Paris Hilton can't put two words together—okay, she can say "That's hot"—and her book is, as I write, #871 on Amazon.com. Rappers put their words into the Shizzolator and out come Escalades. And if you read a bestseller with a pencil in hand, you'll be tempted to conclude that the copy editor's last job was in a pizzeria.
Standards? Why should you care? You're getting paid the same buck-a-word they were handing out in 1985—only the magazine you're writing for now defines a "feature" as anything longer than 450 words. Pump up the volume, chug a Red Bull, and fill the space. In the bleak words of R. Crumb, "It's just lines on paper."
But that's not how I feel about good grammar and correct usage. I think they matter. A lot. In my cosmology, the faster standards erode, the more they matter. And at HeadButler.com, I'm as obsessed with good grammar and proper usage as I am with the books, CDs and movies I choose to recommend.
In the interest of feeling less alone, I'm going to give you ten common grammatical and usage errors that make me—and all readers and editors who actually liked English class—flinch. But first, a short sermon. My text is "Franny and Zooey," by J.D. Salinger, a classic that's now ignored but was gobbled up by readers when it was published in 1961.
"Zooey" ends with a phone call to Franny, the youngest of the Glass sisters, from Zooey, the youngest brother. As the conversation winds down, Zooey recalls something that happened decades ago, soon after he started doing a radio show called "It's a Wise Child" with his siblings: He got a lecture from his brother Seymour.
Seymour'd told me to shine my shoes just as I was going out the door with Waker. I was furious. The studio audience were all morons, the announcer was a moron, the sponsors were morons, and I just damn well wasn't going to shine my shoes for them, I told Seymour. I said they couldn't see them anyway, where we sat. He said to shine them anyway. He said to shine them for the Fat Lady. I didn't know what the hell he was talking about, but he had a very Seymour look on his face, and so I did it. He never did tell me who the Fat Lady was, but I shined my shoes for the Fat Lady every time I ever went on the air again—all the years you and I were on the program together, if you remember. I don't think I missed more than just a couple of times. This terribly clear, clear picture of the Fat Lady formed in my mind. I had her sitting on this porch all day, swatting flies, with her radio going full-blast from morning till night. I figured the heat was terrible, and she probably had cancer, and—I don't know. Anyway, it seemed goddam clear why Seymour wanted me to shine my shoes when I went on the air. It made sense.
Good grammar is like Zooey shining his shoes: nobody cares, but you're going to get it right nonetheless. So listen up. There will be a quiz.
Everyone uses "hopefully" as a shortcut for "I hope." It is not. Yes, the dictionary allows it, but that's just bending to popular usage. In my book, there is only one correct use for "hopefully." It's a synonym for "prayerfully"—as in, "She looked up hopefully and said, 'Dear Lord, please make it rain soon, or we'll have no harvest.'" Do you want to say "I hope"? Then say "I hope."
As in "the perfect vacation" or "the perfect date." No. Nothing's perfect. [Well, maybe: a perfect idiot, a perfect delusion.] People who use "perfect"—a dumb, empty, overused and altogether meaningless adjective—are not signifying their good taste, but their unwillingness to think of a more descriptive word.
EVERYONE and THEY
As in: "Everyone knows what they want." Who is this "they"? A singular subject is followed by a singular pronoun. How to write this sentence correctly? I say: "Everyone knows what he/she wants." Looks awkward? True. But at least it isn't sexist. Or wrong.
SINCE and BECAUSE
They're not synonyms. "Since" only refers to time: "Since August, he's been in a funk." It cannot be used to suggest causality: "Since he's depressed, we never call him."
I think this started in real estate ads, where hype often trumps truth. "Your apartment is unique? Wait 'till you see this totally unique place." Implication: The new apartment is far more unique than the old one. But something can't be "more" or "less" unique than anything else. "Unique" is an absolute. It can't take a modifier. And if you stop to think about it, you grasp that everything is unique and everyone is unique—as in "one of a kind"—and, suddenly, "unique" becomes...banal.
OVER and MORE THAN
"He has over a billion dollars." Wrong. Riveting, but wrong. "Over" refers to positioning in space—the opposite of "under," as in "over the fence." When you refer to quantity, you want "more than."
DISINTERESTED and UNINTERESTED
"Disinterested" describes neutrality. "Uninterested" suggests a negative point-of-view. A gay man may be said to be sexually "disinterested" in women; that is, he doesn't care about having sex with them. But he may be "uninterested" if a woman propositions him; that is, he has a definite opinion on the idea, and it isn't to rip her clothes off.
ITS and IT'S
Now you think I'm being insulting. But its amazing how often people get this wrong. Oops. Wrong. (But you caught that, didn't you?) I meant "it's"—the contraction of "it is." The possessive adjective has no apostrophe.
A DAY THAT CHANGED US...FOREVER
A cliché used to describe 9/11, and, as a result, other events. What does "forever" mean here? That it didn't change us in a way we could unwind? As if we could, with less momentous events, turn back the clock and have a do-over? No, unless there's been a change in philosophy and physics, even if you could tidy up whatever occurred so there was no evidence anything ever happened, you and the place would be still be changed forever—you're in a later time. All change is forever. Live with it. And dump the horror movie sound of "forever."
A BRUTAL MURDER
Really? Tell me about the other kind.
There you go. Ten easy lessons. No, eleven—shine your shoes.
Jesse Kornbluth is a New York-based writer and the founder and editor of HeadButler.com.