Tuesday, March 25, 2014


a person who insists on a certain quality or type of behavior.  "a stickler for accuracy"

I suppose I belong to a thinning, if not dying, breed.  For some reason, I have always been drawn to grammatical inaccuracies and can't shake off this urge to reach out and fix these errors.  Be it a small yet misplaced apostrophe in a supermarket sign (viz. Potato's) or a glaring mistake on a huge billboard (viz. Got milk?), it tends to pop out of the background and stare at me.  I have even found a misuse in a printed book with over a million copies sold.  As a means of catharsis, I have decided to list some of the major ones that have scarred my inner self and continue to lash out in this digital age as grammar loses even more ground with the next generation.

Lay vs. Lie

A few years ago, a friend of mine had made the following announcement on a social media site which, as a stickler, made me chuckle.
"Enjoying Easter Sunday laying on the beach in Avalon. This is a perfect moment!"

The improper use of lay was even more pronounced in the context of Easter as it makes one think of eggs.   I am sure that my friend had a great time "lying" on the beach but laying (which implies working) would perhaps not be that deserving of a proclamation.

This misuse of lay is widely prevalent and to some extent is understandable.  The trouble lies (pun intended) with the two meanings of lie, one being repose or resting flat while the other meaning of not telling the truth.  The second meaning has obvious negative connotations and causes people to avoid using it in a context where they are not being untruthful.  This is further complicated because "lying" as an adjective implies not telling the truth e.g. "that lying criminal", but as a verb it can mean resting flat as well as not telling the truth.  This double meaning has confused people and as a result, driven the misuse of "lay" in its place.  I cannot tell you how many times I have cringed as my mother in law repeatedly instructed her dog to "lay down".  (A helpful rule of thumb to remember is that "lay" is the past tense of "lie".  This helps with the correct usage.)

It hasn't helped that some of the misuses have crept into popular culture via songs such as Bob Dylan's "Lay Lady Lay" (a personal favorite; damn you, Dylan!) and Eric Clapton's "Lay Down Sally".  I wonder how they would have worked with "Lie Lady Lie" and "Lie Down Sally".

Couldn't care less

This is one of the more common misused phrases out there.  You will hear the following quite often: "I could care less if ... ".  I have heard this from colleagues, friends, people in cafes, radio hosts, etc.  The intent here is to express a total lack of interest in someone or something.  But when one says "I could care less", it raises the obvious question: why don't you care less?  By saying "I couldn't care less" one is implying that the topic is at the bottom of one's priority list and then the phrase carries some weight.

Unfortunately in today's fast-paced world, people do not pause to think through the words they have uttered and this misuse continues to be thrown around loosely.  In the digital age of texting, the correct usage is made even more difficult because you have to use the dreaded apostrophe (which is not always on the virtual keyboard screen).  Hopefully there will always be some sticklers out there who will preserve the correct usage.


Here is an example of a misused word being accepted as an alternative in the dictionary.  Almost every flight I have taken has had an announcement stating, "...we will be landing momentarily..." to let us know that we will be landing in a few minutes.  The original meaning of the word is "for a moment or brief period" but over the years, the wide use of the same word to imply "in a moment" has led to the inclusion of this second meaning in the dictionary.  In American English, the word is used more often to imply "in a moment".  However, in British English, it is predominantly used to imply "for a moment".  Obviously, this has led to many Brits panicking when they hear the landing announcement on a US flight!

I prefer to use the dual meaning to my advantage and often respond to requests with a sly response, "I will address it momentarily."

Your vs. you're

A while back, I received from someone I reported to an email which read as follows:
"Your going to love this!"
This predates email availability on mobile devices so I knew that it was typed on a conventional keyboard with no auto-correction feature included.  It was also not the first time I had seen such usage from that person.  Unfortunately I had to choose between laziness and ignorance on the person's part, neither of which was encouraging.

In this day and age, this misuse is so rampant that it is at risk of being accepted as the norm.  I understand that there is extra effort required in finding the apostrophe key on the virtual keyboard but one can always skip the contraction and just use "you are".  Are we really getting so lazy that we cannot be bothered with typing in an extra keystroke?  In my mind it is pretty simple: if one is trying to say "you are" then it can be contracted to "you're" but otherwise there is no need to use it elsewhere.

Its vs. it's

This is another one that causes confusion for some people but is very similar to the logic applied above.  If one is trying to say "it is" or "it has" then this can be contracted to "it's" but otherwise leave "its" be.
"It's been a very rough winter in Philadelphia, most snowy in its history."

The dreaded apostrophe s

How often have you come across something similar to the examples below?

Signs for sale such as "Potato's 80 cents/lb" or "DVD's for sale"
Memos addressed as "To: VP's and GM's"
Signs in public spaces such as "Taxi's & Buses"

The use of an apostrophe to denote a plural sense has been so widespread that it is generally accepted as appropriate.  Partly this is more prevalent due to some older style books that recommended using an apostrophe to pluralize abbreviations.  However this is no longer the case and style books over the past 50 years or so have clarified this.  The use of an apostrophe is to indicate possession (e.g. John's car) or a contraction (e.g. You're correct.) but not to indicate a plural sense.  There is a link to some funny but useful grammar posters at the end of this post which has a pretty concise one for apostrophes.

And if you are feeling a little protective about the much abused apostrophe, here is a forum for you: Apostrophe Protection Society.

Between you and I 

This is perhaps one of the most common infractions in today's communication.  Somehow it has become a sign of sophistication to include "I" instead of "me" in one's sentences, regardless of the usage being incorrect.  I am sure that it stems from a recognition of the early misuse of "me" in place of "I" such as the response to "Who is it?" generally being "It's me."  Once grammar teachers started chiding students for the misuse and correcting them with the proper response of "It is I," people have started to consider all usages of "me" as incorrect and have adopted the usage of "I" as a permanent replacement.  What's unique about this violation is that it is more prevalent amongst the upper ranks of today's workforce.  You will find this misuse more in the management level and amongst the C-suite (CEO, CFO, etc.) inhabitants. 

It is helpful to remember that "I" is a subject while "me" is an object. This means that  when one uses a preposition (like with or from or between) it must be followed by an object pronoun like me or him. 

Another way to check is by taking a sentence and deconstructing it (meaning breaking it into multiple simple sentences) to see if it makes sense.  Consider these two examples:

Sentence: "He and I went to the park."
Deconstruction: "He went to the park." and "I went to the park."
Sentence: "John went to the market with Jane and me."
Deconstruction: "John went to the market with Jane." and "John went to the market with me."

Try the second sentence with "Jane and I" and you will see how it doesn't make sense.  At the end of the day, just let go of the fear of using "me" and include it in your language as you see fit.

Why pay attention to these?  

One is quite aware of the old adage about substance over style in one's message.  However, it is important to keep in mind that form enhances function and sometimes improper form can lead to misinterpretation of the message.  The focus of style is to keep the sentence elegant and free of ambiguity.

Much as I accept that the spoken language is a constantly evolving element, I would like to preserve the original intent behind some of the language.  It is said that 15 to 20 years of an incorrect usage can lead to inclusion in common parlance and dictionaries.  While it is our responsibility to enhance and develop the tools of communication, I believe we also carry some obligation to maintain and preserve the original language.

[While we are on this topic, there are several other misuses that come to mind but I am not aiming at creating an exhaustive list.  I have also noticed confusion on the following ones:

Further vs. farther (farther is used to indicate physical distance)
affect vs. effect (verb vs. noun)
advice vs. advise (verb vs. noun)
principle vs principal (principal is main, think school principal)
bad vs. badly (especially when used with "feel")

You will have your own pet peeves that may or may not include the ones that bug me.]

Some Resources:
Grammar Girl
Grammar pack posters - http://shop.theoatmeal.com/collections/frontpage/products/grammar-pack

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