In a chapter of The Writer’s Art called “My Crotchets and Your Crotchets” the brilliant wordsmith James Kilpatrick wrote about the grammatical and usage mistakes that set his teeth on edge. We all have a list of grammar gremlins that jump off the page and stop us cold. And those gremlins sometimes find their way into finished books. Last fall a friend passed along a novel written by a very famous author and asked me for an opinion. I was shocked by the endless pages of “telling” as opposed to “showing” and by a raft of grammatical errors in the opening chapters. That got to me to thinking about my own crotchets. Here are a few I’ve seen over and over in my students’ drafts, and sadly, in finished works too. As you write, beware of these grammar gremlins pulled from several published books:
Misplaced apostrophes. The dog wagged it’s tail. It’s is the contraction for “it is.” The dog wagged it is tail? The toy belonging to one boy is “the boy’s toy”. If two or more boys are sharing the same toy: “the boys’ toy.”
Lie/lay. Bill would lay on the grass and watch the stars. My fifth grade teacher used to say, “Hens lay, people lie.” Bill would lie (recline) on the grass, but he would lay down his life for a friend.
Me/I. Dad brought presents for Susan and I. The easy test for this one is to try each object separately. Dad brought presents for Susan is of course correct. But: Dad brought presents for I? No. He brought presents for me. The correct construction is Dad brought presents for Susan and me. Will you drive Amy and I to the mall? should be: Will you drive Amy and me ….
Bad/badly. Badly is an adverb. The pianist played the anthem very badly. Not a great sentence; in most cases writers are well advised to “kill the adverbs” but the sentence is grammatically correct. Mary felt badly for her friend. The test: How did Mary feel? She felt…bad. Not badly.
Could/couldn’t care less. Angie was through with Jason’s cheating ways. She could care less if he came back. Writers often write that so and so “could care less” when they mean the exact opposite: that so and so could not care any less about the situation. Angie is through with Jason. She could not care less about whether or not he comes back.
These are a few of my crotchets. What are yours? Click over to my “contact” page here on the site and drop me an e-mail. I’ll include some of your crotchets in a future post. Till then, beware the grammar gremlins.