Grammar Pet Peeves: It’s All Right

You know what I think? People love grammar. With that, more grammar pet peeves!

Have Went
More and more often these days, I hear people say have went when they mean have gone. I don’t mean to overstate this, but this is one of those grammar mistakes that makes me want to stab myself in the neck with a fork—though it’s not as bad as Shea saying “Go Yankees” in his Southern accent. The past participle of to go is gone, which you would use with auxiliary verbs like has, have, is, am, etc. The simple past is went, which should not be used with an auxiliary verb.

So you would say, “I went to Yankee stadium and was surprised that they did not have grits at the concession stand.” Then you would say, “I should have gone to a Houston Astros game instead.” Every time you say “have went” instead of “have gone,” a little part of grammar enthusiasts dies inside, even if they don’t hear you say it. It’s like a disturbance in The Force.

Capitol Building
The dictionary definition of the noun capitol (lower case, with an O) is “a building occupied by a state legislature.” So the phrase capitol building is redundant, because capitol by definition is a building. It would be like saying, “I live in that house building” or “I’m going to see a baseball game in that stadium building.”

Similarly, the proper noun Capitol (upper case, still with an O) refers specifically to the building in Washington DC where Congress meets. So if you write, “National Capitol Building,” you’re being triply redundant, since Capitol by itself is already the national building you’re talking about. (If you click on the image here, you will see that Wikimedia user Scrumshus committed this error in the caption. Nevertheless, thank you, Scrumshus, for the copyright-free photo.)

Capital (with an A) can be a noun or an adjective and it means a lot of different things (it’s a little like Smurphy that way). As a noun, capital can be an upper-case letter, money, or a city that hosts the government of a political region. As an adjective, it can mean important, super-duper, related to money, or fatal.

In the most recent installment of Grammar Pet Peeves, Friend of IBD Greg wrote this in the comments section:

Why no mention of the most annoying (and unfortunately most popular) grammar flub out there: “myself”? What can we do about people’s obsession with this word?

Whenever I hear people say myself when me or I would work, it makes me think of the Austin Powers quote, “Allow myself to introduce…myself.” (For the record, Austin’s first myself is incorrect; the second is correct.) Here’s my theory: People are unsure about the appropriate use of me and I (which I wrote about back in the first installment of this series), so they use myself instead, just to be absolutely sure that they’re wrong.

If you’re in court, you might hear a mobster say, “He would not give the money that fell off the back of that truck to myself,” when what he really means is, “He would not give the money that fell off the back of that truck to me.” You might also hear him say, “Tommy and myself broke that jerk’s thumbs,” when what he means is “Tommy and I broke that jerk’s thumbs.”

As a reflexive pronoun, myself is correctly used as an object of a verb. For instance, “I hate myself for rooting for the Yankees” or “I smacked myself with a hammer.” Or if you are Austin Powers, “Allow me to introduce myself.”

A preposition is something you should never end a sentence with.
Also in the comments of the most recent installment of this series, Friend of IBD Betty wrote, “I dislike sentences that end in prepositions.” Betty’s phrasing here is perfect, because while some people are surprised to learn that it is grammatically correct to end a sentence with a preposition, a lot of people simply don’t like it. (Betty didn’t say it was wrong; she just said that she doesn’t like it.)

The Grammar Girl blog lists the rule that you should not end a sentence with a preposition as one of the top 10 grammar myths. Author Mignon Fogarty explains it like this:

Here’s an example of a sentence that can end with a preposition: What did you step on? A key point is that the sentence doesn’t work if you leave off the preposition. You can’t say, “What did you step?” You need to say, “What did you step on?” to make a grammatical sentence…. Yes, you could say, “On what did you step?” but not even grammarians think you should. It sounds pedantic.

I reference Grammar Girl a lot in these pet peeve posts, and I wonder if you feel, as I do, that Grammar Girl (on the right) is the secret, daytime alter ego of the esurance girl. Or possibly vice versa. At any rate, the point is don’t be afraid to end a sentence with a preposition.

It’s hard to call this a pet peeve because I just learned about it, but it’s interesting (to me, anyway), so I thought I’d share. It seems that alright is not a word. Or to be fair, if it is a word, it’s recognized in most style guides and dictionaries as “nonstandard,” which means, “You can use it, but if you do you’re stupid.” We’re so accustomed to seeing words like altogether and already (which are indeed words), that we took the two-word phrase all right and made it alright. Again, there’s a good post on this on the Grammar Girl blog.

So now the stodgy prescriptivists (“Without grammatical structure and rules, language will cease to exist”) and the free-love descriptivists (“Language is a like an organism, man, and it can’t be restrained”) can argue over whether alright gets to be a word.

Well, alright, it’s a capitol idea for myself to stop now, because I have really went on. ‘Til next time!

Accepting Limitations

My wife Sheila usually reads these posts before they go live. She always makes some useful comment along the lines of, “People actually read this?” or “Why would somebody read this?” (I’m paraphrasing. Sheila uses a lot of profanity, so quoting her directly in a professional blog is nearly impossible.) She read the post below and summed it up with, “When I read it a second time and skipped over all of the [expletive deleted] baseball stuff, I [expletive deleted] liked it.”

So, in order to make this post accessible to the baseball-impaired, I have set all comments related to baseball in red. If you are like my wife (potty mouth!), then you’ll want to skip those parts. If, like most of our readers, you are here exclusively for comments about baseball, then you’ll want to read only those parts. Here goes:

I try to be a fun guy. I socialize. I tell stupid jokes. I play softball. But at two recent Interpretation By Design workshops for interpreters new to graphic design, I found myself saying something that makes me feel like a boring curmudgeon: “Stop centering everything!” Okay, that actually wasn’t it. Here’s what I really said:

Being a good graphic designer means restricting yourself. (Not physically, of course. That would make it hard to work the mouse.)

Sometimes accepting limitations means accepting that you don’t have the skills or ability to do something—like an American League manager trying to manage a baseball game in a National League park (“What is this bunt thing people keep talking about? You mean my players have to play offense and defense?”). That’s not what I’m talking about. And I don’t mean restrictions like the countless obstacles to me becoming People magazine’s sexiest man alive in 2011.

I’m thinking about limitations as a positive—the decisions designers make to reduce visual clutter.

One of the most important things to learn about graphic design is how and why to impose restrictions on the decision-making process. Much like interpreters have to learn not to tell visitors everything they know about a certain subject in a half-hour program, designers have to learn not to use every font in the pull-down menu or every color in the color wheel. Only after learning how to impose these limitations on their work can designers learn to effectively break the rules. (Like an American League manager trying to make a double switch: They don’t have to do it, but they should at least know what it is.)

Two weeks ago, Friend of IBD Uber IBD Reader Jeff Miller, CIT, CIG, asked in a comment what we considered the five most successful logos ever. While I didn’t answer the question exactly, I responded that the most successful logos are so simple they seem obvious. The Nike swoosh springs to mind, and Coca-Cola’s white script on a red background fizzes in my brain. Many other examples of great visual communication are extremely simple. The classic, self-effacing Volkswagen Beetle ads from the 1960s and ’70s (like the one pictured at the top of this post) made use of a consistent, uncomplicated composition and plenty of white space. Saul Bass’s iconic movie title sequences (like the one for Psycho above) feature lineart imagery and simple color palettes.

These simple designs did not happen by accident, and creating them was not easy. (You know what is easy? Handing an American League umpire a lineup of 10 guys, then hitting the buffet in the locker room for five hours while your baseball team plays a game that barely even needs a manager.) The examples above are all instances where designers committed to a set of restrictions in the name of establishing a consistent look and an identity. To create powerful yet simple visual communication like the examples mentioned above requires an understanding of nuance and detail—much like managing a National League baseball team.

For interpreters, design decisions should reinforce the interpretive themes of your site or organization. Is your typeface classical or modern? And how does that relate to your theme? Are you using photos or illustrations? Is your color palette bold or subtle? And when you put it all together, are your most important visual elements—that top level of visual hierarchy—the ones that really drive the message home?

One of my favorite authors, Douglas Adams, once said, “Writing is easy. You only need to stare at a piece of blank paper until your forehead bleeds.” Well, graphic design might be the opposite. Sometimes, once you get everything on the page, the hard part starts—deciding what should stay and what should go. And the first things to go (aside from the designated hitter rule) should be those elements that violate the limitations you set up when you started the design process.