one person's correctness
One of the reasons this stuff is so complicated is that, beyond certain fundamentals (and if you don't know the difference between "its" and "it's," this is as good a time as any to go find out), the whole idea of what is "correct" and--even more complex--what is "incorrect," becomes a softish, messy sort of thing.
As if that weren't bad enough, we can throw ideas like "formal," "standard," "casual" (but never sloppy), "jocular," and others into the mix, and then find that what is "correct" in one context is way out of line in another, and that it isn't even a one-way street.
I'm often asked why I think grammar and spelling and "all that stuff" is so important as long as people understand what you mean. Putting aside for the moment the assumption that people understand what you mean, how you express the message you are attempting to communicate is much like how you dress for a job interview. Your choices are going to affect your readers' impression of your credibility, your intellectual capacity, your knowledge--not to mention how interesting your stuff is to read.
True, there are some readers who will not be distracted by whether the words you used meant what you thought they meant, showed up in some approximation of an order that made sense, and exhibited the other nitty little points of a well-crafted paragraph.
But there are a lot of readers who are easily derailed by how you have dressed your message; if you care to get your message across to those people, you have to worry about the shine on your shoes.
Furthermore, you have to think about who it is that you are dressing the message for--more commonly expressed as "know your audience." The three-piece pin-stripe suit, power tie, and wingtips outfit you wear for an interview for a bank vice-presidency just isn't going to do all that much for you when you are applying for a job as a writer at Comedy Central.
Now you may be saying to yourself, "I can't be bothered with all that. People have to take me as I am." [My other personal favorite is "It's e-mail (or Usenet) so it doesn't matter."] There's no problem with taking these positions--as long as you understand the consequences of such a decision, just as you understand that if you wear jeans with holes in them to the bank interview, you might not get the job. It's that simple.
There's another side to this coin--on the order of "You couldn't pay me enough to work for that guy." Some readers are just too damn fussy to be worth the effort. They're often the same ones who carry around all that excess baggage I describe in "the ignorables." They're the kind of people who come out their tree when they hear expressions like "I could care less" or who develop a case of the vapors at the sight of the word "irregardless."
Okay, I've led you far enough down the garden path. If you thought I was going to give you some formula for being correct, right about now you're experiencing some disenchantment. There is no formula. There are some books, and I recommend Patricia T. Conner's Woe Is I (she's majorly wrong on one point, but makes up for it by being right on just about everything else and she's easy and fun to read). Dictionaries are good as far as they go, but you must also have a book on usage. Go to a library or a book store and look at a bunch of them and choose the one that makes good sense to you. The "best" one isn't going to be the one I like best but the one that makes you feel comfortable--you're the audience who gets to inspect the shine on the shoes.
And read. The world abounds with examples of good writing (and bad), and paying attention to how the writers you like to read express themselves is as good a way as any to figure out what works. Notice the things you've never noticed before, like commas and dashes and semicolons and where the punctuation goes when there are parentheses involved. (The semicolon is the least appreciated of all of our punctuation marks, but it has saved many a sentence from self-destruction.)
Some things are just plain wrong. We don't include all of them here by a long shot, but these are all dead giveaways:
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