First of all? The misuse of apostrophes. I know you’ve seen them, in public signs and online. I find it particularly egregious when businesses do it. (Do they really want to sell me something? Then they’d better clean up their apostrophes!) Not to mention, when governmental entities do it too. This example is a pretty permanent sign. Did no one proofread it? Where did these people go to school??
And of course, that problem ties in nicely with another of my top pet grammar peeves, its and it’s. The rule is really very simple – “it’s” means either IT IS, or IT HAS. That’s it. There is no other time when an apostrophe should be inserted into it’s.
“Its”, on the other hand, is possessive. “I saw my friend’s new dog. Its spots were quite striking.” “This stove has its own timer.” “This cardinal is thriving in spite of its deformed beak.”
There are many other common grammar mistakes that are often pointed out in social media memes and in more formal venues. They’re and their. You’re and your. These are high on my list of grievances as well. Sometimes I would love to be Harold with his Purple Crayon, running around changing signs and creating a world of correct grammar.
Another: “My brother and myself went to the movies last night.” No. Just… NO! Myself is NOT a substitute for “I”. Why do people do that? Do they think it makes them sound more humble? More sophisticated? Something? It does not, people. It just does not. I complained about this recently on Facebook, and one of my erudite and highly-educated friends elaborated on the question for us:
In “my brother and me”, “me” is the direct object. “Myself” is a reflexive pronoun, “I see myself in the mirror.” Also, you can use “myself” when you are doing something to you, er, yourself. “I asked myself a question.” (So, “Our dad picked up my brother and myself” is not correct, as someone asked in the comments). You can also use it for emphasis, “I made that myself.”
And certainly I don’t want to forget the corollary (to me at least): it’s also not “You and me should have coffee sometime.” I’m sure this is obvious to many readers, but it’s something you hear used a great deal. An easy fix to remember that it should be “I” in that construction is to take out the “You and” part; you instantly hear you’d never say “me should have coffee sometime.” Oh. OK. Yes.
Conversely, as well, don’t use I where it should be me. “Janet gave her books to my husband and I.” Janet didn’t give her books to “I”, she gave them to “me”. Taking out the “my husband and” will remind you.
But then there is stellar writing. Outstanding use of language that just sings when you read it. Here’s an interesting example from author Zoë Sharp: “My heart had the right idea. It was doing its best to make a break for it through the front of my ribcage.” You can feel exactly what the character means. She’s had a shock and is very fearful in the moment.
Another author whose command of language really resonates with me is Tawni O’Dell. I’ve written about her books here. There have been sentences and whole paragraphs in her books which just take my breath away, and I read them over and over to absorb the enjoyment of the words.
There are many good resources online for sharpening your use of grammar, as well as to read wonderful writing. Here are a few:
- The Grammarly Blog
- Mignon Fogarty’s Grammar Girl site – she also does a very entertaining and helpful podcast.
- Do you need a free style guide to look up questions of grammar or usage? Try this site, Garbl’s Style Manual. While I have to say the site itself is very … shall we say, 1994-looking? … Mr. Larson’s tips are valuable.
- Garrison Keillor’s The Writer’s Almanac. You can read the daily entries of wonderful poems and information on the birthdays of interesting people – some writers, some not – on this site. Or, even better, listen to the audio, also on the site. I find his voice to be most engaging.