SHOULD HAVE. It is should’ve.

    However, I consistently see it written as SHOULD OF.

    It gives me a headache.

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  23. Hey, I am such a fan of your plotting method I recommend it all the time. I wish I’d had it for my first books. I’m using it right now, and for a visual aid, I’ve created a long sheet of paper with a horizontal line drawn across it for the timeline and vertical bars to mark the 14 points, the largest one in the middle. The scenes go in on post-it notes.

    I did not know about e.g. and i.e. so that was an eye-opener. I didn’t get the problem with “begs the question” until I figured out it should be “raises the question.” I’m not sure if this makes sense, but the structure of the phrase is useful in an argument so I couldn’t see scrapping it completely. It’s just the verb that’s wrong. I appreciated this article on how the error came about : https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Begging_the_question

    There have been some grammatical mistakes I simply didn’t know about, but the editors and beta readers caught those (phew). But I don’t think I butcher the language as a whole.

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