The Opinionated Grammarist 3

by Ian Doescher


As Pivot’s primary copywriter (and a part-time author), I spend a lot of time with words—thinking about them, reading them, editing them and writing them. I’ve been a word nerd for a long time, to greater and lesser degrees, and right now I’m probably at my peak. I call myself a word nerd and not a grammar nerd because, honestly, I’m not the sort of person who knows every last rule of grammar perfectly. I care more about making words sound good, about making sentences flows smoothly, than I do about following the exact rules.

That said, I do have my pet peeves. I must, because this is my third “Opinionated Grammarist” post on the Pivot blog, though the last one was about two and a half years ago. Anyway, here’s a little quiz for you. Give yourself one point for each of the following you sometimes do when you are writing. Your final score will determine whether not we can be friends.

1. When talking about people, saying “that” instead of “who.” This one really gets me—consider the sentence opening, “Many people that live in Portland…” Wait a minute, are these people not human? Oh, they are?! In that case, let’s use “who.” “Many people who live in Portland…” Much better. This is a minor issue, I admit, but every time I read about a person that does something, it feels like they have been dehumanized. I use “who” after any mention of people, or just about any grouping of people: the designers who, the astronauts who, the politicians who… (okay, that last one’s debatable).

2. Using ampersands. Using an & instead of just writing the word “and” seems terribly lazy. Most people don’t use the @ symbol in place of “at,” so why use & in place of “and”? Or, if we’re going to use &, why not create symbols for other common words, like “to,” “for” or “or”? Do I sound like a curmudgeon yet?

3. Using the Oxford comma. Look, I won’t make a big deal out of this one. I know this is the kind of grammar issue that breaks apart families (little known fact: the Beatles disbanded because of the Oxford comma). Let me just say this: I understand the reason one would use an Oxford comma, and I reject it. Why? Two reasons: first, we live in a comma-infested society, so I take any chance I can to lose a comma. Second: I have never once been misled by those examples Oxfordists love to throw in our faces. I have never read a sentence that said something like, “I spent my last night with my roommates, Nelson Mandela and a 10,000 pound gorilla,” and thought that my roommates were Mandela and the gorilla. The problem the Oxford comma is supposed to solve has never been a problem for me.

4. Using word shortenings. Copywriters are, I think, particularly egregious on this issue. How many times have you read an ad that used “thru” or “lite” or “nite”? Far too often, most likely. I understand it a bit when it has become common usage, as in “drive thru.” I still don’t like it, but I understand it. But when I read fine print that says, “Offer available thru March 1, 2016,” I start snarling. Also, please do not use the non-word “thots” around me. When I see that I just think “ugh,” which is exactly what that word is missing.

5. Misusing acronyms or abbreviations. Several years ago, I made a point of learning what all of the acronyms and abbreviations in common usage mean. Here are a few examples:

  • i.e. stands for id est, a Latin phrase meaning “that is”
  • e.g. stands for exempli gratia, a Latin phrase meaning, essentially, “for example”
  • RSVP stands for répondez s’il vous plait, a French phrase meaning, literally, “respond if it pleases you” or, simply, “respond, please”

I frequently see misuses or confusions of i.e. and e.g. in copywriting. Also, I often see “RSVP” used redundantly, as in the phrase “Please RSVP,” which means “please please respond.” It’s difficult, but as much as possible it’s best if you can just say “RSVP to XXX-XXX-XXXX” or whatever.

How did you score? If you scored 0-1 points, because you don’t fall into any of these traps, or maybe just one, you and I are bound to be besties! 2-3 points and there’s a good chance I will look upon you (and your writing) with a suspicion normally reserved for shoplifters and people who pinch babies. 4-5 points and, I’m sorry, but we can never be friends and it’s probably best if stay outside a 5-mile radius from me.

Just kidding, we can still be friends. But at least you know now where I stand. Happy writing!

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