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Updated: 5 days ago

The state of American grammar is getting worse.

Mrs. Reed was laid to rest a decade ago, but her spirit survives

within the remaining few of us diehard grammar pedants.

Right after college I became the manager of a fancy French restaurant that was owned by a colorful mobster we knew as BIG DANNY. My qualifications? A little restaurant experience, a huge interest in wine, the youthful energy and endurance to work eighty-hour weeks... and, perhaps most importantly of all, a knack for diplomatically interposing myself between gruff and volcanic Big Danny and our staff and the general public. Though blessed with a razor-sharp intellect and street smarts befitting a former city cop, Big Danny lacked a complete high school education, which was reflected in his grammar. Indeed, my all-time favorite Big Danny quote came as he counseled me in the Sicilian concept of omertà--

"Don't never tell nobody NUTHIN' they don't already know!"

My inner school marm tallied five negatives in that single sentence, but he nonetheless conveyed his intended meaning; for that and his lack of schooling I gave him a pass. The rest of society, however, doesn't get off so easily. (More about Big Danny HERE.)

Before listing my current litany of grammatical gripes, I present a related trivia question, with the answer revealed at the bottom of this essay:

What does THIS organization--

have in common with THIS organization?

While you ponder that, let us also review what my favorite English teacher often called "the veritable garden of grammatical error." We begin in a realm quite close to my heart-- wine.

Varieties vs. Varietals

The ascent of the California wine industry led to "varietal" labeling, i.e., labeling bottles of wine by grape variety (like Chardonnay and Merlot) rather than geographical origin (like Chianti and Chablis.) Varietal, therefore, is an adjective... but alas, it is slipping into usage as a noun, as in winery literature boasting of the varietals in their vineyards. They mean varieties, dammit!

Similarly, we have...

Hysterical vs. Hilarious

"Hysterical" means deriving from or affected by uncontrolled extreme emotion, i.e., hysteria. Hysteria has long been considered a disease and/or a sub-optimal mental health condition. There is nothing funny about hysteria. Hilarious, however, indicates humor in the extreme.


Should of vs. Should Have

It isn't so bad when people say "should of," but please don't write it. Even "shoulda" is preferable.

And speaking of misusing "of," we have...


"How big OF a deal" vs. "How big a deal"... the latter is correct, but that pesky and completely unnecessary "of" is, I suspect, here to stay. Here's a way to tell if you really need it-- if you can turn, say, "HOW big a deal?" into "A deal HOW big?" without changing the meaning, then you didn't need the "of" in the first place. "Of" DOES come in handy when specifically discussing portions, as in "Much OF what you read online is false."

And then there's...


The most common offender? No contest-- "I could care less" vs. "I couldn't care less." Keeping an accurate count of your negatives will help you avoid saying things like "You cease to amaze me!" and "I can't hardly wait." I gave Big Danny a pass on this point, but most everyone else should know better. And if you are keeping track of negating prefixes and suffixes, then you should realize that aside from not even being a real word, "irregardless" technically negates "regardless." Save a little time and say "regardless" or, more specifically, "irrespective" (as in "irrespective of the official tally, the losing candidate will likely question its validity.") Just don't combine the two into a non-word.



"Begrudgingly," though widely used, is also not a real word; rather, it is the amalgam of two similar words, which are correctly used thusly: I do not begrudge my colleague's success; rather, I grudgingly acknowledge his annoyingly superior sales acumen.

Good writing is economical writing.

Save some typing and/or some breath... the world might end "in two days" or, alternatively, "two days from now." However, saying or typing "in two days from now" is redundant, unnecessary, and wastes precious remaining time.

Also... if you and I have an argument, you could say "we disagree," but please don't say "we BOTH disagree." It might actually suggest that you and I agree in that we both disagree with a third element, such as the latest Supreme Court decision.

If you must use a cliché, at least use it correctly.

Please avoid saying "begs the question" when you really mean "raises the question."

"Begs the question" is actually a specific term from the realm of classical logic & rhetoric that denotes the fallacy of using an assumed conclusion as a premise. "How long have you been out of prison?" slyly suggests that the subject was once incarcerated... or, one might accurately say, begs the question of whether the subject actually was incarcerated. Meanwhile, a job applicant's 3-year gap in his employment history raises the question of whether he had done a little hard time.

I like to make up new words as I deem necessary (see NEW WORDS FOR 2024.) Here's another new one--

POMPIFICATION-- The act of needlessly lengthening words to make them sound more important; or replacing a perfectly good word with one that might make the speaker sound more serious, more official, or more important. For instance, please don't say "purposefully" when you mean "purposely." They have two different meanings, as in An unbearably dedicated boss might stride purposefully through the aisles, and a resentful employee might purposely trip him.

Thanks to rampant pompification, Signs becomes Signage, Second becomes Secondary, Point becomes Juncture, and, perhaps most pompously of all, Person becomes Personage.

Go ahead and split that infinitive if it more clearly expresses your meaning.

I blame Shakespeare... we all recall "To be, or not to be" from HAMLET; however, "To be, or to NOT be" more accurately conveys the intended meaning, if less poetically. Let's say a teen-aged boy sees the potential downside in swimming naked in a pond infested with snapping turtles. "I prefer not to skinny-dip here" suggests indifference, as in the absence of a preference, while "I prefer to not skinny-dip here" assertively indicates a desire to preserve his dangling manhood for future use.

Please Stop Saying "Different Than."

"Bigger than," "better than," cheaper than," are all correct ways to compare things... but Thing A cannot be simply "different THAN" Thing B... "different FROM" is the correct phrase. So when is it okay to use "than?" When the specific standard is indicated-- bigger relates to size, better relates to quality, and cheaper relates to price; "different" entails no specific standard.

Which vs. That

The dog that ate my homework had a spiked collar.

The dog, which had a spiked collar, ate my homework.

In the first sentence, "that" specifies a single dog from the set of all dogs. In the second sentence, "which" adds information-- almost as a "by the way"-- about the specific dog, and is part of a phrase that requires two commas. HERE is a useful tutorial on the topic from

Please stop saying "I feel badly..."

...unless you have neuropathy or lack empathy and therefore cannot feel anything with your fingers or in your heart. If you feel good, you never say, "I feel goodly," right? Remember that the "-ly" suffix almost always indicates an adverb, which almost always modifies a verb. "Feel" is a verb in the sentence above, so "badly" modifies "feel." I'm sorry if this makes anyone out there feel bad.

And finally-- there's that damnably ubiquitous EXTRA APOSTROPHE.

Trust no one.

Please do not attempt to make plurals by adding an apostrophe... except, I suppose, in the specific case of acronyms that contain periods-- "ICBMs" works just fine in international disarmament treaties without an apostrophe, but I'm okay with history books using "G.I.'s," as in "Thousands of G.I.'s waded ashore on D-Day." Otherwise, please resist the temptation to use an apostrophe to form a plural, which actually creates instead a possessive noun. (Possessive nouns can be tricky, as in "Octopus's Garden." Click HERE for a good explanation.)

Which brings us to the answer to the trivia question at the beginning of this essay-- What on earth do (or is it does?) America's Greatest Supermarket and the world's most notorious motorcycle gang have in common? If you already figured out that they both eschew the possessive apostrophe where it is actually necessary, thereby creating unintended plurals, you've earned an "A." (And I'll give extra credit if you can resolve the "do" vs. "does" issue above... one could make a good argument for either being correct in this case, which is a valuable lesson in itself.)


My talent (or perhaps curse) as an annoyingly incessant grammar pedant lies not in any technical knowledge of English, but rather in what my favorite English teacher once called "an ear for idiom." I cannot offhandedly define, say, a reflexive pronoun or a past participle, but I know the difference between correct and incorrect usage... and the latter drives me nuts.

That being said, no one is born knowing all this stuff. Fortunately, the Internet has plenty of resources for finding correct usage, grammar, definitions, spelling, and more... and most of it is free. In other words, there are no longer any excuses for getting it wrong.

I am a lifelong lover of words. Like musical notes, words either sound good or not, and may or may not fit together in an ear-pleasing sequence. As one can readily discern from supposed musician-poets like Bob Dylan, Jim Morrison, et. al., rock-and-roll (and every other musical sub-genre) wouldn't be as fun if it followed the rules-- I'm pretty sure that "I Can't Get ANY Satisfaction" would never have elevated the Rolling Stones to rock royalty.

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