La Morte d’Writing Conventions

Take heed, Wal-Mart.

After grading thousands of papers (literally), I notice a trend in certain neglected conventions by even the best of writers, some typographical and some grammatical. Sadly, I do believe that their dismissal will become so commonplace that a new standard will be set. Here’s my list of soon-to-be bygone rules.

  • The British do whatever way they see fit, but we Americans have set a consistent standard about end marks and quotation marks. Therefore, we put commas and periods inside quotation marks; exclamation marks and question marks depend on the context of whether the quoted material was heartily exclaimed or inquisitively pronounced. I cannot count the number of times that I see a sentence like this one: Recent studies conclude that “one in four Americans now have three cups of coffee a week”. NO, No, no! Put that period inside those quotation marks.
  • Hyphenation before nouns–Notice how I said “soon-to-be bygone rules” in my introduction. Hardly anyone uses hyphens anymore, but the rule stands that if I can’t break these words apart and maintain the meaning of the word modified, then it must be hyphenated. To further elaborate on my point, I can’t say “soon rules” or “to rules” or “be rules.” No; I must say soon-to-be rules.
  • The superscript “th” after numbers. It seems that even the CEO says in his email, “Please be at the meeting on February 14th. NO, No, no! You only use these superscripts before a preposition in a formal scenario, such as a wedding invitation that says, “Mr. and Mrs. Smith request the honor of your presence on the 5th of May.” Well, actually, that should be the spelled-out “fifth,” but you get the point.
  • The ol’ pronoun/antecedent issue. What’s wrong with this sentence: “Everyone should get their fair share.” Everyone is singular, so it should be “Everyone should get his or her fair share.” Or, “All people should get their fair share” would work well too. I even put on a pair of pants the other day that had this grammatically incorrect slogan emblazoned on the tag: “Everyone is their own individual.” I know it sounds awkward, but the better, more grammatically correct wording would be something to the effect of “Every woman is her own individual.”
  • Putting two spaces after a period went out with the typewriter. This looks tacky in word processing; plus, it’s wrong!
  • Last, “cannot” is one word, not two.

Like I said in my introduction, if you yourself are a grammar or typography hound, you’ve probably realized that these rules have been violated more often than observed. I still like to believe that the appropriate usage does distinguish the most sophisticated communicator from the merely sophisticated communicator. However, I also know that there is a distinct difference between a hound and a snob; the latter I try to avoid.

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7 comments

  1. Can you do a post on spelling errors? 🙂

  2. How could I do this? I used wrong grammar on a grammar post!

    Let’s try this again.

    WILL you do a post on spelling errors?

    I’m thoroughly mortified.

    1. Meredith,

      I think I can accommodate. Send me a few suggestions if you have time!

  3. Spelling mistakes are not grammatical mistakes. Typography mistakes definitely are not. Only a single one of these issues is a grammar issue (#5), and that one is incorrect. “Their” in that context is a singular pronoun.

    An exhaustive treatment of the subject can be found at http://motivatedgrammar.wordpress.com/2009/09/10/singular-they-and-the-many-reasons-why-its-correct/

    Here’s another very nice article from Canada’s Ministry of Justice on the utility of using a singular ‘they’ or ‘their’ in writing statutes, complete with a number of good citations: http://www.justice.gc.ca/fra/min-dept/pub/legis/n41.html

    The “singular” they can be attested by the most authoritative works on English grammar that exist (for instance, the 2005 Cambridge Grammar of the English Language, which is universally recognized for its superb scholarship).

    1. Bob, since you yourself would be a “hound,” I changed my title (purely chosen as a play on words) to reflect writing problems in general. This general heading should properly categorize all items on my list.

      In addition, I see the reasoning in your descriptivism with #5. However, the current rule stands stands, and I am therefore correct. You will be hard-pressed to find a reputable piece of journalism that violates this rule. Furthermore, as a teacher preparing students for college, I will not standard for this pronoun/antecedent violation. One day, when culture has forced this shift upon our language, they can do whatever they like. Until then, this sort of mistake will put their college application letter at the bottom of the stack.

  4. I’ve found these mistakes quite often in grading several of my students’ papers as well (especially the question mark or period before the quotation mark!). Even from the upper grades! It almost makes me sick to my stomache how these grammar rules have either gone out the window or have not been taught/understood and, therefore, not used properly.

  5. Great post! I think I fail at all of those except for the hyphenation issue. Good thing that nobody can read doctor handwriting anyway.

    Which brings up a grammar question: how do you handle “no one?” It would seem to be equivalent to “nobody,” which is one word– but “noone” looks strange. Or should I just stick with “nobody?”

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