The Thirteen Trickiest Grammar Hang-Ups

This post, by Grammar Girl Mignon Fogarty, originally appeared on the Writer’s Digest site on 6/26/12.

I trust that you all know the difference between who and whom, and I trust that typos are the only reason you use the wrong it’s. It happens to the best of us. For most writers, if you can just maintain your focus (perhaps with caffeine and frequent breaks), you’ll get the basics right. The following problems, however, may have you scrambling for a refresher.

1. Half can be both singular and plural.

Typically, subjects and verbs agree: If the subject is singular, the verb is singular. If the subject is plural, the verb is plural. Easy peasy. However, sentences that start with half don’t follow this rule.

Half alone is singular: My half of the pizza is pepperoni. Yet although half is the subject in a sentence such as Half of the pizzas are missing, we use a plural verb because of something called notional agreement. It simply means that although half is singular, half of the pizzas has a notion of being plural, so you use a plural verb. Follow this rule when half is the subject of a sentence: If half is followed by a singular noun, use a singular verb. If half is followed by a plural noun, use a plural verb. Half of the pepperoni is ruined, but half of the tomatoes are missing.

Compound words that start with half are quirky too. They can be open, closed or hyphenated (e.g., half note, halfhearted, half-baked). There’s no rule that applies across the board, so you’ll have to check a dictionary.

2. Companies are not exactly people.

Companies are entities, but they are run by men and women, so you could make an argument for referring to a company as who, particularly since U.S. courts have ruled that companies are people in most legal senses. Nevertheless, the standard style is to refer to a company as an entity and use the pronouns it and that: We want to buy stock in a company that makes hot air balloons.

If you want to highlight that people in the company are behind some action or decision, name them and use who: Floating Baskets was driven to bankruptcy by its senior directors, who took too many expensive Alaskan joyrides.

3. American is a flawed term.

American is the only single word we have to refer to citizens of the United States of America (U.S.-icans?), but technically, an American is anyone who lives in North America, Central America or South America.

In the U.S. we, the people, have been calling ourselves Americans since before our country was even founded (as have our detractors). Although all people of the American continents are actually Americans, most readers in the U.S. and Europe assume that an American is a U.S. citizen, since that is how the word is most commonly used.

Despite its failings, use American to refer to a citizen of the United States of America. No better term exists. Feel free to feel guilty.

4. The word dilemma can be, well, a dilemma.

The di- prefix in dilemma means “two” or “double,” which lends support to the idea that dilemma should be used only to describe a choice between two alternatives. The Associated Press Stylebook and Garner’s Modern American Usage not only support that limitation, but go further, saying that dilemma should be used only for a choice between two unpleasant options.

Nevertheless, Garner also notes that other uses are “ubiquitous.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage and The Columbia Guide to Standard American English say it’s fine to use dilemma to describe any serious predicament, and The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style takes an intermediate position. What’s a writer to do? (Is it a dilemma?)

Unless you’re writing for a publication that requires you to follow a style guide that limits dilemma to a choice between two bad options, it’s not absolutely wrong to use dilemma to describe a difficult problem, even when alternatives aren’t involved, or to use dilemma to describe a difficult choice between pleasant options. Still, you’ll seem most clever when you use dilemma to describe a choice between two bad options. In other instances, before using dilemma, ask yourself if another word, such as problem, would work better.

Also, a cursory search of the Internet reveals that lots of people are confounded by the spelling of dilemma. Many were taught to spell it wrong. In fact, I was taught to spell it dilemna in school, and when I got older and checked a dictionary, I was shocked to find that the word is spelled dilemma. Further, the only correct spelling is dilemma. It’s not as if dilemna is a substandard variant or regional spelling. Dictionaries often note alternative spellings and sometimes even nonstandard spellings, but dilemna doesn’t even show up that way. As far as I can tell, nobody knows why so many teachers got it wrong. Perhaps a textbook typo is to blame.


Read the rest of the post on Writer’s Digest.

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