The Writer’s Toolbox – Proper Usage of Grammar

You cringe at incorrect capitalization. You mock misplaced modifiers. You figuratively die every time someone uses the word “literally” incorrectly. And confusion of “your” and “you’re” makes you want to tear your hair out and resign from the human race.

That means you’re desperate to promote good grammar, right?

Wrong?because none of the above are grammar issues.

We tend to use “bad grammar” as a catch-all to describe a number of language errors: grammar, yes, but also punctuation, spelling, usage, syntax, typos, and more. This week’s Toolbox will sort them all out.

Misspelled words are not grammatical issues, but spelling problems. These could be confused word pairs like “too” and “to” or plain old misspellings like “arguement” (there’s no “argue” in “argument”).

Sometimes misspellings are labelled as typos, but that’s not always accurate. Typos are a subgroup of misspellings; all typos are misspelled words, but not all misspelled words are typos. Typos occur when you’re not paying attention when you type and your fingers inadvertently introduce errors. For example, I just typed “typed” with an n at the end because my finger slipped. The word was spelled wrong, but it was a typographical error and not a technical misspelling. However, if I were to type “accommodate” with only one m, as my brain tells me to do every single time, that’s a spelling error and not a typo.

Punctuation involves the proper use of periods, exclamation points, quotation marks, hyphens, and other forms of punctuation. It isn’t a question of grammar; although certain grammatical forms, like possessives, require particular punctuation, any errors in those cases are punctuation and not grammar related.

If you think that this discussion so far is too nitpicky for words, then blame usage. Usage is concerned with using words properly and correctly; in other words, according to their meaning. “Literally” (when “figuratively” is meant) is my pet peeve. So, apparently, is “grammar” used to describe usage, punctuation, and spelling.

Syntax looks at how sentence structure can change meaning. You may have seen the meme with the sentence “She told him that she loved him” and the instructions to insert the word “only” in different places in the sentence. Try it out: “She told only him that she loved him” has a very different meaning from “She told him that only she loved him.” That’s syntax at work.

Finally, what about grammar? Grammar is a set of rules governing how parts of speech, like nouns, verbs, and adjectives, interact. So when a subject and verb don’t agree, or match, that’s a grammatical issue.

Let’s see all these borne out in an example:

She said “I am definately going to insure that the group take their own advice to follow the requirements at the meeting tomorrow.”

Error #1: There should be a comma after “said.” This is a punctuation issue.

Error #2: “Definitely” is misspelled. This is a spelling error.

Error #3: The correct word is “ensure,” not “insure.” This error falls under usage.

Error #4: “Group” is a singular collective noun, so the verb and pronoun should match its singular form. The phrase should read “the group takes its”?and yes, this is actually a grammar issue.

Error #5: The phrase “follow the requirements at the meeting tomorrow” is placed in the sentence in such a way as to make its meaning unclear; does the writer mean that the group should follow the requirements while at the meeting? Or that at the meeting, the writer will impress upon the group the necessity of following the requirements elsewhere? This very common error is a syntax issue.

“Grammar” is a fairly limited field, but if you’re obsessed with language there are plenty of other language errors to get hot under the collar about. If bad grammar makes you [sic], take another look. It may actually be usage that deserves the full force of your objection.

Christina M. Frey is a book editor, literary coach, and lover of great writing. For more tips and techniques for your toolbox, follow her on Twitter (@turntopage2) or visit her blog.

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