Resolutions for Word Nerds



Below you’ll find our New Year’s resolutions for self-appointed guardians of the English language. We language cops need our own code of ethics to protect us from ourselves and shield others from our self-righteousness.

The Stickler’s Ten Commandments for 2016

1) Thou shalt proofread. Proofreading your work is a dying art—but why is that? Do we really think that everything we write is effortlessly perfect on the first try?

2) No correcting someone’s informal correspondence. If you get an email that says, “We just want whats our’s,” stifle that impulse to respond with a dissertation on apostrophes. Maybe your correspondent is just kidding around—or didn’t proofread.

3) … And casual conversation gets a lot of leeway too. Language purists ought to ease off when people are just relaxing and making small talk. No one ever mistook a Super Bowl bash for a summit conference.

4) No using fancy words when simpler ones will do. A barrage of big words is impressive the way a mesomorph bench pressing six hundred pounds is impressive.

5) Always look it up. Twenty-first century technology makes it quick and painless to look up words like mesomorph. But for whatever reason, most people just won’t do it.

6) No correcting strangers. Grownups are so touchy nowadays.

7) Do correct your kids’ grammar. It’s not belittling if you do it right; they may even thank you someday. The English they hear all the time—from their peers, the media, even some teachers—sets a horrid example. Good English deserves equal time.

8)But keep it private. Never give grammar lectures within earshot of innocent bystanders or service animals.

9) No excuses when you slip. We all make mistakes. If you’re nailed red-handed, don’t try to wiggle out of it.

10) Know what you’re talking about. Here is something your English teacher never told you: the rules change. So before you cry foul, how do you know you’re right? There are many myths about “proper” English floating around.

A century ago, contact as a verb was banned in polite society, and anyone who said, “I will contact you soon” was dismissed as a philistine. In the 1970s, hopefully was considered a ghastly vulgarity, and anyone who said, “Hopefully, the disco won’t be too crowded tonight” could be ostracized from the cool crowd. Today, no one has a problem with contact or
hopefully … but you may find yourself ostracized for saying “disco.”

• Do you have your own “commandments” to add to the list? Please send them in. We would enjoy receiving and sharing them.

Posted on Tuesday, January 5, 2016, at 11:09 am

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18 Comments on Resolutions for Word Nerds

18 responses to “Resolutions for Word Nerds”

  1. Ginny says:

    Learn to accept the fact that like it or not, “…going to try and do …” no longer means you are going to do two things, no matter how much you cringe when you hear a professional say it.

    • We know what you mean about try and. The experts have loosened up on this point in recent years, but there are still those who reject the phrase.

    • Judith Lewis says:

      I’ve noticed a slurry of words in every day conversations. ‘ Yum gonna tri un get there now’.

      And then there is the auto-correct function on my computer and smart phone that over-rides any common sense I have left.

  2. Mary Batterson says:

    In regard to point #10 above, what is the best way to keep up with what is currently acceptable grammar at this time? What are the best sources to consult? Thank you.

    I did not realize that “contact” used to be frowned upon as a verb. That’s interesting.

    • For specific questions, any search engine can take you to relevant posts, articles, and discussions. For a general sense of where the language is going, there are websites like ours and others. A reasonably recent book (2003), Bryson’s Dictionary of Troublesome Words, by Bill Bryson, offers a scholarly yet entertaining overview of good modern usage.

  3. Allan G. says:

    Point 10 of this newsletter brings back slightly painful but humorous memories. At my first job out of college, 1958, the corporate secretary was also Chief Secretary for the business. There were probably 40 writers contributed to correspondence outside the business. The corporate rules supported the notion that contact, among other words, was unacceptable. All letters written or dictated by staff and prepared by secretaries were forwarded to this woman for review. No letters were mailed without her official approval; spelling or grammatical errors or banned words (yes, there was a list) were circled and returned to the offending secretaries for retyping. I think the secretaries lived in terror of this woman’s red pencil.

    Thanks for a great article.

  4. David C. says:

    I liked your rule about remembering the language evolves. I coined a law that today’s grammar Nazi is yesterday’s grammar Philistine.
    Also, there is a punctuation matter my grade four teacher explained to me 63 years ago and that I have encountered since. There was a line in our text book that began with a hyphen. I asked her why the hyphen was at the beginning of the line instead of the end of the preceding line. She said it was because the hyphen was part of hyphenated words. Putting it at the beginning of the next line indicated that instead of improperly indicating it was a word break by having it at the end of the previous line. It is a piece of punctuation trivia that has been rattling around in my brain ever since. I would enjoy finding out if I am only living person who ever heard this.
    I really enjoy your site and appreciate your behaviour advice. I live in an area where fishermen and woodsmen have amazing knowledge and intelligence about matters of which I am woefully ignorant. Their language skills are often deficient although, even there, they often express something in terms that are vivid if not academically precise. One of my favourites was when a young, first-language French road construction worker lost control of his pavement roller on a soft shoulder and it tumbled down a 50-foot ditch. He jumped clear but was naturally highly stressed when describing what had happened to his foreman.
    “I look down dere and think goodbye dis place, f**k off, I’m gone!”
    Good bye dis place etc. has become a standard local expression for I don’t want to be here anymore.
    Thanks again for your site. It is a feast.

  5. Shirley S. says:

    I was just curious, on number 7, why should you never correct grammar in front of a service animal?

    Please don’t get me wrong, I love animals and treat them with as much respect as people. However, I didn’t understand this logic.

  6. Molly M. says:

    This list is lovely. Thank you!

  7. Sonali Sengupta says:

    Lovely read….interesting and fun too….I completely agree with 4, 5, 6, 8 and 9…others too I agree with but the ones I mentioned are more closer to my heart….and how the language has evolved can be best understood by reading newspapers and contemporary magazines as well as interactinew with the youth. Just think how Google was a noun in the beginning and now it’s used as a verb as well since we often say: Google it and you’ll find the answer. I usually type “define: xyz” whenever I am in doubt of what a word means or how to use it the best way.

  8. David SW says:

    This is a very nice list. I found your comment about change disturbing. Don’t misunderstand, I admit things do change but it frustrates me. I do struggle with the idea that simple words are better. I believe choosing just the right word is essential. As an engineer, I find that effective technical communication directly follows breadth of vocabulary. The assumption that car is the same as automobile is a poor one. To many, car is distinctly different than truck or suv. But, as demonstrated in the movie Castaway, to others they are synonymous (the main characters described a Jeep Cherokee as a “car.”) Automobile is specifically ambiguous and is very appropriate in certain situations.

    Recently, I was asked to explain the proper use of the word have. The woman asking was Columbian by birth and was learning English. I explained the possessive nature of the word but her confusion was with sentences like “I have to go to the store.” I grimaced. I explained that the correct thing to say is “I must go to the store.” A man sitting nearby, having overheard my comment, challenged my statement and promptly produced a Google search result declaring both to be correct. Has this changed? Am I mistaken?

  9. Sandy says:

    Constant correction in social media about the used of affect vs. effect or to vs. too. I always think “get a life”. Any reader will know what they mean.

  10. michelle mathews says:

    Hello,

    I have a question for all of my fellow enlightened grammar geeks that I have not been able to find on any site thus far. How do you punctuate the letter L –as in referring to the letter L below?

  11. Harris C. Smith says:

    I recently retired from teaching K-12 and adult education. I am in the pr5ocess of writing my first novel (historical) fiction. I recently began receiving your Grammar Book g-mail. Your information and replies to other authors is great reading. Teachers are one of the most resistant groups when it comes to change. Some people don’t understand that only Latin and Classical Greek remain unchanged in modern times. Spelling and grammar are in constant flux and American English is a huge melting pot of almost every language in the world. Thank you for helping new writers like me keep up.

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