Category: Background


By Sarah Ann Binning

People have been arguing over grammar since the beginning of time. I’m sure early arguments sounded something close to this:

Eve: Can I try an apple?

God: You mean may you try an apple?

Eve: Yes, may I?

God: NO! Do not eat from the beautiful tree in the center of Eden.

Everyone has his/her opinion about grammar. And of course, there are those people who HAVE to be right. All the time. No matter what.

Setting out to write a grammar blog is no easy task. To accomplish a successful, correct, informative message one must study, research, study and then research some more. Writing about proper English, means undertaking a life-long challenge to learn and perfect my own problems with grammar.

Errors and writing a grammar blog are like peanut butter and jelly. Whenever you write about  proper grammar, spelling, their uses and rules you also encounter errors. However, there is hope. I recently learned of Hartman’s Law of Prescriptivist Retaliation. In his online column, Words & Stuff, Jed Hartman first coined the phrase Hartman’s Law (or as I like to call it, the PB&J effect). “[A]ny article or statement about correct grammar, punctuation, or spelling is bound to contain at least one error.”

Hartman, isn’t the only individual who recognized this phenomenon. Erin McKean (“Verbatim” editor and Dictionary Evangelist) coined McKean’s Law: “Any correction of the speech or writing of others will contain at least one grammatical, spelling, or typographical error.”

Similarly, Skitt’s Law (originating from alt.usage.english contributor Skitt) states “spelling or grammar flames always contain spelling or grammar errors.”

[NOTE: All sources I read regarding these three PB&J effects expressed that these authors came to these conclusions independently from each other.]

Don’t you hate those people who jump at the chance to correct your grammar? It’s like they wait for you to slip so they can shove your mistakes down your throat, pin you to the ground and laugh in your face. Brutal. Trust me, I know.

Most often, my high-school self, encountered those types of people. As a 4.0 student, people always loved correcting me when I misspoke.  They had that smug look that broadcast their thought “and you’re valedictorian?!” Those people are the reason I started this blog. I’m no genius. I’m human. I make mistakes. But, (cue inspirational, heart-warming music) I want to learn. Writing this blog has challenged me to think about grammar daily. I’m conditioning myself to be a stronger writer and a solid speaker.

I just pray I don’t become one of those laugh-in-your-face-grammar-gloating bitches.

And readers, just so we’re clear, you are not included in that group of gloating female dogs.

No matter what you call it, Hartman, McKean or Skitt’s Law, I am filled with renewed hope. They remind me that no human is perfect. While I will edit with more diligence, I will not beat myself up over some minor missed mistakes. (I will however, give myself a stern talkin’ to, when I mess up big time). Please, I continue to encourage you to help me improve.  I appreciate the feedback you all are leaving. I can learn about my weaknesses from the grammatical errors readers catch.

Just always remember to practice humility. Someday you’ll slip up too and someone will correct you.

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By Sarah-Ann Binning

Upon my move to Boston, summer 2009, I wasted no time in getting a library card, because “having fun isn’t hard, when you’ve got a library card.”

The block-long building on Copley Square became my home away from home. Never-ending rows of bookshelves and the smell of well-loved and worn book pages soothed my fears of moving to a new and unfamiliar city. Among a city of strangers, the Boston Public Library offered me the comforts I most longed for: friends, adventures.

Growing up, I never had many friends. I went through an awkward transition from elementary school and middle school. From first to fourth grade, I had a best-friend move away each year. I hid myself in books. These fictional characters would never abandon me. Page after page the characters let me into their lives and it built a wonderful love for reading.

It comes as no surprise then (seeing as though this is my last entry for spelling week on ‘ispy’) that reading is another way to improve your spelling. (Editor’s note: I meant to post this on Friday, but I got carried away with a writing test for a job application.)

Reading causes you to focus on words that you might not come across during everyday conversation. This helps you increase your vocabulary. Yet at the same time, while you’re reading these words, you’re seeing them in their correct form/spelling. If you’re consistently seeing the word, you can pick up how to spell the word too.

Part of the challenge is to step outside your normal comfort zone and to expand your basis of reading. Rather than reading Joe Schmoe’s personal blog every day, why not also read a few articles on nationalgeographic.com or cnn.com? Reading meticulously edited and revised publications will help you see/read correct grammar and spelling in action.

That being said, I don’t want you to read something that makes you want to stab your eyes with pencils, either. You need to read something you ENJOY. I promise reading can be (and IS) enjoyable.

We all advance through various stages of literary appreciation at our own pace. Being forced to read something you dislike only slows the process of literary appreciation.

While taking a “Young Adult Literature” course last quarter, my professor had us read Chapter One from a Nilson & Donelson textbook. Nilson and Donelson described the stages of literary appreciation as thus (39):

1. Understand that Pleasure and Profit can come from literature. What N &D illustrate is that small children learn to read “signs.” Take the McDonald’s arch, for example. Children learn to read the sign as a symbol for food and/or happy meal. This association is pleasurable and they profit from enjoying the food.

2. Learning to Read. This is the elementary stage of learning how to sound out words and spell.

3. Losing oneself in a story. Here the reader forgets all else and allows him/herself to be consumed by the story. We lose track of time and get carried away with the adventure. I would say this is my natural state of reading, especially when I’m reading Harry Potter.

4. Finding oneself in a story. Here we begin to shape our values and morals based on what we’re reading and what characteristics we value in the text’s heroes.

5. Venturing beyond themselves. This stage typically involves asking our friends for reading suggestions. We’ve read everything we like and love and now we crave new authors and new story plots.

6/7. Develop Aesthetic and analytical appreciation. For me, this didn’t really occur until college. I never understood that each WORD is chosen for a specific reason in every book. Form has meaning. The author chooses to write the book this way intentionally.

My 2010 new year’s resolution is to read for at least 15 minutes everyday. With the exception of 7 days this year, I’ve kept my resolution. While I’m still a chronic misspeller, I seem to be more aware of what words I struggle with and I’m working on improving.

I also created a book “bucket-list” of 200 classic books I want to read before I die. I figure I should branch out and see what all the fuss is about. These books are famous for a reason, right?

Side Note: Upon researching this topic, I stumbled upon a blog posted June 1, 2009 by glen. “8 ways reading makes you better at life” speaks right to my heart. It helps that the author is cleaver and witty writer too.

Does Spelling Count?

By Sarah-Ann Binning

Queue Cue spotlight, front and center. The white light blinds my eyes as I step to the microphone. Beads of sweat form at my brow, threatening to drip down my face and stain the collar of my freshly pressed blouse.

I find my place in front of the mic and the pronouncer calls out my word. “Ms. Binning, your word is liaison.”

“Liaison?” I say it slowly to buy myself the extra millisecond to think. “May I have the definition please?”

The pronouncer reads the definition. Not that it helps me figure out how to spell liaison. I scribble a guess on the back of my name tag. Looks good to me.  I begin to stammer out the letters “L-I-A-I-Z-O-N.”

A moment of complete silence before the pronouncer utters those dreaded words, “I’m sorry but that is incorrect.”

The auditorium fills with laughter. I drop to my knees, arms stretched to the heavens, “NOOO!” I scream. I bolt upright and awake from the dream, still covered in the sweat from the spotlight on my spelling failure.

Spelling Bees were my biggest nightmare as a child. I was (and still am) a horrible speller.  I worked hard for my grades in school. But when someone found out how atrocious my spelling was, I could feel him or her instantly judging me … thinking less than me.

My inability to spell is a problem. I was the student who raised her hand before a fill-in-the-blank exam to ask, “Does spelling count?”  But I had to face my fears, and face the problem head-on, and nip it in the butt before it could nip me. My experience throughout my undergrad studies taught me, YES, spelling always counts.

To hammer home my point that spelling correctly IS important, I’ve dedicated all of this week’s blogs to Spelling! Look forward to tips and tools for improving your own spelling skills, as well preview information about the upcoming 2010 Scripps National Spelling Bee (held in Washington DC).

To kick off Spelling Week, let’s discuss commonly misspelled English words.

Does anyone else find it humorous that “misspell” and “definitely” are among the list of 100 most misspelled words?  Seems to me that misspell is just destined to be spelled incorrectly. It’s that darned double “s” that trips people up. Is there anything more embarrassing than misspelling the word misspell?

Below I’ve selected a few more commonly misspelled words and I’ll give my two cents for remembering how to spell them.

Accommodate: The word is long because you need to accommodate the double ”c” and double “m.”

Changeable: Just remember that you are ABLE to CHANGE. Or … that your mom is asking you to CHANGE ABLE’s diaper.

Grateful: Those tricksters! This word gave me so much trouble. I kept thinking grateful is a happy word, so shouldn’t it be great. WRONG. Grateful is NOT GREAT.

License: I rarely used this word until I was hired as student coordinator at Jefferson. I had to help students complete their payroll paperwork and I could never remember how to spell license. I knew there are an “s” and a “c” but I couldn’t remember which came first. Then I realized, they’re alphabetical. “C “comes before “S” in the alphabet.  liCenSe

I am a musical and linguistic learner. For me personally, the best way to learn how to spell is through a cute little riddle, poem or a sing-song. The perfect example of this is the “Difficulty” poem Miss Honey teaches her class in the 1996 movie “Matilda.”

The scene unfolds like this:

Miss Trunchbull: [pointing at Amanda] Can you spell?
Amanda: Miss Honey taught us how to spell a long word yesterday. We can spell “difficulty”.
You couldn’t spell “difficulty” if your life depended on it.
Amanda: She taught us with a poem.
Miss Trunchbull: [mimicking Amanda with a high-pitched tone] A poem? How sweet. What poem would that be?
Amanda: Mrs. D, Mrs. I…
[students join in]
Amanda: [chanting with the rest of the class] Mrs. F-F-I. Mrs. C, Mrs. U., Mrs. L-T-Y!
Miss Trunchbull: [strikes a desktop with her riding crop and all the children instantly face forward] WHY ARE ALL THESE WOMEN MARRIED?
Miss Trunchbull: Mrs. D? Mrs. I? You’re supposed to be teaching SPELLING! Not poetry!

I love that movie … and the book too. My sister and I still chant the poem (and various other memorable quotes from “Matilda”).

What about you? Do you have a favorite poem or song that helped you learn how to spell a word? Post a comment or send me a tweet (ispygrammar) and I’ll post or discuss them later this week.

For more information on commonly misspelled English words I suggest looking here and here.

One, singular sensation

By Sarah Binning

The idea to begin a grammar blog began a little more than a week ago, after reading an online article in my Monster.com newsletter. The headline really sealed the deal for me: “Writing Mistakes that Make You Look Dumb.” I was hooked in by my rather geeky sense of humor.

One of my favorite mistakes mentioned was number 9: None is. (Never none ARE.)

I made a mental note to dedicate a blog entry to “none” and other commonly abused singular words. My intention was to write this entry yesterday. Yet somehow I spent the evening crocheting a Christmas Granny square afghan. (Yes, I am aware of the fact that I act like a 80-year-old grandmother. What’s next?  Want to come over and bake cookies? I’ll wear an apron and let you lick the bowl. Anyway, I digress).

Feeling guilty about my lack of entry yesterday, I awoke early to research the word “none.”

Long story short: none IS singular.

Examples:

None was hurt during this experiment.  None of the girls was able to come today.

How can this be? It SOUNDS so incorrect. Colloquial habits damaged our ability to hear grammar mistakes. It sounds wrong because we say it wrong everyday.

While this might not be horribly exciting news to you, my research proved rather interesting.

When examining the etymology (or root origins) of the word, I discovered that “none” is derived from the singular phrase “not one.” So what originated as the contraction no’ne (not one) eventually dropped the apostrophe and became “none.”

(Isn’t the history of language fascinating? Maybe I should have gone into linguistics … Oh well, it’s a little too late to change my degree now.)

So what other words take singular verbs?

  1. When the adjectives each, every, many a, more than one, either and neither precede a singular or compound subject, they take singular verbs.

1a. More than one parent disagrees with Mrs. Draxler’s teaching methods.

1b. Every student enjoys snow cancellations.

2. Indefinite pronouns (with a few exceptions) require singular verbs and singular personal pronouns.

2a. Allow me to name a few indefinite pronouns: another, anybody, anything, each one, everyone, everything, nobody, no one, somebody, something.

2b. Everyone is waiting for the game to begin.

2c. Somebody laughs at all my jokes.

3. Title of businesses books, movies, TV shows, poems, short stories and songs take singular verbs. Don’t let the titles fool you. Although they may appear plural, they function as one singular entity.

3a. Jurassic Park is the best book I’ve read this year.

3b. Bad Romance was on the radio a moment ago.

3c. LOST is on Tuesday night at 9 p.m. LOST is the single greatest TV show in the history of television.

3d. McDonalds McDonald’s is the fastest growing food chain in the world. (NOTE: I have not idea if this sentence is TRUE. I made it up to illustrate the proper use of company names as a singular verb-taking entity.

3e. Ghostbusters is playing on a TBS marathon this weekend.

While the list for words that take singular verbs is seemingly endless, I think I’ll leave them for another day.  Nothing is more important than allowing you brain to digest this information.  (See what I did there? Kudos to me for inserting another cleaver example of a singular word: Nothing IS.)

Tomorrow we’ll examine words that take plural verbs.



By Sarah-Ann Binning

If you had told me my freshman year of college that I would end up writing a grammar blog I would have laughed in your face. Seriously. We’re talking hardcore, rolling-on-the floor laughing in your face.

I hated grammar. I was a writer and a journalist and yes, I understood it was important to speak and write properly, but grammar was my kryptonite. School and studying came naturally to me, grammar did not. I blamed the school system for my hatred of proper English.  You see, I grew up in an era where teachers were told grammar was less important than phonics. Schools focused on teaching my peers and me how to sound out words. Worksheet after worksheet we slaved away filling in vowel sounds. “Is this a long ‘a’ sound?” I would ask myself.  Looking back at my phonics years I can not help but thinking how incredibly stupid those lessons were. I never learned to read phonetically and it sure as hell didn’t help my spelling skills.

By the time I entered high school, the school system realized how incredibly, well for lack of a better term, naïve it had been. Turns out, grammar was important. My freshman and sophomore English teacher tried so hard to teach us parts of speech and how to diagram sentences. But they quickly lost faith in us and I lost faith in myself.  I knew how to write and how to grab my reader’s attention but I figured my editor would take care of the nitty-gritty grammar mumbo jumbo.

So there I was, a freshman at Ohio University, enrolled in the mandatory class: PRECISION LANGUAGE. The class was grammar boot camp: eleven weeks of intensive lessons with a drill sergeant of a professor.  But somewhere between watching Professor Cambridge write “I wish I were a pony” on the blackboard, a light bulb clicked. Suddenly I was interested. I understood the difference between “who” and “whom.” I was fascinated that there were three categories of verbals (FYI: infinitive, gerund and participle).

When exactly I became Ms. Grammar, I’m not quite sure. The transition was slow and progressive, I’m sure. But about a year ago, I realized I LOVED grammar. I enjoyed when my sister would call me and say, “I just read this sentence in a book. It doesn’t sound right. Is (fill in the blank) grammatically correct?”

While I enjoy learning more about grammar, there’s just one problem: school websites and books are dull and boring. Frankly, they’re giving grammar a bad public image. No wonder we hated studying it in grade school. My objective for this blog is write comical, enjoyable yet understandable and beneficial lessons on the English language.

Hope you enjoy my adventures into an investigated examination of grammar.  Feel free to post any of your own grammar questions you’d like to see answered.