A Word, Please
10 grammar issues you can stop worrying about
A lot of people couldn’t care less about their grammar. Or, as they might put it, they could care less. I support them.
The subject of grammar overwhelms would-be learners for the obvious reason: It’s overwhelming. There’s so much to tackle that the whole endeavor seems hopeless. For many, it’s not worth it.
But it doesn’t have to be that way. Many seemingly worrisome language matters are actually can’t-go-wrong situations. Here are 10 grammar issues you can stop worrying about.
A historic, an historic. The article “a” goes before a consonant sound. The article “an” goes before a vowel sound. “Historic” is unusual because it’s kind of in between. Some people hardly pronounce the H at all. For that reason, you can punch the H and say “a historic” or tone it down and say “an historic.”
Preventive, preventative. The two-syllable “preventive” is defined as something that prevents something else. The three-syllable “preventative” is defined as “preventive.” That means both are correct. Which is better, you ask? Because the dictionary’s definition for the three-syllable version refers you to the two-syllable version, you can assume that the shorter one, “preventive,” is preferred.
Dived, dove. Even I get a little scared of this one. The past tense of “dive” can seem wrong no matter which form you choose. But there’s no need to sweat it. You can say “yesterday I dived” or “yesterday I dove.” Both are correct. The dictionary lists “dived” first, so if you want help choosing, take that as your cue to opt for “dived.”
Healthy, healthful. For decades, writing instructors taught that it’s wrong to refer to a healthy lifestyle or a healthy diet. For anything promoting good health, they said, you need healthful. Their example: a healthful diet makes you a healthy person. This myth lingers on. But, as any dictionary will confirm, you can ignore it completely.
Singular “they.” “Every smart job applicant knows they should bring their resume to the interview.” If “they” and “their” are plural, they don’t match with singular “applicant.” This is why some people bend over backwards to use “he or she” and “his or her” instead, sometimes to excess. Good news: “They” can also be singular. So it’s fine to use it in reference to a singular person of unknown gender.
Serial comma. A lot of people wonder: How many commas in “red, white and blue”? Should there be one after “white”? The answer: It doesn’t matter. The extra comma, called the serial or Oxford comma, is optional. It is, however, the strong preference of many people. So if you aim to please, aim that way.
Famers market, farmers’ market. You know that a possessive requires an apostrophe. So the market belonging to the farmers is a farmers’ market, right? Yes, but there’s another way to go. The word “farmers” can be understood not as a possessor but as a modifier. A lot of professional publishing takes this interpretation. So either way is correct. Just avoid the singular “farmer’s market” unless it’s owned by exactly one farmer.
US, U.S. The question of whether to put periods in abbreviations is a matter of style. Some, like Associated Press style, prefer periods in many two-letter abbreviations like U.S. even as they insist there should be no periods in three-letter abbreviations like USA. The choice is yours.
Spaces around dashes. Should an em dash touch the word on either side of it? Or should you insert spaces around it? Doesn’t matter. Book publishing prefers no spaces, while news media tend to use spaces.
Possessives of words ending in X or Z. A century ago, many writing instructors insisted that words ending in X and Z had their own special rules for forming possessives. That’s just not true today. Form these possessives just as you would any other word not ending in S: the tax’s impact, Mr. Chavez’s house.
June Casagrande is the author of “The Best Punctuation Book, Period.” She can be reached at JuneTCN@aol.com.