When I studied journalism in college, one of the first things my copy-editing professor said to the class was, “This course will not make you any friends.” Indeed, the only person at the party less popular than the typography nerd has to be the grammar purist. With that, I bring you the first installment of my top grammar pet peeves!
I theorize that when English speakers learn their native language, they so frequently get corrected for using “me” incorrectly that they start using “I” all the time, no matter what. Now you hear statements like, “People often tell Shea and I how much they love our website” (which is incorrect because it should be me instead of I and also because they actually hate our website).
My favorite quick and easy way to think my way around this one is simply to remove the other person from the sentence. You wouldn’t say, “People often tell I how much they hate my website.” You would say, “People often tell me how much they hate my website.”
I blame grocery stores for this one. Every time you see a “10 Items or Less” sign at your local market, I encourage you to get in line with 11 items just to protest the poor grammar. (Kudos to Whole Foods, pictured here, for getting this one right.) The word fewer should be used for items that can be counted (like items in a grocery cart), while less is for what they call mass nouns (like milk or sand). Think of this as the “Things vs. Stuff” rule. When you leave the hatchback of your car open and drive 80 miles per hour on the highway after a trip to the grocery store, you will end up with less stuff and fewer things by the time you get home.
As I watched coverage of the presidential election last fall, I cringed every time I heard Barack Obama’s election described as an historic moment. And these weren’t just the local news pinheads, but respected national journalists like Charles Gibson and Jon Stewart! When did America stop pronouncing the H in historic? What is this, Great Britain? We don’t hit our thumbs with an hammer or drive an hydrofoil through Florida swamps. The H in “historic” is not silent like the H in “honor,” so it seems to me that it should be a historic moment rather than an historic moment.
His or Her/Their
This one is not the fault of English speakers, but rather the fault of the English language. Where is our gender-neutral singular pronoun? They have it in other languages! It’s technically incorrect to say “A person traveling in Philadelphia should monitor their cheesesteak intake” because a person is singular and their is plural. But the grammatically correct version, “A person traveling in Philadelphia should monitor his or her cheesesteak intake,” is clumsy.
You could say, “People traveling in Philadelphia should monitor their cheesesteak intake,” but instead, I propose that we make a gender-neutral proper name like Chris, Pat, or Terry the official gender-neutral pronoun of the English language. This would make the correct version of the above example, “A person traveling in Philadelphia should monitor Terry’s cheesesteak intake.”
People Who Stand Rather than Walk on Escalators or People Movers
This is not a grammar pet peeve. Just something that annoys me.
The common usage of this word has completely inverted its meaning. People use the word literally to emphasize hyperbole in a statement, as in, “Literally every time I go to the grocery store, some weirdo is there taking pictures of the ’10 items or fewer’ sign.” Clearly, that just happened the one time (maybe twice), so what Terry means here is, “Frequently when I go to the grocery store, some weirdo is there taking pictures of the ’10 items or fewer’ sign.” If Terry wants to use hyperbole, Terry can still say, “Every time I go to the grocery store, some weirdo is there taking pictures of the ’10 items or fewer’ sign.”
The problem with this misuse of literally is that it saps it of its power when it’s used to emphasize an impressive actual fact like, “This website gets literally tens of hits every day.”