I believe that a writer ought to love and respect the English language in the same way that a musician ought to revere their instrument. Jimi Hendrix would not have been able to make the spell-binding music that he did if he didn’t respect his instrument, granted, he wasn’t the most technically polished guitarist, and he did play it upside down, with his teeth, and once set it on fire and subsequently smashed it. He did, however, tune it, clean it, and replace broken strings. Without that basic care, the music that has captivated countless people would have played only in his head.
A writer must also maintain their instrument. You need to care enough to ensure that your creative capability does not greatly surpass your mechanical capability. Just like no one would take a guitarist seriously if he were to play out of tune, no one will take your writing too seriously if it’s infested with grammatical errors that you could avoid with just a little bit of care.
Don’t worry. I’m not going to give a lesson on object complement nouns or the Oxford comma (for real though, please use the Oxford comma). I’m going to discuss rudimentary grammatical errors. These are careless mistakes that when I see or hear them, I become skeptical of that person’s commitment level. If you don’t care about what you’re writing, why should I?
- Incorrect (sometimes invented) verbs and tenses
You have not drank, dranken, drinken, or drinkeded anything ever. This rule is easy to remember and fun to say, but I still hear some downright creative renditions of this verb’s past participle. Here’s all you really need to know: drink / drank / drunk.
– I drink milk.
– Yesterday, he drank a smoothie.
– You have drunk too much to drive.
There are other verbs that fall victim to past participle abuse (e.g. run, swim, give), but those mistakes almost always include a real word, just not the correct word.
No matter how tired you are, you never need to lay down. You need to lie down. You might, however, need to lay your backpack on the table. Lie is intransitive, and lay is transitive. The former does not require a direct object, but the latter, when used in this present tense, does take a direct object. Lay is also the past tense of lie, which is a little odd and confusing. I am always willing to forgive an error like, “last night I lied down at 10 but didn’t fall asleep until 2.” It’s a more honest mistake to use the wrong tense of an irregular verb than it is to use the wrong verb entirely.
This is as in-depth as I’ll go as far as genuine mechanics are concerned. These grammatical errors might seem harmless, but they demonstrate blatant disregard. Let’s move on to some mistakes that don’t require a textbook to solve.
- Literally does not mean figuratively
It figuratively breaks my heart each time that I hear this mistake because I refuse to believe that so many people could mistake a word for its antonym. Imagine if such a mistake were more prevalent. Imagine it were just as common for people to use hot instead of cold, right instead of left, or love instead of hate. My concern here comes not from the plummeting SAT verbal scores, but from the arrogant conviction with which everyone spouts this out.
I have noticed that someone who makes this mistake is almost always one of three people. First is the one who simply accepts societal norms, regardless of absurdity. Next is the person who claims to be doing it ironically, but is doing it without irony entirely, thus proving their grasp on the language is tenuous at best. The last one is my favorite. It’s the person who claims that this is simply an example of the language’s evolution. If evolution implies improvement, which a reasonable person ought to accept as truth, then this debacle is literally the opposite of evolution.
The thing that makes this one so sad is that I do believe it is permissible to mix these words up when it is an obvious instance of irony, hyperbole, or just some good ol’ silliness, but if someone announces that they are literally going to piss their pants, and they literally piss their pants, you have no right to ask them to pay for your car’s reupholstering.
If you fancy yourself a writer, but you just can’t seem to get this one right, I would advise that you either realize that you’re disrespecting your medium, or that you strongly consider finding a new hobby.
I won’t be surprised if the day comes when this doesn’t bother me at all. Honestly, it bothers me significantly less than this pretentious rant suggests, but darn it all if it’s not fun to write it up like this. The last bullet point, though, deals with a mistake that I genuinely cannot believe I see and hear as often as I do.
Brian and me are going to the store.
Her and me are friends.
My dad gave her and I a ride.
If those three sentences look just peachy to you, then these three ought to look fine as well:
Me is going to the store.
Her is my friend. / Me am her friend.
My dad gave I a ride.
I don’t know what it is about using multiple pronouns that makes educated people speak like Neanderthals, but it happens embarrassingly often. You might think that this mistake is exclusively verbal, but I promise I have seen it in writing, and I have seen it from undergraduate writers. I’m writing this with the newest version of Microsoft Word. According to this software, which will advise me to use concise language if it finds my prose too bombastic, the only thing I ought to do in my examples of incorrect usage is switch “me” to “I” in the first sentence. I guess the program might expect me to see my other mistakes after I fix the first one, or it might not want to seem over-bearing, or maybe it takes sadistic pleasure in watching me fail. I don’t know. I do know this, however: those are mistakes that a sixth-grader would be embarrassed to make.
I like to believe that the most common reason for this mistake is simple oversight rather than genuine ignorance. Even if that’s true, though, I’m not certain that either reason is permissible. In fact, I believe that the writer who commits this error out of negligence is a more careless and shameful practitioner than the writer who simply doesn’t know. Neither cares much, but the negligent writer doesn’t care enough to read their own work. If you don’t want to make it better, then it’s probably not good.
I’ve used some strong language throughout this little piece, but none of it should discourage someone who recognizes that they’re guilty of these mistakes. Grammatical errors aren’t egregious, and they certainly don’t mean that the whole piece is a mistake. Errors like these, though, when committed often, indicate that the writer doesn’t care to improve their writing. A baker would never taste their own cake and sell it if they knew that tweaking the recipe a little could improve the pastry a lot. Don’t settle for “good enough.”
– Kyle Keith