Thursday, November 10, 2005

Grammar Nerds

This is actually a post that I had drafted some time ago, but never published because I couldn't muster the courage... until today, when MetroDad inspired me by coming clean as a grammar nerd.

Hello. My name is David, and I am a Grammar Nerd.

It started as a child, when my big sister Alison graciously offered to edit the articles I had drafted for my school newspaper (my sisters taught me 80% of everything I learned before college). Unfortunately, Alison's journalistic talents failed to rub off on me, but I easily absorbed the more mathematical elements of her English writing lessons--the rules of grammar. I suppose I got carried away, having failed to appreciate how unusually high a bar my sister had set for me (she hadn't yet become the star New York Times investigative reporter that she is today). Further compelled by a rather unhealthy obsession to score 800 on my English Achievement Exam, I proceeded to master English linguistics, naively overestimating the necessity, utility, and appeal of perfect grammar. Sadly, proper usage of the subjunctive tense (e.g. "If I Were A Rich Man...") never scored me a date.

Today I resign myself to the chronic nature of my disorder. I recognize grammatical mistakes in every conversation, and in most things that I read (except, of course, Alison's articles). The errors jar me. In fact, if you wish to hurt me, mis-conjugate the form of be, conjoin unparallel syntactic elements, or apply participial phrases to the object of a sentence (as in, "Filled with bad gas, he drove his car despite the knocking sound").

But no linguistic offense grates me more than hypercorrection--the growing epidemic of grammatical errors motivated by desire to flaunt superior English proficiency. Some examples of hypercorrection have proved particularly contagious:

"They met with Fred and I for an hour."

You wouldn't say that they met with I, so why say that they met with Fred and I? The misuse of subjective pronouns following prepositions is the most common hypercorrection.

"I need to pay whomever went shopping for us."

The less pretentious "whoever" is actually correct here. This one's a little confusing because, indeed, it is obviously fine to say "I need to pay him." But the object of the sentence is more than just "whomever" so the proper substitution is: "I need to pay he who went shopping for us."

"Are you still feeling badly today?"
"No, I'm feeling good, thank you."

The question, not the answer, is incorrect. We use adjectives, not adverbs, to describe the subjects of sentences with linking verbs (e.g. be, seem, taste, feel, smell, look). If you feel bad, then you are ill, but if you feel badly, then you are just numb.

If you share my affliction, I offer only one message of consolation: it's okay to correct my grammar--I actually like it!

But if you're not like me, you have probably concluded by now that I am just an asshole. You see my problem here. As a venture capitalist, I've already got two strikes against me, and grammatical snobbery hardly helps!


  1. Anonymous3:42 AM

    Your grammar makes for very pleasant reading, however you seem to miss the larger point about grammar and language in general. Grammar is not a static object it is dynamic so its rules are ambiguous at best. Bounded to a great extent by where you are who you are and indeed "when" you are.

    Have a look at English, upper class, 17th century (no doubt "correct") grammar and see, perhaps, how far removed it is from current perceptions of "correct" grammar.

    There really is no such thing as "correct" grammar, well not in my view anyway. Language is a system to convey meaning, emotion and to entertain, how it achieves this aim is very much open to personal preference.

    Forgive me for any mangled grammar but you get the idea Im sure (pun intended).

  2. David,
    I share the same affliction for Greek grammar and spelling. I have reached the conclusion that mentally logging and correcting grammar mistakes is more of a compulsion than anything else, and wince everytime I do it loudly!

    However, I really can't stand mistakes, especially when I know that the offender is just too lazy to think of the proper form.

    Totally sympathising,

  3. Anonymous5:30 AM

    Well, David. They say denial is the first sign of addiction. Similarly, admission must be the first sign of recovery. So kudos to you for admitting that you have a problem. Maybe we can get together and start a support group. I'll bring the Strunk & White. You bring the Chicago Manual of Style. Maybe your sister can bring the NY Times Manual of Style & Usage. C'mon. It'll be a party!

  4. Anonymous7:36 AM

    So, I'm curious about something. I'll admit, I can't use whomever properly, but I'm otherwise reasonably well educated.

    I've noticed this is quite rare amongst entreprenuers. It's to the point where I'll often be listening to a very successful CEO, and wincing at the particulars of their speech.

    Is this because I expect the successful to be better at everything, and so I judge them more harshly, or is it really that entreprenuers are worse gramaticians?

  5. Anonymous12:11 PM

    If this is an affliction, I don't want to be healthy. In fact, I would prefer that it be contagious.

    Speaking of hypercorrectness, did you notice a few years ago, David, that writers in some women's fashion magazines began to use "penultimate" to mean that which is beyond ultimate? It may have been a more general phenomenon, but I noticed it solely in "Glamour" and its ilk. Luckily, it lasted only six months or so.

    And by the way, when did they change the rule about how many spaces to put between sentences? I was taught that for typed prose, one uses two spaces. This seems to have changed with the advent of the "word processor", perhaps as a consequence of proportional spacing and kerning becoming available to those of us reared on a more meager typographical diet.

  6. Glenn,

    I appreciate your effort, but you are absolutely mistaken about the use of commas. Refer to Purdue University's Online Written Lab for the complete set of rules on using commas ( Usage Rule #1 calls for a comma to separate independent clauses joined by the word "but" (with examples that match my usage exactly). Usage Rule #5 shows examples of series seperated by commas, and in every listed example a comma separates the ultmate and penultimate elements in the series (though actually that comma is optional).

    Chris, I thought you'd appreciate the proper use above of penultimate :-)


    I agree with you--sometimes the best prose (certainly within theater, blogs, email and IM) favors dialect and stream of consciousness over grammar. But I'm guessing you agree that poor grammar can, at times, detract from the speaker's credibility. When journalists, historians, scientists, judges, presidents, teachers and other credentialed experts engage in hypercorrection, at best they betray minor ignorance and at worst they sound pretentious.

    David, thanks for the URL correction.

  7. Glenn: one more thing---you're right that I didn't get that 800. I scored a 790, though I'm pretty sure that my mistake had nothing to do with commas.

  8. Anonymous12:10 PM

    You must know you have now opened your blog up to close grammatical scrutiny. I suppose that merely feeds your addiction.

    My linguistic pet peeves include:
    "proactive" - What the hell is it? Shouldn't it mean "in favour of activity"? People should just use "active" instead. The worst part is it is constantly used by politicians and managers as a catchphrase.

  9. Anonymous7:19 PM

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  10. Anonymous10:07 AM


    Re: your blog "Heracles' Marathon to Olympus, Athena Awaits".

    Nathalie was your "fiancée" (instead of "fiancé").


  11. R,
    Yes, it's fiancee!
    Thank you,

  12. Anonymous8:33 PM

    I was listening to the radio and the host went off about made-up words. He said 'importantly' was made-up and repeatedly said how 'more importantly' is incorrect.
    He was wrong and right. 'Importantly' is fine as long it is used as an adverb, but incorrect was used as the preface 'more importantly'. People say and write , 'more importantly, ...' all the time so I found it interesting.
    Who cares? Well, it reminded my of this post. True story. I am also terrified of posting comments on this site as I know my grammar is not perfect. (My internal monologue while typing this included questioning the use of single quotation marks, the period within or outside the quotation marks, and the obvious sentence fragment.)

  13. I don't know the right porcentage but I believe that at least 50% of people who writes on the net weren't born in USA, United Kingdom, Australia, etc. (i.e. English is not their mother tongue). Like me...
    I am Spaniard and I know many people commit the same mistakes when writing in Spanish (self phones and chats are destroying our language). Of course, also in English but, as I said before, I think one of the reasons of these "poor grammar" on the web is because of these people not having english like mother tongue.

  14. Anonymous3:33 AM

    You may want to know that the subjunctive is not a tense, it's a mood, and grammar isn't at all like mathematics.

    PS There's an academic at Oxford university (England) who thinks that the subjunctive doesn't exist at all, but we'll not go into that.

  15. I'm a high school English teacher, and I positively adore grammar. I find it to be very logical; I've always mentally compared it to algebra, for some reason. However, I find it very hard to teach grammar, because, for many of my students, it doesn't make sense in the least. I suppose it's because they've learned to speak so poorly, and so they haven't seen the rules properly demonstrated. It's sad, though.

  16. Funny that you wrote about your grammar-related affliction. I suffer from the same thing and function as a terror against people who say "jim and me went there" or who write "the store told kim and I that we couldn't return it"

    Object of the verb of preposition - is that so hard to understand?

    Of course, I love to tease my friends when they make the mistake - and they're English majors. ;)

  17. While I can appreciate your grammar obsession, mine is more of a spelling obsession. However, it's amazing how often I have to bite my tongue to keep from constantly correcting verb tenses. I have actually heard my children's teachers make comments like, "I seen him last night". A TEACHER! Thank you, thank you, thank you to all of MY past teachers who instilled a deep love and respect for language. I don't expect someone for whom english is not their first language to ever grasp all the nuances any more than I will ever be completely fluent in their native tongues. The point I try to make with my children is this: You have one first language. Use it well. It not only affects your ability to communicate effectively, but also the impression you make on others.

  18. Gypsy,

    Agreed, and I wish my spelling were better.

    I can't help but point out that you meant to say "I don't expect PEOPLE for whom English is not their first language..." since the plural "their" cannot refer to "someone".

  19. Anonymous8:07 AM

    I need some help. I am not an English geek, but we have a bet in the office. A man made this statement: "I think that Kim and I will go to lunch today." Another worker told him that the statement should be: "I think that Kim and me will go to lunch today."

    Wasn't the initial statement correct?

  20. Anonymous4:07 PM

    so that first guy way up there......i dont even know what he said...but it is all pretty good....i think likeing to correct grammar is good but only for writing and editing papers...not for talking to ppl bout should be an editor

    and if u want bad grammar, spelling...and basically any kind of bad can read what i just wrote and what im writing sure its horrible
    :) but then again...oh no is horrible!!!
    hope you dont stay too much of a geek
    your writing is nice because although it is very grammatically correct,which makes it seam very formal, it also has a nice personal touch that doesnt sound braggy at all, it actually sounds sort of commical.
    :) :) :) :) :) :)

  21. Anonymous1:11 AM

    Fully agree with the hypercorrection issues. This is of particular concern to me as a modern linguist in a school where the English teachers are often the most guilty of subject/object errors such as you describe.

    Another current trend along the lines of the 'penultimate' nightmare is the misuse of the word 'disinterested'. Many people are under the impression that it is a synonym for 'uninterested' and as such we are rapidly losing a useful way to describe impartiality.


  22. Anonymous3:12 AM

    Oh, and another thing that really gets my goat is the 'less / fewer' problem. I've lost count of the number of times I've seen a '10 items or less' aisle in the supermarket. Grrrr. Time and time again I have to point out to students that quatifiable items are 'fewer' and non-quanitfiable things are 'less'. Seems easy to me...


  23. Anonymous2:58 PM

    My favorite hypercorrection is the mispronunciation of 'processes' plural pronounced as if it needed a plural similar to 'crisis/crises'.

    Other than that I have to agree that overall it's shortsighted to believe that there is such a thing as perfect grammar or spelling. It can only be perfect within a particular definition and that definition is impossible to agree upon completely. Some forms become deprecated and other previously unacceptable forms become standard, that's the way it goes.

  24. Anonymous11:58 AM

    Why are we now allowed to begin a sentence with 'and' or 'but'?

  25. Anon,

    Beginning a sentence with a preposition is a question of style, not grammar. And style evolves.


  26. Anonymous8:38 PM

    Would your example « If I were a rich man... » not be the conditional rather than the subjunctive mood?


  27. Belinda,

    The clause from Fiddler on the Roof "If I were a rich man..." is indeed subjunctive and NOT conditional -- it's merely a HYPOTHETICAL statement since Tevye the milkman is in fact poor. See more at

    BTW you and Grammatik are right that subjunctive is a "mood" and not a "tense" although I can't say that I fully appreciate the difference.


  28. Anonymous7:36 PM


    Thank you for providing this explanation. There is definitely an opportunity to learn something every day. I thought that, in the general sense, « If I were... » was an example of the unreal conditional.

    Again, thank you for providing these details.

    P.S. Neat to see that you are married to a French girl. I'm a proud French-Canadian who enjoys languages and grammar! :-)


  29. Svenskan7:06 AM

    This may be way out of topic, but since i googled for grammar nerds and found this, I hope someone is willing to answer my question.
    So, here it comes: What is the difference between have and have got?
    For example, "I have no friends" versus "I've got no friends". Is "no" even correct in this sentence or should I use "any"?
    Excuse my english, for I am only a Swede.

  30. Svenskan,

    "I've got no friends" is idiomatic (and sad) but grammatically acceptable. "I have no friends" is bit more proper, since it doesn't use the bastardized variation of the present participle "gotten".

    If you wish to use "any" you need to do so with a negative, such as "I haven't got any friends" or "I haven't any friends."

    A comprehensive explanation is available at