Grammar Still Matters

In this age of social media, when people post everything from what they ate at their most recent meal to political and social commentary, often in haste and with little regard to spelling and grammar, we may well conclude that grammar no longer matters. Some errors occur with such frequency that people no longer regard them as errors but as accepted usage. Language is constantly changing. Is this true of grammar as well?

Certainly some grammatical errors have become so commonplace that they have replaced the correct forms at least in speech and in informal writing such as what we see in email and on the many social media sites. Have those of us who are bothered by incorrect grammar reduced to throwing up our hands in surrender? Have the incorrect forms become the norm?

I don’t know the answer to that question with regard to casual writing, but I do say emphatically that to writers, grammar still matters. Or at least, it should. Professional writers should and generally do still care about grammar. Professional publishing houses have editors and proofreaders who correct errors. Many conscientious self-published authors pay editors to check their work and remove errors of spelling, capitalization, punctuation, and usage or have their work vetted by beta readers who, though their primary purpose is judging the content, also catch many errors in the course of their reading. I was so fortunate to have an excellent editor for my books published by Tor. He was quick to make me aware of anything I was careless about. For example, like so many, I did not distinguish between the words anxious and eager. I had written something about the boys in A Perilous Power being anxious to reach the city of Port-of-Lords. My editor asked whether I meant they were worried about possibly not reaching it. If so, anxious would be correct, but he suspected that what I meant was that they were eager to reach Port-of-Lords. I agreed that that was what I meant, and since then I am careful to use the two words correctly. I also recall that a short story I submitted to George Scithers, who was a wonderful editor but is, alas, no longer with us, was rejected but was returned to me with editorial corrections. I have always considered myself a good speller, but, to my embarrassment I had misspelled the word minuscule as miniscule. That is a common spelling error, but not one I will ever make again. I’m sure I have made and will make others, and I never take offense when these are pointed out to me. Rather, I’m grateful, because I want my work to appear as professional as possible.

Errors of word usage and spelling can creep into any writer’s work, but they should never abound in a work. Writers should know and use the correct forms of the verbs lay and lie, for example. A writer may use the incorrect forms of these verbs in dialog, to indicate that the speaker is grammatically challenged, but never in narrative or in dialog when the speaker is a well-educated person. No writer should confuse its and it’s, an error I just saw used repeatedly in an article in a publication put out by a professional organization. A writer should never misuse the case of a pronoun by writing something like between him and I, yet just recently I came across this sentence, I needed to clear up the misunderstanding that had arisen between my father and I.

An error that I see frequently is in the use of the word whomever. The forms whom and whomever are probably on their way out, at least in speech and in informal writing. Few readers would notice the use of who or whoever where whom or whomever would be grammatically correct. For that reason, I would advise anyone unsure of when to use whom or whomever to stick with who and whoever under all circumstances. This is especially true when trying to use whomever in a clause used as a direct object or object of a preposition. This sentence illustrates a frequent error: The prize will be awarded to whomever answers the next question correctly. Here whomever is incorrect because the object of the preposition to is not whomever, but the entire clause that follows it. The subject of that clause is, correctly, whoever. Compare these two sentences:

The prize will be awarded to whoever answers the next question correctly.

The prize will be awarded to whomever the judges choose.

In the second sentence, the object of the preposition to is again the entire clause, whomever the judges choose, but in this case whomever is correct because it is the direct object of the verb choose. If you understand this distinction, great! But if you are confused, unless you are doing formal or academic writing, just use whoever in either sentence, and very few readers will realize that the word should be whomever.

For a more detailed discussion of this topic and clarification on many other often confused words, I recommend the book Common Errors in English Usage, by Paul Brians.


About E. Rose Sabin

Fantasy and science fiction author.
This entry was posted in editing, Spelling and Grammar, Writing and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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