Engaged with the World

Category: Grammar

Better Grammar for Better Lives

I get teased a lot for my grammar compulsion. Misplaced apostrophes distract me from the content of written communication, and double negatives instantly downgrade my estimation of the person speaking. I have tried, but these things bother me. It’s no secret: I think grammar is important.

I participate in two critique groups for writers. A new writer came to one of those groups recently. His story featured a dystopian society with teenage protagonists, and something significant was about to happen. Dystopias are popular especially among young adult readers, and his premise was interesting, but reading his submission with an eye critical to style was painful. It took me nearly an hour to agonize my way through his ten double-spaced pages. The biggest problem was not his story. It was his grammar.

He committed the usual subject-verb agreement crimes. He butchered his sentences with improper punctuation. Malapropisms peppered every page. Sentence fragments. Ridiculous imagery completed the ghastly picture he painted with his words. He probably has a good story to tell, but until he learns to tell it in plain – and correct – language, he won’t be telling it to much of an audience.

I suggested that he use a grammar checker. Grammarly’s free online grammar checker is a good one. It’s fun to play with, and it’s educational to boot. Anyone who seriously wants to write well can benefit from a grammar checker.

Plain, understandable language lets us communicate succinctly and clearly. The better people communicate, the more likely they are to get what they want and to understand what others want from them. Skilled communicators are more likely to persuade others. Good, clear language reduces misunderstandings.



Jargon-filled vernacular and pretentious verbiage are every bit as off-putting as double negatives. As a practicing lawyer, I have spent huge amounts of time rewriting contracts and legal precedents that other lawyers have written in “legalese.” If the people bound by the contract or the court order or the contract can’t understand it, the document is not worth the expense of drafting it.

Bad grammar and poor usage leave a bad impression. While job interviews and sales meetings obviously require concise communication, so do ordinary daily tasks. Understanding how to assemble a new purchase, how to troubleshoot a technical problem, directions for using medication, information transmitted to and from police and ambulance services – some of these communications make life easier, but others mean the difference between life and death. When careful communication becomes a habit, everyone wins.

Let’s practice good grammar – for all of us.

Word of the day: Bescumber

“To demonstrate what he thought of the oogling visitors to his cage, the orangutan bescumbered them, hooting with derision as they screamed and ran away.”


Strange Maps

One of my favorite blogs is “Strange Maps.” I admit: I’m a map geek. The maps are really fascinating, I promise. Each map is accompanied by a well written, well researched article that lists its sources. I’ve never failed to learn something from these posts.

For instance, there’s the one that shows how King Cotton picks Presidents, something near and dear to my heart since my family has grown cotton in Arkansas since before the Civil War and is pleased to hold sway still over national politics. (Sorry, I will not entertain questions about how many slaves my ancestors owned. I hate to be prickly, but that is usually the tactless question immediately asked when I mention our history of cotton farming.)

Also on the political front was the map that showed clearly what illegal immigrants were aiming for when it came to the Absolut Perfect Mexico. Scary, huh?

Believe it or not, though, there’s humor in maps, too.

The “Strange Maps” blog featured a very special post on The Semi-Colonial State of San Serriffe, a place that is near and dear to my writing, punctuation-loving heart.

There are maps of strange and wonderful places such as Elleore, a kingdom 12 minutes ahead of Copenhagen. I never discerned whether they have Daylight Savings Time in Elleore, or if at some point they fall 48 minutes behind Copenhagen.

Then there are the bizarre maps of the modern world, such as the “Smart Medicine” infomercial map that located Australia off the coast of Baja California and situated Africa between Maine and Ireland, eliminating Iceland and Greenland entirely, and
a map of the “Special World” that only the hospitality industry inhabits.

Wonderful antique maps crop up occasionally, like the map that inspired Christopher Columbus to believe he could sail from Spain to Cathay in three weeks, overlaid on the true map of the world.

Maps on the site show useful things, too, like where to find goblins in Europe or what to ask for when one wishes to order a non-alcoholic carbonated beverage in a different part of the country.

I have to admit, though, that yesterday’s featured map, from (a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language) is one of my favorites, just for the sheer fun of it:

Time/CNN Apostrophe Error!

The bastion of good journalism has failed. An editor at TIME/CNN’s International Desk ought to be reprimanded. How could he let this go by?

I was perusing the international news blogs, minding my own business, eating my Healthy Choice Steamer for lunch, when I was assaulted by an apostrophe.

It glared at me, then it jumped out and demanded to be circled in red and corrected.

So I did.

Grammar Quiz

I saw this on another blog, and I’m stealing it for my own nefarious purposes.

There is an error below somewhere.  Can you find it?  Eighty percent of UCSD students could not.

Whats wrong here:


Don’t cheat and check the comments before you find it.

‘Just a Comma’ on National Punctuation Day

'Just a Comma' magnify

According to the Carpetbagger Report, which can be accessed on the Think Progress website, this afternoon on CNN’s Late Edition with Wolf Blitzer, George W. Bush practically said that all the sectarian violence in Iraq is irrelevant. When history views what is going on in Iraq now, Bush claims it will be seen as “just a comma.”

Is it just me, or does anyone else think he needs to go back to primary school and learn punctuation?

This is what was said:

BLITZER: Let’s move on and talk a little bit about Iraq. Because this is a huge, huge issue, as you know, for the American public, a lot of concern that perhaps they are on the verge of a civil war, if not already a civil war…. We see these horrible bodies showing up, tortured, mutilation. The Shia and the Sunni, the Iranians apparently having a negative role. Of course, al Qaeda in Iraq is still operating.

BUSH: Yes, you see — you see it on TV, and that’s the power of an enemy that is willing to kill innocent people. But there’s also an unbelievable will and resiliency by the Iraqi people…. Admittedly, it seems like a decade ago. I like to tell people when the final history is written on Iraq, it will look like just a comma because there is — my point is, there’s a strong will for democracy.

Presubably our Ivy League-educated Miscommunicator in Chief meant that all the mutilations, the suicide bombs, the beheadings, as well as all the senseless murder of civilian men, women and children in the marketplaces and at mosques, will be only a footnote in Iraqi history. That would make more sense, anyway.

I find it extremely hard to believe that what is happening in Iraq right now will be reduced to some kind of punctuation mark – a squiggle that doesn’t even mention it. Heck, I’ll go out on a limb and admit that I believe that it will even merit considerably more than a footnote! The Boston Tea Party merits more than a footnote, after all, and it had all the hallmarks of a fraternity prank, the likes of which I’m sure our esteemed chief executive was familiar with at Yale. If dumping a cargo of tea into Boston Harbor is part of the legend of American democracy, surely the mutilations and murders of thousands of people over a period of a few months will be part of the legend of Iraqi democracy.

How could we have re-elected this idiot? How could this fool ever have been elected president in the first place? Oh, yeah. I forgot. He wasn’t.

Perhaps Bush decided to make this comment because today is National Punctuation Day. No kidding. It really is.

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