NOTE: As I am updating all my columns for a new edition of The Scrivener book, I came across this one that I wrote 11 years ago, almost to the day. That day in December 2007, I was in an extremely bad mood because I had an especially heavy workload and was excruciatingly late in preparing for Christmas and also in finishing my column. In a fit of pique, I wrote about my “Twelve Pet Peeves of Grammar.”
Much has changed in 11 years. My son is no longer our cute little high school boy. He graduated from college, has a wife and a job he loves, and is expecting his first baby any day now. And he is still cute as anything.
Much is still the same, though. I am busy beyond belief at work and behind on everything. Even my top 12 grammar pet peeves have stayed the same, so I will present them on a platter as my holiday gift to you.
Because this column will be printed after the holidays, I will give you some background. I have just finished decorating the Christmas tree, exactly one week before the big day. Because of a heavy workload these past few weeks, I have bought only one present, and that is probably a good thing. I say that because Polly the Dog got to the present last night while we were out, and now the linen monogrammed napkins I ordered from France for my sister look like big balls of eyelet with puppy drool. Worse, I dropped and shattered the red Christmas ball that my son made me in kindergarten 17 years ago, the one that said “I love you” in silver glitter. Bottom line: I am in a vile mood. Consequently, the Grammar Grinch will bypass the “Twelve Days of Christmas” and proceed with the “Twelve Pet Peeves of Grammar."
1. Turkey’s: incorrect apostrophes with plurals
In most situations, plurals are formed by adding an “s” or “es,” but WITHOUT AN APOSTROPHE! Errors are everywhere. Grocery store advertisements beckon us to buy “holiday turkey’s” at their stores. The only time an apostrophe would be correct in that phrase is if the turkey possessed something (“The holiday turkey’s feathers are brown and white.”) or if the word were a contraction (“The holiday turkey’s happy because he is being sent to a farm in Oswego to live with his family.”). Similarly, holiday cards that are signed with love from “the Moïse’s” should read “the Moïses.” Bah!
Exceptions to this rule are few, but uncapitalized letters and abbreviations are made plural by adding an apostrophe and an “s”:
- Madeline, Marissa, and Michaela are minding their p’s and q’s so that they do not get coal in their stockings.
NOTE: If the letters or abbreviations are capitalized, do not use an apostrophe:
- John and Jennifer gave tax advice to two LLCs and three LLPs last week.
To form the plural of a number that does not contain a decimal, do not use an apostrophe.
- Stuart started working in the 1960s, and he has amassed a file cabinet full of W-2s.
- The moot court team received four 9.5’s at the competition.
2. Y’all come: incorrect apostrophes with contractions
The word “y’all” does not normally belong in formal legal writing, but we live in the South, so we should know this. How many times, though, have you seen the word incorrectly spelled “ya’ll”?
Apostrophes show where letters are removed. “Y’all” is the contraction for “you all.” Therefore, the missing letters are the “o” and “u” from the word “you.” Unlike other contractions, like “I’ll” (for “I will”) or they’ll (for “they will”), the missing words do not come before the two final l’s.
3. “As such”: it does not mean “therefore.”
This pet peeve was sent along by Scrivener Emeritus Tom Haggard, and a peeve of his is a peeve of mine. He frowns on using the phrase at all but will concede that its use is permissible as long as it means “in this status or capacity.” His example is as follows: “We are all lawyers, and as such, we have a high duty of linguistic professionalism.”
Usually, however, writers—believing that the phrase is a synonym for “therefore”—state something like this: “The Supreme Court overruled Bradley v. Hall, and as such, Plaintiff has no right to rely on the case.” Because the Plaintiff is not acting in the capacity of the overruled case, the sentence makes no sense.
Lest you think that Professor Haggard is alone on this issue, he sat recently on an airplane next to Judge Harris L. Hartz from the Tenth Circuit, who was flying into Columbia, S.C. to speak to federal immigration attorneys. The two introduced themselves and began talking about legal writing, as we all do in social conversations on airplanes. Judge Hartz related that his biggest pet peeve at the moment was misuse of “as such.” Because the last thing you want is to have an irritated judge, be extra careful to use this phrase only if it means “in this status or capacity.”
4. “There is” and “it is”: expletives deleted
These phrases, known as expletives, frequently appear at the beginning of sentences, which makes them the focal point. The focal point is wasted in those sentences, however, because the phrases say nothing, weaken the sentence, and almost always can be avoided.
- There was a pile of money stacked on the Defendant’s bed when Officer Brown arrived. CHANGE TO:
- A pile of money was stacked on the Defendant’s bed when Officer Brown arrived.
5. It’s a shame: more apostrophe peeves
Having just ranted about starting a sentence with “it is,” I ask that writers please punctuate it correctly when you must use it. “It’s” is a contraction for “it is” or “it has.”
- It’s not easy being green.
“Its” is the possessive form of the pronoun “it” and is used as a modifier before a noun.
- The district court clerk’s office shut down its computer due to electronic problems.
6. A “very unique” problem
A “very unique” problem This is my father’s and my pet peeves rolled into one. “Unique” means one of a kind. Something is unique or not, but it cannot be “very” unique. That is Daddy’s part of this peeve.
My part of this entry is the general use of “very,” “really,” and other similar expletives that are useless fillers in a sentence. “Very” does not add anything to the sentence in most instances, so try to remove as many of those fillers from your writing as possible.
- Susie and Sarah write very important memoranda for the South Carolina Supreme Court. CHANGE TO:
- Susie and Sarah write important memoranda.
7. Sic ‘em
Lawyers use the word “sic” in a quotation to show that the preceding word is exactly as it appeared in the original document. (“Mr. DeMott was profoundly effected [sic] by the accident.”) The word is legitimately used to show that the quoted words are not the quoter’s, but “sic” is used many times out of sheer meanness. Bryan Garner, in his classic book, A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage, calls these lawyers “benighted users” who try to belittle another’s mistake or ignorance. We all make mistakes, so depending on the situation, avoid using “sic” in one of three ways:
- “Mr. DeMott was profoundly affected by the accident.” (Simply change the word without comment. In some situations, such as law review articles in which absolute accuracy is important, this method is inappropriate.)
- “Mr. DeMott was profoundly [affected] by the accident.” (Use brackets to show that text was removed and replaced by your own words.)
- Mr. DeMott claims in his brief that he was profoundly affected by the accident. (Paraphrase rather than quoting verbatim.)
8. A lot of trouble
The word “alot” does not exist.
9. Ellipsis: We Three Periods
An ellipsis, three periods separated by spaces, takes the place of words removed from a quotation. In the following quotation, two sentences were removed after the first quoted sentence:
- Mr. Koontz surprised us by saying, “My client never set foot in the Kit Kat Club. . . . In fact, Michael was home with his mother and grandmother at the time of the shooting. As always, they were having their nightly devotionals.”
Do not use an ellipsis before or after a quotation of a phrase or a clause.
- Mr. Koontz argued that Defendant Barfield “never set foot in the Kit Kat Club.”
Do not use an ellipsis at the beginning of quoted language that will stand as a complete sentence. Instead, capitalize the first quoted word and place it in brackets if the word is not already capitalized. Do not use brackets if the first word is already capitalized.
- “[T]hey were having their nightly devotionals.”
- “Michael was home with his mother and grandmother at the time of the shooting.”
Use an ellipsis at the end of a quoted sentence, placing it between the last word quoted and the final punctuation mark. (Note that a space should go between the last quoted word and the first period.)
- “Michael was home with his mother and grandmother . . . .”
Do not put an ellipsis to show that quoted material after a complete quoted sentence is deleted unless additional quoted material follows the ellipsis.
- “In fact, Michael was home with his mother and grandmother at the time of the shooting.”
When language after the end of a quoted sentence is omitted and is followed by additional quoted material, keep the final punctuation of the sentence and insert an ellipsis between the punctuation and the next quoted material.
- “In fact, Michael was home with his mother and grandmother at the time of the shooting. . . . [T] hey were havin
When language is omitted both at the end and after the end of a quoted sentence, use only one ellipsis to show both omissions.
- “In fact, Michael was home with his mother and grandmother . . . . [T]hey were having their nightly devotionals.”
10. I assure you that I have insured my gifts to ensure their safe arrival.
“Assure,” “ensure,” and “insure” all mean “to make sure or certain.” These words have some differences, however.
Assure most commonly means “to remove doubt about; to guarantee.” Assure is the only one of these three words that can be used with a person as the direct object.
- Heyward assures me that she will finish writing the motion by noon.
Ensure means “to make sure or certain,” and must be followed by a direct object. Ensure signifies the act of guaranteeing, instead of the spoken guarantee indicated by assure.
- Scott, Kay, and Stacy worked hard to meet all goals to ensure their promotion to partner.
Insure means to provide, arrange, acquire, or have insurance for.
- Our expert insured the kerosene heater before mailing it to us.
11. No Virginia, “irregardless” is not a proper word.
Almost all respected dictionaries designate this word as “nonstandard.” Even the Urban Dictionary makes fun of it. American Dictionary of the English Language notes that “it has met with a blizzard of condemnation for being an improper yoking of irrespective and regardless and for the logical absurdity of combining the negative ir- prefix and –less suffix in a single term.” Count me as one small snowflake in the blizzard.
12. Polly the Dog: A true “pet peeve”
I have been trying hard not to use this terrible pun, but I cannot help myself. Please forgive me. Honestly, I remain slightly peeved at my sweet Boykin Spaniel, but after getting all these other peeves off my chest, I am feeling much better. My son came in with a bag of chocolate chip cookies to help alleviate the pain of the splintered kindergarten Christmas ball and volunteered to help with the shopping. My Scrivener Elves—Erin, Michelle, and Carmen—have agreed to proofread this before it goes to Andrew Clemons, who has patiently waited for me to get this column finished. Finally, I remember the reason for this season and am feeling good will toward men—as long.