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Usage and Grammar Reflecting Mass Ignorance [Writing]—12/26/2005 2:21:00 AM

by Bob Kruger

Writing fiction is hard. Grammar and usage are relatively simple. If I find errors like the following in the first page or so of a manuscript, I lose faith that the writer is up to the more advanced task of telling a good story. However, I’m not posting this list in the hopes of improving the appearance of unsolicited stories I’m sent (don’t send any right now anyway; I’m too busy with other projects), but rather to prevent just a few of these errors from reaching general circulation. I’m sick of seeing them.

It seems like every editor on the Web posts one of these lists. I’m not going to explain the truly basic here, so if you don’t appreciate the difference between “their” and “there,” or “it’s” and “its,” or “then” and “than,” and you aspire to communicate in English, please go get a decent primer.

Begs the Question: This does not (quite yet anyway) really mean “to prompt the question” or “lead one to ask.” To “beg the question” is to use your premise as your conclusion in a circular argument, for example, “The president is stupid because of his mental deficiency.” I hear this perpetrated on NPR all the time by people who should know better. (Well, not the president example—not in so many words, anyway—but you know what I mean.)

Everyday: This is an adjective, but you’ll see it everywhere as a stand-in for the adverbial phrase “every day,” as in “a great deal everyday.” This is especially odious. The following is correct: "The everyday deal gives you a great deal every day."

Case problems like “to him and I”: This is a fourth-grade grammar mistake. It’s “to him and me,” of course, but less obvious to most people is how to deal with a clause that’s the object of a verb or preposition: “I’ll give it to whoever wants it” – this is correct. The whole clause “whoever wants it” is the object of “to.” If you write stuff like “I’ll give it to whomever wants it,” then stop. (Even my MS Word grammar checker caught this one just now; what do you know?)

(I’ll add to this list now and then. Feel free to send me suggestions.)

Reader contributions:

I've had a couple of responses to this column. One woman wrote me to say that her local school for gifted kids had adopted "Excellence Everyday" (sic!) as their school motto, much to her alarm. The irony is straight out of a Far Side cartoon. You could read this as a slight problem with word order and correct it to "Everyday Excellence," but that's not excellence at all, is it?

Here are some good peeve suggestions I got:

Letter 1: From "boniface":

I find rather irksome the practice of using "literally" when the author is using a figure of speech, such as "They were literally exploding with laughter." I hope I am never too near such an occasion!

Another pet peeve: using "unique" to mean "unusual." After all, why take a word with a, well, unique meaning, and make it mean the same as several other common words: unusual, peculiar, odd, different . . . ?