The Laws of the (Grammatical) Land

Recently I have been thinking a lot about the rules of grammar, and more specifically how I become a stickler for some and completely lax about others. This week I'll tell you about some rules that I am deeply in love with. Next week I'll get into the rules I love to hate (or ignore). 

Why Ask Why?

I'm persnickety about lots of grammar rules, but I've realized that some of the ones that stick the stickiest in my craw are those that I learned later in life, as I was just starting my editing career. I don't know exactly why this is, but I wonder if it's akin to the experience of learning a new word or hearing a new song, when afterwards it seems that you hear nothing but that word or song for weeks. Maybe once I learned these rules I started seeing them broken everywhere, and now they're on my Most Wanted list. Who knows? 

A couple of those that come to mind are: 

Comprise/Compose

Did you know that "The department is comprised of eight staffers" is not correct? It's "The department comprises eight staffers." At this point most dictionaries allow for both definitions of "comprised," but if you want to seem like a smarty-pants, use it to mean "encompasses," or just skip it altogether. Just remember, never follow "comprised" with "of," and you'll be safe.  

Capitalize WHAT??

I only recently learned that you should always capitalize verbs and pronouns in title case, no matter how short they are. "I Tell You, It Is the Truth" would be the title of my manifesto on the subject, if I were to write one. This does make sense, if you think about it. Pronouns and verbs are important in a way that conjunctions, prepositions, and articles are not. Some people like to get around this by just capitalizing every word in a title. If you want to make that your organization's style, go nuts. If not, just make sure you are capitalizing words like "It," "He," "Is," "Am," and so on. Here's a useful article about title case. 

These are two rules I learned from a colleague when I first started writing and editing, and I always correct them when I see them, and pat myself smugly on the back when I get a chance to use them correctly. 

Old Standards

Not every rule that I love is a recent acquisition. Some are old favorites. One that seems to be cropping up more and more (or maybe I'm just getting crankier) is "who" versus "that." The rule I learned is that people are always "who": "The officer who gave me the ticket," "the child who had a birthday party," etc. In contrast, things (including non-human animals, which I will talk more about in my next post) are always "that": "the answer that you seek," "the party that we attended," and so on. This makes logical sense, and while I almost never see a "that" where a "who" belongs, so many people just use "that" for both. I suspect if this isn't already widely accepted as an alternate correct usage, it will be in a decade. Until then, I will fight the good fight (by which I mean that I will correct it in your writing if you get it wrong). 

Coming Soon...

Next week I will talk about some rules that I can't seem to bring myself to care about, or ones that I truly loathe. Stay tuned!