Grammar Pet Peeves: Nerds Unite!

The last time I wrote about grammar, anonymous commenter Shea Lewis of Hot Springs, Arkansas, asked this intriguing question: “Paul, are you serious with all of this?” To which I respond today: “Yes! On with the grammar pet peeves!”

Lets Go
I think there’s a perception that the only people who care about grammar are lonely nerds and retired teachers. I once got into a conversation about the use of less vs. fewer with a very nice lady in the express lane at a grocery store. She asked if I was a school teacher, and I said no. Then she smiled weakly and responded, “I got mace, you know.” To which I responded, “No, you have ma—AAAAAAAAAAAGH!”

But every once in a while, some jerk who was probably the captain of the high school football team and dated the cheerleaders and kicked sand in the nerds’ faces makes an embarrassing, high-profile grammar mistake. And then even regular people with social skills and friends talk about grammar. Then who’s laughing? Nerds, that’s who.

Well, nerds are still laughing at Old Navy, which is selling T-shirts that are an apostrophe short of being proper English. They mistakenly used Lets (as in, allows) instead of Let’s (let us) in designs on a series of college T-shirts. It got a lot of coverage, and of course, half the people I know emailed it to me. (See it on Gawker, Refinery 29, and the New York Daily News.)

Viola/ Voilà
This one occurs almost exclusively in the cooking column in your local newspaper. Every now and again, the author of this column, who is almost certainly named Mary Lou, writes something like this: “…and then you pour in the milk, and viola!, your cereal flakes are ready for breakfast!” In this instance, it’s likely that Mary Lou means to say Voilà (“Look there!”) instead of viola (“The violin’s dorkier older cousin!”).

Amount/Number
If you’re annoyed when people misuse less and fewer, then this one will get you, too. As with less and fewer, amount and number can be addressed with what I call the Stuff and Things Rule. You should use amount with stuff that cannot be counted (an amount of sand, or milk, or work), and number with things that can be counted (a number of runs scored, or dollars in your bank account, or bricks thrown through your window for being an obnoxious blogger).

Anytime vs. Any Time
In the comments on a previous installment of this series, IBD reader “Susan” (name not changed because we’re unimaginative) asked, “Does anytime/any time work the same as everyday/every day?” The answer is yes. Anytime (one word) is an adverb that means whenever (“Anytime a former child star Tweets about IBD, Shea passes out.”), while any time (two words) is a noun phrase (“Dear Alyssa, I hear you’re a big baseball fan. Do you have any time to read all these other posts we wrote? Love, Shea. XOXOXO”).

You’re Going the Wrong Way
I wrote last week about how annoying it is to me that the Baltimore Orioles have a version of their logo with an apostrophe that’s facing the wrong way. The other time you see apostrophes facing the wrong direction is at the beginning of abbreviated years, as demonstrated above (the red one is incorrect and infuriating, the green one correct and soothing). Unfortunately, most fonts treat the apostrophe in this case like an opening single quote, so you have to trick your computer into turning it around. There’s a funny post about this called “Apostrophes don’t swing both ways” on the site I Love Typography.

That’s it for now!

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.”