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Ask Grammar Guy

March 22, 2014
By: John Phipps, Farm Journal Columnist
 
 
John Phipps

Over the years, I’ve received many unsolicited opinions on my writing. For instance, this typical comment: "You certainly have a unique talent for abusing the English language. It is English you’re using, isn’t it?"

First off, thank you for noticing my innovative composition skills. Developing a truly one-of-a-kind style has been one of my life’s goals. Goodness knows reporting to editors who went to journalism school has been a real handicap. But I would not advise amateurs to attempt such risky language originality too soon. Mastering the traditional rules of grammaring is essential to enhancing the joy of later vandalizing them.

In my career I have familiarized me with the most common writing blunders. I’ve become "besty’s" with many of them. To share this wealth of advice, I’m putting on my Grammar Guy sweater vest right now.

Homophones. These are words that sound alike but have different meanings. (You thought I was talking about a mall chain store for communications devices, didn’t you?)

One commonly misused egg sample: "your" and "you’re". Adding to this confusion is The Great "Apotastrophe"—namely, the apostrophe key isn’t thumb-friendly on smartphones. So if autocorrect adds or omits it, overriding means you loose valuable time, and possibly several pints of blood if driving. My since is your probably going to have to get used to this. Grammar Guy’s answer: This is much ado about nothing, but if you use "there’s" one more time when the object is plural and requires "their are", your going to get such a nasty tweet!

Possessives. Right now the leading offense in this category is "it’s" vs. "its". Many grammar grouches are incensed at inappropriate usage. I feel there pain—its just not right. But what these Monday-morning English demagogues forget is that may be the whole point. People are committing this act of literary graffiti just to get up our noses. In other words, they don’t have a grammar problem; we have control issues. Grammar Guy’s solution: let’s all use "it|s" for both cases. This neglected character is the only clean key on yore keyboard.

Passive voice. Copy editors are on a crusade to stamp out sentences like, "Mistakes were made, but not by me." Today readers demand action in their prose—and it better be dramatic.
Nobody simply "disagrees" with a statement; they "slam" it. This jihad to exterminate all forms of the verb "to be" is likely a caffeine-driven hyperactivity con­se­quence. Grammar Guy’s fix: Abide cool and switch to decaf. This mania will pass, as the need for inactive lan­guage to prevent wars and stuff becomes readily apparent.

Proper colon usage. (I know you’re waiting for some indel­i­cate jokes here, but I am confident the FJ Editorial Swat Team will eliminate them). Let me be brief. There is only one safe use for this tragic character: to separate a titillating, click-worthy main title from actual content descrip­tors. For example: "Buried Alive!: A gardener’s encyclopedia of planting instruc­tions." In fact, a quick perusal of Amazon recommendations on my Kindle suggests it|s now impossible to get a book published without a colon in the middle. Of the title.

Semi-colons. The literary equivalent of the "Snuggy"—a misbegotten hybrid that is neither blanket nor sweatshirt. This pathetic punctuation fairly shouts, "I don’t know whether to use a colon or a comma!" Grammar Guy says, "Save it for emoticons ;)".

"Who" versus "whom". Grammar Guy doesn’t know which to use where and doesn’t care. All you need to know is one will make 5th grade recess a lot less fun than it needs to be. You know whom I’m talking at.

Comma confusion. According to one real survey by Lit Reactor, whomever they are, the #1 top grammar mistake is missing commas. Oddly, the #4 mistake is too many commas. Does anyone doubt that editors spend there time just looking for trouble? Grammar Guy’s simple, but, elegant solution: For every page of text, pick five commas and reposition them randomly about the page.

I could go on and on. And usually do. But the morale of this essay is clear> Proper grammar is essentially a war between we users of our imported native tongue and English majors. Guess whose winning?

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FEATURED IN: Farm Journal - Early Spring 2014

 
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