Saturday night’s all right for tweeting.

To sneeze. Ah, to sneeze, perchance to breathe…through both nostrils.

We can be such geeks sometimes.

Sneezing has been around for as long as noses have been, and the word ‘sneeze’ has been part of the English language for centuries. It came to us so long ago that its roots are in the so-old-that-it-is-merely-conjectural Proto-Germanic, in which the root is said to have been *fneu-s-.

Sneezing – quite a lot of it – is what I was doing last weekend, as well as sniffling, wheezing, and crying when the sneezes faked me out and mocked me on their way back into my sinuses.

Oh, I live a wild, wild life, my friends.

Something good did come out of my lovely little stint in sick bay. On Sunday night, still relegated to the couch, surrounded by tissues and half-drunken cups of tea, I was catching up on some grading for my summer class. After a long stretch, I needed a break and hopped on Twitter. There, I found I was just 2-3 minutes away from a “101 Troublesome Words” Twitter party hosted by Grammar Girl. I figured I was ready for a good discussion about troublesome words, so I decided to join the party.

It turns out that it was a book giveaway in the form of a Q&A session. It took me a while to get acclimated to how it worked, and then the fun began. There were some very interesting questions. Things were going pretty fast, though, and I realized I didn’t have too much time to really think about my answers.

Since then, I’ve mostly recovered and resumed my normal activities, but the questions are still in my mind. Now that I’ve had more of a chance to think, I’ll offer my answers to five of the questions, in no particular order and in more than 140 characters.

What language rule are you most surprised that people don’t know? I’ve spent the past 15 years dealing with broken grammar rules, and so it’s hard to be surprised anymore. I didn’t think it would be fair to include non-native speaker examples in this question because there are so many reasons why some rules may be harder than others to learn and remember. I may get a little confused at why so many students from so many language backgrounds seem to always want to say “I am agree” instead of “I agree”, but it still doesn’t necessarily surprise me.

There is one thing, however, that almost makes me do a double-take each time I hear it from a native speaker. In fact, I included it in my discussion about my #1 Bête Noire.

Here it is: When using the past conditional, the correct form would be to use the conditional in the main clause, and the past perfect tense in the dependent “if” clause. For example, “If I hadn’t joined this Twitter discussion, I never would have thought about this question.”

The mistake that I hear that surprises me is not the typical would of mistake that I see in a lot of student writing. It’s actually a mistake that I’ve heard many people make, even journalists who should presumably know better. These people break the rules by using the conditional form in both clauses: “If I would have known you were coming, I would have made a cake.”

I’m not sure if it’s an aversion to saying had had (even the grammar check thinks it’s a mistake!) or if people just really don’t know the rule, but it both surprises me and makes my eye twitch just a little bit each time I hear it.

Here’s the book that was up for grabs.

Do you think people really don’t know the difference between “its” and “it’s,” or is it usually a typo? This is a tricky one. I have seen some students who honestly did not know the difference, or had learned it and forgotten it along the way. These students were able to correct the mistake easily after being told the rule, and they rarely made the mistake again.

For the most part, I think that people do know the rule if pressed and could avoid the mistake if they paid attention.

Ah, the key words: if they paid attention. They don’t. A lot of people don’t. Part of it could be that they consider it to be such an insignificant detail that it’s not worth the effort of checking. I’ve heard this argument from students. “If you know what I’m talking about, what difference does it make?” My answer to this is to remind them that the apostrophe in this case may not cause tremendous troubles in comprehension, but it is distracting, which makes it harder for the reader to follow the writer’s train of thought. And the burden of making his or her point clearly is on the writer, not on the reader. Besides, if the writer can’t be bothered to check the details, that usually indicates sloppiness elsewhere, and that results in a lack of effective writing.

I do feel that some of these types of mistakes are increasingly the result of our reliance on the auto correcting functions of whatever word processing program we are using. Microsoft Word is the first program implicated in my accusation, but it’s not the only one. We are so used to it correcting ‘teh’ to ‘the’ or ‘recieve’ to ‘receive’ that we barely check our own work anymore. I think this may account for a lot of the silly mistakes I see in student writing, including the mistake that far too many of them make: not capitalizing their own names!

What’s your favorite language joke from a TV show or movie? Whenever I see a joke even remotely related to language or linguistics, I totally geek out. Of course, uncooperative sinuses made the geeking out a bit slow, so it was hard to pick one.

The first joke that came into my fuzzy mind was from “Friends” (The One With All The Cheesecake). Monica finds out from Ross that she was not invited to their cousin’s wedding. She tells him that she wants to be his date. Turns out, however, that he already has a date: “Joan Tedeski, my date. She’s an assistant professor in the Linguistics department. Tall, very beautiful, and despite what some people say, not broad backed!” Monica insists that he take her, not Joan. Ross replies with, “Did you not hear me?! She’s an assistant professor in the Linguistics department, okay? They’re wild!”

That’s a good one, to be sure, but it took a few more minutes to remember the winning scene that should have been my answer. Three words for you, folks: Romans Go Home!

What rule do you find yourself looking up over and over again? For the life of me, I can’t remember all the forms of the verbs lie and lay. It actually got a lot easier after I had to teach irregular verbs as an ESL teacher, but these two verbs still confound me. I really need to make up a rhyme or pithy little saying to remember. This shouldn’t be a problem, but I just haven’t gotten around to it. I have been using odd little mnemonics for years, some of which still rattle about in my brain.

For example, here’s something I remember from my one semester of Latin 20 years ago:   -es, -um, -ibus, -es, -ibus. These are the plural endings for either a declension of a class of noun or a conjugation of a class of verb. In other words, I can’t remember what they’re for, but I’ll never forget the endings. Here is my trick: the endings -es reminded me of the phrase ‘it is’ in Portuguese, and it also sounded similar to the demonstrative pronoun ‘this’. The -um is an indefinite article in Portuguese. Of course, -ibus reminded me of the English word ‘bus’, so I came up with the sentence, “It’s a bus, this bus!”

I’m positive that you are simply dazzled right about now at the sophistication of the way my mind works, aren’t you?

What’s the funniest typo you’ve made or seen someone else make? Where, oh where do I start? Oh, how about with these?

  • The Spanish-American War was moistly fought by the U.S. Navy.
  • He has a Master’s degree in psychology and is now working on his doctrine.
  • He taught me to be grateful for what I have and not to take it for granite.
  • And some of them have spychology motor problems.
  • Next, showing someone love helps them build their self of steam up.

Not even the folks at Cunard are immune from Typo Fever.

And so…the questions and answers continued and more books were given away. At the end of the hour came the final opportunity to win a book. The 20th person to retweet this won the book:

I hit the retweet button and then, not really believing it would make a difference, I waited about five seconds before hitting ‘Enter.’ What the hell, right? I went back to trying to follow the flurry of late responses to earlier questions.

And then this happened:

And I said:

(Yes, I was using ‘realz’ playfully; it is not part of my usual repertoire.)

And that’s how being sick and geeky won me a free book!

What was the best thing you ever won?

14 thoughts on “Saturday night’s all right for tweeting.

  1. Great post, as always! It’s nice to read from someone who is so interested in language and grammar.
    As former Latin student I can commiserate – I still remember all those conjugations (at least the ones I bothered to learn) and ablative prepostions and I love that Monty Python joke.
    To the typo question:
    The its/it’s mistake and similar ones have recently found their way into my writing. Funny thing is, before I started reading lots of misspelled stuff on the Internet, I’ve never had the problem of mixing them up. English is my second language, so the distinction between the two is quite clear to me and I would’ve never dreamed of writing “would of” instead of “would have” since I’d never seen that constellation of words before. However, if you read those mistakes a lot you get used to them and don’t notice if you get it wrong – except when I reread what I’ve written; then I usually want to crawl into a hole and die.

    • I think the sheer number of verb and noun endings was what put me off taking a second semester of Latin!

      I know what you mean about seeing a mistake so often that it creeps, unbidden, into my own writing or speaking. This certainly has happened with some regional idioms I’ve picked up (that’s a story for a future post, actually) but I’ve got almost the reverse experience: I’ve taught ESL for so long and seen a few fossilized errors so often that it’s hard for me to remember what the correct version is. I don’t confuse “I am agree”, but sometimes I can’t remember the proper preposition to go with a certain noun, for example. And I’m constantly asking people to “close” the light or computer :)

      Everyone makes typos, but I too am fairly mortified if I catch an its/it’s typo in my own writing.

      Thanks for the comment!

  2. Nice post, thanks to you I’ve just learnt the word acclimated, I thought it was a mistake and you actually meant acclimatised (I’m British so sans z) Is there a difference between the two? Also when you talk about its or it’s. I know the rule but I don’t think it makes sense. If something is possessive it could belong to George, the World or to It… So why is it George’s ball, The World’s population, but its stripes? It’s the stripes belonging to IT, so poor old it deserves its apostrophe really!

    My worst basic grammar rule is which and that, I think I have it now but it doesn’t come naturally, and I quite often have to go which hunting in my articles before I submit them.. There are always a couple in there that shouldn’t be, (which shouldn’t be?) anyway.

    Nice post x I look forward to reading again soon, Alex.

    • I never thought of it that way, but your reasoning for it’s to be possessive is quite compelling! But then wouldn’t it be confusing for both forms to have the apostrophe? Is context always enough to sort them out? Hrm….(you can’t see me, of course, but I’m pretending to thoughtfully stroke a beard that I don’t – thankfully! – have ;)

      The difference between acclimate and acclimatise (or -ize) is really just a dialectal preference. The British prefer acclimatise but in America, we’re much more likely to say acclimate.

      It reminds me of how my English colleagues always said “orientate”, which always sounded strange to me. (I’ve always heard and said “orient”.) It sounds too close to the error that a lot of my students make when they say “conversate” instead of “converse”. But it also just comes down to preference.

      Glad you enjoyed it! Hope to see you around here again!

      • The word “its” isn’t special. The other possessive pronouns don’t get apostrophes either. There’s obviously no apostrophe in “his”, but there isn’t one in “hers” either. (Though I have seen “her’s”, I don’t think I’ve ever come across “hi’s”. :-)

      • Belongs to a man named ‘Hi’? ;)

        No, you have a point, although we do normally use ‘its’ as a possessive adjective, not pronoun. The possessive adjectives other than ‘his’ don’t have -s, so there would be no reason for an apostrophe. But then would the adjective be “hi’s” and the pronoun “his”? And considering the 1st person singular possessive adjective seems to be shifting over to “mines” instead of “mine”, at least among my students, perhaps the shift is leaning towards…

        No, sorry, I can’t do it anymore – I’m being totally facetious! Truth be told, the minute we try to insist on logical consistency in language, then we’ve already lost the argument ;)

  3. Great post! I’m a legal editor for the Court of Appeal and a speechwriter, and I always, always, always have to look up the lay/lie thing. So if you come up with a zippy little mnemonic for that, would you share?

    • Thanks, Susan. I will definitely share the mnemonic when I come up with one. I’m warning you, though, that it’s probably going to be quite silly ;)

      Your being a legal editor caught my attention. I just started a paralegal certificate program, and your job makes me curious about investigating options in the legal writing/editing field. Seems a good combination of my interests!

      • The sillier the better. You should hear some of the things I came up with to teach my sons the state capitals (e.g., When you think of Kentucky, you think of Kentucky Fried Chicken, which is something good to eat (at least to fifth graders). A hot dog, aka a frankfurter, is also something good to eat. Hence, the capital of Kentucky is Frankfurt. A stretch, I know, but it seemed to work.)

        I was a legal secretary for years and years, then came to the Court of Appeal as a justice’s assistant. Part of that job is checking and editing appellate court opinions, which is incredibly fun for someone who loves language and all things grammatical, and because I can write pretty well, I kind of morphed into the speechwriter for some of the justices, which I like even more than the editing. I’ve even had the opportunity to teach seminars on grammar and editing to judicial assistants statewide. For a grammar geek, that’s the equivalent of an all-expense-paid trip to Euro Disney.

      • Love the Frankfurt trick! Now I have an image of people in Kentucky eating hot dogs and drinking bourbon.

        I’m working on the lie/lay trick. So far, rhyming is showing the most promise, but I haven’t had my Eureka! moment yet. I’ll post it when I’ve refined it a bit more :)

        Thanks for the description of what you do. I’ve only just started the paralegal certificate program, and I’m not even certain I’ll actually make the career change (a lot can happen in the couple of years it will take me to finish), but I definitely want to start exploring what options there are.

  4. My college emergency test system blares across the campus: “If this WOULD HAVE been a real emergency…” It drives me nuts every time, and as far as I know, not even the English professors have noticed.

    • My eye! It twitches!

      The other day, someone posted a notice on the library door – something about delivering “dictionary’s” I broke out my red pen and corrected it. If I were at your college, I’d SO be all over that announcement! :)

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