Grammar posts good and bad

This post started as an irate takedown of “grammar mistakes everyone makes” posts that plague us via social media. This particular one got under my skin not because it gave bad advice, but because it didn’t recognize that errors in the mechanics of written language (punctuation and capitalization) are not strictly grammar. That post came on the heels of this quiz from Huffington Post, which struck me as not the least bit helpful. The quiz had some errors, too, as the commenters pointed out. These were corrected, it appeared, without comment.

But just as I worked up my annoyance over useless or shallow grammar advice, I read two wonderful and practical pieces about American English and how to use it in writing. These posts take on different subjects, but they share these traits: usefulness, clarity, and authority.

And neither takes a scolding tone. As I age, I find I don’t care for the finger-wagging aspect of writing about grammar, usage, and language. I admit to my own smugness and superficiality, but I am older now and I hope I am learning better. Thus, the irate post I started has dissipated. I would rather send readers to language essays that are meaningful and helpful.

Here are the posts I commend:

Bryan A. Garner wrote this week about “The evolution of ‘beg the question’” on his Law Prose blog.

Ben Yagoda wrote in May about common comma mistakes in the New York Times Opinionator section.

I also note that others who write about language have criticized the bad grammar advice that is available online. One of my favorite is from last fall by Jonathon Owen of Arrant Pedantry, “12 Mistakes Nearly Everyone Who Writes About Grammar Mistakes Makes.”

Self-aware fore- and afterthought: Of course, I have reminded myself that I chose a sort of shorthand [day-afterthought: I should have written “umbrella term”] for my intended subject when I chose a name for my blog almost a decade ago. Even though I called the blog “Grammar Guide,” I planned to write about usage, mechanics, and all kinds of written language issues. Nowadays, I also write about broader issues in copy editing. Still, the blog is the Grammar Guide because that’s how I branded it. Some readers might find fault with my quizzes, too. They aren’t all about grammar, and some of them probably follow “rules” that others dismiss. I will admit to a slightly schoolmarmish mindset, but I am offering advice, not law or gospel.


Copy editor at work: Turn to the dictionary

During my time as a newspaper copy editor, I often spoke briefly to schoolchildren on tours about what a copy editor does. I always told them that the most important book on my desk was the dictionary. I wanted them to know that even a grown-up professional needs to look up spellings and definitions and that building a vocabulary is a lifetime job.

What I would tell those schoolkids, too, if I had had more time, is that dictionaries describe the language as it is being used and that new words and new definitions for existing words come into the language all the time. Dictionaries try to keep up with the common spellings and definitions. They can help you make your own choices about which word suits what you want to say.

Now, of course, the dictionary I consult is likely to be an app on my smartphone or tablet or a dictionary site in my web browser. But I still have a couple of dictionaries on my desk at work and five or six in my home office. I consult a dictionary every day — sometimes just for fun.

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Cut clichés and save time and patience

When we write, we want to reach readers. It’s not worth the effort if we don’t. So we often use familiar words and phrases that readers will understand. We turn to the images and allusions that we think our readers will identify. Sometimes, though, we choose the easy cliché or the worn metaphor to make our point. Writers need editors to help them see that their prose could use a fresher turn of phrase.

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Copy editors as free agents

A Facebook friend posted a link to a Wall Street Journal story about “organization lovers” and “free agents” at work. The workers who are loyal to their employer and identify strongly with the organization can be upset by bad management decisions. Those who are less emotionally involved can adjust and leave problems at work.

As I read the article, I was reminded that copy editors are often free agents in the workplace. We serve our purpose better when we maintain our outsider edge. We are more likely to question and apply our critical thinking when we feel more kinship with the readers than with the organization or publication we work for.  Also, after the disruption of the Great Recession, we know better than to trust that our loyalty to an employer will be returned.

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Confused words: Quiz on affect and effect

I have written a new Grammar Guide quiz (No. 73) that is all about the often confused words affect and effect. I have posted two versions of the quiz: This one is for regular browsers on laptops or desktops (it uses Flash), and this one is for tablets and smartphones (it uses HTML5). I am still trying to get the kinks worked out in the way this blog displays the list of quizzes over on the right side, so as of this posting date (4-28-14), Quiz No. 73 is only accessible through this post, using my backup plan. I hope someday to hear from the webmaster about how to handle the quiz listing.

Please leave feedback below in the comments or send me email if you find any problems or just want to weigh in on the format or the sentences. (You’ll get a CAPTCHA to prove you’re a real person when you click the email link.)

Have fun with the quiz!