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Wisdom From the Grammar Goddess: My Pet Peeves

By Diane Sandford, Published on August 22, 2004

Diane Sandford is the Director of Library Services for the Washington, DC office of Fried Frank Harris Shriver & Jacobson LLPShe has many years of experience in editing and as a grammar expert within the firm.

No, my cat’s name is not Peeves! This month I present my personal list of grammatical pet peeves culled from years of editing and from simply listening to others mangle the English language. Just the choice of words used to express an idea, not the idea itself, can annoy and distract a listener or a reader. In informal writing and in letters home, poor writing is almost forgivable. But you can never use there for their (or they’re) without being considered careless. Pay attention to the small grammatical details, even in letters to Mom (she’ll notice).

Trite, common, and overused phrases. How often have you heard someone use these phrases?

                  dumb as a doorknob

go the mat for you

like the pot calling the kettle black

no pain, no gain

on the same page

                  out of the frying pan and into the fire

poor as a church mouse

push the envelope

                  think outside the box

                  white as a sheet

The Vocabula Review (http://www.vocabula.com/) correctly labels these constructions “dimwitticisms.” Trite phrases are the mark of a thoughtless or lazy writer. If you’ve heard a phrase before, then do not use it. That is the rule, period. Perhaps other, lesser writers can use common phrases, but you may not.

Redundant and illogical idioms. An idiom is an expression that means something different from the literal meaning of the individual words—e.g., a cool cat. Even boyfriend doesn’t mean boy friend; it means sweetheart (which is also an idiom). We all use idioms, but let us avoid the patently idiotic ones. The table below identifies some classics:

IDIOTIC IDIOM                          BETTER 

as per usual                              as usual

as of yet                                    yet

even as we speak                      now

first annual                                first

has gone missing                       is missing

last but not least                        last

manner by which                        how

needless to say                         self-evident

            off of                                         off

refer back                                  refer

reflect back                                reflect

stole my thunder                        used my idea

try and                                      try to

type of a                                    type of

Homonym misuse. How many times have you received an e-mail that says, “Your [You’re] welcome”? It’s maddening! Some obvious examples: your/you’re; there/their/they’re; to/too/two; here/hear; principle/principal; past/passed; weather/whether. The problem occurs when an author writes in haste and fails to proofread for context. A spell checker won’t catch these errors.

Incorrect pronoun cases. If you listen closely to our friends on Capitol Hill or read their extended remarks in the Congressional Record, you would spot this faulty construction with some frequency: “The Committee sent the report to Senator Johnson and I [me].” Or, “It’s an issue between the Senator and I [me].”

Overuse of qualifying adverbs and adjectives. My husband and I once created a list of the most overused descriptive words that we had heard. At the top of the list were quaint, colorful, rustic, and picturesque.  Add to that list very, really, quite, and truly—all unnecessary.

Verbing of nouns. According to The Editorial Eye, this is “the pettest peeve of all.” Editors detest impact as a verb and replace it with affect. Word curmudgeons have been known to put pencils through their papers deleting the word impact. Dictionaries support its use as a verb, but dictionaries (as a rule) represent common usage as opposed to formal grammar.

Avoid using contact to mean communicate. I learned this lesson early in my career as a librarian/editor. I had innocently distributed a library manual to the entire firm, complete with a transmittal letter directing attorneys to contact me if they had any questions. Much to my dismay, I found myself engaged in a prolonged argument with a partner who took great glee in informing me that contact implied physical touch rather than communication. Although I found support for my position in the Oxford English Dictionary (and subsequently in business letters authored by the attorney), I never forgot the lesson.  

Irregardless. This is not a word! Irrespective is acceptable, but irregardless is not. My Aunt Gladys, a strict English teacher, once whispered to me that there is one case where irregardless is actually correct: If there was a riot in southern Ohio, and the National Guard was called out to quell the riot, then that would leave irregardless. Ahem!  

Miscellanea.  

  • You can aggravate a situation (make it worse), but you cannot aggravate a person.

  • Do not overuse or misuse like. Like, you’re crazy, man.

  • Do not use good for well. You’ve done well, not done good.

  • Never use a lot in formal writing.

  • Rarely, if ever, use an exclamation point in formal writing.

  • Lay is a transitive verb. That means you cannot lay down; you can only lie down.

  • Cannot is one word, not two, unless you are emphasizing not.

If you are interested in reading further on this topic, I recommend the following resources: 

The American Heritage Dictionary of Idioms, by Christine Ammer (Houghton Mifflin, 1997). 

Lee Mickle, “When Pet Peeves Collide,” The Editorial Eye (August 2004), pp. 6-7. The Eye is a respected resource for professional copyeditors. 

Morris Dictionary of Word and Phrase Origins, by William and Mary Morris (HarperResource, 1988).

The Vocabula Review is a delightful (and inexpensive) online journal about words and language.

Do you have a grammar question? Comments? Suggestions? Please let me know.