He said, she said: Good grammar improves communication
OK. That’s it. I’m sitting in my family room watching “The Today Show” and Meredith Vieira has just invited us to “join Matt and I” for the next segment. “Matt and I”? Really? If you’re reading this and don’t understand my concern, then this article is specifically intended for you—because, gentle readers, as you will see below, Meredith is wrong (or her writers are).
In the classic model of communication, the two elements, sender and receiver, are linked by the message. And for that message to work, it has to be transmitted in a common language. That, clearly, is happening less and less these days.
Over the ages, communication mishaps have helped contribute to such diverse problems as Three-mile Island, World War I, the Gulf oil spill and the Revolutionary War. (Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw even joked that “England and America are two countries separated by a common language.”)
Consequently, I’ve come to the conclusion that, since this insidious problem has now reached the hallowed halls of Studio 1-A in Rockefeller Plaza, the most important thing I can do for the world today is to help correct our most dangerous problem of all: improper grammar.
Hence, here are my 10 most-despised grammatical mistakes. Ignore them and risk global disaster.
#1 It’s vs. its. It’s really simple. You use “it’s” is when you mean to say “it is.” Think of the apostrophe (and if I have to define apostrophe, you may as well stop reading right now) as replacing the missing “i.” In all other cases, leave it out. Hence, “It’s a beautiful day today” but “the dog shook its tail.”
#2 Irregardless vs. regardless. Let me make this clear. There is no such word as irregardless. “Regardless” means “without regard.” If you put an ir- in front of it, you’re really saying without without regard (in other words, the opposite of regardless). If you mean “without regard,” then just say “regardless.” It doesn’t make you look any smarter to add an extra syllable at the front. If you’re really in love with lots of syllables, you can say “irrespective,” which means about the same thing, and has the added benefit of actually being a word.
#3 Their vs. there vs. they’re. OK, this is tricky. “Their” is the possessive; so when something belongs to someone, it’s theirs. “They’re” is only used as a contraction of “they are” (not to be confused with “there are”—see below). It’s a safe bet to use “there” the rest of the time.
#4 Me vs. I. We’re all so used to hearing people correct their kids when they say, “Tommy and me went to the pool” (to which Mom/Dad promptly interrupt “Tommy and I”…to which the kid says, “Whatever”), that we think one can never say “Tommy and me.” Not true. For example: “Sandy went to the pool with Tommy and me” is correct. When you and Tommy are the object (usually at the end) of the sentence, “Tommy and me” is correct. When you and Tommy are the subject (usually at the beginning) of the sentence, it’s “Tommy and I.” Put it this way, if you took Tommy out of it, what would you say? Would you say, “Sandy went to the pool with I?” Of course not. So don’t do so when you add Tommy to the party.
#5 Myself vs. Me. Really a continuation of point #4. Somehow we think that saying “myself” makes us sound more intelligent, as in, “please return the paper to myself at your earliest convenience.” Wrong. The only time you should use “myself” is when you actually do the thing to yourself, as in “I wrote a reminder to myself.”
#6 Concerning vs. Disconcerting. Look it up in the dictionary. “Concerning” means one thing: about, or regarding. It does not mean “something that worries you.” So to say “this problem is very concerning to me” is just plain wrong. There’s no such thing. You may be trying to say the problem is “disconcerting,” which means it causes you to feel “ill at ease, slightly confused, or taken aback.”
#7 Fewer vs. Less. This one’s simple too. If you can count whatever it is you’re talking about in individual units, then use “fewer.” If you can’t, then use “less.” So, there were “fewer” (not “less”) customers in the lobby for the matinee shows than we had hoped; and we made “less” money than we budgeted (dang!).
#8 Misnomer vs. Misconception. Another “I’m going to impress you with my vocabulary now” word. “Misnomer” means something that is incorrectly or inappropriately named. For instance, critics might characterize the use of the word “service” in referring to the Postal Service as a “misnomer” (if they really wanted to be cute, they would call it an oxymoron, but that’s for another article). But a “misnomer” is not the same as a misconception (as in “a mistaken idea or view”). So a child’s belief that Santa comes down the chimney every Christmas isn’t a misnomer; it’s a misconception (sorry, kids).
#9 e.g. vs. i.e. These two abbreviations are not interchangeable. When you mean “for example,” use “e.g.” as in “I hate big words (e.g.: prestidigitation, supernumerary, etc.).” When you mean “in other words,” use “i.e.” as in “you’ll have to do this all by yourself (i.e., you won’t have any help).” If this is confusing, just follow author Jane Venolia’s advice in Write Right!: A Desktop Digest of Punctuation, Grammar, and Style and avoid the abbreviations altogether. So if you mean to say “for example,” just say “for example.” Novel concept.
#10 There’s vs. There are. “There’s” means one thing: a contraction of “there” and “is.” So it’s inappropriate to use “there’s” when you really mean “there are,” as in “there’s many reasons not to do this.” The correct way to say this is “There are many reasons not to do this.” Why? “Many reasons” in this sentence is plural. Would you say, “There is lots of dogs at the shelter?” No. So don’t say, “There’s lots of dogs in the shelter” either.
There (or is it their?) you have it. My work is done here. I can now move on with my day knowing I’ve done my part to save humanity. Thanks for indulging me (or is it I?).
Keith Wiedenkeller welcomes your comments at firstname.lastname@example.org.