Wicked Wednesday: May I and Other Pet Grammar Peeves

Edith here again, writing from a quiet retreat house on Cape Cod. As a child, you might have asked, “Can I go out and play?” Did anyone else have a stickler mom, aunt, teacher, or other grownup who responded, “You can, but you may not until you’ve cleaned your room/finished the dishes/done your homework.” You know the drill. The can/may Strunk and whitedifference is important to some people, or was.

So let’s talk grammar pet peeves on this hump Wednesday. Who has one? Which spoken or written quirks grate like beach sand between your toes when you hear them? Do you distinguish between written and spoken grammar? Opinions on the now somewhat discounted Strunk and White? Dish!

Jessie: I am not really one for pet peeves of any kind. That being said, I am always amazed when people say “I could care less” when what they mean is that she or he “couldn’t care less”. I just cannot understand why that mistake has made its way into the world.

Sherry: This isn’t a peeve, but when I was young one of the ways we learned good grammar was at the dinner table. If I said, “Pass the potatoes please,” my dad would pass them the opposite way from me. There was only four of us so it didn’t take long to get the potatoes but a reminder to say “pass the potatoes to me, please.” I also had a girlfriend who called often for me. She would say, “Is Sherry there?” If my dad answered he’d say, “Yes” and then wait for her to say something further like, “Can I speak to her?” One day she turned the tables on him and after he said, “yes” she said, “thanks” and hung up. It became a running joke for them.

Barb: One of my pet peeves is people who have grammar peeves, as such peeves are often emblematic of the worst sort of snobbishness. Many times the “rules” I see cited with these claims are rooted in some specific form of education, or the eccentricities of someone’s third grade teacher, or are plain wrong. As an example, I was going to say here that whenever someone modifies the word “unique,” it sets my teeth on edge. Unique means the one and only, therefore something cannot be somewhat or very unique. However, in preparing to post, I had a long, interesting read about “absolute adjectives” here. It turns out we modify these words all the time. While it is not logical to modify unique when it means the one and only, it is fine to modify it in its second and more common meaning of unusual or rare. So here I am, hoist on my own petard, and proving my own point about grammar snobs.

Liz: I don’t mean to sound like a grammar snob, Barb, I swear – but when people mess up “your” and “you’re” it makes me CRAZY. Also, random apostrophes. I see it all the time at work – for example, when someone is referring to a group of people by an abbreviation of letters and add apostrophes on even if they aren’t possessing something (AEs, SMAs, etc.) I can’t help it. It’s the journalist in me…

Barb: No worries, Liz. I don’t think the distinction between your and you’re comes from anyone’s third grade teacher’s eccentric view of the English language. I do hate it when my phone, which should know better, “suggests” the wrong word.

Julie: When I was in 9th grade Mrs. Mallow had us write our own grammar books. I think I still have mine. It was a great way to learn the “rules”. I am not a stickler, but I do appreciate knowing the rules so that I can break them. And I can’t end a sentence with a preposition even when it seems natural to do so.

Edith: Oh, good, I was hoping for a rousing discussion. One my little mantras to say after someone complains about an “error” in spoken English is to don my historical linguistics hat and say, “Just another example of language change in progress” – which peevers hate to hear.  Barb, I’ve read long blog posts pointing out how many times Strunk and White violate their own “rules” – in their own book!

That said, we all have things that grate on our ears. For me, one is people not using “an” before a word beginning with a vowel sound. “A apple, a eggplant.” I want to shout, “An apple. An eggplant.” and then I hear myself uttering my own mantra. Nobody knows who and whom any more, but everyone used to. So many people hypercorrect and write or say, “Mark went with George and I” because they think it sounds more proper – when they would NEVER say “George went with I.”


Written language, of course, lags way behind spoken in change.Which is why, Sherry, see the your/you’re confusion  in print is so glaring to people like us.

Readers: Grammar pet peeves? Favorite instances of language change in progress?

58 Thoughts

  1. I grew up in a bilingual home, where English was my parents’ second language. When writing, they were both literate–for their jobs, they had to be–but their spoken language was full of quirks and sometimes technical errors. For instance, my mother would say, “Catch me the peas,” and I can’t tell you how many times I heard my grandmother say, “That man is so pretty.” I find it charming.

    I am in agreement with Barb that I see an element in snobbery in expecting all people to speak and write with proper grammar. Not every person has the same level of education or are skilled in communicating. We here are all wordsmiths and examine language as a tool of our trade. My friend the pediatric ICU nurse, whose conference papers I proof, confuses “then” and “than” and your/you’re, me/I, and so on. She has trouble with English the same way I would struggle with chemistry or physics–or even simple math, to be honest.

    Sorry to blather on! One of my absolute pet peeves is seeing/hearing someone correct another person’s grammar in social settings or on social media. Fortunately, that’s not happening here.

    1. Catch me the peas! I love it, too, Ramona. And agree about the snobbery.

  2. Oh my gosh so many….people who say bafroom instead of bathroom. People who say a dog is skiddish….really?? You sure it’s not skittish? I agree with Liz on adding apostrophes on plural abbreviations. As an admin, I’m constantly correcting those on presentations. My husband’s peeve is the Blue Cross slogan Live Fearless. Fearless is an adjective, you do something fearlessly. He wants to climb up and correct every billboard he sees like that.

  3. It really bugs me when people use bring and brought when it should have been take or took. They do NOT mean the same thing! My other pet peeve is the hone/home misuse. But it’s gotten so that when I hear either one used correctly it is beginning to sound wrong. Language changing?

  4. My grandmother’s pet peeve was people saying the word “forte” (meaning strength) like the Italian musical term forte’ (with the accent). It was always pronounced “fort”, not “fortay”. Now no-one would know what you meant.

    Mine is the word “celibate”, which meant “unmarried”, not chaste, but the chaste usage has taken over. (Priests take vows of celibacy – they promise not to marry – but nuns take vows of chastity, because they are considered to be married to Christ and wear wedding rings.)

  5. Chuckling at this post, Edith, and also groaning, because now that I’ve created my book doctor sleuth for my new series (shameless plug: Crime&Punctuation will be out on May 29), I really have to watch my own grammar. Worse, for publisher publicity efforts, I was asked to come up with lists of FUNNY grammar and punctuation errors my character might find in clients’ manuscripts. There are plenty in memes and on signs, but it’s harder than you might think to come up with ones that might appear in someone’s novel or short story. I could think of lots of annoying mistakes, but deciding if they qualified as funny was much trickier.

  6. Have any of you seen the movie Murder By Death? Truman Capote plays the character Lionel Twain and corrects grammar of Sidney Wang. Sidney Wang does not use prepositions or articles and it drives Lionel crazy! Great movie with an equally great cast! I love how all of the world’s leading detectives are at one location!

    1. I love that movie! I actually have the movie tie-in novel (happened upon it at an amazing used bookstore back home when I was a kid and knew I had to have it) somewhere here on my bookshelves and, if I remember correctly, the movie novelization was full of grammatical errors and typos. I was so disappointed. It’s been years since I even thought of it – I think I’ll go take a look at my shelves now and see if I can find it. Maybe it isn’t as horrible as I remember?

  7. My biggest peeve is a local thing here in Pittsburgh, and it is that almost no one uses any form of the verb ‘to be’ in a sentence. “it needs washed” just grates on me!

  8. “I hate misplaced apostrophes.” – DS James Hathaway. Right on, James.

    And I don’t care what the Oxford English Dictionary says, “irregardless” is not word!

  9. Ah, Edith, I’m with you on that test of making “he and I” singular and seeing how ridiculous it sounds: He gave it to I? No! But two things that really bother me are that random use of apostrophes mentioned, as in1890’s, and the confusion of lay and lie. I’m told the latter is part of language change in progress and will eventually disappear but it bothers me. I used to know a man who said, “Hens lay, people lie.” (You can interpret that “lie” any way you want.

    1. And then there is the transitive/intransitve bit, and the ever so confusing spellings.

  10. I love this discussion although my last Strunk and White was more than thirty years ago. There is a book on Pennsylvania regional language differences and dialect such as y’uns and libary. It is an eye opening little tome. My last boss was obsessive about 2 spaces at the end of sentences. Today that is valuable real estate in the world of data now that we use computers. I couldn’t convince him of that and he was a few years younger than me! As Edith says, language changes. We are taught correct English as it was when we were in school but it changes. If it didn’t we would be short on some fabulous words of the last couple of hundred years and our fiction would be very stilted. And what would we call our televisions and computers and…?

    1. My favorite regionalism from my family’s home in Northeastern Pennsylvania is the expression, “No word a lie,” which is added to a sentence the way someone else might say, “unbelievable, but true.” Also, people always went “up the mall,” or “over town,” no prepositions required. Of course, in New England we go “down the Cape.”

  11. Mixed metaphors… but that’s a bridge we’ll burn when we cross it. I hear older metaphors being used by young, middle schoolers in very creative and odd ways. I think the confusion there comes from the fact that they have no point of reference.

    1. I have one character who is always scrambling her metaphors. Fun!

  12. The random apostrophes are awful. I’ve been known to erase them on restaurant chalk boards and am horrified when I see one on a professionally made advertising sign. I admit though, I still can’t figure out the difference between “That” and “Which.”

    1. It has to with…oh never mind. I would probably get it wrong!

  13. I don’t know whether or not this is a true grammar issue, but to me using the word”up” after stir, brown, etc. Just say stir the soup or brown the meat without adding “up.”

    1. I wrote an entire essay (in my head) about using the word “up”. I started after hearing someone say they put it up, meaning put it away. I think that is a regional expression, but not in my region.

      How about my son’s favorite? Unthaw! He didn’t know what to think when he first heard it. Turns out the speaker meant thaw. Like ravel and unravel, I guess.

  14. Hate that the world seems to have forgotten the subjunctive tense … and then uses it incorrectly. So many pet peeves … “I graduated high school” is one. It used to be regional, but now I see and hear it everywhere.

  15. Autocorrect is my pet peeve. It’s so dismally ignorant, and the corrections it makes are almost always wrong, especially regarding apostrophes (which Autocorrect would have added in that word). Why is my vocabulary so much larger than the computer’s, which presumably, includes every word combination possible? Or should, anyway. Because it also allows incorrect spellings to occur, including words that do not actually exist.

    It’s no wonder people are confused these days.

    In spoken use, especially on news and other media programs, where the level of education should conceivably preclude such mistakes, “should of”, instead of “should have”, and “has got”, instead of “has” are like needle scratches.

    1. Ah, those painful scratches, Karen. And don’t even get me started on autocorrect!

  16. My beefs are with improper use. I’m with Liz on the misuse of “you’re” and “your.” I’ll add the country’s sudden brain fart about the difference between “it’s” and “its.” I’ve literally seen the former misused on billboards and in ads! And here’s one I inherited from my mother: “there’s” used incorrectly. I.e., “There’s three of them.” Noooo… there ARE three of them! This is one that’s crept into being acceptable. But it’s so, so WRONG!

  17. Oh, so many!! I fully understand the concept of English is a changing language and I accept that. But some things just are so grating. “Him and me” ate dinner. Using “go” instead of “said”. I know someone who routinely says, ” Then he went me.” Huh? And the lack of use of forms to “to be”. This is prevalent in all oral news media. And, of course, those apostrophes! I grew up using the MLA handbook for writing. I know many of the things I learned have been changed since then. But it is so hard to change to what I consider wrong. I’ll get there. I’m flexible – to a point!

  18. Oh, well done! You’re preaching to the choir here, ladies. Liz, it’s not being a grammar snob to feel one’s hackles rise when people misplace an apostrophe. And, Edith, the ‘George and I’ thing is something that I constantly correct in my work as a proofreader. I always explain why, and as you say, it’s very simple. Thank you, I enjoyed reading this.

  19. So here’s my thing. There are so many stinking grammar rules to remember. It’s (or is it its?) like someone at some point in history was attempting to create rules just so they could be a snob. Some do make sense, like your and you’re. But so many are slowly going away, and I’m okay with that because it’s just impossible to remember them all.

    And I’m fairly forgiving on internet postings. I am the king of typos, and autocorrect messes us up, too. As long as I can figure it out, I’m fine.

    And maybe some of this comes from the fact that my mom still tries to correct my grammar. Yes, she was my teacher for a number of years (I was homeschooled), but at some point you need to let it go.

    The one exception is the Oxford comma. I know it is dying out, but when I don’t see it, it drives me bonkers, loco, and crazy.

  20. I love that English is a living language! It makes for rich writing and speech. We’ve borrowed and swapped so much with other languages (and cultures) that it’s also a challenging language. The same, I am sure, can be said for all languages in this shrunken world. Mispronunciation – when deliberate – grates on my nerves, and the lack of the Oxford comma for some reason, but creative use of grammar – it can be a character-defining identifier.

  21. My Foreign Language professor who was German said that English is the only language where we chop the tree down and then chop it up. Some grammar mistakes bother me but not too much. I try to write and maybe speak correctly.

  22. I guess I’m just old fashioned enough to think grammar matters. I see it as one more way I can learn and improve as an adult.

  23. Can you explain why seemingly even the “elites” among us incorrectly use “My friend and me went to school together” instead of “My friend and I” or the like as the subject of a sentence? Is it a conscious flaunting of bad grammar, particularly with the younger generation or do people think this is correct? I heard this so often (even among Harvard students I worked with for a decade) it drove me crazy.

    1. Just came across an example in an e-newsletter: “Over the last month me and a group of other youth have been creating marketing materials to get ready for the launch.”

  24. My students used to inform me of changes, like the period added to Ms. which wasn’t there in the ’70s when we feminists began using it, and one space between sentences. On the latter, we agreed that I would not change my style but would stop correcting theirs. Adapt and evolve.
    I’m still hoping for the acceptance of non-gender-specific singular personal pronouns.

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