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7 Commonly Corrected Grammar Errors (That Aren't Mistakes)

If you've written anything on the Internet in the past 20 years or so, whether on a forum, a comment thread or the Denny's corporate blog you maintain, a short time later you've probably experienced a feeling of pure, unalloyed irritation when you observed someone correcting your grammar. Aside from the fact that everyone on the Internet is irritating all the time, this particular irritation is compounded by the fact that, dammit, they're kind of right. It's an actual mistake you made, making your hot, burning indignation unjustifiable, a terribly frustrating feeling.


But what if you're not wrong? What if, in fact, it's your accuser who's wrong, or at the very least blundering through a complicated, highly debatable topic? What if your initial reaction -- whaling on them with a length of chain -- was the right one? Well, in many circumstances, you might have a case. Here are seven of the most commonly corrected grammatical mistakes that might not actually be mistakes:

#7. Hopefully This Sentence Doesn't Cause You to Go Fucking Bananas

This issue showed up in the news recently, when the editors of the AP Stylebook said that using the word "hopefully" as I did above is perfectly fine. This news caused strange, excitable people around the world to immediately start bawling about mankind's slow descent into chaos.

"Up with chaos! Down at grammar!"

What's the big deal? Well, originally "hopefully" was supposed to be just a regular old adverb, meaning "in a hopeful manner." Here's an example:

"The tedious pedant corrected Internet grammar mistakes hopefully, mindless of the fact that everyone hated him."

Using this definition of the word "hopefully" to start a sentence doesn't make any sense. But it turns out that "hopefully" has another definition, where it serves as a sentence adverb. In that role, it's able to modify an entire sentence, instead of just a crummy little verb. This just happens to be the definition of "hopefully" that most people use. It's definitely a younger definition, having only shown up sometime in the 20th century, but it's been widely used since then and roughly parallels other widely accepted sentence adverbs, like "frankly" or "mercifully or "dongtacularly."

#6. When Someone Tells You That You Used "They" Incorrectly, They Can Shut the Hell Up

As a pronoun, "they" most commonly refers to a group of more than one person. For example, in the following sentence ...

"They are pissed off about what I did to that duck."

... it's pretty clear that "they" is referring to a group of people, possibly the authorities. But "they" can also be used to refer to a single person -- where "he" or "she" would more commonly be used -- when the gender of that person is unknown. This usage is commonly called "singular they," and it goes a little like this:

"I don't know who did that to this duck, but they are surely beyond all hope for salvation."

"And to judge from all of the mayonnaise we found at the scene, they're probably pretty sticky, too."

This irritates a lot of grammar people, who will insist that this usage is incorrect and would prefer that something like "... but he or she is surely beyond all hope ..." be used in its place. Which is a fine solution, if you prefer clumsy, beastlike sentences to actual good writing.

There are a whole bunch of reasons why using "they" to refer to a singular object is acceptable. Briefly: Because it actually is perfectly logical when looked at closely, because it's been standard practice for at least 600 years and because some of the best English writers have used it. If that's not enough, it fills in a pretty big blind spot in the English language, in particular the need to refer to unknown duck aggressors when the particulars of their crime are still sketchy.

#5. A Supermarket Sign That Reads "10 Items or Less" Should Not Make a Reasonable Person Cry

Many people claim that supermarket checkout signs should actually read "10 Items or Fewer" and that a sign that reads "10 Items or Less" is incorrect, and a sign of a poor education or low breeding.

Nothing To Do With Arbroath
"Why don't you just scrawl it on the floor in feces?"

This stems from a widely taught old rule that basically states that the word "less" should be restricted to describing items that aren't countable, as in:

"Please pour less hot wax into my underpants."

That makes grammatical sense, because "wax" doesn't really have any obvious units that are countable. When dealing with items that are countable, the word "fewer" should be used:

"Please pour fewer fire ants into my underpants."

The problem with that is that it ignores the billions of times "less" has been used to describe countable things throughout English history. Although the excitable grammar people are correct that using "fewer" in place of "less" rarely makes sense, swapping "less" in for "fewer" almost always results in an unobjectionable sentence. And indeed, when we look at historical usage, this use of "less" to describe countable objects goes way back, to at least 1481. Considering the difficulty in determining whether some objects are countable or not, and the fact that "more" doesn't have to put up with any of this bullshit, it would seem that English speakers have been using "less" more or less however they felt like for a few hundred years now, and we still haven't even come close to living through the more interesting parts of The Road Warrior yet.

#4. The Passive Voice Is Used by Plenty of Smart, Ballsy Writers, Thanks

Just for variety, this is more of a stylistic issue than a grammatical one, but it's so commonly cited in amateur writing advice that it deserves mention here. For anyone who's forgotten their high school grammar -- congratulations -- recall that the passive voice refers to sentences where the subject of the sentence has the action done to it:

"His vision was obstructed by a slowly descending pair of testicles."

Compare that with the active version of the same sentence:

"A slowly descending pair of testicles obstructed his vision."

A visual aid, so that your "vision" of the scene remains "unobstructed." You're welcome.

The active voice is often claimed to be preferable because it generally makes things clearer to the reader, particularly in outlining who's doing the action to whom; it's a trait that is often claimed to make active writing more "muscular." Meanwhile, the passive voice can often obscure or even omit who is performing the action, which is claimed to be a weak and weaselly thing to do. Indeed, slipping into the passive voice unthinkingly is a common amateur writing mistake, and especially for prose, I wholeheartedly agree that it pays to keep an eye on it and limit its usage.

But so many sources of writing advice claim that the passive voice should never be used, which is ridiculous. Even in prose, the passive voice has some benefits, as it makes it possible to vary where the reader's attention should lie. If you don't want to or can't stress who the actor is, the passive voice is perfectly acceptable. And in situations where the actor is clear, the passive voice can be used to vary sentence length and style, and do all the other things that make writing dongtacularly fun.

And once we step outside of prose, using the passive voice is often a requirement. It's very common in technical writing; in scientific papers, for example, it's customary to achieve an objective tone by using the passive voice. This active construction:

"We placed the testicles in the field of the subject's vision, at which point he began showing signs of distress."

... highlights the role of the scientists too much. A passive version would probably be preferred, like:

"The testicles were placed in the field of the subject's vision, at which point he began showing signs of distress."

Larger this time, to help you fully comprehend the distress involved. You remain welcome.

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Chris Bucholz

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