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.
"WHY ISN'T EVERYONE WRONG BUT ME?"
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:
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."
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.
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.
"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.
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.
I Encourage You to Boldly Split Infinitives Whenever the Hell You Feel Like It
It seems to me that I have been told to never split infinitives many times during my schooling, but I can never recall what happened next, I guess because my brain immediately shut down as part of a defense mechanism to prevent me from learning what an infinitive was. That meant I had to look them up in order to write this column, and I can now happily report that an infinitive is a form of a verb without a subject or tense; in English it's (I think) always bound to the word "to." "To go," "To fart" and so on.
A split infinitive is when the "to" and the verb are split by other words, typically adverbs. "To boldly go where no man has gone before" is the classic example of a split infinitive from the title sequence of Star Trek. People with red pens around the world have long claimed that infinitives should never be split, because ... of ... a reason? Surely there must be something to it. This couldn't just be some rule made up by an asshole, could it?
It turns out that's exactly what happened. There aren't really any good reasons for prohibiting split infinitives. They generally don't impede comprehensibility, and when used carefully, they provide options for the writer to decide where the emphasis of a sentence will fall. The rule against split infinitives probably was invented by someone in olden, bearded times who noticed that split infinitives can't exist in Latin and decided that they shouldn't be allowed to exist in English, either.
"Reginald. Come in here and listen to this great idea I had that will piss people off for centuries."
"I'm Good" Means Exactly What You Think It Means
The use or misuse of "I'm good" is another commonly corrected grammar mistake, best encapsulated in the following bit of dialogue:
Friend 1: Hello friend, how are you today?
Friend 2: I'm good.
Friend 1: I think you meant to say "I'm well," you caveman. "I'm good" means something else entirely.
Friend 2: Eat my shit. You knew exactly what I meant. I will whale on you with this length of chain until you change your ways.
-chain whaling commences-
Friend 1: See, you're not "good" at all!
Here we see a joyless son of a bitch insisting that the word "good" means "holy," or "righteous," or "not evil," or something along those lines. Which is correct, but it ignores the fact that "good" can also mean "desirous," or "fit," or "satisfactory," or "pleasant," or a dozen other things. If you think that someone is talking about their moral righteousness when they casually say "I'm good," then you're deliberately trying to misunderstand them, a crime worthy of chain-whalings in all jurisdictions.
This Last One Will Literally Cause the Internet to Explode
I knew when laying out this article that if there was any entry that would cause people to heave flaming copies of Strunk & White through my window, it'd be this one. The use and misuse of this particular word is a pet peeve for millions of people, and even a partial attempt to defend it ranks among the most inflammatory things I've ever done with this column, a list which also includes providing advice on how to beat animals. So everyone hold on to your butts for a moment while we have a serious, grown-up discussion about "literally."
"Literally" is an adverb that originally meant "by the letter." This definition expanded a little bit and now means something like "exactly as stated" or "this is a real thing that is, no bullshit here, actually happening." So when a teenage girl says:
"I keep getting the worst emails from some Chris Bucholz guy. He is literally the creepiest dude in the universe."
... we know she's speaking incorrectly; the universe is massive, immune to any sort of comprehensive survey of creepiness.
"Who writes a poem about crying while on the toilet?"
The word she probably should have used was "figuratively." Instead, she's using "literally" to mean "I'm exaggerating here." This is the exact opposite of what "literally" is supposed to mean, and is thus obviously wrong.
Or is it?
Everyone immediately understands what this teenage girl means when she uses "literally" in that sense; we all get that she's making a humorous exaggeration to communicate just how upsetting my unceasing communications are to her. In fact, this sense of "literally" has been used for at least a couple centuries. And if everyone knows what "literally" means in that context, doesn't that make it correct?
I should be clear here: I'm not literally encouraging people to use "literally" in this manner. I certainly don't. It's a weak, even cliched way of emphasizing something, and given its tendency to make people berserk, it's usually not worth the trouble. What I am advocating is a bit of restraint, so that the next time you come across a foolish use of "literally" in the wild, you don't literally spray crap down your pant leg in a blind fury.
Closing Thoughts, Backpedaling
You made it to the end of a 2,500 word article about grammar! Holy shit! I am literally very proud of you! What does that even mean any more?
What we've done here is gotten right down into the trenches of a war between prescriptivist grammarians and descriptivist grammarians -- a conflict which, no matter how boring you think it sounds, is actually 10 times more boring than that. Just to give you a tiny glimpse of that boredom, I'll briefly describe both sides, probably unfairly:
Prescriptivists document the rules of grammar, and sometimes, when no one's looking, make them up entirely. They also feel the need to enforce the rules of grammar, and in particular advocate that these rules and definitions shouldn't change. They argue this for a variety of reasons, but those usually boil down to "Otherwise, civilization will evaporate into an orgy of orgy-themed game shows and fad diets that consist entirely of eating each other's flesh."
Descriptivists also document the rules of grammar, but don't particularly care when they're violated, because fuck rules, man. And if the rules ever do change, descriptivists simply shrug and write down the new ones. They point out that civilization has never collapsed during any of the previous changes to English grammar, and indeed has even managed to excel -- giving us advances like polio vaccines, color television and sexting.
"Thanks, civilization!" -loud SPROING sound effect-
This is a war that has been going on for a few hundred years now, and if you're curious, the current score is something like prescriptivists: 0; descriptivists: 18,433,327. The reason for this is straightforward: There is a massive percentage of the population, somewhere north of 99 percent, that struggles with telling the difference between nouns and verbs. With no use for the rules of grammar, they simply talk like their friends and neighbors talk. That this will lead to slowly drifting definitions and grammatical structures is inevitable, because these people don't know the rules in the first place, and could not fucking care less if they did.
This puts writers, who are generally concerned with verbin' etiquette, in a tricky position. By choosing not to use newly minted grammatical rules and words, they impede their ability to communicate with the rest of the population. They cut themselves off from the creative options that new words and grammar open up, and if they hew too closely to the old, unchanging rules, they can make their writing sound stuffy and formal.
And now for the furious backpedaling: This isn't to say that we shouldn't care about grammar at all. Even if rules and definitions change, those changes should come slowly. When we violate grammatical rules or use strange new definitions of words, we impede our audience's ability to comprehend what we're saying. We can see vestiges of this when we travel to other English-speaking countries, where small changes in language can lead to these issues of delayed comprehension. Witness the differing meanings when saying the following sentence to English or American audiences:
"She crammed chips into her fanny until the townspeople begged her to stop."
Even if we can eventually figure out what's going on here, and are appropriately horrified, this type of confusion and delay in comprehension should be avoided whenever possible. That's why grammar is important.
So please, people of the Internet, learn the difference between all your "theres" and your "whichs" and your "yours." Stop using the "7" key when you mean "T." And please, ask a grown-up for help with apostrophes. Too many kids are getting hurt.
And on a final note, for the people who are combing this article for the grammatical errors I no doubt overlooked: I put them there deliberately as a test. Congratulations, you won. To claim your prize, please strike yourself with a chain until you stop feeling; the prize will be delivered to your home shortly thereafter.
For more Bucholz, check out The 25 Most Nonsensical Protest Signs and 6 Reasons the Comments on This Article Will Be Useless.