Errors 101: ReadWriteWeb’s 12 deadly grammatical errors startups must avoid

There was a great article yesterday that Michelle Turner pointed out on Facebook. This 12 Deadly Grammatical Errors Startups Must Avoid blog gives some of the most common simple errors. My favorites are “its or it’s” (1) “you’re or your” (6) and “flush out an idea” (9).
It’s painful to see brilliant people create blog posts with grammar so confusing that you have to work at reading the post to bring out the meaning. It’s worthwhile when you reach the end, but it would be so much more effective if one could easily read the content.

I also take issue with his “this does not apply to non-native English speakers.” My experience has been that people who have learned English as a second language are better at English usage, as they pay more attention to the rules. My advice to non-native speakers is to keep using our language and feel free to point out errors made by native speakers, as long as you do it in a non-judgmental way.

The New Yorker lifts me up on the contraception debate, but lets me down on hyphens

I love the New Yorker magazine and its writers. It is the one magazine that I am sure to read every week; it is always written and edited well. That’s why the lead article in the March 19 edition, Taking Control, in “The Talk of the Town” surprised me. [Before I digress into grammar, I will say that the editorial was spot-on. My daughter of 27 years is living in our house for a short while, and Ann and I hear the moral outrage from Claire and her friends on a regular basis. I can only hope that this outrage is widespread in the polls and has an impact on Congress and the state legislatures on election day 2012. Those contests may matter more than the presidential race if we want to break the logjam in Washington and roll back the reactionary agenda in the states. I do look forward to the time when contraception and transvaginal ultrasound are not dinner-table conversation.]
Two of my “favorite” errors appeared in this article. It seems that the writer is in the younger generation which has a slightly different perspective on the English language and grammar.

The first error is that the Latin phrase ad hominem is hyphenated. It’s not supposed to be, as I noted in a recent blog on foreign phrases and hyphenation. New Yorker editorial review has caught this in the past. Just do a Google search on “ad hominem” and you’ll see that this was a deviation from the common practice and editorial guidelines of the magazine.

The second error is that “teenager” is presented as a hyphenated word, “teen-ager.” It occurs in the second paragraph before the end of the article, in the phrase “to become pregnant as teen-agers.” Every dictionary I searched has this as a compound word, not hyphenated.

Margaret Talbot’s content is always wonderful and appreciated; it is only with great fear and trepidation that I question an acclaimed writer. However, I am sure that I am correct. New [incorrect] uses of the English language have been appearing consistently in technical presentations in Silicon Valley. But this is the first time I have seen them spill over into mainstream publications.

How to abuse a foreign language with a simple hyphen, starting with Latin

Large organizations develop their own dialects. One dialect that existed at my previous employer, Adobe, was the use of a hyphen to connect words within Latin phrases. The most common instance of this was ad hoc, which sprung up in hyphenated form, ad-hoc, in many presentations. This problem is more widespread than just one company. If you would like to see this in a Google search, try these searches for “ad-hoc“, “ad-hoc mode” or ‘“ad-hoc”‘. [To Adobe's credit, most of the hyphenated use of ad hoc is in the forums, where editorial correctness is not the main issue.] You can see that “everyone is doing it,” but, as my mother used to say, that doesn’t make it right. The basic rule is that foreign language phrases, such as those below, are used without hyphens. See Grammatically Correct in Google Books for more detail on this. But it makes it clear that one should “note in particular that Latin phrases never take hyphens.” The Chicago Manual of Style suggests that “foreign words and phrases familiar to most readers and listed in Webster’s should appear in roman (not italics) if used in an English context.” The option to hyphen the words does not appear in the manual at all.

A short list of these common Latin phrases are

Wikipedia has a long categorical list of Latin phrases in case you are curious.

Let’s respect foreign languages and use their phrases correctly.  Even the dead ones.

Grammar Girl delivers a podcast to assist improvement-focused but potentially snarky commenters

I’ll admit it. I have Grammar Girl on my podcast list. I decided to listen to it to help improve my grammar and spelling, as it can be poor at times. The fact that my son was a journalism major in college and is now a high school English teacher-in-waiting also caused me to want to stay a step ahead of his corrections and to learn a bit of theory behind the grammar.
This blog started as a way to raise awareness of the errors that I see on a daily basis. One of the issues is that pointing out errors, especially in long-lived public documents or presentations, can be as socially difficult as pointing out embarrassing items such as an unzipped fly or a major bit of food lodged in a stranger’s front teeth.

I wrestle with this whenever I point issues out to people. I hope that these are appreciated, as I believe that we should all be focused on continuous improvement; most people don’t even know when they have been habitually incorrect. And I appreciate every comment that I receive from others.

Please take a look at the transcript of the podcast or listen on your own; she has multiple links on the webpage. And you may want to join me in gently pointing out issues to people when it is appropriate.

Down and out punctuation: the apostrophe

A friend shared this photo in twitter yesterday. Of course, the main issue is the furor over Waterstone’s dropping the apostrophe from their name. For the record, I have no problem with their decision. But the dejected apostrophe has issues of overuse in other areas. Note that the sign lists two uses: contractions and possession. It does not list plurals.

Technical presenters often mess up acronyms. It is common to find sentences such as “SA’s are now included in the product” or “New signs were put on all the ATM’s.” Apostrophes are for possession, and the SA and ATM in the sentences above are not possessing anything. The appropriate usage is “SAs” and “ATMs.”

Detail below: skip if you understand the issue already.

I found two web references that discuss the plural issue in detail. The articles are long, so I’ve included just the relevant portions. The key to both of these references is that an acronym is treated as a word and is made plural by adding an “s” to it. There are a few exceptions, but they are rare.

From the Guide to Grammar and Writing: When an abbreviation can be used to refer to a singular thing — a run batted in, a meal ready-to-eat, a prisoner of war — it’s surely a good idea to form the plural by adding “s” to the abbreviation: RBIs, MREs, POWs.

Notice, furthermore, that we do not use an apostrophe to create plurals in the following:

  • The 1890s in Europe are widely regarded as years of social decadence.
  • I have prepared 1099s for the entire staff.
  • Rosa and her brother have identical IQs, and they both have PhDs from Harvard.
  • SAs will be supported in the next product release.

You can also use Wikipedia’s Acronym page. Be warned that there is much more there than you’d think possible on such a small topic.

I have posted two grammar graphics recently. They seem to work, so please send me more when you find them. The images make the blog more fun and gives me clear topics.

Introducing Grammarly, my automated proofreader

What’s wrong with the text below?

Bad Hyphen – when grammar goes bad, or how to see some humor and learn from the one’s mistakes
This sentence appeared in my main blog, RandomRoutes, a few days ago. And what’s wrong with it? I had a superfluous “the” near the end of the sentence. I did not catch it as I read it out loud to myself. And my proofreaders did not catch it.How did I find it, you may ask? I tried Grammarly, the automated proofreader and your personal grammar coach. This was the first error it pointed out. I looked at the screen in disbelief, but it was true.I do not agree with everything that Grammarly suggests. For example, it suggested that the line “my position was eliminated” should not have been in the passive voice. But I had intentionally used the passive voice. Many other items, including better word choice, were excellent suggestions.

I’ll be using Grammarly user for my future blog posts.

Working with annoyed but satisfactory employees (cross functional)

I’ve been looking at job postings lately and have had a few chuckles when I see problems with compound adjectives, whether hyphenatedor solid. [To get technical, it's an adjectival phrase. The links do a great job describing the proper usage.]

The specific copy got to me today was a description of responsibilities. The sentence read “Work with cross functional and virtual teams.” What it says is that the teams are annoyed, but organized in functional and virtual teams; it is unclear if the virtual teams are cross.

Simply stated, this makes much more sense with a hyphenated compound word, cross-functional. I’d be much happier working with a team like this: “Work with cross-functional and virtual teams.”

A new category on grammar

I began this stream early in 2012 with my badhyphen blog, hosted by Blogger. I have now moved to my own consolidated WordPress-based site and blog. Even though badhyphen was a great name for a blog, it does not have the intuitive description that categories require: it is now just the “grammar” category  All of the content from that blog is now carried over to this new site, with the original dates. 

I’ve been working in the corporate world for over 35 years and have witnessed the steady decline of grammar in the workplace during that time. One could blame this on the internationalization of business and the fact that many people learned English as a second language. This is incorrect in my experience: many people in India have better English grammar and a wider vocabulary than native English-speakers in the United States.

People at Adobe knew me as very critical on grammar, as I believe that poor grammar and spelling reflects a negative perception of one’s intelligence and product quality. But I also believe that grammar and spelling are easy to fix if one is willing to learn and to subject your content to review and a proofreader, and possibly even an editor. I ran a short wiki page inside Adobe with my favorite spelling issues, especially misplaced hyphens. I’m now taking issues that I see in public content (corporate response emails, web pages, or presentations) and pointing them out so that we all can learn.

I will not use personal emails or social media, as that betrays a fundamental trust; they are also not channels where people give scrutiny to their content. Wikis are fair game, although I will always comment on the wiki itself or change it if I can.

I hope that you enjoy these and we all can learn from these examples. And DO point out when I make errors: I know I am not perfect and have much to learn. My son, a journalist, points out my errors frquently and I am always grateful.

P.S. The title of the blog should be said the same way that you would scold a dog when you say “bad dog.”