I have too many grammar pet peeves to list, so I'll pull out a few that work my nerves the most. As an intro, I pride myself on my knowledge of the English language. I'm not a grammar purist and I don't correct other people, not any more at least. I love English because it's so flexible and it allows its speakers to take all manner of liberties with its structures and norms. However, in order to break a rule of grammar, one has to know the rule he's breaking and do so intentionally in order to avoid looking like an illiterate clod.
My knowledge of English grammar is a direct result of my studying other languages. I never "got" my mother tongue until I learned how to compare it to other languages. It's a bit of a paradox, but the best way to understand English grammar is to study another language. A good grammar handbook helps too.
I still have my copy of the Little, Brown Handbook from college and I say it's the best guide to English there is. Pick up a copy, it's worth the investment.
On to the pet-peeves. (Yes, I know that's a sentence fragment.)
The first one out of the gate is the blatant misuse of reflexive pronouns. Modern English has eight reflexive pronouns. They are: myself, yourself, himself, herself, itself, ourselves, yourselves and themselves. Reflexive pronouns refer the action of a verb back to the subject of a sentence. A few examples:
I saw myself in the mirror.
You drove yourself crazy.
He worked himself into a frenzy.
She grew that rhubarb herself.
You get the picture. The use of a reflexive pronoun is only correct when it's used in similar ways to the examples above. Reflexive pronouns have to have a verb between them and their antecedents.
I hear reflexive pronouns being massacred all the time and the one that gets beaten up more than the others is the first person singular reflexive pronoun, myself. It's usually misused thus: "I, myself, think that this is the best rhubarb pie I've ever tasted." Wrong, wrong, wrong; and using a reflexive pronoun that way makes the speaker sound like a boob. Don't do it. "I, myself..." doesn't add emphasis in the least; that's why English has adverbs and other parts of speech. "I think this is the best rhubarb pie I've ever tasted." is already making a statement. If you want to drive your point home even further, just add another clause to the end of the sentence. "This is the best rhubarb pie I've ever tasted and I've had some of the best."
Next out of the gate is the misuse of the first person plural pronoun "we." We indicates that the speaker is including other people in the statement he or she is making. For example, "My family and I were on vacation, we went to Paris." See how the first clause of that sentence limited the scope of the second person pronoun in the clause that followed it? It's imperative that a speaker limit the scope of second person pronouns to avoid dragging in innocent bystanders.
Writers from independent blogs to the New York Times misuse that all the time and it goes through me like a knife. When Sarah Palin's not putting her foot in her mouth, she's always making statements like "We're sick of President Obama." Who the hell is we? Please don't include me in your delusions.
If you have an opinion or a statement to make, stick to the first person singular and stand up for yourself. Say "I'm sick of President Obama." Use plural pronouns only with clearly defined groups. If you can't define a group clearly, then use an indefinite article and a noun. Here's an example, "Some people are sick of President Obama." Using an indefinite article in this way is not only correct, it's polite and it's a more accurate description of what's so.
The last one I'll get into here is a disregard to English's subjunctive mood. Modern English has four moods: indicative, imperative, infinitive and subjunctive. I've you've ever studied a Romance language, you know that those languages make ample use of the subjunctive. English reserves it to a handful of uses.
A quick primer:
Indicative is the default mood in English and example is "The dogs are barking."
Imperative is a command, "Don't just stand there!"
Infinitive mood describes a state of being without referring to a subject directly. Infinitives always have the word "to" in front of them, so a statement such as "He came to see you." is using the infinitive mood.
Subjunctive is a whole other animal and it needs a bit more explanation because it requires a different conjugation.
A verb uses its subjunctive mood when it expresses a condition which is doubtful or not factual. It is most often found in a clause beginning with the word if. It's also found in clauses following a verb that expresses a doubt, a wish, regret, request, demand, or proposal.
The most obvious example is when someone is expressing a thought that's contrary to fact. "If I were a rich man, I wouldn't have to work hard." Collectively, wishes such as this one are called "if clauses." By starting the sentence with "if," the speaker is setting the stage for a statement that's not true.
The subjunctive comes into play in other cases too. If someone asks to you come into his or her office but doesn't specify a time, the correct response would be "Is it necessary that I be there at ten?"
Did you catch that? It's not "Is it necessary that I am there at ten?" Because there's an element of doubt involved in the interaction, the sentence calls the subjunctive mood. In the subjunctive, "I am" becomes "I be."
The subjunctive mood is a lonely thing in modern English and many speakers are all to eager to ignore it. On behalf of the subjunctive mood, I will vouch for the fact that it likes company and it misses the attention it deserves.
English is a remarkably nuanced and flexible language and everyone who speaks it bends it to his or her own will. That's a good thing and I take liberties with it all the time. However, English is a language that's capable of incredible precision. That precision's only possible with a thorough understanding of the many, many rules of English's grammar and the widespread agreement that its speakers abide by the same rules.
I have been studying and trying to master my mother tongue for most of my life and it'll always a work in progress. I'll never have it fully mastered and that's one of the things that makes English so appealing to me. English has as many exceptions as it does rules and I have an incredible respect for anyone who studies it as a second language.
Native speakers have no excuse however. Grammar rules and guidelines are easy to find and though it takes a bit of effort, a facility with English isn't so difficult. If you're someone who writes, speaks or thinks for a living; you owe it to yourself to pick up a copy of the Little, Brown Handbook.
These are my top three and rest assured, there are plenty more. If you're not participating today, what are some of your pet-peeves?
As the day wears on, the other participants in today's Blog Off will appear today in a table. Click on their links and leave a comment.