I am not a grammar goddess

I am not a grammar goddess.

Mistakes in syntax and spelling do not magically jump off the page and dance before my eyes when I read. I do not diagram sentences in my sleep. I can never remember the difference between “that” and “which” and I am unable to use the word “whom” with any amount of confidence.

Perhaps that’s just as well. To quote one of my college professors, “If you use the word ‘whom’ in everyday conversation, you’ll have no friends.” She was kidding, of course. But the truth is, if you’re one of those people who is overly pedantic about grammar, it will start to wear on your friends.

That’s not to say that I don’t care about grammar. I do. I notice when people say “I could care less” instead of “I couldn’t care less” and when people spell the possessive form of “its” with an apostrophe.I have passionate opinions about the Oxford comma (use it, please, use it).

(Quick tip regarding “its” versus “it’s”: the apostrophe means that a letter has been left out, in this case the “i” in “is.” When you use the word “it’s,” the sentence should still make sense if you replace it with the words “it is.” You’re welcome.)

There are two reasons to care about proper grammar: using it helps people to understand you and gives you credibility. When you’re writing a paper, creating a resume or polishing a business proposal, you want people the take you seriously and not be distracted by errors you’ve made.

If I had used “your” instead of “you’re” in the previous sentence, some of you might not have noticed, but I guarantee at least one person would have been seriously bothered by the mistake. I don’t get a lot of “grammar Nazi” comments on my blog posts (thanks guys!), but you only have to scan the comments on a YouTube video or a news article to see the denizens of the Internet correcting other people’s grammar (and usually ignoring everything else they have to say).

Using correct grammar helps you create the best possible impression, but sometimes, especially in a low-stakes context like the Internet, we’re going to type faster than we think. We’re going to post comments without rereading them. We’re not going to have perfect grammar. And that’s okay.

My philosophy has always been that if you can understand someone (that is, if their writing is legible to you) and you aren’t in a position where grammar feedback is requested, why do you care? No one appointed me the grammar police of the Internet (or of offline life either, for that matter).

I am not a grammar goddess. However, if you do want to improve your grammar, my advice is READ. Knowing how to diagram a sentence or name the parts of speech is good, but it may not be as helpful to you in the long run as the ability to read a sentence and hear whether it “sounds right.”

Read people who craft their sentences with technical accuracy, and mimic them. Don’t be afraid to look up the answers when you have questions about usage. There are good reference books and lots of online resources as well. (You may be surprised at the number of people who have googled “there vs their” or “well being vs well-being”). Then write, and put your best self on the page. That’s all you can ever hope to do.




A mistake (or, why writers need to consider their audience)

“The greatest mistake we make as writers is not understanding what it’s like to be our reader.” Shannon Chamberlain, adapted from Stephen Pinker

Word Crimes

One of my friends from the Writing Center shared this video with me. It’s pretty perfect.

Now, I’m not a Grammar Nazi, but I do notice some of the “word crimes” committed by the people around me. One of my personal pet peeves is when people use “u” instead of “you” or “your” instead of “you’re.” Another is noun/pronoun disagreement. An example of this would be saying something like, “When a person commits a word crime, they seem careless” instead of “When a person commits a word crime, he or she seems careless.”

I know I’m not innocent when it comes to word crimes. I have a bad habit of saying “espresso” as “eXpresso” and “laptop” as “labtop.” I know this is wrong, but I can’t seem to stop. Typos also seem to creep up on me no matter how careful I try to be. (I’ve actually had to edit this post since I first published it to remove a particularly awful one).

These things happen. If I were to stop speaking or writing every time I committed a word crime, I’d never be able to communicate anything! My friends have a long-running joke that even though I’m an English major, I “can’t English.”

Trying to avoid word crimes is good; it helps people to take you more seriously. But don’t over-analyze everything you say or write. Everyone commits word crimes sometimes! Thankfully, most of them are just misdemeanors 🙂

Do you have any grammar/language pet peeves? Have you ever committed a really embarrassing word crime?


Am I creative?

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Like many writers, I have a sort of spooky feeling that if I start dissecting the creative process to see what makes it hop, I may very well end up with a dead frog.–Katherine Patterson

Creativity is an elusive concept. I want to know more about it, but like Katherine Patterson, sometimes I feel that if I look at it too closely, it may disappear entirely, or turn into a “dead frog.” Other times, I feel like my creativity has simply hopped away. I want other people to see me as creative, but what does that really mean? Is writing a poem creative? Is cooking dinner creative? Does singing in the shower make me creative?

I guess the answer is really both yes and no. There are creative ways to approach even the most everyday task, and there are conventional ways to perform even the most “artistic” or “creative” activity. Creativity is a matter of attitude. Are you willing to take risks? Do you look for novel ways to use everyday objects and complete routine tasks? Congratulations, you’re probably creative!

Creativity can be a frightening thing to claim for yourself. What if other people don’t think your work is creative? Or worse, what if they misunderstand what you’re attempting to achieve or are frightened by the questions you ask? According to Vinita Hampton Wright in the book Soul Tells a Story, creativity involves a loss of control:

Not only do you lose control when you enter the creative process, you lose control once others have witnessed your work. Their perceptions of it–and reactions to it–will happen completely outside your realm.

Giving up control is scary, but to be creative you have to be willing to let go. You have to be able to say to yourself, “I don’t know where this story/essay/poem is going, but I’m going to write it anyway.”

You need to be willing to ask questions, to push boundaries, and to make mistakes. Living a creative life doesn’t mean that you are going to create something beautiful every time. It simply means that you are willing to explore the possibilities.


Don’t fail this way

It is a truth universally acknowledged that if you do anything at all in this life, you are eventually going to experience failure. It is impossible to be successful 100% of the time. In fact, it probably wouldn’t be good for us to be successful all the time, because failure can be an important learning experience.

If this is true, then why are we so afraid of failing? To be more specific, why am I so afraid of failing? There are times when I let my fear of failing prevent me from even starting. I’m afraid that I won’t be able to find a job out of college, so I’m afraid to even apply for one. I’m afraid I won’t be able to write the story that I envision in my head, so I never start it. This list could go on and on.I realize that my failure to try is in itself a kind of failure, and it’s the wrong kind.

Here’s another example of the wrong way to fail:

When Irish author Flann O’Brien submitted the manuscript for his second book, The Third Policeman, to a London publisher in 1940 it was rejected.

But rather than admit this lack of success to his friends, he pretended the manuscript had accidentally blown out of the boot of his car on a trip to Donegal and had been lost forever.

“This was a ruinous thing to say because he couldn’t then turn around and say, ‘Oh I’ve found it again,’ so the manuscript sat very openly on his sideboard until his death,” says Booker Prize-winning author Anne Enright. She has selected O’Brien’s story to appear in an exhibition entitled Fail Better at the Science Gallery at Trinity College, Dublin.

“The year after [O’Brien’s] death, his wife got it published to a keen reception.”

If O’Brien had been more open about his failure to get the book printed, he might have seen his work published within his lifetime


This story appears in a BBC news article about failure. As someone who fears having my writing rejected, this story really struck home for me. What opportunities am I missing because I allow my fear of looking like a failure turn me into someone who only tries once, or who never tries at all? If you respond to failure correctly, you become a more resilient person, but if you don’t, it’s like you’ve failed twice: once in the actual failure and again in not learning from it.

Thinking more about failure doesn’t make it any less frightening for me, but I am trying to change my attitude towards it. First of all, I don’t want to let my fear of potential failure to cause me to actually fail by never trying. Second, if I don’t succeed, I want this failure to spur me on, not stop me in my tracks. I want to start looking at my mistakes as learning experiences rather than as crippling, permanent errors that will be branded on my forehead forever.

I want to be a successful failure.



Making mistakes

When it comes to writing, I’ve made plenty of mistakes over the years. One of the most dramatic mistakes I’ve made involved a college application essay. I was trying to say that I had experience public speaking, but I wrote that I had experience “pubic speaking.” Thankfully, I caught that error before I submitted the essay, but this just goes to show that sometimes a little typo can make a big difference (even if spell check won’t catch it).

Most of my errors aren’t as humorous as that one. Some mistakes, such as the use of passive voice or incorrect word choice, were easy enough to fix once a teacher or professor pointed them out to me. I remember when I came to college I was really worried when one professor told my class that he was known as a tough grader. He held up a purple pen and said, “My students call this the ‘purple pen of doom.’” I had never really received that kind of feedback on my writing before and so I was really nervous.

I had always been told I was a pretty good writer but I wasn’t sure if that would be true in college. I actually received a fair amount of positive feedback from my professor and he taught me a lot of what I know about writing. I realized that I had problems with paragraphs and dividing them appropriately, as well as other issues such as including signal phrases for quotations. This taught me details about the mechanics of writing that I had never been instructed in (or at the least had not retained). However, my professor balanced this constructive criticism with positive comments so overall this was a positive experience for me.

Another mistake that I became aware of later in my college career was my tendency to restate things in the same words at times and not include more details to support my view. Feedback from my professors has probably been the most helpful in showing me these errors, but I have also received helpful feedback from peer review sessions and my school’s writing center.

Now that I work in the writing center, I realize that it can be difficult to meet  a writer’s needs in a single session. For a paper that is four pages or under, we will usually meet for half an hour. This is not enough time to go over the paper with a fine toothed comb and discover every error at the sentence level. I may point out specific typos or problems with tense or word choice if I see them, but in a paper that suffers from a lack of organization or a weak thesis, sentence-level concerns are secondary and I do not want to distract the student from focusing on the more global concerns. If papers suffer from a lack of organization and coherence within the paragraphs or have clearly not been proofread and are missing words and phrases to the point that they are difficult to read and understand, these are problems that need to be addressed.

Sometimes I will see an unconventional grammatical construction in a paper and I will have to explain to the student why it’s not appropriate to use in an academic context. Sometimes it can be very difficult because I’m not exactly sure why it’s wrong. I just know that I’ve been told to edit similar sentences in my own writing or I’ve been told that usage is not standard, but I don’t know why. I don’t want to give a student fake reasons for why they shouldn’t use it in a paper but I don’t just want to say, “I think this is wrong… I just feel like it’s not right.” I usually try to explain the best that I can. Sometimes I have to think back to the context in which I originally learned that this was an error. Sometimes I see writing that is not appropriate simply because the sentence construction or word choice gives a colloquial rather than academic feel.

A writers, it can be tough not to get discouraged when other people point out our mistakes to us. It’s important to remember that everyone makes mistakes sometimes, even the most accomplished writers. Once we are aware of our mistakes, we can work to avoid them (maybe not in the first draft, but in the second or third…). Learning from our mistakes helps us to become better writers. For example, almost submitting that essay with “pubic” instead of “public” taught me the importance of proofreading.

One more thing about mistakes: we can’t be afraid to make them. Otherwise, that just causes us to become perfectionists, and that can be paralyzing. As Ms. Frizzle from the Magic School Bus would say, “Take chances. Make mistakes. Get messy!”