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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."

 

I'm going to digress here for a moment on the subject of "I could care less" and "irregardless"-- lumped together here because the people who object to one of them almost always object to the other. "I could care less," they rant, is the opposite of "I could not care less," which must mean you care more. That's nonsense. It means what the people who use it and the people who hear it understand it to mean, and the fact that it doesn't stand up well under logical analysis is irrelevant. This is English, which is different from rocket science (although not necessarily any easier). 

The other position they'll take is that it is an expression used only by those who are ignorant of the "correct" expression, "I could not care less." This is demonstrably not true. 

On the occasions when I use it, I say "I could care less," and then drop my voice a register and say, "but I don't know how," which nicely sets such people up and then knocks them over.

As for "irregardless," they harrumph that it is "not a word." Well of course it's a word--it's in my dictionary and probably in yours and that's as good a test of wordness as I know (but not the only one; lots of good words aren't in dictionaries). True, it is  a mangling and mashing-together of "regardless" and "irrespective," and may sometimes be used by those who are ignorant of those origins, but it's still a word. I wouldn't use it in formal writing, but fortunately I don't have to do much formal writing any more. I use it highly selectively, and only with readers who know that I know what I'm doing.

I use "ain't" sometimes, too. I like "ain't." 

 

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.) 

Certain fundamentals

Some things are just plain wrong. We don't include all of them here by a long shot, but these are all dead giveaways:

 

it's/its/its'
it's
is a contraction of "it is" or "it has"--nothing else! 
its
means "belonging to it"--nothing else! (Think "his"/"hers"/"ours"/"theirs"/"its.")
its'
doesn't mean anything except you don't know what you're doing.
It's not "should of," "would of," or "could of"--it's "should've," "would've," and "could've," contractions for "should have," "would have," and "could have," respectively. 
 
"Whom" is gradually disappearing from the language; I've heard that it has almost completely disappeared in England. You'll still find it in the USA when it is following a preposition--"to whom," "of whom," "for whom"--but many good writers don't use it in other places where it would be considered correct.
          So here's a good rule: If you can't make up your mind whether it should be "who" or "whom," use "who." A "who" that could be a "whom" will hardly ever be noticed, but a "whom" that should have been a "who" will derail a lot of readers.
 
There is no "e" in "grammar" except when you're writing about a sitcom star.
 
It's "a lot," not "alot," no matter how many times you see it spelled as one word.
 

 

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