On the grammar front, I think Weird Al Yankovic and I could be friends. I find him obnoxious most of the time, and I don’t particularly care for it when guys have better hair than I do, but I think we’d be pals all the same. We share the same pet peeves when it comes to grammar, and that’s all it really takes to endear someone to me. Have you heard his song Word Crimes? It’s beautiful. It’s everything I’ve ever wanted to say about grammar, but in a catchy jingle. Well, almost everything. And because proper grammar is essential for effective communication, here are five common grammar mistakes Weird Al couldn’t fit into his brief three minute, 45 seconds ditty (or that are mentioned again because they are just that irritating):
1. Say what you mean
“Literally” means that we take you at your word. If you tell me your knee pain is “literally killing” you, I’ll begin writing a heart-felt eulogy. The same principle applies to the saying “I could care less.” As Weird Al so eloquently and musically proclaims, “That means you do care. At least a little.”
2. Spell it out
There are no shortcuts in life, and there are no shortcuts in grammar. The use of letters as words and the inclusion of numbers, contrary to popular belief, does not save time or add a level of convenience to the writer or reader. It takes three times as long to read a message that says “G2G, C U L8er!” (Translation: “Got to go, see you later!”), and four times as long to respond with, “No, you won’t. We’re no longer friends. Fix your grammar.”
3. There is, and should only ever be, one space after periods
I have fights with people over this and, to be frank, it’s a testament to my patience and self-control that it hasn’t led to bloodshed. There should be one space between a period and the first character of the next sentence. This is non-negotiable. It is not a preference; it’s a rule. Your fourth grade English teacher who taught you to use two spaces was a liar.
For more background on this rule, read Slate’s article “Space Invaders,” The Writer’s Digest, “The Writer’s Dig,” and, the appropriately titled, Cult of Pedagogy’s “Nothing Says Over 40 Like Two Spaces after a Period!”.
4. Dashes and hyphens are different things
In the grammar world of horizontal lines, size matters. There are three sizes: hyphens, en-dash, and em-dash, and they are NOT interchangeable. Hyphens group together words into a single entity, en-dashes mark a passage of time or distance, and em-dashes work to separate phrases in a sentence, similar to a comma, semi colon, or parentheses. Some people think that adding space around the hyphen, or having two or more hyphens together is the same thing as using an em-dash. But it’s not, so stop doing it.
5. Quotation marks are dangerous things
When you try to use quotation marks for emphasis, terrible things happen. Not only does it make grammar lovers cry, but it implies that the quoted phrase is not to be taken at face value. So while I hope that the sign below is trying to emphasize the importance of hand washing, I can’t help but question the establishment’s hygiene practices.
The only thing English majors love more than correcting grammar is to educate others about its proper usage, so if you have a grammar question, or would like some neat grammar sources, drop a note in the comments section below. Otherwise, comment about your greatest grammar pet-peeves and we can commiserate together.
P.S. Give me a call, Weird Al. We can pencil in some time to surf the internet and correct Wikipedia entries. It’ll be fun.
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