Should You Worry about These Errors? Part 3

Today I’m going to comment on five more errors discussed in a provocative post called “17 Grammatical Errors You Need to Stop Correcting” by Bill Murphy Jr. (You can read my previous set of comments here.)

11. Oxford commas
This is the rule about using a comma before the last item in a list: “red, white, and pink roses.” That comma is optional. (I like it, but I never insisted that my students use it.)
Murphy says, “
Believe it or not, there are people who get really worked up about this rule. Don’t be one of them.” He’s right, and I’m applauding.

12. I.E. versus E.G.
Murphy explains that i.e. means “that is,” and e.g. means “for example.” He urges his readers not to criticize writers who get those Latin abbreviations confused.
My position is different – and simple: Don’t use them. Ever. “That is” and “for example” are perfectly respectable English phrases.

13. Split infinitives
Murphy is talking about expressions like “to boldly go,” which used to be considered bad grammar. He suggests being tolerant when other writers use them.  Once again I’m taking a stronger position: It’s a stupid rule. Ignore it.

14. Incomplete comparisons
Murphy is bothered by sentences like this one: “Our company’s products are better, cheaper, and more efficient.” Better than what?
I’m not bothered by these sentences at all. I don’t think we need to be that picky.

15. Into versus in to
There is so much gobbledygook in Murphy’s explanation that I stopped reading. (Does he really need to talk about transitive verbs?)
Here’s my take on in and into: I think about walking in a room (walking around it) and walking into a room (entering from the hall). If you understand the difference, that’s all you need to know!

In the last post in this series, I’ll be talking about Murphy’s final two errors – and grammar in general.

Referee blowing a whistle


Trooping Along

Today I’m going to give you a glimpse into what lexicographers do. (They’re the professionals who add, delete, and edit dictionary definitions.)

One recent Saturday morning before the Russian invasion of Ukraine, I heard a startling remark during an MSNBC conversation between host Ali Velshi and journalist Erin Laughlin. Laughlin was saying that “So far, not a single Russian troop has been seen.”

I heard English change, right there on my TV. For some years now the word troop has been acquiring a new meaning and usage. I’m sure that lexicographers were very interested in that MSNBC broadcast!

Here’s what I mean. When I was growing up, troop always referred to a group of soldiers or Girl Scouts or Boy Scouts. I belonged to Girl Scout Troop 4 in Bethpage, New York. Sometimes several troops would get together for an activity. Five troops might include 50 or 60 Girl Scouts.

Nowadays, though, troops means “soldiers.” For example, here’s an excerpt from the December 15 New York Times. The subject is the American military withdrawal from Iraq:

Although Thursday’s ceremony represented the official end of the war, the military still has two bases in Iraq and roughly 4,000 troops, including several hundred who attended the ceremony. At the height of the war in 2007, there were 505 bases and more than 170,000 troops.

That 170,000 troops means 170,000 soldiers.

What’s so exciting (or disturbing, depending on your point of view) is that Erin Laughlin used troop as a singular word to mean “one soldier”: “not a single Russian troop has been seen.” That’s new! I haven’t heard anyone else use “one troop” that way. (Back in 1955, we would have thought she meant “not a single Russian military unit has been seen.”)

I can guarantee that Erin Laughlin’s remark was recorded and noted in a vocabulary log. If many more people start using troop that way, eventually we’ll get a new dictionary entry.

And that, folks, is how dictionaries are updated.

Dictionary with an magnifying glass on top



Should You Worry about These Errors? Part 2

I’m working my way through 17 grammar errors that Bill Murphy Jr. thinks we can stop worrying about. (See his post here.)

6. Irregardless
Bill got this one right – and wrong. Irregardless is okay in casual settings, but you shouldn’t use it in professional writing. And he missed the mark when he described it as “technically not a word.” Of course it’s a word!

Look up the definition of “word” in a dictionary. Any group of letters or sounds with a consistent meaning is a word.

What Murphy meant was that “irregardless” is a nonstandard word.

Murphy makes another error when he declares no decent person would correct you. (I’ll skip the vulgarism he used.) If you’re an editor, you have my permission to go ahead and correct it.

7. Further versus farther
I not only agree with Murphy – I’d go a step further. Nobody cares which one you use. Attempts to give them different meanings fall apart very quickly. Stop worrying about this one!

8. Me versus I
Murphy made me happy when he explained this with a shortcut that I’ve been teaching my students for 40 years (with no need for grammar gobbledygook). Remove the other person from the sentence and see whether “I” or “me” still makes sense:

Greg helped me with the report.  CORRECT

Greg helped Donna and me with the report.  CORRECT

Again, though, I disagree that you shouldn’t correct this error. Isn’t that what editors are paid to do?

9. One or two spaces after a period
Murphy thinks this battle isn’t worth fighting. I do. Professionals don’t expect other people to clean up after them. If you’re getting paid for your writing, someone else is going to have to remove those unwanted spaces. Even worse, you’re going to come across like a dinosaur.

Professionals respect their equipment and use it properly.

10. Em-dash overuse
Here’s Murphy’s position: “As far as I’m concerned, there’s no such thing as em dash overuse. I understand that other punctuation might often be more technically correct, but I think of it as all-purpose punctuation that fits the way people read today.”

All I can add here is – hooray! I love dashes. Bring ’em on! (If you’re wondering what an “em-dash” is, I used to be bothered by that too – but now I know what they are. And I just typed one for you.)

I’ll do 11 -17 in a future post (and I’ll add a gripe or two). 

Rules spelled out with an unstable stack of blocks


Singular or Plural?

Grammar Day was March 4 this year. I always abstain from the annual Grammar Day celebrations, and all of my friends know why: I think grammar is bogus.

Grammar rules and terminology rarely help with a writing problem – quite the opposite, in fact: grammar often leads to confusion.

Monday’s New York Times is a good example. The news summary on the front page featured this sentence:

Angry over blackouts and rising electricity bills, a small but growing number of Californians is going off the grid.

Obviously “a number” requires a singular verb – is. Except that in this case it doesn’t. The actual article got it right:

Angry over blackouts, wildfires caused by utilities and rising electricity bills, a small but growing number of Californians in rural areas and in the suburbs of San Francisco are going off the grid.

In English a number is plural, but the number is singular.

A number of Californians are going off the grid.  (are is plural)

The number of members keeps dropping.  (keeps is singular)

Grammar – as I said earlier – is bogus. It’s not a set of guardrails to keep you from making a mistake. Instead it’s an attempt to explain – in fancy language – what the English language is doing. The language always comes first, and then grammarians rush in to try to explain what’s happening.

Often that process doesn’t work the way it’s supposed to. Grammarians may have to do some fudging to come up with a plausible rule to explain the crazy usages that have found their way into English.

But if you can’t rely on grammar rules, how can you be sure you’re writing correctly? Luckily there are some common-sense answers.

For starters, you can do what I’ve done (and continue to do): read some good books about English usage. I highly recommend Theodore Bernstein’s books, for example.

(Did you notice that I said usage rather than grammar? Usage does not claim to be a divinely inspired answer to our questions about language. It deals with language problems in a practical way: how do today’s educated speakers handle a particular issue?)

Another strategy is to make sure you have as much experience with English (preferably good English) as possible, especially if you’re an international learner. Read! Watch TV! Talk with a native speaker!

And you can make a resolution that you’ll always, always have someone look over your writing before you submit or post it.

A word cloud about grammar


Should You Worry about These Errors? Part 1

My friend Jenna just sent me a list of mistakes that don’t matter, created by Bill Murphy at

I always have fun with these lists! There’s usually a mixture of good and bad advice, and that’s certainly true of this list. (For starters, most of them have nothing to do with grammar, and a number of them aren’t wrong and never were. I’ll explain those points in a future post.)

Let’s talk about items 1 – 5 today:

1.  Bill Murphy wants us to forget about “his or her” and use their instead. Bravo, Bill! I’ve taken a vow that I will never use the unspeakably clumsy “his or her” again.

Scared to do it? Listen: nobody will even notice. I just published an academic book, and there’s not a single “his or her” anywhere. I used they every time The copyeditor didn’t change any of them.

2.  Who vs. That: Murphy says that you shouldn’t worry about this one. I’m usually careful with it, but I do use who when I write about someone’s pets (or my own). Again, nobody’s going to notice.

3.  Less vs. Fewer. Murphy says you shouldn’t worry about it. I agree, and I’m going to push this  further than he did. It’s a bogus rule. In 1770 a writer named Robert Baker said that he thought “less” should be reserved for uncountable nouns (like coffee, snow, and smoke). Suddenly a rule was born!

English had been using less for countable nouns (“less potatoes”) for almost a thousand years before Robert Baker made his suggestion. What do you think are the chances of breaking a language habit that’s been around that long? Nil.

Many people overuse fewer – another argument for using less. (People, stop saying “fewer than one!” Gack!)

4.  Skipping the -ly in adverbs. Yes – sometimes.

In May, when the Kentucky Derby comes along, I’ll be writing a post about this line from “My Old Kentucky Home”: “The sun shines bright/On my old Kentucky Home.” Stephen Foster didn’t think he had to use brightly, and you don’t have to either.

5.  That vs. Which. I think Murphy missed the boat with this one. He quotes a rule that I find weird: “Use that if cutting the clause would change the meaning of a sentence.” I’m a pretty smart person, but that rule sounds like gobbledygook to me.

Here’s a rule that I (ahem!) invented that works great for me: Never let a comma touch the word that. It’s a rule of thumb and doesn’t work 100% of the time. But my goodness – it’s untangled so many punctuation problems for me!

It solves the that vs. which problem in the wink of an eye: I recommend taking the downtown shuttle, that runs every 30 minutes between 7 AM and 7 PM.

Nope! There’s a comma next to that. I’d change it to this: I recommend taking the downtown shuttle, which runs every 30 minutes between 7 AM and 7 PM.

We’ll do 6 – 10 in a future post.

Rules on a chalkboard


Sometimes I’m Inconsistent!

Yes, sometimes I make rules for myself – and then happily break them! More about that in a moment.

Let’s talk about Latin first. I wasn’t a serious student in high school, and I don’t remember much from my four years of Latin. (Before you judge me, let me ask how interested you would be in Caesar’s Gallic Wars if you were fifteen years old!)

One thing did stay with me, however: the non solum…sed etiam pattern in Latin. It translates into “not only…but also.” Here’s an example:

Jane non solum studet difficile sed etiam iocum esse cum.

Jane not only studies hard but also is fun to be with.

Although my husband (who never studied Latin) sometimes uses this pattern, I dislike it. I would probably go wild with this sentence I just gave you and and come up with something like this:

You might expect a serious student to be a serious person as well. But Jane makes straight A’s–and she’s fun to be with.

I just searched my new book about Bernard Shaw. I used “not only” a mere three times in the book – and always without the “but also.”

Here’s one of those sentences. (It’s about Freddy Eynsford-Hill and Eliza Doolittle in Pygmalion/My Fair Lady.)

Not only does he talk with one of his social inferiors: he marries her–and then goes on to do something else that’s equally unthinkable: he becomes one of those “inferiors” himself–a shopkeeper.

Recently I was discussing all of this with a writer friend – who promptly pointed out that this is a mouthful of a sentence. I’m the one who’s always railing against cramming too much into a sentence – and look at what I’ve done! (Even worse, there are two colons.)

Damn it – I like this sentence. I think it has a lot of energy. The language is actually very simple: all but four words have only one or two syllables. (I just received the page proofs for this book, and I’m happy to report that the copyeditor didn’t touch this sentence.)

Writing rules (even the ones I make up myself) have limited usefulness. You have to go with what works. (Did you notice that my sentence about Jane ended with a preposition? Was that a problem for you? Did you care?)

If I were writing for a more general readership, there’s a simple fix for that fancy sentence about Freddy and Eliza: make it two sentences.

Not only does he talk with one of his social inferiors: he marries her. And then he goes on to do something else that’s equally unthinkable: he becomes one of those “inferiors” himself–a shopkeeper.

It’s okay to have fun and feel free with language!

A man is tearing up a page of rules









If and When You Read This

A recent article in the New York Times explored reasons why fewer New Yorkers are riding the subways:

In a fall survey, 90 percent of New York subway riders who had not yet returned to the trains said that their concern about crime and harassment was a major factor in when and if they would return.

I’m a former New Yorker who rode the subways for years. It provides a vital service for the city, and I hope it will soon come roaring back.

Meanwhile, though, I have a complaint about the Times: “if and when” is redundant. It’s a cliche that professional writers should avoid.

If those former subway riders indeed come back, there’s going to be a when eventually. We’ll see a statement like this in the Times: “Ridership was up 10% in May.” When did the riders come back? In May.

Here’s a better version of that sentence:

In a fall survey, 90 percent of New York subway riders who had not yet returned to the trains said that their concern about crime and harassment was a major factor in deciding whether they would return.

(I could also have used “if they would return.” In this sentence, whether is a little more professional. There’s nothing wrong with showing off my language skills, is there?)

The interior of a New York subway car


Sidney Poitier

Several people have been asking questions about obtaining permission to reprint. Instead of taking you through the steps, I’m going to tell you a true story about a particularly thorny permissions problem I ran into myself.

Sidney Poitier – the superb actor who died last week – is the hero of this story.

Some years ago I wrote a study skills textbook for college students. Early in the writing process I spent several Saturday mornings in the biography section of local library, scanning the early chapters to look for true stories from famous people about their early learning experiences.

I struck gold with actor Sidney Poitier’s memoir This Life. (Later he wrote another one.) Poitier described arriving in New York City from the Bahamas as an ambitious 17-year-old with little education and limited funds. He supported himself washing dishes and dreamed of becoming an actor – but he couldn’t read well enough to get through an audition.

A Jewish waiter saw Poitier struggling to read a newspaper and offered to help. Years later, Poitier vividly remembered those reading lessons. One especially helpful skill was learning how to figure out the meaning of a word from the context. It was an impressive story, well told, and I gladly paid the Alfred A. Knopf publishing company $100 for permission to copy Poitier’s story in my chapter on reading.

Happily, my study skills book eventually went into a second edition. But not so happily, I had to redo all the permissions, and the Poitier selection became a problem. Knopf no longer owned the rights – they had been transferred to Poitier’s law firm.

In those pre-Internet days, it was no small feat to learn who Poitier’s lawyers were – and that was only the beginning of my struggles. The permissions fee was too small for the firm to be concerned about. I called multiple times, explaining that my book was about to go into production and I desperately need that permission form. Each time they promised to take care of it – and promptly forgot.

One morning I went through my spiel for about the twentieth time (it seemed that someone different answered the phone whenever I called). I was put on hold. After several minutes, someone came on the line and asked what I wanted.

I was getting fed up with telling my story over and over – but common sense won the day, and I politely explained what I wanted.

“Can you tell me more?” the voice asked. And suddenly it dawned on me that I was talking to Poitier himself. The attorney’s office had patched my call through to his home phone.

I explained how impressed I’d been with his story about the dishwasher and newspaper lessons. Poitier gave me his fax number and asked me to send the chapter to him so he could see what I’d be doing with his story.

Three days later I opened my mailbox and found the signed permission form there. He was the only author who didn’t ask for a permissions fee.

A great and generous man.

(Because I’ve been hearing so many questions about modes of development, I’m adding a postscript. If I’d described the permission steps in a general way, this would have been a process article. Today I’ve told you a story that happened once, so it’s a narrative.)

Sidney Poitier


An Interesting Sentence!

Today we’re going to look at a sentence that seemed simple to me – until I started an online conversation about it. Ray Lewis is an English teacher who saw something I didn’t!


Fire Them!

Someone just posted a question online about the “lexical meaning of hate speech.”

What – I want to know – is the difference between meaning and lexical meaning?

Good writing never sounds pompous. Develop the habit of writing straightforward sentences. Treat unnecessary words like unnecessary employees: get rid of them.