Tag Archives: Grammar

Gender Confusion, Pronoun Style

In today’s gender-sensitive world, I know I am not the only one trying to wrap my head around the new realities of language usage. There are a plethora of words being tossed about as gender-neutral pronouns, but which ones shall I use – if any – in my writing?

The New York Times recently published a story noting that the American Dialect Society, an organization of etymologists, grammarians, lexicographers and linguists, recently named they – in singular pronoun form – as the word of 2015. The society suggests that they is appropriate for situations where someone’s gender is unknown or fluid, as well as for the gender binary individual, a person who doesn’t view gender as only male or female with no gradations (e.g., Mary said that they isn’t ready to take the exam.).

I understand the need for alternatives, but I’m not yet comfortable with the choices available. Using they as a singular pronoun still jangles my ear, although I now see it regularly on Facebook when Suzie or Charlie has updated their profile.

I am also unprepared to commit to other alternatives, such as ze or ey, as suggested by the office of campus life at The American University in Washington, D.C. Staff at AU  have embraced the new reality and taken the step of providing guidance to the university community on pronoun options and usage, but many other institutions lag behind.

Until I see wider uptake and more agreement — Oxford Canadian Dictionary and Canadian Press, I’m talking to you — I’ll undoubtedly follow the existing Canadian Press guidance, which suggests avoiding gender-based pronouns and using the singular they only as a last resort.

The gender revolution is underway. As writer Adrienne LaFrance notes in a recent Atlantic article, … “culture doesn’t just trump language rules, it creates them.” Will your own language usage lead or follow? Do let me know!



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Getting real about feelings — Word(s) of Wisdom

James Brown, the soul music legend, was renowned for the song, I Feel Good, a tune written by Naomi Neville.Jamesbrownimreal

Undoubtedly, neither Brown nor Neville expected to be the focus of a grammar lesson. However, the song offers a perfect illustration of correct usage, one a recent guest on CBC Radio hadn’t learned.

The woman, whose name I can’t recall, was showing her empathy for someone’s misfortune, saying something along the lines of “I feel badly that he has had such a hard life.”

Her sentiments were admirable, but her grammar was not. As Brown could probably point out, she really meant, “I feel bad.”

Badly is an adverb that modifies an action verb. If feel is used as an action verb, it refers to the act of feeling. If someone asks you, “How do you feel?” and you reply that you feel badly, you are actually saying that you aren’t very good at absorbing the sensations that occur when touching an object. Perhaps the nerve endings in your hand are damaged!

Feel can also serve as a linking verb, however, referring to the state of your emotions. Linking verbs are modified by adjectives. If you want to express your upset, you would choose the adjective and say that you feel bad.

Remember, James Brown didn’t sing, “I feel goodly.” Here’s hoping that when it comes time to make the choice between an action verb/adverb combination or a linking verb/adjective pairing in the future, you won’t choose badly!

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Digital Dictionaries Rock!

I want to give a shout out this week to one of my favourite online tools: the e-reader’s embedded dictionary.

Now, I know there’s a war of words going on between the printed book lovers and the e-reader fans, each clamouring for reader loyalties.

No matter which camp you’re in, however, it’s hard to deny the convenience of the e-dictionary. It’s easy for a reader to be lazy when coming upon an unfamiliar word if it means getting up from a comfy couch to pluck a dictionary off the bookshelf. But, when that dictionary is embedded in the reading device, there’s no excuse for failing to highlight the mysterious word to get the definition. Knowledge is only a finger swipe away!

In fact, I’m embarrassed to admit that I’ve become so accustomed to the touch of a fingertip yielding a definition that I’ve found myself swiping at a word on the printed page, startled to realize that nothing will result.

So, here’s the sound of one hand tapping! I’ll always love books, but for their accessible dictionaries alone, I’m glad that e-readers are here to stay.

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Word(s) of Wisdom, March 10, 2015

Demonstrating verbal prowess

For writers like me, words are our currency, as well as our toys. We use them to earn a living, but we also enjoy playing with them, experimenting with their applications and test driving those we’ve newly acquired. In other words, we like to flaunt – show off – our verbal abilities.

Some writers, such as novelist William Faulkner, flout – or treat with scorn – literary convention by using words in an unusual way. His stream of consciousness writing style took readers of his era by surprise.

Flaunt and flout are two words that are often mistaken for one another, but they are actually dissimilar in both spelling and meaning. Flaunt – to show off boldly. Flout – to treat with scorn or contempt. Alas, not all writers who flout convention are able  to do so with enough skill that they can later flaunt a Nobel Prize, as Mr. Faulkner could. If only. …

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Word(s) of Wisdom, March 2, 2015

In English, spelling can be a tricky business for native speakers, let alone for those whose first language is something other than English. I was reminded of such spelling challenges this weekend when a friend of mine, who was born abroad, told me she had enjoyed the delicious “Sheppard’s” (i.e., Shepherd’s) pie that I had served for supper.

Shepherd’s pie combines shredded or ground meat with a potato crust. It apparently dates back to Britain in the 1700s, when potatoes were introduced as common table fare, and it was a dish that allowed cooks to use up their leftover meat creatively. When made with lamb, it is called shepherd’s pie, because grazing sheep were plentiful in the north of England and in Scotland; the beef version is often called cottage pie.

It is easy to see how someone new to Toronto or Canada could mistake shepherd for Sheppard; homonyms, or words that sound alike but are spelled differently, abound in English. For any newcomer who hasn’t seen the term written, it’s simple to assume that it is similar to Sheppard Avenue, a prominent Toronto street.

When I hear a word, I visualize its spelling in my mind – the key is to be able to visualize the CORRECT spelling. Sometime, it’s not as easy as it seems.

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Tools of the Trade

Dinosaur reading dictionary

When I sit down at the computer to write, I like to know that the tools of my trade are handy.

Just as a carpenter heads off to a job with a toolbox containing a hammer, nails, a screwdriver, wrenches and other implements that will help accomplish the job, a writer needs various instruments to create the best possible product. The top three tools in a writer’s arsenal are: 

  • a dictionary;
  • a thesaurus;
  • a grammar guide; and
  • a spell-checker.

 Luckily, in our computerized world, word-processing programs generally come with built-in tools that can go along with me anywhere I take my laptop. What’s not to like about an online dictionary and thesaurus? As I write, I find a dictionary useful when I’m unclear about the nuances of a word or to ensure that the word I’ve chosen to use actually means what I assume it to mean. 

I keep a copy of the Canadian Oxford English Dictionary close at hand when I’m reading, too. It has Canadian words that aren’t found in the average English language dictionary, such as double double (coffee with double cream and double sugar) and two-four (a case of 24 cans or bottles of beer.)

It’s not as much fun to curl up on the couch with a computer, but there are solid online dictionaries, too, such as Merriam-Webster (http://www.merriam-webster.com/) or the splendid Cambridge Free English Dictionary (http://dictionary.cambridge.org), which allows the reader to choose between British and American English.

 Now, a thesaurus – there’s a tome that a writer can get behind. It’s almost a law of physics that as I compose at the keyboard, synonyms will go into hiding, and my brain will be incapable of finding them. Once upon a time, Roget’s was the definitive thesaurus, but it had a fatal flaw: it didn’t list words alphabetically. Today, there are myriad others whose editors have realized that even though writers may forget synonyms, they certainly know the alphabet. Choose one of those for ease of use. There’s a Gage Canadian Thesaurus on my bookshelf. For online use, the aforementioned dictionaries also offer thesaurus options for one-stop shopping. Make sure to bookmark one of the sites for ease of use. 

Good writers use good grammar, but we’re not perfect. Sometimes, we need to decide whether to use who or whom, or we can’t remember whether to employ “Mary and I” or “Mary and me.” (Hint: It depends on whether it’s the subject of the sentence or the object of a preposition.) 

The grammar book of choice back in the Stone Age of my youth was Warriner’s English Grammar and Composition – they had an edition suitable for students in each grade. I confess: I keep one on my bookshelf, but I am just as likely to use an online service, such as Grammar Girl (http://www.quickanddirtytips.com/grammar-girl). There is also Grammarly, (http://www.grammarly.com/) a handy site that will check the grammar in an entire document.

Whoever invented the online spell-checker was a genius! It’s a given that a writer will make errors in typing when writing online, and it’s just as certain that there are words whose spellings haunt writers each time they use one of them. For ages, I was convinced that persevere was perservere – don’t ask me why! 

Thank heavens for the spell-checker. It catches most my typos before it’s too late. However, I do suggest reading through the document again, to ensure you haven’t accidentally accepted any incorrect changes – the human eye is an excellent backup system. 

Don’t leave perfection to chance. Next time you sit down at your computer, whether to compose an email, a short story or an annual report, make sure your work has that professional polish. Bolster your book collection or your online favourites list with the writer’s “sacred trinity”: a dictionary, a thesaurus and a grammar guide. And before you hit the “send” button, run your maserpiece through the spell-checker. Believe me, you won’t be sorry.

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Spelling: It’s so last year – or isn’t it?

An elementary school teacher confided in me recently that he encouraged his first graders not to worry about spelling.

“Just get the idea down,” he urges them when they are blocked by uncertainty about how to spell a particular word. “Your ideas are what are most important. No one ever reads the work of a famous writer to enjoy the good grammar and spelling.”

True, and perhaps suitable in Grade One, but I wouldn’t support such a strategy for too much longer. Spelling may seem irrelevant in the world of ideas and creativity, but in the cold, cruel adult world, correct spelling is also an indicator of education and, by extension, of social class. As harsh as it may seem, strangers will judge you based on your written words, as well as your speech. Poor spelling marks you, rightly or wrongly, as sloppy or uneducated; even worse, you may be condemned as unintelligent. It’s not the impression you wish to make on a prospective employer.

Good spelling habits are often just that: habits. If children are required to learn correct spelling at an early age and are forced to correct mistakes, it is to be hoped that they are sensitive to the need to spell correctly throughout their lives. Practice makes perfect, too. The spelling bee was undoubtedly created to encourage youngsters to make a game of learning to spell properly. (“Language. That’s L-A-N-G-U-A-G-E. Language.”)


Spelling is a challenge, especially in this age of technology and texting. It may appear to be a useless skill when one can simply run a document through the computer’s spell checker or send a text message that pares words to bare essentials: How r u? Those of us who insist on precision may appear uptight and unnecessarily rule-bound. So be it 

As informal as our world can be, formal language still has its place. And unfortunately for those who denigrate spelling prowess, correct language is often necessary when there is a lot on the line, such as a potential job or a chance to impress a supervisor with a well-written proposal or presentation.

Don’t encourage children get off to a poor start with incorrect spelling. Creativity is wonderful and laudable, but rules exist to help us all get along. For those who want to succeed, spelling rules are worth mastering.

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Painful contractions (No pregnancy involved!)

As a writer, language is the currency of my daily life, but as an editor, it is the correct use of that language that is of the utmost importance.

One of the most common mistakes seen in blogs, letters, advertising and – gasp – even in books, involves a contraction: it’s. For those non-grammarians among us, a contraction is a shortened form of a pair of words that uses an apostrophe to replace the missing letters. We all use them in our writing and our speaking – they are the perfect language constructs for the hectic pace of 21st century life and our Twitter/texting-filled world. So, let’s* get them right!

It’s* easy – or it should be.  It’s is the shortened version of it is. Subject (it) and verb (is) are wrapped up into one small package. No need for four letters when three will do: time’s a-wasting. Get out the carving knife and chop that offending extra letter out of there!

Done.  But now comes the tricky part: using the contraction correctly. Unfortunately for the writer, our contraction has a fraternal twin: the possessive pronoun its.

They sound alike and their spelling is similar, but not identical, and that’s* where the grammarian’s frustration begins. The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation (Jane Straus, Jossey-Bass) calls it the #1 grammar error, and my own experience bears out the truth of that assertion. Its – the error’s –appearances are legion.

Its, the unassuming possessive pronoun, modifies – or refers back to — a noun. For example, in the sentenceImage The subway rumbled along on its tracks, its refers to the subway. Now, try substituting its fraternal twin, it’s, and you have a sentence that says The subway rumbled along on it is tracks. Does that make sense? Of course not! Yet, it’s surprising how often otherwise intelligent, educated people make this mistake in their writing.

Don’t* add your voice to this off-key chorus! Believe me, editors, recruiters and colleagues will notice and will judge you harshly, generally at a time when that all-important good first impression is needed. You can blame it on your spell-checker, but you may not get the chance. So, think when you write and proofread your copy before you hit the Send button.

Try replacing its or it’s with it is and see if it makes sense, then adjust accordingly. You’ll save yourself from appearing ignorant and you’ll save us editors a great deal of aggravation. In fact, I can feel my blood pressure dropping already!

P.S.  Feel free to share some of the real life examples you see in the news or in advertisements!


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