Every day, I come across grammar rules that draw a line in the sand between grammar traditionalists and modern grammarians.
Today, we’ll review the usual suspects.
When do you use an apostrophe?
I won’t spend too much time on the basics, but I feel it’s important to provide a simple definition of an apostrophe.
Apostrophes are used to indicate a common noun’s plural possession. The rule of thumb is, if the common noun doesn’t end in the letter –s, it’s singular and therefore, you would add an apostrophe after the word and before the letter –s to make it a possessive plural. If the common noun ends in the letter –s, then, you would add an apostrophe after the –s.
Here’s what I mean…
- The truck’s tires
- The girls’ dresses
If the noun is already plural, such as “girls,” just add an apostrophe; an –s is not needed. However, if it is a proper noun ending in –s, add another –s after the apostrophe.
- Jess’s hair looks great.
Do not add an –s after the apostrophe if the next word begins with the letter –s.
- Jess’ skin looks great.
The most common misuse I see is the greengrocer’s apostrophe, which is so titled because greengrocers misused the apostrophe to pluralize their wares (e.g., banana’s, apple’s, potato’s).
While this use is technically incorrect, many writers do use the apostrophe to pluralize if it will help make things clearer for the reader. For example, many writers when pluralizing letters or numbers will use an apostrophe for clarity such as:
- “Dot your i’s and cross your t’s.”
The Purdue Online Writing Lab has stated that it is OK to use an apostrophe to pluralize lowercase letters, but disagrees with using the apostrophe for uppercase letters.
- Acceptable: Mind your p’s and q’s.
- Unacceptable: She received all A’s on her report card.
Could you use they as a singular pronoun?
Using the word they as a gender-neutral singular pronoun is a serious point of contention between traditionalists and more modern grammarians. Even though we use it every day when we speak, many still have an issue with its use in print.
We often use it when we speak because it’s a more natural way of speaking. For example, most people when referring to a third person or entity, regardless of whether it is singular or plural will use the pronoun they rather than the correct its, him, or her.
- Correct: Buy a cup of coffee for someone today. You just might make her day.
- Incorrect: Buy a cup of coffee for someone today. You just might make their day.
- Correct: The company awarded bonuses to all of its employees.
- Incorrect: The company awarded bonuses to all of their employees.
While the use of the word their in each of the second examples above is technically incorrect, it is common in today’s conversations. And while many traditionalists may argue against using they as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun in writing, it is becoming more accepted, even in major publications. For example, in December 2015, The Washington Post wrote that it now includes “they” as a singular pronoun in its style guide.
Is it OK to end a sentence with a preposition?
It’s likely many of us haven’t heard the term preposition since we were in grade school, so if you’d like a quick grammar refresh, check out this post, which offers a definition and the function a preposition serves.
Many believe that ending a sentence with a preposition is acceptable only in informal writing, while others believe that as long as you do it correctly, it’s OK to do so anytime it allows for a better flow.
We say, “Practice caution.” While there’s no solid evidence backing our grade schools’ teachers’ disgust for this practice, there is the opinion of John Dryden, a poet, critic, and playwright born in the 1600s who decided that ending a sentence with a preposition was unacceptable because you cannot do so in Latin.
Since then, it has become an unofficial “rule” which some follow and others choose to break.
As long as you aren’t writing a research paper or formal business document, you can most likely end a sentence with a preposition, such as:
- She never received the inheritance she was entitled to.
We advise staying away from it in formal writing, if you can. To do so, you can rearrange the sentence to avoid placing the preposition at the end. For example:
- She never received the inheritance to which she was entitled.
Both are acceptable, but because the “rule” about not ending a sentence with a preposition is so longstanding, it is best to avoid it, rather than offend any grammar traditionalists.
Can you start a sentence with a conjunction?
Who remembers the acronym FANBOYS? No, it’s not an acronym used to describe a group of boys who follow their favorite band across the country while they’re on tour. The acronym was created to help us remember coordinating conjunctions like so:
Image credit: http://www.enceirepxe.top/
More and more people, myself included, are using coordinating conjunctions to begin their sentences. This is OK as long as you form a complete thought. For example, it would be incorrect to write, “I have to go to work early tomorrow. Because I have a meeting.” Starting the second sentence this way is incorrect. However, you can create a complete thought by reversing the sentences, “Because I have a meeting, I have to go to work early tomorrow.”
What is so wrong with splitting infinitives?
An infinitive is the stem of verb, usually written as, “to eat,” “to walk,” “to read.”
Writers split an infinitive when they place a word between the particle to and the verb.
- To quickly eat
- To slowly walk
- To quietly read
Never splitting infinitives is another rule that people fight for because their teachers told them it was never OK, but the practice is very common and is acceptable if done correctly.
As with ending a sentence with a preposition and starting a sentence with a coordinating conjunction, you can split an infinitive if it sounds better than the alternative.
A common example of a well split infinitive is “to boldly go.” Most would agree that, “to boldly go where no man has gone before” sounds much better than, “to go boldly where no man has gone before.”
You can decide whether to split an infinitive on a case-by-case basis; however, you should always make an effort to stay consistent.
Who gives a f%&$ about an Oxford Comma?
Ah… the famous opening verse of Vampire Weekend’s appropriately titled track Oxford Comma. Well, it’s only right I answer the question.
The Oxford comma is indeed a subject of heated debate. Certain organizations, such as the American Bar Association, require its use, while the Associated Press’ style guide disallows it. In short, an Oxford comma is used to create clarity and prevent ambiguity. I wrote about it in detail here.
It’s become a debate since some claim that it prevents ambiguity, while others have asserted that it creates it. For example, this sentence could mean different things to different readers:
- I love going home to my pets, Fred, and George.
Some may think that the writer is referring to her two pets, Fred and George, while others may think that she is referring to her pets and two people named Fred and George.
You can either rewrite the sentence or take out the Oxford comma to clear up the confusion.
- I love going home to my husband Fred, my son, George, and my pets.
- I love going home to my two pets, Fred and George.
As with many grammar rules in this post, you can choose whether or not to use it, unless you work in an industry that requires it or disallows it.
My advice? Use an Oxford comma when it promotes clarity.
Is it acceptable to use quotation marks for emphasis?
We all have that one friend who uses air quotes in conversation.
He might also be the same guy who uses quotation marks for emphasis in his emails.
- I’m only in town for “ONE” day, guys.
This adds confusion, rather than emphasizes the short time he’ll be in town because you’ll have to figure out if he’ll actually only be in town for one day.
Regardless of its inaccuracy, people will always use quotation marks for emphasis, such as the following:
- “One” day sale
- “Fresh” fish
- “Best” burgers in the world
In addition to being wrong, these actually work against the writer. If you’re like me, when you see “fresh” fish, you start having pretty strong misgivings about the quality of the fish.
For another, often controversial grammar rule, come back next week to learn about dangling modifiers. Have questions about punctuation? Be sure to check out last week’s punctuation guide.
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