In honor of National Grammar Day, here’s my list of the five worst grammar errors I see made too often.
5. “Give your papers to Tom and I…”
If I’m receiving something from your hand, you’re giving it to me, not to I. It doesn’t matter that Tom is also involved. So if you’re having trouble with grammar (which is indeed difficult), tell Mignon and me. If I’d said “Tell Mignon and I”, then I wouldn’t be someone you should turn to for grammar advice.
4. Login and signup as verbs
Log in is a verb phrase. So is sign up. When you run either of those phrases together, making login or signup, you’re creating an adjective. Login page is legitimate. So is signup form. But “go to our website to signup” is not. This error is closely related to the common confusion between every day and everyday.
3. Insisting that only grammar can determine usage
There are too many instances of this to count. A prominent one rears its head in the debate over what pronoun to use for a person of unknown sex.
I’ve heard it said, “No, you can’t say they to refer to one person. They is plural.” The person making this argument is insisting that language should be governed by grammar. This is a fundamental misunderstanding of language.
I’m all for good grammar. And I stand up for grammar being the court of first resort in decisions. (I still use media and data as plurals, for example, and I say whom when it fits.) But sometimes grammar is trumped by other good things, such as logic.
Example 1: I respect the opinions of those who insist that sometimes media and data are mass nouns, no more countable than water. Thus I respect their decision to treat these words, like water, as grammatically singular, even though I choose otherwise.
Example 2: It’s perfectly natural for the British to use a plural verb with a singular noun. This is when that singular noun is referring to an entity that comprises multiple persons, such as a corporation or sports team. (And note that the British often refer to a team not by its team name but by its city.) Thus my English friends who care about basketball might very naturally say, “How are Miami doing in the NBA finals?”
Yes, it sounds strange to me. But it would be foolish to insist that grammar should trump logic. In this case, Americans choose grammar, Brits choose logic. Only gross chauvinism can believe in some cosmic law decreeing that one nation is (or are) idiots.
2. Correcting the language of someone who hasn’t asked to be corrected.
If we English speakers had a single, universally accepted set of rules and laws, then it might make sense to go around correcting people who violate those rules. But we don’t, and it doesn’t. All too often I hear people correcting the grammar of others and, in doing so, displaying only their own ignorance.
And this brings us to the champion of all ways of using grammar to make a fool of oneself:
1. Correcting the language of someone who hasn’t asked to be corrected, when they’re right and you’re wrong. And then being corrected and arguing about it.
First of all, I dare you to get me started on people who don’t know what grammar is.
Second, I know what a sentence fragment is, and I’m aware that I just used one (in the header an inch or so above here.) And I used it for effect, and I know what I’m doing. I know that I’m writing a blog, not a dissertation.
But, ahem, to my real point…
Number 2 covers the matter of correcting the grammar of someone who’s right when you’re wrong. If the game were hockey, this would be a hat trick, the scoring of three goals in a single game. Persons committing this sin have
- displayed their poor grasp of etiquette,
- alienated a specific human being, and
- displayed their ignorance of the language.
But some carry their folly even further. Sometimes the receiver of such misguided correction accepts the unstated ground rule that arguments over grammar are fair play. They correct the corrector. And a little (or a large) spat ensues.
If correcting someone who wasn’t wrong is a hat trick, this added folly requires we turn to another sport for our metaphor. Turning one’s wrongness into a fight is a four-base hit. To the three bits of damage listed above, you’ve now added
4. demonstrating that you are positively in love with your ignorance.
To those who commit this worst of grammatical sins, congratulations. You just might have hit a friendship out of the park.