Grammar Decay: Five Common Symptoms and How to Avoid Them

I know I’m late to the party with this one. A number of similarly-titled posts have appeared on the Internet, presented by fellow Grammar Vigilantes who possess more wit and a better grasp of graphic design than I. Hats off to them; they give me hope for the English language and the future of written communication. This post is merely my own humble contribution, and addresses a few grammatical errors that, in my opinion, deserve a little more attention.

1. Lay vs. Lie
Honestly, I’m afraid this ship has sailed. Soon the dictionary people and the APA Manual people will just resign themselves to the commonly tolerated usage. Nonetheless, here’s the little-known truth; you shouldn’t say, “I’m going to lay on the couch for a while.” Unless you are a hen. If you are a human, however, you are most likely going to lie on the couch. Because “lay” is a transitive verb – one which must take an object – you can lay your head on the pillow, but only when you are laying something (the object) can you use it in the present tense. You can say, “I had a headache, but I felt better after I lay down for a while,” because “lay” is also the past tense of “lie.” But that’s it.

Again: this ship has probably sailed. People might actually think you’re wrong if you do use the correct word. But you never know; some day you might be interviewing for a job in academia, and this might come up (?!), and the interviewer JUST MIGHT KNOW.

2. There is problems
Having rambled on about “lie” versus “lay,” I will concede that it can be confusing due to the fact that “lie” also means “to speak an untruth.” Same word, different meanings. I feel ya. But this next one is harder for me to accept.

One frequently reads (and hears): “There’s a lot of people who don’t like peas.” Did you catch that? “There IS…people.” There is people. This are wrong.

Basic rule of grammar: the subject and verb must agree. As in: “There ARE people who get bent out of shape about bad grammar.” (I’ve heard). You wouldn’t say, “They is very nice people,” or “She are making a big deal out of nothing.” Likewise, you should avoid saying, “There’s errors in this blog post. Here’s some of them.” Do I need to go on? …Okay, good.

3. Mutant Compound Words
Like any mutant life form, these are multiplying like rabbits and are taking over the English language. Occurring only in writing, they are spawned when two separate words join – sometimes using a hyphen – to create a new word whose form, in context, causes instant grammar erosion. Here’s an example:

“Should we take-out Chinese food tonight?”

When “take” joins “out,” they form a new noun that, in certain cases, is legitimate. You could write, for instance, “Does the local Chinese place offer take-out?” A noun, in this case, works. In the first example, however, a noun is completely out of place because the sentence now contains no verb. “Should we noun?” Nope.

Rule of thumb: When two words are combined, their form changes. Think atoms and molecules; certain elements can exist safely on their own, but when combined, they can be lethal. It’s almost like…SCIENCE.

4. Painful Contractions
This next error, also unique to written communication, is so nonsensical that writing it causes me physical pain. But it’s a sacrifice I’m willing to make for grammar. Inspiring, no?

“I should’ve paid more attention in English class.”

The above sentence uses a contraction. It takes the words “should have” and turns them – legitimately – into “should’ve.” It DOES NOT turn them into…are you ready?…”should of.”

Ouch.

I can’t even explain when that would be correct, because it is never correct. Please do not ever follow “should,” “could,” or “would” with “of.” Because every time you do, a Grammar Fairy falls down dead.

5. Vanishing Question Marks
Technically, this concerns punctuation, not grammar, but who cares? (Just a few Grammar Nazi weirdos. Pssht). Besides, this is a crisis situation, and it is therefore my duty to address it. So here’s a news flash:

QUESTIONS MUST HAVE QUESTION MARKS AT THE END.

My eight-year-old knows this. Why some adults don’t seem to know it truly baffles me. This is so fundamental that I’m inclined to not illustrate it, but just for fun, I will. More than once, I’ve seen signs like this outside of a business – usually a service-oriented business such as a bank, a mechanic, or a chiropractor:

NEED HELP
CALL US

The above notice is saying: “We need help. Call us, because maybe you can do something about it.” Which – and I’m just guessing here – probably is not what they intended to say.

If you forget Items One through Four…well, it’ll hurt a little (especially #4), but life will go on. For the love of all that is good and right in this world, though, please end every question with a question mark. ‘Kay?

Thanks for caring. Remember: only YOU can prevent grammar decay.

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4 thoughts on “Grammar Decay: Five Common Symptoms and How to Avoid Them

  1. Well done! Thanks especially for the reminder about lay and lie. I often misuse them when speaking. Very bad habit. And what you said about the dictionary people’s resigning themselves to usage is apt. Often, I am unable to articulate my thoughts at work because the correct way evokes some strange looks from my coworkers. So, I stutter, hem, and haw as my mind darts about in search of the “right” words. They say, “Spit it out, Wes.” I feel like Eustace when the Dufflepuds advised him, “Eh, he can’t put things like our chief does, But you’ll learn, young man. Hark to him…. There’s a speaker for you!”

    • Yes! I know exactly what you mean. (The Dufflepuds are so fabulous). I will sometimes rearrange a sentence to avoid the looks I gets for using the right words. I can’t bring myself to use the wrong words, so I just avoid the situation entirely. Somewhat like Porky Pig.

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