I’m a Word Nerd–Get Over It

Some of My Top Language Pet Peeves

1. Leaving out the Oxford comma. It isn’t optional. There should no longer be any debate about this. The Oxford comma–or serial comma–is necessary and improves the flow of your writing. Without it, you can slow down the reader, send the reader off track, or greatly miscommunicate. You can find excellent examples of its importance in the article at http://www.buzzfeed.com/adamdavis/the-oxford-comma-is-extremely-important-and-everyone-should#.pr5kQowNw. My favorite: “Highlights of his global tour include encounters with Nelson Mandela, an 800-year-old demigod and a dildo collector.”

2. Excessive Capitalization. Words don’t get capitalized for emphasis, because you think they’re important, or for whatever reason people might be doing this. I don’t get it, but I see if all the time. Perhaps one of the biggest reasons for writing mistakes is the author isn’t sure what’s correct, so they just take a stab at it willy-nilly. I suspect that’s what’s happening here. But it’s pretty simple. Proper nouns get capitalized. A proper noun is the name of a specific person or place, such as Judy Garland or the White House. But general nouns, such as my mother or our white house, don’t get capitalized. I can’t think of anything else, other than the first word of a sentence, that gets capitalized, that doesn’t fall under the category of a proper noun. Any kind of title, name, business, trademarked product–when it’s the name of a specific Something, capitalize it. When in doubt, don’t, and you should be safe.

3. Overly formal writing. “The world evolves” is one rule that can apply to almost any kind of language mistake. Almost no one speaks any more without contractions, even in more formal settings. Language is meant to communicate, first and foremost. So write like you speak–but with the caveat that you should try to speak clearly too! Except in the most academic or legal settings, use contractions (in a way that sounds natural), choose words that are appropriate for your audience, and always remember what’s often attributed to Winston Churchill: “That is a rule up with which I will not put.”

4. Correcting someone’s speech for being ungrammatical, or commenting on poor grammar/spelling as if it’s an indication of one’s intelligence. I’m not sure I need to comment on this, except maybe to point out that if your focus is on how a person is saying something more than than what they are saying, perhaps it’s more accurately a reflection on your own intelligence.

5. “That’s what I was taught in school.” This is the poorest excuse for hanging on to your old ways of doing things, especially when you consider that your teacher may not have known much about “grammar” at all. Besides, even if you had a brilliantly educated English teacher, think about how long ago you were in school, and then think about how long before that your teacher was in school. Then think about how many words have been added to the dictionary since then and how out of date your school encyclopedias would be by now. Language changes that fast. So get over the “rules” you learned in grammar school and get with the times.

6. Two spaces after periods? Most people doesn’t do typesetting. We use computers with amazing word processing capabilities. Two spaces after a period only applies if you’re using an old-fashioned typewriter. Still not convinced? Look up the book The Mac Is Not a Typewriter, published in 1989. It’s a quick read and was published 26 years ago!

7. Apostrophes aren’t that hard to figure out. This quick lesson will take you about five minutes, and then you should have it. If you don’t, revisit it until you’ve got it:

  1. Use apostrophes in contractions. Examples: Do not becomes don’t. Come on becomes c’mon. It is becomes it’s.
  2. Use apostrophes to show possession. Examples: Whose car? Cindy’s. Whose baby? Martha’s. Whose house? The Smiths’. (Common exceptions include hers, ours, yours, theirs, its, whose, and oneself.)
    (Possession can get confusing when you’re talking about something abstract like a girls’ night out but it works the same way.)
  3. Don’t confuse apostrophes with plurals. Examples: Merry Christmas from the Joneses. I grew up in the 1980s. HMOs made sense in the 1990s but not now.

8. Use spell-check. Since many forms of journalism have moved onto the web, are published quickly, and may not provide much income for the author, if any, there is a sad lack of proofreading done online. But many tools–including many email programs–have a spell-check function that can save you from embarrassment. And it generally only takes a moment. For important writing, such as a school paper or a report to a client, serious proofreading is in order. So if you’re not a good speller, ask/hire someone to proofread.

9. Wordiness/”big” words. Nothing shows arrogance and self-importance more than someone who uses 20 words when five will do. Say what you mean and get it over with. See http://www.collisiondetection.net/mt/archives/2006/04/study_using_big.php for information on a study that concluded that “using big words needlessly makes you seem stupider.” And there’s a good article at http://www.techrepublic.com/blog/10-things/10-plus-ways-to-reduce-wordiness-in-your-writing with suggestions for tightening up your writing.

10. Redundancy. This goes along with #9, so perhaps it’s a propos that it’s about redundancy. But here I’m specifically talking about using two words/ideas together that mean the same thing. For example: add an additional, at the present time, and during the course of.
“Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that he make every word tell.”—E.B. White, “Elementary Principles of Composition”, The Elements of Style
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