March 3, 2015

Wednesday is National Grammar Day, which isn’t a bank holiday but may be cause to celebrate or hide if you’re a journalist. I asked a handful of journalists about their own grammar pet peeves. They range from the very specific to the broader wish that we used grammar to spread peace, not war. What are yours? Email or tweet them at me and I’ll share tomorrow, in time for the big day. (Update: Here are the results!)

Janice Cane, copy chief, The Atlantic: “Besides the popular its-versus-it’s issue (at a previous job, I once had to stop someone from correcting the right form, not to the wrong form but to a whole new word: its’), my biggest pet peeve lately is when writers attach hyphens to adverbs ending in -ly. Somehow, the fact that those two letters are the hyphen has been lost, or misunderstood, or willfully ignored (not willfully-ignored). I find myself highly irritated (not highly-irritated) by this. It’s easy enough to take that hyphen out, but I just don’t understand why the problem has proliferated to the degree it has lately. I suppose hyphens are contagious!”

Richard Prince, columnist, The Maynard Institute: “The language is changing, so ‘impact’ as a verb is now recognized. But ‘that’ instead of ‘who’ to refer to people is still grammatically incorrect, but much too common. And I don’t get this new phenomenon of beginning sentences with ‘so,’ when you’re not stating the reason something took place. And, on race, using ‘black’ as a noun.”

Susan Bullard, associate professor, College of Journalism and Mass Communications, University of Nebraska-Lincoln: “For me, it’s apostrophe misuse. More of a punctuation thing than grammar, I suppose. But it’s not that hard to remember that generally you don’t need apostrophes for plurals. They indicate possession. Yet, you see these all the time. And of course, its vs. it’s, too. I made that mistake years ago as a very young reporter. An English teacher wrote me a letter admonishing me. I was mortified and make myself say, Do I want it is before I stick that little apostrophe in. Everyone should ask if they want it is before they use an apostrophe.”

Penny Carnathan, Tampa Bay Times garden writer: “I’ve got a lot of them! The biggest, particularly in writing, is misplaced modifiers because not only do they make the meaning of what you’ve written unclear, they can totally confuse the reader — unless one interpretation is so ridiculous, it’s obvious what the writer intended. An example of the former: She said after the workshop she’ll plant her own organic garden. (Did she make that statement after the workshop, or does she plan to start digging immediately after the workshop?) An example of the latter: Billowing in the sky, we watched the storm clouds gather. (Unless we’ve shuffled off this mortal coil, we can’t possibly billow in the sky. Correct: Billowing in the sky, the storm clouds gathered as we watched.) The simple way to avoid this is to put your descriptive phrase or clause as close as possible to what you’re describing.”

Some Poynter folks also shared their pet peeves:

Roy Peter Clark, vice president and senior scholar, Poynter: “My only grammar peeve is with crotchety people who try to impose their historically incorrect prescriptions on the heads of innocent writers. Among the worst crotchets: ending sentences with prepositions; beginning a sentence with and or but; splitting infinitives. In the spirit of Mr. Spock, I would encourage writers to boldly go where grammarians would keep them out.”

Rick Edmonds, researcher and writer, Poynter: “Hard to beat the dangling participle — should refer to the subject of the sentence, not just vaguely hang there. I’ve given up on split infinitives.”

Vicki Krueger, director of interactive learning, Poynter: “I believe that we should focus on the communication part of grammar rather than pick at usage. We should be inclusive, not judgmental. Just like manners should really be about making people feel welcome, but we tend to lord ‘poor manners’ over people.”

If you want to celebrate tomorrow, has a whole list of ways to do so. The site also has links to other sites celebrating the day, including The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar.

You can also join Bullard tomorrow for a Webinar, “National Grammar Day 2015.” For a discount, use this code: 15PPGRAM50. If you can’t make it, News U also has the self-directed course “Language Primer: Basics of Grammar, Punctuation and Word Use.”

Also, the American Copy Editors Society is having an #ACESchat on Twitter tomorrow with Kory Stamper of Merriam-Webster. They also have an annual grammar haiku contest.


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Kristen Hare teaches local journalists the critical skills they need to serve and cover their communities as Poynter's local news faculty member. Before joining faculty…
Kristen Hare

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