Prose Woes: Grammar Tips

Prose Woes: Grammar Tips

Let me just say two things: I am not a pedantic grammarian, nor am I infallible.

In fact, people who correct other people’s grammar in casual conversation are more of a personal pet peeve than people who can’t remember the difference between “your” and “you’re.” There is no reason for everything to read and sound like a terms of use agreement. I believe in liberally exercising your poetic license—as well as considering both your audience and the evolution of language—when writing and speaking. Let your freak flag fly and prepositions dangle, I say! (It should perhaps be noted that I also believe that a carefully curated cheese plate is a well-rounded dinner.)

Still, in honor of National Grammar Day—it falls on March 4 for those of you who would like to begin an annual observance—it seems appropriate to address a few lingering nuances of language and punctuation that still seem to nonplus us.

Semicolons Are Tired of Being Misunderstood

I often read e-mails and forum posts in which the author decides to use a semicolon. It seems that whenever an author feels like their sentence is starting to get wordy, he or she remedies verbosity by adding a semicolon.

When two thoughts are independent clauses (complete sentences) and follow the same thought or topic, use a semicolon. You do not need a semicolon if you’re connecting the clauses with a conjunction (words like “and,” “but,” and “or”).

If you’re making a list where each item has a comma, you can use a semicolon to separate the items as if it is
a super-comma.

Correct: I have a dog; he loves to go for walks.

Correct: I have a dog, and he loves to go for walks.

Incorrect: I have a dog; who loves to go for walks. (“Who loves to go for walks” is not a complete sentence.)

Correct: The girls at the party were Sally, who brought chips; Sarah, who brought drinks; and Liz, who brought cookies.

Incorrect: The girls at the party were Sally, who brought chips, Sarah, who brought drinks, and Liz, who
brought cookies.

Quotes Aren’t Emphatic Tools

Quotation marks are used to indicate something that somebody said, announce that something is a title, or signify that something meant to be ironic (also known as scare quotes).

Quotation marks do not have italicizing, bolding, or emphatic properties. Driving around town, I’ve spotted posters for bars advertising “live” music and signs for yard sales claiming that they are “huge.” Rather than drawing attention to the realness and largeness of each event, it instead looks like the music is, in fact, not live; the sign reads like the yard sale is rather small.

I vs. Me

At some point, the English-speaking world collectively and silently agreed to just start using “I” instead of me, thinking that “I” always sounds proper, but does it really? Is it Brian and I went to the movies, or Brian and me? Would you like to go to the movies with Brian and I, or Brian and me? The answer is easy. All you have to do is omit Brian and see how the sentence reads.

Correct: Brian and I went to the movies. (I went to the movies vs. Me went to the movies.)

Correct: Would you like to go to the movies with Brian and me? (Would you like to go to the movies with me? vs. Would you like to go to the movies with I?)

The Lay/Lie Struggle

This one is like a phone number in 1999 in the sense that you just have to memorize it.

If you assume a supine position somewhere, you lie down. If you set a book down, you lay it down.

If it’s not already, here’s where it gets tricky: if you assumed a supine position in the past, you lay down. If you set your book down in the past, you laid it down.

Correct: I’m going to lie down.

Correct: Lay the book over there.

Incorrect: I’m going to lay down.

Incorrect: Lie the book over there.

Correct: I lay down yesterday.

Correct: I laid the book down yesterday.

Incorrect: I laid down yesterday.

Incorrect: I lay the book down yesterday.

I Shouldn’t Have Done Did That There Thing

We know that “did” is the past tense of “do,” but when the auxiliary verb “have” enters the picture, did doesn’t cut it anymore. The same rules apply with the verb “go.”

Correct: I did that.

Correct: I shouldn’t have done that.

Correct: I went there.

Correct: I couldn’t have gone there.

Incorrect: I shouldn’t have did that.

Incorrect: I couldn’t have went there.

If You’re Involved in Something, Then You Play a Part

Oh, the number of times I’ve read someone excitedly chirping on Facebook that they’re so grateful to be “apart” of such a great group. It is unfortunate, then, that the word apart literally means to be separated from.

Everyday Occurrences Happen Every Day

Everyday is an adjective that means daily or ordinary. Every day is a noun that means each day. If you’re not sure which one to use, just try using “each day” in the sentence to figure out if you want to use everyday or every day. 

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