On Grammar, Usage, and Not Being a Great Big Jerk

In memory of Washington Post copyeditor, Bill Walsh, and the finer points of grammar and usage peeves.

When you write about writing, there are few topics more lively than our favorite grammar and usage mistakes.

But how many of them are mistakes, and how many are just differences? And is it actually possible to learn all the rules for a language as complex and fluid as English?

In this 28-minute episode, I talk about:

  • The tight relationship between usage and unity
  • My own favorite usage peeves (twitch, twitch)
  • When I think it matters to get things right … and when I don’t
  • The most hideously embarrassing kind of grammatical error
  • My favorite place to look up “the right way” to say something
  • The one-time usage “error” that I now embrace

The Show Notes

On Grammar, Usage, and Not Being a Great Big Jerk

Voiceover: Rainmaker FM.

Sonia Simone: Copyblogger FM is brought to you by the all-new StudioPress Sites, a turnkey solution that combines the ease of an all-in-one website builder with the flexible power of WordPress. It’s perfect for bloggers, podcasters, and affiliate marketers, as well as those of you who are selling physical products, digital downloads, or membership programs. If you’re ready to take your WordPress site to the next level, see for yourself why more than 200,000 website owners trust StudioPress. You can check it out by going to Rainmaker.FM/StudioPress.

Hello, hello, hello, dear one. Good to see you again. Welcome back to Copyblogger FM, the content marketing podcast. Copyblogger FM is about emerging content marketing trends, interesting disasters, and enduring best practices, along with the occasional rant.

My name is Sonia Simone. I’m the chief content officer for Rainmaker Digital, and I like to hang out with the folks who do the heavy lifting over in the Copyblogger blog. You can always get extra links, extra resources, as well as the complete show archive, by going to Copyblogger.FM.

So I was sorry to see that legendary Washington Post copy editor Bill Walsh died recently. Now, this of course is not the same Bill Walsh that coaches football. This is a different Bill Walsh, who was a truly amazing language maven, persnickety language person, self-identified language snob, a great copy editor, and a really entertaining and interesting writer about English language, about what errors mean, about his very opinionated thoughts on correct English versus not-so-correct English, versus abominations.

For whatever reason, it’s just a thing that this kind of conversation, conversations around grammar and usage are always popular with people who are interested in writing and interested in English. I thought in honor of Bill Walsh’s life, ended much too early, I would do an honorary episode about some of my favorite peeves, some of my favorite things that drive me crazy, and some of his favorite, along with a recommendation for a book he wrote.

He wrote a couple of books about grammar and usage. The one I’ve been compulsively reading all weekend is Yes, I Could Care Less: How to Be a Language Snob Without Being a Jerk. Usually when we do this kind of content on Copyblogger, it mainly consists of errors or less beautiful ways of writing things that we describe so that you can look smarter when you write.

But one of the things I found interesting about Walsh’s book is it has a fairly lengthy conversation about this distinction between prescription and description when we’re talking about errors in English.

The Tight Relationship Between Usage and Unity

The prescriptives are the people who say, “These are the rules. This is what you should do. This is the correct way, and this is the incorrect way. You should do it the correct way.” Walsh was pretty much a prescriptionist, although he was a thoughtful one.

The descriptionist is the other side that says, “Language is about how people use it. That the rules come from the way people actually use language and that it’s a bit silly to insist on rules that no one is following.”

Both of these arguments have their merits. Walsh makes the interesting observation that the descriptionists, who are mostly academics in linguistics, all use the prescriptivists’ set of conventions to write their essays and their books with.

I think the important thing to remember about this whole conversation is, there actually isn’t a single set of rules that you can learn and memorize and then you are all done — everything you write will be correct.

English is a particularly vibrant language. It is a mongrel language. Its roots come from both Latin, via French and the Germanic languages, but it also is quite a promiscuous little fellow. It includes words from all kinds of languages, all kinds of traditions, technology, history.

English borrows, steals, tweaks, adapts, and evolves words from all over the place. It’s one of the things that makes it an interesting and an exciting language, as well as a singularly frustrating language if you’re learning it as your second language.

So how do we decide? How do we decide which rules to follow? How do we decide what set of standards to adopt? I will illustrate this, as I pretty much never do, by talking about a story from the Bible. Specifically, the story of the shibboleth.

This is a story in the Old Testament, and the basic gist is this. That word, ‘shibboleth,’ was pronounced in one way by the Ephraimites, and it was pronounced a different way by the Gileadites. And is so often the case in the Old Testament, if you said it the wrong way, somebody killed you.

That word shibboleth, one of its meanings — I would say its primary meaning — is this idea of a signal, often a linguistics signal, that identifies you as a member of a particular group, a particular tribe. Language is the ultimate signal of unity — what Robert Cialdini calls ‘unity’ — that sense of oneness. You and I are the same.

So the words that we choose and the way that we put them together speak volumes about who we are. Do you say nuclear (new-clee-er), or do you say nuclear (nu-cu-lar)? There’s a whole world contained in that one difference of pronunciation.

So any kind of conversation that we have about grammar and usage — especially usage, and I’ll talk about that distinction in a minute — has to start with a really deep understanding of your audience. Attorneys see and use language very differently from musicians, and gym rats use a completely different vernacular from English teachers.

On Copyblogger, we tend to go very strongly toward the more standard side of the equation, the persnickety language person side of the equation, because so many of our readers are writers. And writers tend to be just fascinated by, “What are the rules, and what are the exceptions? What are the little fine points?” To honor that audience and to speak to them, that’s the kind of language we use.

But we also always choose clarity over confusion, and we try not to be so fussy that we become completely sort of 18th-century caricatures of ourselves.

Speaking of shibboleths, I’ll give you one for free. Here’s a shibboleth for word geeks, which is the difference between grammar and usage. ‘Grammar’ essentially refers to a set of rules. Grammar is about the structure of the language.

How do you conjugate the verbs? Do adjectives come before or after the noun? How do you form an adverb? How do you form the past tense? It’s the actual structures of the language.

“I doesn’t got no money” is a grammatical error. That’s not the way we form the negative in English, and it is not the way that we conjugate the verb ‘to do.’

Most of what the web refers to as ‘grammar problems’ are actually usage problems. Usage is a much more fluid, changing, complicated creature. “My head literally exploded” is a usage error since it would not be possible for you to say the sentence, “My head literally exploded,” if it had, in fact, literally exploded.

Nonetheless, you will notice that the site is called Grammarist not Usagist and Grammar Girl not Usage Girl. Grammar is the shorthand that we use to refer to this word. But people who are persnickety at least know the difference, even though you might not use the difference in a headline if you want to get all of those usage enthusiasts onto your site leaving comments.

Sonia’s Favorite Usage Peeves (Twitch, Twitch)

This kind of post is no fun at all if we don’t talk about some of our favorite peeves. Here is the place where normally I’m going to put in a lot of gnashing of teeth, the renting of my garments, and wails about how people who don’t use these things correctly are subhuman. I’m going to skip all of those for the reasons I just mentioned. I think it matters a lot who you’re speaking to.

However, these are things that I have to confess make my lower left eyelid kind of twitch the same way that Clouseau’s boss did in the Pink Panther movies. Young people are saying, “I have no idea what that even refers to,” but they were very funny. You should look them up.

I will give you three. They’re all quite trivial. The first two are spelling issues, ‘a lot.’ Like, “I have a lot of patience with people who use language differently than I do.” A lot is two words — ‘A’ and then there’s a space, then the second word, ‘lot.’ It is not one word. It’s just not one word. It’s two words.

Now, most of you are going along with that one, but I’m going to throw a more controversial one at you. Now, I am correct in the sense of, if you were my English teacher, if you were any English teacher of the generation of my English teacher, this was an unambiguous error, which is that ‘all right’ is also two words. ‘All’ and then the word ‘right.’ “Are you all right?” is two words.

Now, that just freaks people out. ‘Alright,’ kind of mushed together as one word with a single ‘L,’ has become much more acceptable, much more standard. And a lot of dictionaries now will say that either is okay. It’s just my personal persnickety-ness. I like the more traditional, more old-fashioned version. To me, that’s the correct version. All right is two words. For you, it might not be, and I’m working very hard on my Zen to be okay with that.

Again, it really comes down to your audience. If your audience are writers, I would suggest you go with two words, all right. If your audience are attorneys, those people were all English majors or history majors before they went to law school, I would go with two words, all right.

If your audience are normal regular people, it probably really doesn’t matter. Go with whichever one you feel just works for you.

The final one I’ll give you, which just makes me bananas every time I see it, is using ‘over’ when you mean ‘more than.’ This is kind of a fussy little rule. In the olden days when I was a young person, ‘over’ was something that you would use for quantities, general quantities. And you would use ‘more than’ if you could count the items, if they were discrete countable items.

The converse of this is ‘less’ and ‘fewer.’ ‘Less’ is for kind of a general amorphous quantity, and you use ‘fewer’ if you can count them. So the grocery store sign should be, “The lane should be for 12 items or fewer,” and it almost never is. It is in a couple of places, but usually it isn’t.

I always fix this. If it’s something that can be counted, I switch it from over to more than. So “over 642 subscribers,” I change to “more than 642 subscribers.”

This, again, is a good distinction if your audience is writers, if your audience is made up of attorneys, things of this nature, people who tend to be maybe a little more on the old-fashioned side in terms of correct usage versus non-standard usage.

However, over and less are becoming more and more common, and it’s probably not worth it declaring war over these.

So I’ll just throw in a couple of Walsh’s eye twitchers. One is that ‘literally,’ and I have to stand with him on this one, using the word ‘literally’ when you mean ‘figuratively.’ So, “I was so embarrassed, I literally died.” Well, you just literally did not die.

My 11 year old is really pedantic about this, which is kind of hilarious to see. People use literally to make a kind of a comic overstatement, to create a hyperbole, an exaggeration.

Exaggeration is a perfectly great way to communicate. I have no problem with exaggeration. The issue with literally is you have literally one word that means, “I’m not exaggerating. This is actually what I mean.” So it would be great if we could just keep it for that.

It’s a useful word, and it loses power when we don’t use it correctly. Literally is literally the only word that we don’t use to express hyperbole. I think that’s kind of exciting.

Walsh’s other eye twitcher, which is contained in the topic of his book, is “I couldn’t care less.” The expression you hear — I would say maybe even more often if you’re just talking about speech — is, “What’s going on with Brad Pitt’s marriage situation?” “You know what? I could care less.” That’s just a very common verbal statement.

The proper way to say it is, “I couldn’t care less.” That is the more correct way to say it. It is the phrase that makes literal sense since “I could care less” doesn’t make sense. I will share with you now that I actually could not care less about whether or not you get this right. It does not bother me. It does not make my eye twitch.

However, it makes a lot of people’s eyes twitch, so I think it’s wise to go ahead and use the more standard version. I couldn’t care less when you are writing, and whether or not you remember to say it when you’re speaking is up to you.

Why Do We Care About Grammar?

All of this brings up the question … by the way, it does not ‘beg’ the question, which is a frequently, frequently misused phrase that doesn’t mean raise the question. It refers to a slightly complicated rhetorical flaw that I won’t get into right now — but it does raise the question, why on earth do we care?

In all of these examples, the meaning is genuinely clear, and usage people and persnickety language people like to say, “Well, it’s about meaning. You have to be clear, and if you’re sloppy with your language, then you really run the risk of making yourself unclear.”

That’s certainly true. However, a lot of these little things that make us so annoyed, really most of the time don’t affect meaning. They very rarely affect meaning.

As I’ve been hinting at not very subtly throughout this episode, the reason we care is because the audience cares. How we use the words, how we put them together, which kinds of usage we prefer or do not prefer — really comes from what matters to our audience.

What is the voice? What is the tone? What is the collection of phrases and statements that works for them, that’s their language?

Now, I’m certainly not saying you should be unclear, and I’m actually not saying you should be sloppy. Sloppiness is not a good habit in writing or in very much else. But I don’t think you have to become a usage obsessive if that’s not who your audience is. If you use good, clear, standard, appropriate sentences, nouns, verbs, and structures, I think you’re going to be fine.

For me, some of these persnickety points are more about play — they’re more about fun, and they’re more about bonding with other people who like to get a bit geeky about language — than they are about some kind of deep-rooted moral failing, which I think is a bit jerk-ish behavior a lot of the times.

But there are a few errors or kinds of errors that I do think reflect poorly on just about everyone.

Slang does not bother me. I like slang. I think slang is interesting. Made-up words don’t bother me — although trendy, jargon-y ones can be a little bit boring. But making up words I think is really cool, exciting, and interesting. And frankly, if your audience uses jargon, then you probably do, too. It can be a good shorthand, depending on the situation.

The Most Hideously Embarrassing Kind of Grammatical Error

Flat-out simple, unintentional grammatical errors, on the other hand, really do not make you look smart. If you just really don’t have a strong intuitive grasp of the difference between ‘you’re’ as a contraction of you are and ‘your,’ the possessive form that doesn’t have an apostrophe in it or an E on the end, I’m afraid that’s evidence that your education is really not good, assuming English is your first language.

Now, if English is your second language, I’m a lot more forgiving. Ask me sometime how perfect my written Italian is. Answer, it’s horrible. If English is not your first language, then of course you might have issues.

If it is your first language and you’re struggling with things that kids learn in the third grade, it would really benefit you — I doubt very much that anybody who meets that description is listening to this podcast — to go back, pick up a good book, a good reference book, and get solid on those things. Truly, it makes you look bad, and we see it absolutely every single day, especially on things like Facebook.

When Sonia Thinks It Matters to Get Things Right … and When She Doesn’t

The other kind of mistake that makes you look bad in a different way is either obsessing over errors that are not errors. For example, there really is not a rule in English that you can’t split an infinitive. Go ahead and split an infinitive if you want to. It doesn’t matter — 95 percent of English speakers are not completely 100 percent sure what an infinitive even is. It’s just not really a rule.

The rule against ending a sentence with a preposition, it’s not exactly really a rule. It’s a commonplace, and people with a certain kind of education, it is a shibboleth of a certain kind of education.

One of my favorite history teachers did all of his post-graduate work at Oxford, and he never split an infinitive. It was a shibboleth of his kind of education, and that’s cool. That’s great. He was a wonderful teacher, but I never felt the need to adopt that as my own. It’s just not a big deal.

Splitting an infinitive, if you don’t know, is something like, “To boldly go where no one has gone before.” ‘To go’ is an infinitive, and a certain kind of person doesn’t like to put anything in between those two. It’s not really a rule. So correcting people for rules that are not rules really makes you look like a bozo. That’s a technical term there.

Another thing that can happen is you over-correct yourself, and the single word that people are most likely to do this with is ‘whom.’ They use whom all the time because somewhere in their head they sort of think that whom is probably the more grammatically correct word. Whom is just the object, and ‘who’ is the subject.

I don’t often use whom. I almost never use whom. If I see whom on the blog, I often will quietly change it to who. Whom is one of those words that is gradually getting a little fusty, in my opinion.

Now, this is a controversial opinion, and some people who read Copyblogger, perhaps some people who regularly write for Copyblogger, would wildly disagree with me, which is totally okay. But what’s not okay is just using whom a lot because it sounds more grammar-y.

When you’re a little bit in doubt, go a little less formal than a little more formal. If you’re a little less formal, you can say, “Well, it was an informal usage.” Whereas, if you go more formal sounding and you’re wrong, that’s just a little bit … mmhm, that’s not good.

Another quite common construction you’ll see in the over-correcting — correcting incorrectly if you will — is a sentence along the lines of, “She arrived with he and I.” No, she really didn’t. She arrived with him and me. ‘He’ and ‘I’ somehow sound more grammar-y, right? Sound more correct-y, but they’re not. He and I are subjects, and ‘she arrived with’ would call for an object.

The takeaway is not necessarily that it’s fatal to make an error grammatically, although you should probably be familiar with the basic rules. The takeaway here is, don’t write something because it sounds more proper without checking it.

Sonia’s Favorite Place to Look Up ‘the Right Way’ to Say Something

So this episode would not be complete unless I gave you some thoughts on how to look things up if you’re not quite sure. I am by absolutely no means perfect in my understanding of the subtleties of the English language. It’s quite a complicated language.

My favorite resource, bar none, is Paul Brians’ Errors in English, and this is always where I go when I want to check, “Well, is it ‘hone in’ or ‘home in’ — that little small usage question that’s a little bit hard to remember. It is a little more on the formal and standard side, which is kind of what you want a reference to be. I really recommend it. I think it’s quite good. He doesn’t fall so far on the formal side that, again, you find yourself sounding like a character in a Charles Dickens novel.

The One-Time Usage ‘Error’ That Sonia Now Embraces

And I’ll wrap this up with a new usage change that was a little bit hard for me to accept. Interestingly, Bill Walsh talks about it in his book and wasn’t there yet, but I think we’re getting there fairly quickly — which is the word ‘they’ as a singular non-gendered pronoun.

We have used it in spoken English for quite a while. It comes in very handy when you want to use a singular pronoun and you don’t know if the person is male or female. It still makes me a little nervous, I guess would be the way you would say it, in writing. It’s not quite standard English yet, but I think it’s getting there quite quickly.

More and more a little bit more traditional venues are accepting it because we need it. We need a non-gendered pronoun. It’s social reality. It’s the way the world is going, and I’m all for it. Even though it makes me a little personally twitchy, I am working through my twitches.

Now, a lot of the times you will just rewrite the sentence so that it’s plural, and that works as well. But sometimes you want the strength of the singular. You want a singular example. So I’m embracing they as a singular pronoun, although not with perfect comfort.

I will end this episode by reiterating the subtitle of Walsh’s book — which is, it is fun to talk about grammatical peeves and usage peeves, and it is very entertaining to talk about. I don’t know why. I don’t know what makes them so fun, but they really are fun to talk about. But please do not be a jerk about it.

It is not, presumably, your job to go around the Internet correcting people’s usage. It is a bit much when you’re in a conversation with somebody who cannot identify the difference between the two forms of ‘your/you’re.’ However, making ourselves the usage police, it’s tedious, and it’s mean — and we have bigger things to think about.

I would encourage you to be a kind person. Be a reasonable person. Pick your battles. However, when we get an opportunity to have a good old chin-wag about our favorite twitchy things, let’s make space for that because it is quite fun.

If you have a favorite peeve, if you have a favorite bad usage or wrong usage that you see and it just makes your eye twitch, let us know about it in the comments. Copyblogger.FM is the place to go, and I will also leave you a couple of links.

For example, to Walsh’s obituary, which was quite lovingly written in the Washington Post, and to Paul Brians’ wonderful resource, Errors in English. It’s so handy. It also comes in handy-dandy book form if that’s your jam. So that’s today. Thank you so much, and I’ll catch you next time.