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3 / 04 / 2010

Quick tips to avoid the grammar hall of shame

By Beth Millett, senior account director

March 4 is National Grammar Day. I feel like it’s a holiday worthy of ticker tape parades, or at the very least, cake. At Borshoff, we pride ourselves on good grammar and clear, concise yet powerful writing.grammar_day

I’m one of the go-to people at Borshoff for grammar questions. Maybe it’s because I’ve been writing and editing since my high school yearbook and newspaper days. Maybe it’s because I have a freakish steel trap of a mind when it comes to word choices. Regardless, I answer a handful of grammar or word choice questions regularly, from my family, friends and colleagues.

Here are some of the most common questions, and some tips to help you remember them:

  • Immigrate/emigrate: When someone leaves a country, they emigrate. When someone arrives in a country, they immigrate.
    • My great-grandparents emigrated from Antigua. My great-grandparents immigrated to the U.S.
    • I remember this by thinking exit=emigrate (the letter “e” starts both words) and into=immigrate (the letter “i” starts both words).
  • Affect/effect: Affect is a verb, and it means something is having an impact on something else. Effect is usually a noun, the result of something.
    • The snow has affected my commute. The salt applied by crews has had an effect on the streets.
    • Note: Effect can also be used as a verb, to cause something. The mayor effected change in how the roads were cleared this year.
  • I.e./e.g.: I.e. stands for “id est,” which means “that is.” E.g. stands for “exempli gratia,” which means “for example.” (This takes me back to high school Latin class.)
    • Use “i.e.” when you are introducing a complete list of items related to the object you are describing. For example, I love the colors of the American flag, i.e., red, white and blue. There are no other colors in the American flag, so this is a complete list.
    • Use “e.g.” when you are providing just a few examples of things that are part of the object, such as, You should eat five servings of fruit (e.g., bananas, strawberries and apples) every day. You’re not listing every type of fruit in the world, so it is just an example.
    • I remember which one to use by thinking “in essence” for “i.e.” and “example given” for e.g. Always, always, use a comma after these abbreviations.
  • Pronoun choice: Every day you’ll hear someone say, incorrectly, Send the report to John and I. But you should say Send the report to John and me because “me” is an object in this sentence.
    • Pronouns can be subjective (the thing doing the action – I threw the ball) or objective (the thing upon which the action is performed – The ball hit me). It gets confusing when more than one person is involved in the action.
    • The way to determine if it’s correct is to “punch the other person out” (Thanks to Martha Barnette of A Way with Words for this example). Take the other person out of the sentence and see if it’s correct.
  • Reflexive pronouns: Pronouns that end in “self” are called reflexive – himself, herself, ourselves, myself. It seems that people think they sound more intelligent if they say If you have questions, see Tom or myself. But the correct usage is If you have questions, see Tom or me because “me” is an object in this sentence.
    • A verb only takes a reflexive pronoun if it is something you do to yourself: you dress yourself, talk to yourself, etc.
    • I remember this by thinking about the reflex in your knee – you can make your leg jump by hitting that spot under the patella. You can do that to yourself. (Okay, I don’t know if that’s medically true, but it’s enough of a connection for me to remember the right word to use.)

And, as a little bonus, here are few extra helpful tips:

  • Flesh out/flush out: What’s the first thing you think of when you hear “flush”? That’s right – getting rid of waste. So, why would I “flush out” an outline to provide more information? The correct usage is to “flesh out” an outline – that is, putting some meat on its bones. If you are getting rid of something or duck hunting, you can flush it out.
  • Abbreviation/acronym: If you can pronounce the shortened version of a phrase, like scuba for self-contained underwater breathing apparatus, then it’s an acronym. If you have to say the letters individually, like PBS for Public Broadcasting System, it’s an abbreviation. (An acronym is a type of abbreviation, so technically, you can call an acronym an abbreviation, but you cannot call an abbreviation an acronym.)
  • Nauseous/nauseated: Something that makes people queasy is nauseous (That wall color is nauseous.). If you are in the state of feeling queasy, you are nauseated. See now why it’s not a good idea to go around telling people you are nauseous? It’ll be tough to find anyone to eat lunch with you!

Some of the great grammar and writing resources that I use regularly include

  • The Elements of Style, Strunk and White
  • Eats, Shoots & Leaves, The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation, Lynne Truss
  • Grammar Girl – great weekly podcasts of short grammar tips, and a searchable database of grammar rights and wrongs. She also uses great examples and mnemonics.
  • The AP Style Book – I’ve owned copies of various editions since my days at the IU School of Journalism, and you can also get an online subscription for faster searching.
  • National Grammar Day – They have a great list of Top 10 Grammar Tips.
  • Copyblogger – A list of 27 commonly misused words and many other writing tips.

What are your grammar pet peeves, problem word choices or favorite grammar resources?

4 Responses to “Quick tips to avoid the grammar hall of shame”

  1. Susan Matthews says:

    Thanks, Beth. I will never be “nauseous” again — I hope!

  2. Beth Millett says:

    And you can find a much longer list at my Web site: http://wp.me/pcjzo-dc

  3. Jennifer says:

    Maybe it’s because you’ve been writing and editing since your “note to teacher” days.

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