Often Encountered Grammatical Offenses

Papa Hemingway at work
Papa Hemingway at work

During my lengthy and checkered career I have worked with words in a variety of ways – as proofreader, editor, typesetter, and most often, writer. I come from a long, literary family of editors and writers. Both my mother and my aunt were proofreading books well into retirement. But I am not a great grammarian. When it comes to writing, I consider myself more mechanic than artist, and I am normally able to assemble the pieces correctly and without instruction. However, I also keep copies of Strunk and White and the AP Stylebook close at hand, and am a fan of Grammar Girl’s podcasts.

Even the best writers should be reminded of the rules from time to time, which is why I wanted to share some insights from a recent blog from Bob Cramblitt of Cramblitt & Company he calls “10 Creepy Writing Things.”  Granted, English is a living, breathing language and usage is changing at Internet speed, but there are some rules worth preserving, which is why I want to share Bob’s list.

1. Avoiding the annoying quotation marks. Quotations are for attribution, not for emphasis.

2. Improper use of the apostrophe. Know thy possessives! And know the different between singular and plural possessives.

3. Morphing nouns into verbs. Bob doesn’t want to be incented, and he gives the nod to Seth Godin who talks about the difference between investments and investing, paint and painting, and gift and giving.

4. Avoiding passive voice. It’s not that difficult. It’s all about identifying subjects and nouns and providing an agent for each action.

5. Misleading headlines and jump leads. Anyone in news or PR has been guilty of producing poor headlines, and I recently saw a few beauties at the Newseum in Washington DC.

6. Typographical errors, which actually seem to proliferate with the use of spell checkers. You have to read the copy for context because spell checkers can’t do that. (And I will confess that I am one of the worst offenders when it comes to proofreading my own material.)

7. The 50-word sentence and the 20-line paragraph. This seems to be a particularly common offense in technology PR. Brevity is bliss, and if you doubt it, try re-reading Hemingway.

8. Indirect sentences stacking up like planes over SFO. It’s a writing approach I have used upon occasion to try to build excitement and drama. Alas, it doesn’t work.

9. Excessive use of adverbs and exclamation points! Enough said.

10. Jargon overload. Another common trait in technology PR where TLAs rule. (That’s geek jargon for three-letter acronyms.) Every specialty has its terminology, but good writing shouldn’t require a code-breaker and should be clear to everyone.

There are many other rules that we all live by, one way or another. English is inexact, and no one stylebook is perfect. For example, even though it runs counter to AP style, I tend to keep the serial comma before conjunctions because I find it lends clarity, particularly when discussing a complex series. Some habits die harder than others.

What are your pet grammatical grumblings? I’d like to know.

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