A few weeks ago, I got sucked into a heated punctuation discussion on Facebook after an attorney friend of mine posted the following question:
Which is correct?
1. Defendants want to but cannot have it both ways.
2. Defendants want to, but cannot have it both ways.
3. Defendants want to, but cannot, have it both ways.
This friend tagged my name in his post because he wanted my input on what the correct version is (#1 or #3, if you’re curious), but my response got lost among the sixty-plus others that he received within the next five minutes. People were throwing out terms like “comma splice” (inapplicable) and vague guidelines like “Always put a comma before and, yet, or, nor, for and yet” (which lacks one of the very commas for which this particular contributor was so stridently advocating). Whatever rules of grammar had been implanted in these punctuation enthusiasts’ mental coffers since grade school came tumbling out in a competitive deluge of wordsmithery, and I thought my head was going to explode, so I had to log out.
People ask me all the time if I notice grammatical errors constantly. Well, yes, in the same way that a dentist probably can’t help but check out everyone’s teeth or a hair colorist can spot an especially bad dye job from across a room. But just like that dentist doesn’t want to think about who has veneers and who needs a new crown when he’s at a dinner party, and just like that colorist wants to spend her days off not thinking about anyone’s dark roots, I choose not to live in a bad-grammar prison all the time. I just want to get in bed at night and read The Goldfinch in peace like everyone else did, and I couldn’t do that if I let myself fixate on how sloppily copyedited it is. (It really is, by the way.)
But this Facebook episode stayed on my mind long after that thread disappeared to wherever old posts go to die, because it reminded me of something I’ve been ruminating on for a while, which is that social media outlets are a whole new arena for showcasing people’s grammar and language abilities. And the more time I spend on these sites, the more I notice the same handful of errors popping up again and again in people’s Facebook posts, tweets, Instagram captions, and even hashtags. As much as I usually like to turn off that part of my brain, I’ve developed a masochistic fascination with this particular breed of grammar gaffe—and now I’d like to share five prime examples with you, my lucky followers:
- “Your” vs. “you’re.” Maybe I’m just naive, but I thought this error was relegated to the ’80s and ’90s, along with, like, Reebok high-tops and Roxette. But no—there it was yesterday in a clothing company’s Instagram post: “If your in the LA area, come on by!” There it was today on Facebook: “Hope your having a great birthday!” I feel the same way about this mistake as I do about stretch limos in modern times—it makes me think, Is this really still happening?
- “Awe” vs. “aw.” Most people on photo-heavy social media sites are guilty of trying to out-cute each other once in a while with pictures of their kids, their puppies, themselves. Naturally, e-gushing follows. This is all fine—until someone drops an “awe” bomb and makes me want to send the dictionary police after her. “Awe” is a noun. It means “an emotion variously combining dread, veneration, and wonder.” It does not mean, “Your baby is sooooo adorable!” That’s the exclusive purview of “aw,” which is an interjection. So please, no “e.” That “e” is for “extra letter that doesn’t belong here.”
- “Happy New Year from the Clancy’s/the Jones’s.” I am fortunate in more ways than one to have grown up next door to a family whose last name ends in “s,” but I like to think that even if I hadn’t, I would still have learned somewhere along the way that the plural form of “Brooks” is “Brookses” (not “the Brooks,” not “the Brook’s”) and that the plural possessive form takes an apostrophe after the final “s” (“my house was next door to the Brookses’ house”). This rule also applies to any last name that ends in “z” or “x.” If you get confused, just think of the phrase “keeping up with the Joneses,” which you will not be doing as long as you keeping sticking unnecessary apostrophes in your name on your holiday cards.
- “Defiantly” vs. “definitely.” This one keeps coming up, and I deeply want to believe that it’s just an auto-correct issue, but I don’t think it is. For all its quirks, a smartphone is smart enough not to make this mistake—and when I see comments on Instagram like “I’ll defiantly be there tonight!” and “Defiantly call me later” . . . well, the context says it all, doesn’t it?
- “I miss my old stomp and ground.” Okay, fine, this isn’t a common error, but when I saw that someone had posted this in response to an Instagram photo of her hometown—aka her “stomping grounds”—I had to say a little prayer for her.
Grammar is a dangerous game, after all. Right now, I’m already worried about whether this whole post seems too snotty—and right now, you’re probably feeling tempted to ask (if I may adapt a line from the cinematic masterpiece Say Anything), “If you know so much about grammar, how come you’re there at, like, your apartment on a Saturday night, completely alone, with no friends anywhere?”
To that, I say, “By choice, man.” And now I’m off to spoon with The Chicago Manual of Style.