Grammar police: 5 things everyone does wrong (that you shouldn’t)

One of my great personal skills–and, by extension, a continual pet peeve–is near-perfect grammar, and the ability to spot grammatical errors. I always took proper grammar to be a de facto requirement for smart writing, and I look for the things I read to have an appropriate level of accuracy.

On the Internet, where I’m soaking up thousands of sentences daily, errors inevitably pop up. A few of them happen far more than others, a result of either misinformation, Microsoft Word preformatting or pure naiveté.

But none of those reasons excuses you from making any of the following mistakes, all of which are universal, and easy to get right.

  1. Smart apostrophes. Listen up! Just because MS Word auto-styles the apostrophe before your graduation year as an open-apostrophe doesn’t mean it’s right. It’s not.
    This is correct: 09
    This is not: 09
    You have to squint a bit to read it in the Ideapad font, so here: wrong, wrong, right.
  2. Quotation marks and periods. American grammar is universal: commas and periods always come before an endquote.
    “Pathetic,” he said, “that the Yankees can’t beat the Red Sox.”
    Question marks and exclamation points can break this rule, as do colons and semicolons. But at the end of a declarative sentence or phrase, the quotation marks come on the outside.
  3. Starting quotations. Grammatically speaking, you don’t have to note an artificial capitalization at the start of a sentence. This is unnecessary:
    [H]is velocity is off by a couple MPH this year on all pitches, not just his fastball.
    It’s perfectly acceptable to truncate a quote and not identify it at the start of a sentence. Don’t bother putting the first letter in brackets. It just slows down the reading.
  4. Ending quotations. This one’s a little more wonky, but since I just did the starting quotes, we should cover this, too. It’s actually three rules in one. Let’s start with the following quote:
    Netherland — a double play-on-words evoking the mythic underworld and
    the city’s Dutch origins — feels rather post-apocalyptic. Which, truth
    be told, the city did feel like, and perhaps still does.

    Here is how to properly cite shortened versions of the quote.
    1. If you end your quote cleanly, at the end of a sentence, you stop with a period.
      “Netherland — a double play-on-words evoking the mythic underworld and
      the city’s Dutch origins — feels rather post-apocalyptic.”
    2. If you truncate your quote mid-sentence, then resume the quote in the same sentence, you use three periods: an ellipsis.
      “Netherland … feels rather post-apocalyptic.”
      The proper typeset way to do an ellipsis, by the way, is period-space-period-space-period, but that gets wonky online, so no one does it. I personally go space-period-period-period-space … it’s a kludge for the web browser’s sake. (Which you cannot claim for the other grammar rules in this post.)
    3. If you truncate a quote mid-sentence, then resume at a point after that sentence ends, you now need four periods: the ellipsis plus a period to mark the end of the sentence.
      Netherland — a double play-on-words evoking the mythic underworld and
      the city’s Dutch origins. … Which, truth
      be told, the city did feel like, and perhaps still does.

      (Okay, so this quote doesn’t read well this way, but the ellipsis usage above is correct.)
  5. Parentheses and brackets. Unlike the parens in Excel formulas, nested parenthetical citations are supposed to alternate between parentheses (these guys) and brackets (which look like this [when nested properly]). See how that works? The brackets look different from the parentheses, which allow the reader to parse each phrase appropriately. If you do it wrong (and I don’t encourage it (because it makes such a mess (seriously)) and isn’t proper) like I just did, you may confuse the heck out of people. Just be sure to use the brackets second, for the internal phrase. And don’t get me started on sticking a colon in front of a close-parenthesis to make a smiley, then using the same close-parens to actually close the aside. Oy.

Got all that? Go forth and impress. English teachers nationwide–and I–will thank you.

One thought on “Grammar police: 5 things everyone does wrong (that you shouldn’t)

  1. I must be reading much more lowbrow stuff than you, because I’m still getting annoyed by basic stuff like misuse of it’s/its/its’ and they’re/their/there, etc.

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