Stop! Grammar Time
At AMC, our Creative Media Services (CMS) team includes 8 editors who take great pride in correct grammar, following style guides, and beautifully worded phrases. You may have seen earlier posts on grammar faux pas and misused words, but in this age of digital communication—which is especially augmented now that many offices will continue to work remotely and organizations are taking great care to communicate their plans, intent, and social justice stances—it remains even more critical to effectively communicate what we are trying to say. At best, you avoid embarrassment, and at worst, you avoid a public scandal.
We have gathered the CMS editorial team’s top grammar blunders. We’ll break it down for you, so stop! It’s grammar time.
Try to versus Try and
“I will try and wear a mask.”
Wearing a mask sounds like a good idea these days, so what could possibly be wrong with that sentence? The problem is with the use of the word and.And should be used to join two separated ideas, things, or actions, like “I will wear a mask and gloves.”
If you’re going to attempt to do something, use to in place of and because your verb phrase is one continuous thought or action. You are trying to do one thing, which is wear a mask. You’re not trying a mask and wearing a mask, right?
The Rule of Thumb
This isn’t necessarily a grammar error, but this outdated phrase makes many cringe. Most people use this phrase to as a way to imply a general rule for something. But did you know this phrase originated from an old English law that said a man could beat his wife as long as the stick was no wider than his thumb (thus, the rule of thumb)? Since you do not want to imply that hitting anyone with a stick is ok (nor should anyone imply that), use a different phrase.
Rampant Capitalization: Proper nouns vs. common nouns
Capitalization is a great way to denote a proper noun, especially if you are talking about a green lake or the Green Lake. However, nouns that are not proper (i.e., common) nouns should not be capitalized.
[incorrect] Gary studied Internal Medicine in college.
[correct] Gary studied internal medicine in college.
In this case, neither internal medicine nor college are proper nouns, because one is a general area of study and one is a type of school.
[also correct] Gary studied in the Internal Medicine Residency at Baylor College of Medicine.
This sentence is correct because it denotes a specific program and a specific college, both of which have names, and therefore, are proper nouns.
In a similar manner, not all important words in a phrase are proper nouns. Though an advertisement may proclaim “Try the Best and Brightest Detergent for better Colors”—an excellent detergent, I am sure—best, brightest, detergent, and colors are not proper nouns. A phrase with that much capitalization may make its way to a billboard, but it should never make its way to your company’s communications.
Could you care less?
Many people make the mistake of using “I could care less” as a retort. But if you could care less, that means you care a little more, right? The correct phrase is “I couldn’t care less,” because you are so completely over the topic of the argument that there is no way you could care any less about it. You have reached the lowest point of caring. Use your retorts wisely.
Lack of parallelism
Let’s keep our lists nice and organized, shall we? Organized, parallel lists help maintain clarity and reduce confusion. There are a few easy ways to do this:
In a sentence or a list, you want to be sure that your phrases or points have a parallel structure. That means that the way you build your phrases or points should be the same.
Take this for example:
I like swing dancing, reading, and arts and crafts.
Though the sentence is true, it contains a list of a verb (dancing), a verb (reading), and a noun (arts and crafts). Arts and crafts is indeed an activity, but I would be better off saying:
I like swing dancing, reading, and crafting.
Here’s another incorrect list, this time, with bullet points.
My dog is
- Enjoys long walks.
Here our list structure is adjective, adjective, verb. You want to change that verb to an adjective like active or energetic to keep a parallel structure. Besides, “My dog is enjoys long walks” is not even a correct sentence structure. Can’t stop talking about your dog’s long walks? Let’s try this list:
- Loves meeting new people
- Uses his brain to get treats
- Enjoys long walks.
Now your list uses all verbs to demonstrate how friendly, intelligent, and active your dog is.
In short, if the first item in your list begins with a verb, make all of the remaining items start with a verb. Same goes with nouns or adjectives. Having trouble turning a noun into a verb? Use the thesaurus.
Some phrases repeat themselves, even when we don’t mean to be repetitive. Look at “final outcome”; isn’t an outcome final? Is “final” really necessary? How about
- first founded
- the general public
- end result
- past experience
- the month of June
- the color red
- is currently (before a verb ending in -ing)?
Shorten your word and character count by getting rid of the repetitive words. Stick with words like
- the public
- June, or this month
- is (with a verb).
Hype about Hyphens
Hyphens can be tricky because, with a prefix, they can create a new meaning for a word, or are incorrectly placed after prefixes. With words that require hyphens, the lack of a hyphen changes the meaning entirely. For instance, re-creation (a correct placement of the hyphen) is to gather a group of your friends to run through the Battle of Bull Run; but recreation is letting kids play outside. That hyphen, or lack thereof, changed the meaning of the word. You may have re-sent an email because it didn’t leave your inbox, but to resent an email is to hate it. Do you hate an email, or did your mailbox have a glitch?
However, some hyphens are unnecessary with some prefixes, but when used do not entirely change the meaning. Most style guides suggest not hyphenating most prefixes. Hyphens are unnecessary unless they create confusion (like resent and re-sent), but when it comes to words like non-members and nonmembers, you do not need to hyphenate—the meaning remains the same. Most uses of pre-, non-, post-, and other prefixes will not require a hyphen.
A note: hyphens can also change the meaning of words when they become compound adjectives. If you see a man-eating alligator (with a hyphen) then look out—it might eat you! But if you see a man eating alligator (no hyphen), then you have spotted an interesting choice of snack.
Using “Quotation” Marks for “Emphasis”
Reserve the quotation marks for when you’re crediting content to its original source (I like the song “U Can’t Touch This” by MC Hammer) and to indicate a conversation (“Don’t you think grammar is fun!” the teacher exclaimed.) Use your quotation marks carefully or you may confuse your audience with unintended sarcasm. A quotation is not necessary for emphasis, and may only create problems, even having an opposite impact than your intention.
Let’s look at a few mistakes:
- “Free Admission”—Is admission really free, or do I have to slip a dollar bill under the table for admission?
- Employees Must “Wash Hands”—are you saying employees should not wash hands and keep them dirty?
- “Fresh” Food Served Daily. No, thank you, that doesn’t sound very good.
These grammar tips are evergreen; they will not become less important when the pandemic ends and we can stop by someone’s desk instead of sending an email. Nor will they become less important when companies are not releasing statements about the pandemic, the recession, and societal injustices. Clear, consistent communication will always be important in your personal and professional life, so take these tips to heart to avoid blunders and help you say what you intend to say.
Megan Toal is a content marketing associate on the Creative Media Services team at AMC.
Be the first to know about the latest articles, news, and events from AMC. Sign up for our emails!