Wednesday, August 01, 2007

Grammar Check

I've spent part of my writing life being an editor, several times at a newspaper, other times at a writers' magazine.

Magazine and newsletter editors get all kinds of interesting things in the mail, including manuscripts filled with what one hopes are typos, and not grammatical errors. Unfortunately, more often than not, the wished-for typos are grammar mistakes. Unfortunately again, instruction in grammar went out the window years ago in public education. Students today don’t know the difference when their gaffes proclaim them to be ignorant. In fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they think a gaffe is a smaller version of a giraffe!

One morning I saw two mistakes that recurred with frequency: using a homophone or a similarly spelled word for the intended word: “Don't your food and drink leek out when you swallow?” The word “leek” is wrong. It should have been “leak”. A leek is a relative to an onion, and the word is a noun, not a verb. The second mistake I saw is in the following sentence: “They both stood very close to each other, no longer trembling, and where becoming good friends.” “Where” should be “were”. Other examples of transposed homophones that I have seen used are “that doesn’t phase me,” which should have been “faze;” misuse of the sister words peek, peak, and pique; and the all-time winners, there, they’re, and their.

Let’s look at peek. It means to look quickly and furtively. “I saw her peek out the window,” and “I took a peek out the glass” are both appropriate. Peak has three meanings: 1 a pointed end or top, as of a cap, roof, etc. 2 a) the summit of a hill or mountain ending in a point, b) a mountain with such a summit. 3 the highest or utmost point of anything—also a verb meaning to come or bring to a peak. This word is not to be confused with “peaked,” pronounced pe’ kid, which is thin and drawn, as from illness. Pique, pronounced peek, means resentment at being slighted. Watch out for pique’, which is a two-syllable word (accent on the last) meaning a cotton fabric with ribbed or corded wales. Ah, the English language is so rich!

There is no substitution for the word “there”. It can be used as in the previous sentence, or to denote something at a distance—“over there”. “They’re” is a contraction of “they are”. “Their” means ownership or possession in a plural sense. My boat or their boat, it is the same boat.

Now, I am asked frequently when to capitalize family names, such as Dad, Mom, etc. When used as a direct address, “Dad, I want to show you this rock,” it is capitalized. When I say, “My dad is 75 years old,” lower case is used.

One of my pet peeves is found today in grocery stores, believe it or not: potatoe’s and rose’s, or roses’ can be found equally frequently on signs. There should be no apostrophe in those words! On the other hand, it is a pity that “it’s” and “its” are switched so often. It’s is always a contraction meaning “it is”. “Its” connotes possession; just like “hers” or “his,” it has no apostrophe.

Grammar isn’t as hard as it seems. You just need to study it and learn the basics. When it doubt, go to my friend Delsa's favorite book, a big dictionary.


  1. How great that you were once an editor! It almost makes me afraid to write to you. What if I write "your so great" instead of "You're so great?" (Just kidding). Anyway, I couldn't see that you've been tagged with the latest list, so here you go!
    Check out the details at

  2. Marsha,
    Thanks for the grammar tips that you've given us. Its so nice to no were to turn when we can't figure out a dangling participle from a split infinitive.

    Their all the same in my mind! :)

    (All kidding aside, it's always nice to be have a little help with the rules.)

  3. Great blog, Marsha. Grammar is my own personal nightmare. My mother is my editor and she's tough. Lay and lie, remain to this day, my nemesis.

  4. I never did enjoy grammar. The rules aren't always logical enough for me, and it's only continual practice that fixes them in my head. Thanks for these clear explanations, Marsha.

  5. If and wish = were... one of many things that went in my ear and out the other until my aunt edited my books. I do have a question for you: with the dumbing down of future editors, how important will grammar be in the future? I was told that we should aim for a 6th grade reading level to reach more readers, what is your opinion?


I welcome your comments.

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