Wednesday, July 31, 2013

The Top 20 Grammar Errors: It's versus its

We have reached number 20 in the top twenty grammar errors, and I know some of you have been impatiently waiting for this one:
It’s versus its.
Today’s grammar error is kind of a shout out to error number 9—the possessive apostrophe error. I believe we have also discussed word endings, and today we’re going to look at a lot of things: possessive pronouns, the plural s word ending, and the possessive ‘s ending.

The Mistake

The mistake here is simple enough.
Its denotes ownership.
It’s denotes the contraction it is.
But why do people make this mistake? I believe, for the most part, writers make this common mistake because the two words sound the same. The only item separating the meanings is a punctuation mark.

Possessive Pronouns

Let’s look at the pronouns he and she for a minute. The possessive forms are his, her, and hers.
·         His coat.
·         Her table.
·         That table is hers.
Even though in error number 9, we talked about the apostrophe s denoting ownership, none of the above pronouns include the apostrophe. They just tack the s at the end and that’s it.
The pronoun it is no different.
·         Its coat.
Normally, of course, a plain old s would denote plurality.
Cats don’t own anything; there are just a lot of cats.

Possessive ‘S

Take a look at this:
John’s cat.
The apostrophe s tells us that John owns a cat. But:
·         It is a nice cat.
·         It’s a nice cat.
·         It has stripes that go length-wise.
·         It’s stripes that go length-wise.
Simply put, many possessive pronouns don’t include an apostrophe. Look at these other possessive pronouns:
·         My
·         Mine
·         Yours
·         Ours
·         theirs
·         Whose
Not one of the above includes the apostrophe s. Neither does its.
However, let’s confuse the issue with indefinite pronouns, because they all take an apostrophe s to denote ownership (which may be another reason we are confused with its):
·         One’s
·         Somebody’s
·         Everybody’s
·         Another’s
·         Everyone’s
·         Everything’s
·         Nobody’s
·         Somebody’s
·         Someone’s

The History

Interestingly, the missing apostrophe in its is a rather recent change to English grammar. Not until the early 1800s was the apostrophe dropped. Apostrophes aren’t used much in English either. The apostrophe occurs on average once every twenty sentences or so (in French, they occur at least once per sentence). But in 2009, the Birmingham City Council dropped all apostrophes from their street signs. St. Paul’s Square became St. Pauls Square.
Apostrophes do not have a lot of rules or make a lot of sense. Much apostrophe usage has been handed down to us by the inventions of printers of the early 1800s and reflect usage as opposed to actual, real grammar.
For example, the word loved.
In the past, loved used to be pronounced as a two syllable word:
A lot of poetry was printed in the early 1800s though, and many poets preferred the single syllable pronunciation. Printers replaced the e in loved with an apostrophe to mark that the e should not be pronounced.
Eventually, the two syllable pronunciation of loved lost favor, the apostrophe was removed and the e returned because the apostrophe was considered redundant.
Birmingham cited issues with GPS functionality as their reasoning why they removed apostrophes from their street names. Text messaging has nearly destroyed apostrophe use as well. Possibly, in the foreseeable future, we won’t have an issue with its versus it’s because we’ll eventually deem the apostrophe unnecessary. However, until that happens….


Monday, July 29, 2013

Top 20 Grammar Errors: The Dangling Modifier

Welcome to error number nineteen in our top twenty most common grammar errors. Only six more errors to go and this blog series is in the bag.

What’s today’s grammar error?

The dangling modifier.

The Modifier

A modifier is any word or phrase that changes or modifies the meaning of the sentence. The modifier “alters, limits, or adds more info to something else in the sentence” (

The Writing Center at the university of Wisconsin-Madison has a gorgeous list of 25 misplaced and dangling modifiers. Let’s play with the first dangling modifier on the list, because it’s fun:

Oozing slowly across the floor, Marvin watched the salad dressing.

What or who is doing the oozing? The way the sentence reads, it seems as if Marvin is the one doing the oozing.

Salad Dressing Ooze

But, in fact, the salad dressing is actually the thing that is oozing.

The modifier in this sentence is:

Oozing slowly across the floor

Modifiers do not have to be entire phrases though. They can be single words.

The happy puppy ran quickly to its new owner.

Were you able to pick out the modifiers in the above sentence? Happy modifies puppy, quickly modifies ran, and new modifies owner. And check this out: all those modifiers are either adjectives or adverbs!

Dangling modifiers confuse the sentence though, and lead to an unclearness not intended by the author. Did the author really intend Marvin to be oozing slowly across the floor? Perhaps maybe Marvin is a snail?


Sunday, July 28, 2013

The Top 20 Grammar Errors: the run-on sentence

The eighteenth error in the list of the most common grammar errors is the run-on sentence, AKA the fused sentence.

Let’s revisit grammar error number eight, the comma splice.

In error number eight, I stated that the above was a run-on sentence. This is what I was told in high school. However, while researching the fused sentence I discovered I was wrong. A fused sentence looks like this:
The dog chased the cat the cat climbed a tree.

A fused sentence is two independent clauses connected without punctuation. Therefore, a fused sentence can also look like this:

The dog chased the cat and the cat climbed a tree.

Check out error number three: no comma in a compound sentence. The example should read:
·         The dog chased the cat. The cat climbed a tree.
·         The dog chased the cat, and the cat climbed a tree.
·         The dog chased the cat, but the cat climbed a tree.
·         The dog chased the cat; therefore, the cat climbed a tree.
·         Because the dog chased the cat, the cat climbed a tree.
The fused sentence can be fixed by separating the two independent clauses with a period, a comma and a conjunction, a semi-colon with conjunction and comma, or by rewriting the sentence with an introductory clause.


Saturday, July 27, 2013

Top 20 Grammar Errors: Unnecessary comma in a restrictive element

Number seventeen on the list of the twenty most common grammar errors is the unnecessary comma with restrictive element.


I have taken a lot of German classes, and I can actually speak a bit of the language, which is exciting to me. In my last class, my instructor had us write a lot of essays, and the one item I got marked on a lot was my commas. My instructor told me that was a common problem among English speakers.

English writers are comma crazy.

Restrictive Element

In error number 5, no comma in non-restrictive element, we learned that a non-restrictive element was really a parenthetical and should be sent off by commas. Whereas a non-restrictive element is not necessary to the understanding of the sentence, a restrictive element or an essential element is vital to the meaning of the sentence.

I like the examples of restrictive elements on’s grammar portion of their site, so I am reproducing them here with my own edits.

v  A person who won’t read has no advantage over one who can’t read. –Mark Twain

§  A person has no advantage over one.


v  A poet more than thirty years old is simply an overgrown child. –H.L. Mencken

§  A poet is simply an overgrown child.


v  It is impossible to imagine Goethe or Beethoven being good at billiards or golf. –H.L. Mencken

§  It is impossible to imagine Goethe or Beethoven.

What happened to the sentences when I removed the restrictive elements?

Notice also the missing commas. And if you add the commas, the commas drastically change the meaning of the sentence.

It is impossible to imagine Goethe or Beethoven, being good at billiards or golf.

Adding the comma to the above sentence changes the meaning. The sentence now means: if you are good at billiards or golf, then it is impossible for you to imagine Goethe or Beethoven.

Friday, July 26, 2013

The Top 20 Grammar Errors: Pronoun Agreement

We’re really fast approaching the end of this blog series on the 20 most common grammar errors plus Anderson’s Five: capitalization, quotation marks, question marks, double negatives, and spelling. Today, we come in at error number sixteen, the pronoun agreement error.


We know from error number 2, the vague pronoun, that a pronoun replaces a noun, and this noun is called the antecedent.

A pronoun agreement error occurs when the pronoun doesn’t match the antecedent. This error happens a lot with indefinite pronouns, but we’ll get into that in a minute because there is an important debate I want to get into…


So let’s look at the second most common pronoun agreement error: plurality versus singularity.

The cats ate through its pet-carrier.

Cats is plural. Its is singular. See the problem? The sentence should read:

The cats ate through their pet-carrier.

The Indefinite

Now, take a look at this sentence:

Somebody has left their milk on the counter.

Looks right, doesn’t it? But, somebody is an indefinite pronoun and is singular. Their is plural. What should you do instead?

Somebody has left her milk on the counter.

Somebody has left his milk on the counter.

Somebody has left one’s milk on the counter.

Somebody left milk on the counter.

All of the above are viable options.

But then, you know, it really depends upon your agenda as a writer.


My Agenda

My first year in college (and that is farther back than I want to remember) I flunked out of my composition class. Believe that or not, will you?

I had a very strongly opinionated feminist as an instructor. Plus, she was only a graduate student, and what the heck do graduate students know, right? Well, graduate students know nothing, except probably they know way more than a wet-behind the ear eighteen year old kid. And, at the time, being that wet-behind-the-ear kid, I thought I knew way more than my instructor. And, my instructor wanted me to use the s/he construct for gender-neutral pronouns instead of the accepted he.

Well, writing s/he every single time is just stupid. That draws attention to the writing itself, and as a writer, you really want to be as invisible as possible. You want the reader to submerse themselves in the topic or story you are writing about—not pay attention to the grammar (which is why grammar is important). Which notice what I just did there:

You want the reader to submerse themselves in the topic or story you are writing about.

I mixed the pronouns. They are not in agreement: reader is singular, themselves is plural. I just said that’s wrong, but there is a movement to utilize the they pronoun construction as a gender-neutral pronoun. I wish I had known about this pronoun construction when I was eighteen. Or better yet, I wish my feminist graduate student instructor knew about this particular construction. I might have passed the class instead of being argumentative. Well, maybe not—she also wanted us to spell woman womyn. And I have a whole rant on that, but it’s not today’s topic.

The they gender-neutral pronoun construct actually has a history backing up its use since 1300! I’m just hearing about this rather recently though. You can check the history out here, as well as check out some really famous examples from Jane Austin, Lewis Carroll, the King James Bible, Shakespeare and others.

If you have the time, also you should check out the gender-neutral pronoun FAQ—updated last in 2004.

So what’s my agenda as a writer?

Depends on what I’m writing. Or who my audience is. Writing this blog, I attempt to use the gender-neutral they because I believe it makes sense and removes some of the sexism inherent within the English language. Writing an academic paper for one of my instructors, the gender-neutral construct is out. Unless, you know, I have another strongly opinionated feminist as an instructor. But for my fiction? Depends upon the story. Readers have preconceived ideas of what grammar is supposed to look like. Understanding the rules and anomalies allows you to play with those preconceived ideas and create effects you otherwise couldn’t.
Steve Bargdill writes “literary stuff” with the occasional foray into speculative fiction. Originally from Ohio, he has lived in Dayton, Columbus, Troy, St. Marys, and New Knoxville as well as West Branch, Iowa; Lincoln, Nebraska; Munice, Indiana; and currently lives in Laramie, Wyoming. Bargdill is the author of The Wasteland Series available on Amazon. He’s written for several newspapers and is currently a first year English graduate student at the University of Wyoming. You can read his short stories for free on Wattpad.


Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Top 20 Grammar Errors: lack of commas in a series

Coming in at number 15 on our list of the 20 most common grammar errors is the lack of commas in a series. This is actually going to be a short post because a ton of information exists on this topic, so at the end of this post I have a list of resources you can refer to.

To Oxford or Not

Americans are inherently lazy when it comes to punctuation, thus stuff gets left out all the time, such as the Oxford comma.

According to the Oxford Dictionary, “The Oxford comma is an optional comma before the word ‘and’ at the end of a list.” Interestingly, on the other side of the pond (England) the majority of writers are anti-Oxford. In the U.S., it’s a mixed bag with more on the Oxford side of things.

I am, of course, pro-Oxford comma. It adds clarity. And when in doubt, just use it!


Monday, July 22, 2013

Top 20 Grammar Errors: Subject-Verb Agreement

Subject-Verb Agreement

As I travel down this list of the twenty most common grammar errors, I am continually surprised. What I thought I knew so well, I learn is only the beginning.

Today’s grammar error number fourteen—subject verb agreement—seemed simple enough from the outset. This has to do with word endings (error number 6), specifically noun word endings. And, even more specifically, today’s error, I knew, had to do with the difference between a singular noun and a plural noun. It was going to be an easy-peasy blog today.

Then I discovered there are actually seven categories of subject-verb agreements.

·         Indefinite pronouns
·         Conjunctive phrases
·         Either/or and neither/nor
·         Positive and negative subjects in combination
·         Expletives
·         Plural nouns for single objects
·         Fractional phrases

Indefinite Pronouns

Indefinite pronouns are pronouns that are not specific. That is, they do not replace any particular noun—thus, they are indefinite, or unsure pronouns.

There are two categories of indefinite pronouns.

The first list of indefinite pronouns refers to nonspecific nouns.

·         Anybody
·         Anything
·         Everyone
·         Nobody
·         No one
·         Somebody
·         Something
·         Anyone
·         Everybody
·         Everything
·         Non
·         Nothing
·         Someone

Anything is possible.

No one is going to get hurt.

The second list of indefinite pronouns point to a specific noun whose meaning is easily understood only because that noun was mentioned previously, or because the rest of the sentence that follows the indefinite pronoun makes the indefinite pronoun’s meaning clear.

·         All
·         Any
·         Each
·         Few
·         Neither
·         Some
·         Another
·         Both
·         Either
·         Many
·         One
·         several

Someone special is going to arrive.

Several were excited.

Most indefinite pronouns correspond to singular verbs. However, both, few, many, and several are all plural pronouns and thus correspond to plural verb forms.

Conjunctive Phrases

Remember the ABC School House Rocks Conjunction Junction video?

Words like and, or, and but can create phrases that can confuse the verb. Other word phrases found within a conjunctive element can complicate the verb issue as well, such as along with, as well as, and together with.

The father along with his children is taking a nap.

At first bat, the above sentence looks wrong. Feels wrong. Children is plural, but the subject is actually father, thus the verb has to be singular.

Sometimes, commas can clarify the situation.

The father, along with is children, is taking a nap.

Either/or and neither/ nor

Either and neither is a special case.

Or an exception.

Both words refer to two distinct nouns or subjects.

Either the couch or the bed will do for a nap.

Either will work.

Because either and neither refer to a multiplicity of words as opposed to a single word, one thinks right away that the singular form of the verb must be used. But you are wrong. You must use the singular verb form.

Unless of course you are employing informality or colloquialism.

Are either of you ready?

as opposed to

Is either of you ready?

And then you have to ask yourself what if the either/or neither/nor construction has a mixture of singular and plural nouns? What happens to the verb?

The plurality of the noun closest to the verb determines the verb form.

The either/or neither/nor construction is just something you have to remember. There’s nothing easy about this conundrum.

Positive and negative subjects in combination

And another weird one here too. What is a positive and negative subject combination, you ask?

Glad you asked.

Two nouns act as co-subjects in a sentence, but one is prefaced with the word not or some other negative connotation.

The baseball players, not the coach, have decided a forfeit.

The positive subject is players and the negative subject is coach. The verb decided must agree with players, thus we get have decided. Let’s reverse the sentence and see what we get:

The coach, not the baseball players, decided a forfeit.

See what happened? Coach is singular, so the verb became singular.


Occasionally, sentences begin with the words there or here. There and here can never ever be subjects of a sentence though. Ever. It’s an impossibility. Normally, you find an expletive construction in cemeteries.

Here lies John Doe.

Here refers to a place: John Doe’s grave. And, here is singular. John doesn’t have several graves. He has one, so why in the world is lies plural? Because here can never ever be the subject of a sentence.

Normal sentence structure looks like this:

Subject + verb + direct object

Expletives reverse the order.

Direct object + verb + subject

John Doe is the subject; therefore, he is the one doing the action: John Doe lies here. And the verb always agrees with the subject, not the direct object.

There are several choices.

Choices is plural, so the to be verb is plural.

Plural nouns for single objects

In grammar error number 6, we talked about word endings and how s marks plurality of a noun.

Cat versus cats

Of course, there are always exceptions.

·         If you have a bias, how many biases do you have?
·         If you have a pair of scissors, how many scissors do you have?
·         If you wear a pair of glasses, how many glasses do you have?
·         If you wear pants, how many pants are you wearing?

The answer to all of the questions above is one! These are nouns that have the s ending, but are all singular in nature. So these nouns, though they may look like they are plural, actually take a singular verb. Here’s a nice list of singular nouns ending in s.

And Last But Not Least: Fractional phrases

Fractional phrases are subject phrases that deal specifically with numbers. Depending upon the context, the verb can either be singular or plural.

A small percentage of the students are excited.

The subject here is percentage, but students is plural, so the context dictates the verb’s plurality. Whereas:

A large percentage of the student body has graduated.


Numbers in a mathematical formula are always linked with a plural verb, but the outcome of that formula is always singular. Again, the subject is percentage, but student body is singular, so the verb is singular.

Think We’re Done?

So, yeah, originally I was right in thinking subject-verb agreement had everything to do with singular and plural words, but sometimes it can get complicated as with fractional phrases or nouns that have the s ending but are really singular or—well, with any of the above seven classes of subject phrases.

Which leads us to…

Plural Verb Forms

What the heck does a plural verb look like? For the most part, we know it when we see it.

That’s kind of a lame answer, and the very reason subject-verb agreement is such a common grammar error. Here are some verb conjugation charts!

The verb to be:

First Person
I am (was)
We are (were)
Second Person
You are (were)
You are (were)
Third Person
He, she, it is (was)
They are (were)

Note that the past tense is inside the parenthesis.

The verb to have:

I have (had)
We have (had)
You have (had)
You have (had)
He, she, it has (had)
They have (had)


Regular verb, e.g., to chase

I chase (chased)
We chase (chased)
You chase (chased)
You chase (chased)
He, she, it chases (chased)
They chase (chased)


And normally, at this point because it is the beginning of the week I’d add a This Week in Literature, but I’m exhausted!