Paul’s Grammar Pet Peeves: Part 1 of Literally Millions

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!

Me/I
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.”

IMG_1697-bLess/Fewer
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.

An Historic
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.”

Problem solved.

People Who Stand Rather than Walk on Escalators or People Movers
This is not a grammar pet peeve. Just something that annoys me.

Literally
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.”

21 thoughts on “Paul’s Grammar Pet Peeves: Part 1 of Literally Millions

  1. “He” is our third-person singular pronoun. It works. I use it. You should too.

    “Literally,” I’ve given up on. Its use to provide emphasis dates back hundreds of years now; Alcott, Austen, Dryden, Pope, all used it that way. Even the use of it to mean, well, “figuratively” goes back over a century. And I suppose that if I’m going to be okay with the word “cleave” meaning both “to cling to” and “split apart,” I’ve got to deal with “literally” having two opposing meanings.

    Errant usage of “got” bugs the shit out of me. But I can’t imagine an outfielder waiting until after he catches the fly ball to say “I got it.”

  2. Hatchbacks not withstanding, an easy way to remember the “less vs. fewer” rule comes from a former English teacher. Things you can count are “fewer” and things you can’t count are “less,” as in “The Rockies have won fewer games in the series with the Phillies, but the Phillies have less talent.” Friends and family who understand my sports knowledge will say I should have stuck with more familiar territory, such as: “Deb has LESS knowledge of sports than anyone I know because she taken advantage of FEWER opportunities for sports education in her sorry life, despite the fact that her father was a coach and her husband a jock.”

  3. Pretty funny. I just saw a published philosophy book from an academic publisher entitled “Between You and I.”

  4. Generally agreed, but “they” and “their” have a 600-year-old history of being used as gender-neutral singular in English, so it frankly doesn’t bother me (neither does splitting infinitives: English is not a Romance language).

    Less/fewer drives me BONKERS.

  5. Not only do “they” and “their” have a 600-year provenance as singular pronouns, but Shakespeare made regular use of both. That’s pretty much case closed right there.

    A pet peeve of mine unmentioned here is the hyphenated adverb. The hyphen in “a series-deciding blown call” adds precision to a sequence of modifiers. The hyphen in “an obviously-fair line drive” adds no clarity, since the basic rules of English grammar make clear what is being modified by “obviously”. Now that people are getting better about plural apostrophes (“Fresh Egg’s”), I’m noticing many more hyphenated adverbs in signage (“Organically-Grown”).

  6. While I share your enthusiasm for grammar, I would like to comment on the people movers and escalators. I have such a poor sense of balance and fear of heights that I freeze when I am on an escalator until I have reached the end. Those people who come tearing past in annoyance of my lack of mobility only make my unsteadiness unsteadier. I prefer to take the stairs and will do so if at all possible.

  7. My biggest annoyance is a lack of parallel construction. 🙂

    “Think of this as the “Things vs. Stuff” rule … you will end up with less stuff and fewer things by the time you get home.”

  8. …not to even address mixing up “bring” and “take” and how bonkers that can make one! Bring it HERE; take it THERE. simple enough.

  9. My “biggest” pet peeve is the “annoying” “overuse” and “misuse” of “quotation marks.”

  10. Paul, are you saying that their shoud be an extra comma before the and in a list of items?

    It really drives me crazy when those people on escalators or people movers stand on the left side (the passing side).

    Deb: That was one of the best comments ever.

  11. Just to stick up for those of us from Great Britain – we do pronouce the ‘H’ in historic, so it should be ‘a historic’. Then again, we also pronouce the ‘H’ in herbs, whereas I am led to believe that in the US you describe plants like rosemary and chives as ‘erbs’, so does that make it ‘an (h)erb’ ?

    Escalators – don’t mind people standing on them. Go ahead, take a quick 30 second break in your busy day. But once you get to the top, with your big suitcase in tow, don’t stand at the top checking your map / getting out your ticket / chatting to your friend, oblivious to the mayhem of everyone piling up behind you! (This peeve also goes for people standing in doorways and in the middle of supermarket aisles)

  12. You were successful. My thought process and behavior were altered as a result of reading this post. You made me look.

    Our Kroger store avoids the less/fewer confusion: The Express Lane is designated for those with “1-15 items” only.

  13. Related to the fewer/less problem is the confusion which reigns between much/many or number/amount. My kids always say, “Look how much leaves are in the yard.” My reply is usually, “Get a rake!” or “All the more for you to rake”. After that I say, “No, look how MANY leaves are in the yard. Use many when you can count them one by one and much when you can’t”. And then I hear healthy, seemingly normal adults say, “WOW! Look at the amount of leaves that your kids didn’t rake.” “Yes,” I say, “There is a large NUMBER of leaves on the ground.” I emphasize the word NUMBER which teaches them nothing but does make me feel better.

  14. At last! Someone else who obsesses over few/less!

    But I will stick up for “an historic” because to my ear it simply sounds better. It drives me nuts when I read “a historic” – just doesn’t sound right. It doesn’t flow; instead, it sounds choppy.

  15. If you say “an historic” slowly, you will realize that you don’t actually say the H, you just make the sound of the N slightly more breathy. Or to use linguistic terms, you aspirate the N and elide the H. Pronunciation of the H in American English has to do with the vowel sound that comes after the H.

  16. I have a theory about the escalators. I worked at the Smithsonian for many years, which has lots of escalators, as does the Metro subway system, many stores, etc. As a commuter, people standing on escalators, who also tend to be challenged getting on and off of them, used to drive me nuts. I now live in Fort Collins, where there are literally(!) no escalators. I have learned that tourists in DC come from places like Fort Collins. They are simply escalator novices.

  17. You can tell the speechless basketball player to yell the plays louder, but it would be making a moot point to the mute point . . .

  18. I’m with you on the less/fewer thing. Drives me nuts. In the next installment are you going to take on the imply/infer problem?

  19. I am looking all over the web for some specific info on the use of “myself”. Specifically when used with the word “or”.

    I understand that me is correct if you say Dave AND Me.

    But it doesn’t seem to fit if I say Dave or “Me”. It seems that it should be Dave or myself.

    Any input please?

    Thanks

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