Tag Archive | grammar

Houston, We’ve Got a Problem

Ladies and Gentlemen, Boys and Girls, Practioners of the English language…

Nous avon une grande probleme.

Wier haben eine grosse Problem. (Bigger even than auto correct’s attempts to turn French and German into English)

The National Spelling Bee is this week where grammar school-aged kids spell words that I swear were made up five minutes before being given to them, and TV news anchors try to guess the meanings…

while the scroll flying by under them is riddled with misspelled everyday words. 

I read articles by paid journalists in USA Today, the LA Times, various blog sites (presumably places with trained editors) contain errors of homonyms, usage, punctuation, and inability to differentiate between contractions and possessives. 

One site posed the question, “should we still teach spelling even with auto correct?” I was going to answer,  “Are you fucking kidding me? Hell, yes!”, but stepped back and toned it down to “Hell, yes!”  By the way, that comment got 20 likes.

I am a beneficiary of advancements in publishing technology in that I have been able to publish two books with it that had been rejected by every publisher and agent I approached (they liked the writing, just didn’t think there was a market). You can upload a file, push enter and voila;  you have a book available for sale. It’s that easy.

Unfortunately, too easy, in some cases. 

I have read offerings by some independent authors in which the mechanics of their writing was so bad, they completely distracted me from the story. Now, I KNOW these people have earned at least a high school diploma in the U.S., and that requires several years’ worth of Language Arts and English studies. 12 years worth of study. Couldn’t tell it by the writing. 

The truly appalling one was an article about a man reunited with his dog after several years. The author used this phrase to describe what the man had done in between losing and regaining the dog “He had became a dog trainer.” 

In case you don’t get it, the proper choices are either “he became a dog trainer” or “he had become a dog trainer.”)

I did some Google research on the author and it said she’d been a Language Arts teacher for several years. 

Too harsh?


I repeat myself. In other blog posts and on other blogs, I have urged the 5, 6, or 7 readers to not rely on auto correct or word processing programs in lieu of learning a broad vocabulary, mastering spelling, usage, punctuation, and grammar. 

“But that’s all memorization. It’s boring.”

Tough. Shit. It’s training.

In “The Paper Chase,”  the Contracts Professor, Charles Kingsfield, admonishes one of hi students for being unprepared for clas by telling him, “You come in here with a skull full of mush, but leave thinking like a lawyer.”

Training. He’s talking about training. Learning the difference between correct and incorrect; what is the proper word or arrangement of words for the given situation. 

We live in the information technology age, which makes the (rather small) dissemination of this essay possible. Computers can do a lot of great things for us, but we need to use our own brains or the skulls aren’t even going to be full of mush. More like month old oatmeal. One crucial things word processing programs and auto correct have not learned is that the English language is loaded with quirks, exceptions to rules, homonyms, and other holdovers from Angles, Saxons, the odd Viking raid, and a millennium long pissing contest with France. Word cannot completely grasp the tangle of Germanic and Latin roots that describe things like lactose (Latin) in milk (Germanic). 

In other words: the machines don’t have your back. You cannot rely on them to fill the gaps in your own Language Arts knowledge.

The current terminology to describe a seemingly random collection of words (usually to describe Sarah Palin’s utterances) is “word salad.” Without knowing the rules and how to build the solid structures for sentences and paragraphs, AND APPLYING THEM, it’s just a jumble without syntax.

Not only have these millennial (and Gen Y and Gen X) writers seemed to have ignored the rules of good writing, but they use beta readers (trusted friends who are avid readers that you choose to be an additional pair of eyes on your work) and editors who either don’t know them or don’t care to apply them. As a result, self-published authors as a whole get a bad rap for the poor quality product hitting the market from these sources. “This is why the traditional publishers don’t want work from self-published authors. They don’t know what they’re doing or don’t care as long as it sells.” 

It’s time for remedial Grammar School.

Find those DVDs of Schoolhouse House to learn parts of speech. (Everybody loved “Conjunction Junction” conjunction Junction)

Start following a grammar blog. I was considering starting a YouTube channel to teach spelling and grammar, but one of my cousins told me there was already a “hot chick” teaching grammar. 

Actually, that’s a picture linked to a grammar blog. You get the idea.

I love Weird Al word Crimes. #Yankovic

Someone who continually slapped a bunch of bricks and mortar together, yet never built a usable structure, could never call himself a mason. The same for hammering together a bunch of boards without consideration to measurement, support, and function ; that’s not carpentry. These are skilled professions.

Yet, we have stories, novels, articles, and essays made public that lack the basics in written communication because of electronic means of dissemination. No need to bring something to an editor for approval or rewrites.

Writing is also a skilled profession, but it gets as much respect as a public school teacher. In other words, none.

There is a scene from “All the President’s Men” (1976) showing editor Ben Bradlee with pencil in hand (the age of typewriter) copy editing articles by Bob Woodward and Carl Bernstein that would expose the Watergate break-in as being the tip of a corruption iceberg in the Nixon White House. Bradlee was their highly trained and experienced pair of eyes to catch and remove errors, streamline, and improve the story. Woodward and Bernstein are not slouches as writers, but they know they aren’t perfect. (I couldn’t find a clip showing this scene) the quality of their writing, in terms of mechanics, was a helluva lot better than a lot I’m seeing lately. Bradlee’s blue pencil was in motion for a couple of minutes in that scene.

Get copies of Strunk & White, a good dictionary, Roget’s, Zinsser and USE THEM when writing. Train your brain. In fact, try writing the old-fashioned way; paper and pen. Do this as an exercise, then correct it or get it corrected. Think of this as a drill.


“Drop that laptop and give me 50 sentences. In cursive.”

Do you write? Get an editor, and not just your best friend Jo Jo, unless Jo Jo has been teaching writing and has a degree in it. There are sites to hire freelance editors for copy and for style. You need someone who knows more about this stuff than you do. Like maybe a professor at the community college, or a high school English teacher (although, that one woman with the “Had became”…be careful out there).

TLC channel just freed up hours per week by finally ditching those goddamn Duggars (Before anyone jumps: child molestation is neither godly nor moral. It’s sick. And we don’t know that he has actually stopped). Were it up to me, I’d have them filling that time with interactive educational programming hitting math and Language Arts (let the History Channel teach…I’ll go on a limb here…history), different hours geared to different levels. If AMC can create content to sync up your computer to program that’s on right now, then it shouldn’t be difficult for a student with a question about homonyms to be able to get it answered by a teacher on TV. We have the technology to make better, stronger, faster writers. 


And Now a Word From a Former English Teacher

(Okay, Language Arts for junior high school kids, but the age range is appropriate).


People of America:

I have detected a widespread error in English usage that should be addressed forthwith. Actually a lot of them (Look, spelling really DOES count. Don’t rely on Spellcheck or auto correct. THEY DON’T UNDERSTAND HOMONYMS). It is time to reclaim our intelligence and coherent communications. Break out the composition books, because class is in session .

(Great Britain? You’re lovely just as you are. You guys have your own spelling issues, such as an excessive fondness for “u” : flavour, etc. And there’s that whole “aluminium” thing. We Yanks may be brusque, but we don’t dally with excess letters)

Not only did I teach Language Arts, I’m an author (buy my books. See the link at the top of the page). While I enjoy the democratization of technology where anyone can now publish a book, the downside is there is an ever-increasing amount of material out there where the content may be great, but the execution is sub-standard. I belong to a lot of author groups on Facebook and some of the spelling/grammar errors I see in posts have been carried into the stories written by the authors.

First of all, if you are an author, Yea! (That is the correct spelling, not “yay.”) Word of advice: make sure your editor knows as much about spelling, punctuation, grammar, and sentence construction as you do, if not more. You are painting with words and while it may be acceptable for one of your characters to screw up language (in dialogue), it is not acceptable for the author to do so.  You don’t have to be an Oxford don, but you do need to know and understand the rules before you break them.

sarah palin

Easy starter here: Whatever THIS woman does, language-wise? Do the opposite and you’ll be correct.


This is my pet peeve du jour because I see “lay” misused EVERYWHERE.  “I’m going to go lay down.” WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG WRONG!!!

If you are moving yourself from a vertical (up and down) position to horizontal (side to side) position, e.g. taking a nap, you are LYING down. If you are placing an object (such as one of my books. Really, go buy them, they’re great) on a surface, you are LAYING down the object.


Thus, the act of lovemaking, when someone puts you on a bed (don’t nitpick here, I’m trying to make a point), YOU are the object and YOU are getting LAID.

See how that works?

Of course, the past tense of lie is lay, but just keep that handy-dandy chart around and refer to it often.

LIE = Recline, LAY = put or place

Lay down your weapons” (Put or place your guns down)

“I’m going to lie down from this migraine you kids have given me. I can’t wait until school starts again.” (Recline in a dark, quiet room and prayer for the school board to approve year round sessions)

Understand: I’m blaming word processing programs. They’ve been programmed to help us out but binary code is not artificial intelligence. They haven’t advanced enough to pick up on bad grammar or improper usage. We humans know ALL the rules for proper writing and sentence construction. Microsoft Word is still a few sandwiches short of a picnic in this regard. DON’T rely on SpellCheck, I beg you. Get a dictionary. Or pay to use Grammarly.


One is a natural phenomenon seen in thunderstorms and volcanos.


volcanic lightning

And the other is an alternative term for bleached hair


(God forgive me for using a Whoredashian to make a point)

The confusion has become so widespread that when I went to look for images of “lightening” in Google Images, most of the first hits were pictures of lightning.

Again, they are both actual words, but word processing programs cannot deduce from the context which one is appropriate (I will be sending invitations to a “there,” “their,” and “they’re” seminar). It is up to YOU, the actual human being whom an over-stressed, underpaid teacher  attempted to guide through this minefield, to know the difference. If you graduated sixth grade, there is no excuse for screwing up vocabulary and spelling like this.

Of course, if you’ve read all this, shrugged, and said, “Meh. Doesn’t matter”, this is what you’ll become:

sarah palin

Full of sound and fury signifying nothing.

(That’s a different English course. English lit. “Macbeth”).

One final shot to drive the point home:


July 17 PS: As of July 16, 2014, Weird Al Yankovic agrees with me:

Couldn't put it better myself.

Couldn’t put it better myself.

“Word Crimes” by Weird Al Yankovic

Spell Check Is Not Your Friend

First things first: Reiterating last week’s blog post, I am offering FREE, SIGNED copies of These Foolish Things to breast cancer survivors. I have walked in Boston’s Making Strides Against Breast Cancer event several times. I lost my best friend to complications of this foul thief. It is my great pleasure to strike back. If you know someone, share this post.

I am a writer (although with something in print, I can now say “I am an author.” Writer’s Digest had some article about the difference between being a “writer” and an “author” and made the distinction that of being published). I am trained as an English (Language Arts) teacher. I have  a mastery of my native language, both spoken and written (typing is another story).  I read a lot of books, articles, and Facebook posts. The errors in spelling and usage by people who SHOULD know better make me wonder if humans are heading back to grunts and gestures as the sole means of communication. Why should they know better? Because this is FOURTH GRADE Language Arts, people.


And, some of all y’all are PROFESSIONAL PUBLISHED AUTHORS.


WHAT I SEE is that people sitting down to a word processing program to write rely on the Spell Check feature to catch any and all errors; therefore, they don’t need to know the words. Spell Check is my Homeboy. Same kind of thinking with not learning basic math  functions like addition, subtraction, long division, and multiplication because calculators are so cheap and plentiful. (I still break out in fraction-induced cold sweats)

Bad thinking, Folks, bad thinking.

Yes, Spell Check knows how to spell a boat load of words. HOWEVER, Spell Check does not know context.  Spell Check knows how to spell all the different homonyms (words that sound alike but have different spellings and meanings), but it isn’t smart enough to detect when you’re using the wrong one.  We are all in trouble when it does because that means that Skynet has become aware and we will have Arnold Schwarzenegger suddenly show up looking for Sarah Connor. Buck naked isn’t his best look right now.



Of course, the reliance and prevalence of Spell Check doesn’t explain so many people who cannot or do not spell “definitely” or “separate” correctly. IT’S EVEN IN YOUR FACEBOOK STATUS UPDATES FER CRYIN’ OUT LOUD!!! One of my sisters, for instance, throws that “a” into “definite” or “definitely” and when it was pointed out to her, couldn’t give a shit and in fact bitched about getting corrected.


Anyway, you as the human in front of the word processing program have the responsibility of knowing what is right.  In fact, you should have learned this in middle school, if not earlier.

schoolhouse rock

Schoolhouse Rock

I’m not kidding: for basics in Math, Language Arts, Civics, and Science, this is a worthwhile investment. Spongebob and My Little Pony may be entertaining, but this is entertaining and contains essential knowledge.

I’m going to focus on three homonym groups that are the most abused.

their they're there

This group is Numero Uno, especially the use of the possessive pronoun “their” when the writer intends “they’re” (contraction of “they are”). I cringe. I really do. I reiterate: if you have spelled “their” correctly, Spell Check is not going to pick up the error because Spell Check is not programmed for CONTEXT. I’m sorry, but you have to step up on these and just learn the correct words/usage. There’s no way around it. See the grumpy man up there (correct usage)? Learn from him.

your you're

It seems like the one rule from basic Language Arts that everyone remembers is that you use an apostrophe to show possession. That’s fine, but it leads to confusion when you are dealing with pronouns. Apostrophes are an element in contractions (I’m, they’re, aren’t, isn’t, wouldn’t, ain’t).  Possessive pronouns don’t have apostrophes. My, your, their, our.

Your. The possessive pronoun. Your book, your blog, your egregious writing errors.

Contractions are a shortening of two words (or labor pains that make the mother-to-be wish the time was shorter). “They are” turns into “they’re” (replacing the a with the apostrophe). “I am” becomes “I’m.” These are not possessive pronouns. They are contracted verbs. They denote action (or a state of being). So, the sentence “Your going to have fun” (and I’d like to note that Spell Check didn’t underline the “your”) SHOULD be “You’re (You are) going to have fun.”

You’re going to have to learn the difference to improve your writing.

to too two

For once, it’s not pronouns and contractions getting the abuse

To – preposition. What’s a preposition:

  1. a word governing, and usually preceding, a noun or pronoun and expressing a relation to another word or element in the clause, as in “the man on the platform,” “she arrived after dinner,” “what did you do it for ?”
    Too – means either “also” or “excessive.” “She’s (contraction, not a possessive pronoun) covering this, too? That’s too much!”

Finally, “two”

It’s a number, pure and simple. After one and before three.

And watch yourselves: there may be a quiz.