10 Easy Secrets of Good Grammar

10 Easy Secrets of Good Grammar
By Martha Brockenbrough
This is the final column about grammar I'll be writing for Encarta on behalf of the
Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar.
While I’m sad to say goodbye to this job, my overriding emotion right now is panic. This
is it! My last shot to give useful, brief and entertaining information about language and
grammar. How can I possibly boil it down to 10 things?
By cheating, of course. Here are my final 10 tips, including two shameless cheats:
1. English isn't Latin
Yes, this sounds horribly obvious. But it means you can shove a few important things
right back in your middle-school teacher's face at your class reunion. For example, you
can split an infinitive (in Latin, infinitives are one word and can't be split). So, if you
want "to boldly go," be my guest. Likewise, it means a preposition is an OK word to end
a sentence with.
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2. "I" isn't always the more educated choice
Use "I" when you're the subject of the sentence. Use "me" when you're not. If someone is
doing something with you, to you, or for you, for example, use "me." "The teacher was
talking with Susan and me about our test scores."
It's been drummed in our heads so often that "I" is always the proper choice that even
really eloquent speakers like President Obama slip up here. He's said things like "the
main disagreement with John and I," for example. It's true that English hasn't always
observed these distinctions between "I" and "me." But careful writers and speakers do
today. You might not be taken to task in the New York Times as President Obama was,
but chances are, someone will notice and scowl.
3. Semicolons are easy to use
Semicolons are the Rodney Dangerfield of punctuation. They're called bad names.
They're avoided by professional writers and scared students alike. But they're easy to use
and so fun to write; no one should feel intimidated. Use them to separate two closely
related sentences if you don't want the full stop of a period. Or, use them to separate a list
of items that already has commas in it. For example: "I have a lot of favorite book
characters: Harry Potter, who has a scarred forehead; Hazel the bunny, who is the bravest
character in "Watership Down;" and Eugenidies, the title character in "The Thief,"
because he is sarcastic and clever."
4. Apostrophes: also very easy
Women in labor aren't the only ones with contractions. Words experience them, too -especially when two have come together to make a whole new word (something that
sounds icky and personal, but really isn't). Have+not has a wee baby called "haven't." The
apostrophe stands in for what's missing.
They're also used in some possessives. So, all the president's men … the chicken's beak ...
that sort of thing. There is an exception. Possessive pronouns don't need apostrophes.
Yours, his, hers, its, ours, theirs: These words are inherently possessive, so you don't
need to gussy them up with any punctuation.
Apostrophes are generally not used to make plurals. It's ABCs, not ABC's. It's the 1990s,
not the 1990’s. There is an exception. If you're talking about the A's and B's you got in
class, or any plural form of a word with only one letter, the world will not come to an end
if you stick an apostrophe in there. It does, after all, make clear the difference between
"A's" and "As." The Apostrophe Protection Society might come after you, but they're all
the way in England, so you'll most likely be safe.
5. Is it bad or badly? Good or well?
I feel ... um, which is it? It all depends on what you want to say. There is a common
misperception that "feel" and "am" are verbs that can only be modified by adverbs. It's
true that adverbs modify adjectives and verbs. But some verbs are what we call linking
verbs. These link a modifier to the subject.
I can feel "bad" just as I can feel crabby, grumpy or happy. (Have you ever heard
someone say, "Oh, I feel happily today!" Of course not.)
Likewise, you can feel "well" if you are talking about your health. It doesn't mean you
have perceptive fingertips. You can also say "I feel good" or "I am good." It all depends
on what you mean to say, so don't let anyone force a non-rule down your throat.
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6. Remember to be agreeable
It's best when your subjects and verbs agree. In the world of grammar, this means you
match singular subjects with singular verbs and pronouns. You can get away with saying,
"Someone left 'their' coat in the bus." But it's just as easy to say "Someone left a coat on
the bus," therefore avoiding the inelegant pairing. Likewise, when you have two subjects,
you need a plural verb. The apple and orange taste funny.
7. Be careful with those modifiers
What's wrong with this sentence? Creaking open, the cat slunk through the door. Unless
the cat has hinges, it's the door that creaks open. It's easy to stick a modifier in the wrong
place, and it can result in unintended hilarity. It's best to put your modifier right next to
the word it describes. Beware those little phrases that sometimes insert themselves in the
beginning of sentences. If yours doesn't directly modify the subject, which usually comes
right after the comma, you might have a misplaced modifier.
8. Punctuating with quotation marks
In American English, punctuation usually goes inside the quotation marks. There are
some wee exceptions. So, it would be either: Did you just say "Look! A hamster"? Or,
She said, "Have you seen my hamster?" Semicolons and colons also go outside the
punctuation marks.
9. The dictionary is your friend.
OK, so this is my first cheat. It's like asking the genie for infinite wishes as a way of
working around the three-wish cap. But it's not like I'm going to get fired for this, so ...
Use a dictionary. You'd be surprised how many questions I get in my SPOGG inbox that
could very easily be answered with the aid of a good a dictionary. I do offer a small
caveat: Not all dictionaries agree on everything. (I know! This is sort of like finding out
that the Wizard of Oz is just an old guy behind a curtain. Dictionaries are made by
people. People who have varying opinions. Weird.)
My favorite is the Oxford English Dictionary. If your library subscribes, you can get free
access. Otherwise, there's a fee. You'll learn where the word came from, what it means,
and how it has been used over time.
10. Everyone should have a language guide or two (or three) nearby
Dictionaries tend to be cursory when it comes to how words should be combined and
punctuated. Grammar books, on the other hand, revel in this sort of thing.
The Society for the Promotion of Good Grammar has a book called "Things That Make
Us [Sic]," and it's about funny bad grammar in advertisements, politics and Hollywood,
among other things. People who liked "Eats, Shoots and Leaves" will like it.
For a more practical reference, there's Bryan Garner's "A Dictionary of Modern Usage."
Organized alphabetically, it's packed with quick answers to common language questions.
He also has a daily e-mail newsletter that points out the differences between such words
as "mucus" and "mucous," along with drier fare.
Mignon Fogarty's book, "Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing," is
punchy and useful for people who don't write for a living, but do have to write for work
or school. Two books by Bill Walsh, "The Elephants of Style and Comma Sense," are
great for professional writers or people who care deeply about hyphens and the subtle
differences they can make (along with a lot of other fine points of language).
Thank you for reading. Good luck out there!