Gaffes to Avoid When Blogging About Grammar Gaffes

I always knew I’d end up blogging about grammar and style here. I wasn’t planning to get there right away, but one of my favorite sites, Lifehacker.com, just ran an article titled “The Most Common Grammar Gaffes Writers Make (and How To Avoid Them)?.

Now, in the fine tradition of such lists everywhere, they broke one of their rules in the title of the post (its title as I write this anyway): “To” should not be capitalized there. No biggie.

A jar of red inkThey continue an even longer tradition of conflating grammar with style, and mixing stylistic choices with stylistic rules. Those lists are good for awareness, but not so great for actual concern.

Here’s the most common gaffe you should avoid:

1. Writing without clarity when you intend to be clear.

Make sure you get that fixed up first. If you’ve got a handle on that, you can move on to avoiding this gaffe:

2. Making inconsistent style choices for no reason.

True, sometimes fixing #2 can help you on your path to fixing #1, but fixing #1 should be the goal. The goal is not grammatical pedantry.

Omitting the serial comma? Some style guides recommend it, some forbid, but both camps are in agreement: if your sentence ends up ambiguous or worse because of the presence or absence of the comma, rework the sentence. Seriously, the comma is not going to save the day in every situation, and there are examples of ambiguity in sentences that use the serial comma too. I opt for the serial comma in my writing, and I do so consistently. When I’m editing someone else’s work, I check with them to see which style they want to use, and then I’ll point out where rework is needed.

Two spaces after a period? Smart quotation marks? Underlining? Yes, fix the layout (and typesetting) for publication if you’re self-publishing. When submitting a manuscript, follow the submission guidelines; dumb quotation marks and two spaces after a period might be fine.

Actually, “Failing to follow the submission guidelines” should be #0 up there for professionals and would-be professional writers.

Passive voice? Avoid it to keep punch in your journalistic writing. On the other hand, passive voice is embraced by many authors, especially when punch is not needed. Either way is grammatically correct.

Title Caps? Yep, you need to know how this is done too. Unfortunately, style guides vary on which little words aren’t capitalized. Don’t capitalize prepositions shorter than five letters and you end up with titles like “Bridge over Troubled Water”, From Dusk till Dawn, and Blue like Jazz. Different sources will make different choices for those titles. Wikipedia’s current style guidelines use the five-letter cutoff too, but it’s under discussion even as I type this.

Inconsistency? Yes! Fully agreed. Be inconsistent when you intend to be, and only then. Be able to explain your intent to your editor.

Replace adverbs and adjectives with better writing? Good advice, but not a grammar gaffe. Replace all of your crappy writing with better writing and you’ll be a better writer, but that’s “The Most Common Tautologies Used to Inspire Writers”, a different article.

Poor or insufficient section headings? Long passages of text? Not grammar gaffes.

There are plenty of grammatical mistakes to avoid. There are even plenty of pieces of grammatical advice that you’ll get from some schools of thought that other schools of thought dismiss. Split an infinitive? End a sentence with a preposition? (My answer to each of those is “if you like”, at least for English writing. If you’re writing a Latin text, the answers may be different.) But perhaps it’s just better to finish with these gaffes:

3. Not having a manual of style to follow
4. Not learning English grammar
5. Not engaging a proofreader or copy editor

Avoid those, and good luck!

—jhunterj

P.S. Please comment with whatever grammatical mistakes you find in this post. There is doubtless at least one, and I will not pretend to have left it there intentionally.

8 thoughts on “Gaffes to Avoid When Blogging About Grammar Gaffes

  1. The smart quotes around lifehacker’s title in the opening paragraph aren’t very smart: the title is closed with an opening quote mark.

        • My two personal faoruvites aren’t on this list.Firstly, the way that lazy typing in word processors often causes an opening apostrophe in print where instead a word-beginning leave out the letter type apostrophe is actually meant (which should of course look like a closing apostrophe). It’s annoying to see something like this in print. But that’s the minor one.My biggest grammatical bugbear has seemingly seeped into all forms of media and it just annoys the heck out of me. It’s the use of there’s when instead there’re should be used. Unlike some of the tradition rules’ that might be to-some jarring but are still technically sound, this one is actually pretty obviously very much grammatically incorrect! You’ll hear someone say there’s only ten of them and yet nobody would ever say there is only ten of them . No, because there ARE only ten of them . And yet, for some reason, the fact that there’re is apparently too unweildy makes the incorrect use of there’s alright? No, it doesn’t, I say! And it’s everywhere. Print, television, films gah! I can only hope to hope that it doesn’t get any official acceptance.If I had a third wish, it would be to have ain’t recognised as the proper short form of am not and limited to ONLY that use. But then, that’s probably a pipe dream not many would agree with! If somebody can get this there’s / there’re nonsense sorted out, I’ll be a happy bunny.

  2. Okay, I’ll bite.

    “Be inconsistent when you intend to be, and only then.”

    Is this a comma splice? The phrase after the “and” is not a complete thought.

    As an aside, I have noticed that when using a tablet, my care for grammar and spelling tends takes a nose dive. On the other hand, because of autocorrect, I tend to re-read sentences before I send them.

    • I don’t think it’s wrong there; the independent phrase isn’t a clause, and it’s there for contrast or comparison. If it’s wrong, it’s not a comma splice. A comma splice is when you omit the conjunction. The comma-less version “Be inconsistent when you intend to be and only then” seems wrong to me, because I want that separation, the same as in “That’s my money, not yours.” It would be nice to name the rule though!

      • Name the rule: interpolated adjectives. Commas suffice nicely for this purpose, but one could also use dashes or paretheses, depending on the level of separation desired.

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