They’re There: An Assault on Grammar & Word Choice

As George Simenon once said, “Everyone who does not NEED to be a writer, who thinks he can do something else, ought to do something else.”  However, all one has to do is take a spin around the blogosphere and you will notice one blatant trend: every Tom, Dick and Harry thinks they can write. With such an open and available medium such as the internet at everyone’s finger tips, anyone who can spell and/or form a sentence can start up a blog that allows them to feed more unnecessary fodder into the overcrowded web we’ve weaved.

Wait, did I say anyone who can spell and/or form a sentence? Perhaps that’s just me being a little too generous, for we are constantly bombarded with improper spelling, grammar mistakes and word choice errors that leave the blog world a tattered mess (despite the efforts of Grammar Nazis, such as myself).

So, in honor of National Grammar Day (March 4), I have compiled a list of all too common grammar, spelling and word choice violations. Part helping hand, part pet peeves, my hope is that entries like this will encourage those with grammar/spelling issues to consult the all-knowing guru and greatest victim of this whole debacle – the internet.


The above comic strip is just one installment of the daily webcomic Girls with Slingshots by Danielle Corsetto. This comic comes highly recommended, as it is one of only three that I read regularly, so check it out! But enough about me, on to the grammar…)

A new breed of HOMOphobia – There are a lot of words in the English language that sound exactly the same despite their varied spellings and meanings. These are referred to as homonyms. For instance, there is the there/their/they’re conundrum, two of which I just used in that first sentence. Though it is easy to recall the differences between the three if you simply think for a moment, many fail to slow down and consider which they intend to put in their writing. ‘There’ implies placement, such as, “That chair belongs over THERE”, or “THERE they are!” ‘Their’ indicates ownership and possession, as in, “THEIR money was stolen”, or “I cannot believe that is THEIR dog.” ‘They’re’ is a contraction of the words ‘they are’. The simplest to remember of all three (in my opinion), you know you’re using it correctly if you can insert ‘they are’ in the sentence and have it still make sense. Another epidemic that perpetuates this fear people seem to have of choosing the right homonym is the weather/whether issue. ‘Weather’ is used to describe the conditions outside (sunny, cloudy, rainy, etc.), while ‘whether’ is a conjunction that indicates alternatives, such as ‘whether’ or not you’re using the right spelling of a word. (Ok, so I might’ve thrown that one in because it’s a big pet peeve of mine, but how can I NOT cringe when perfectly intelligent people are trying to figure out ‘weather’ or not the weather will be nice tomorrow?) Click here to see a list of all the homonyms that have been wreaking havoc on the English language for years.

*Even I’m not completely confident in my knowledge of this rule: Lay vs. Lie (vs. Laid), from Writer’s Digest (http://ow.ly/16DWqm) – because I’ll never be able to articulate (or understand) this quite as well myself.

You know what they say about the quiet ones – Poor whether. Not only is he overshadowed and often mistaken for his fraternal twin, weather, but he is also the victim of the dreaded silent letter. Even when people do chose the right version, they often forget his first ‘h’, which may just be where the weather/whether confusion steps in, for ‘wether’ looks a lot more like its counterpart this way. (Yes, ‘wether’ is an actual word that won’t get caught by spell check, but how often do you hear people talking about a castrated male sheep?) Words such as ‘exhausted’ and ‘mnemonic’ find themselves in the same predicament, plagued by a forgotten ‘h’ and ‘m’ respectively. Sadly, some even forget the ‘p’ in ‘psychology’ and ‘psychiatrist’ – an especially pathetic problem when those misspelling such words want to enter such a profession. (There should be a rule: if you cannot properly spell your desired profession, you must pick a new profession.) They may be silent, but these letters are there for a reason… To trick you. Don’t let them win.

UR gonna kick yerself – We often write when we’re in a rush, especially when it comes to instant messenger or text messaging. We ignore all rules of grammar in order to get our thoughts to the other person quickly. ‘U’ and ‘R’ have replaced the words that sound just like these single letters and the apostrophe has all but disappeared. Perhaps this is why many don’t know the correct way to differentiate between ‘your vs. you’re’ and ‘it’s vs. its’. ‘Your’ represents ownership, such as YOUR hat or YOUR computer, while ‘you’re’ is a contraction for ‘you are’. When in doubt, try inserting the words ‘you are’ into your sentence to determine if you’ve got the correct your/you’re. ‘It’s’ is also another problem-causing contraction, short for ‘it is’. Many see the apostrophe and believe it makes the word possessive like it does for other words in other scenarios. However, ‘its’ indicates possession, such as, “That’s its definition.” Once again, if the word fully spelled out (it is) does not fit in your sentence, that’s a sign you should be going with the alternate spelling.

*The apostrophe may be small, but it holds many great powers! How to Use an Apostrophe by The Oatmeal (http://theoatmeal.com/comics/apostrophe) gives you a rundown of the apostrophe’s many uses. (See? I just used it right there!)

It all depends on how you use it – It seems like the majority of grammar and word usage choices revolve around confusion. In this case, we have the ‘then vs. than’ and ‘a vs. an’ issue. While many have a hunch as to when to use these words correctly, the rules may need a little refresher. ‘Then’ indicates time and actions within a sequence: “We went to dinner, then we saw a movie.” ‘Than’ indicates a comparison: “The elephant is bigger than the skunk.” The rules of ‘a vs. an’ are a tad more blurry. ‘A’ is used before nouns starting with a consonant sound – a dog, a cat, a banana. ‘An’ comes before nouns with a vowel sound – an ogre, an ice cream cone, an hour. Notice that the key word here is sound. It does not matter what letter the word starts with; to determine between ‘a’ and ‘an’, one must sound out the word to establish whether it presents a vowel or consonant sound.

Blame ‘The Teletubbies’ – Children learn best with repetition. However, as an adult, reading repetitious words is more annoying than helpful. No matter what you’re writing, there is no need to use the same word over and over. (That’s why the thesaurus was invented.) While constantly using certain words throughout a piece may be unavoidable, one should at least attempt to space out such usage evenly within the piece so they do not sound like a broken record. The worst part about the overuse of given words is that it implies laziness or a lack of creativity on the writer’s part. Vary your sentence structure so you don’t necessarily have to incorporate the problematic word or words, or broaden your vocabulary by searching through a thesaurus. Not only will this make your writing flow smoothly, but it may actually help you learn a new word or two!

*Though this repeats a few of the points I made, there are a lot of other tips that may prove useful in your writing: Ten Words You Need to Stop Misspelling by The Oatmeal (http://theoatmeal.com/comics/misspelling). So check it out because it is DEFINATELY worth a look.

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    • Mary McCall
    • March 4th, 2010

    From one member of the grammar police to another: YAY!!! I LOVED this post! I cannot begin to tell you how much it irks me when people mess up “their there and they’re.” Sure, everyone makes mistakes. But that is why you proofread what you write. By the way, I love The Oatmeal and I thought the link was great, too. 🙂

    • Brian St. Claire
    • March 4th, 2010

    In the words of the great minds of our time… “TL; DR.”

    Just kidding!

    • Watcher
    • March 15th, 2010

    Nice, you should go for an MBA.

  1. January 6th, 2011

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