If the way people misuse words can drive you batty, you can appreciate why Kyle Wiens, CEO of the online repair community iFixit, makes all applicants to his company take a grammar test. He writes for Harvard Business Review:
Good grammar is credibility, especially on the internet. In blog posts, on Facebook statuses, in e-mails, and on company websites, your words are all you have. They are a projection of you in your physical absence. And, for better or worse, people judge you if you can't tell the difference between their, there, and they're ... If it takes someone more than 20 years to notice how to properly use "it's," then that's not a learning curve I'm comfortable with ... Grammar signifies more than just a person's ability to remember high school English. I've found that people who make fewer mistakes on a grammar test also make fewer mistakes when they are doing something completely unrelated to writing--like stocking shelves or labeling parts.
Lists of ubiquitously misused words, phrases, and punctuation are easy to find and fun to peruse--at least if catching people botching the English language is a minor hobby for you. Or maybe you have a secret fear of looking uneducated and don't want to be the person Wiens would never hire. Either way, read on for a fresh list of common grammatical screwups.
1. Sneaked versus snuck
Sneaked is actually the past tense form of sneak, although so many people use the word snuck that it's hard to deny it has sneaked into the American lexicon. If you want to be sure not to irk hardliners, however, stick to sneaked.
A guy on Twitter recently took issue with the fact that I included this one in a list of "43 Embarrassing Grammar Mistakes Even Smart People Make"; he shared a video that makes the case that irregardless actually is a word.
While I'm firmly in the camp that will use only regardless in any situation--whether I'm trying to shut down a conversation or not--I can't deny this is good stuff.
This form of punctuation is vexing, because so many educated people get it wrong. Know this: Years and apostrophes do not go together--ever. Therefore 1980s is correct, no matter how weird it may look to you. And if it's and its confuse you, just remember that one purpose of an apostrophe is to indicate a letter or letters are missing. So the apostrophe in it's indicates the absence of the i in is. The word its involves ownership, as in "The dog chased its tail."
Overusing them is disingenuous. In fact, writer Elmore Leonard believed a person should never use more than two or three exclamation points per 100,000 words. And never use more than one at a time. One will suffice if you reserve an exclamation point for times of genuine excitement.
5. A mute point
Mute means silent. A point that is moot is debatable or doubtful. A point can be moot but not mute. Note the u in mute sounds like "you."
6. I.e. and e.g.
We're getting into the nitty-gritty here, but if credibility is what you're going for, you should know the difference between these two. Grammar Girl explains they both are abbreviations for Latin phrases; essentially, i.e. means "in other words" and e.g. means "for example." So just remember the i in i.e. stands for "in other words" and the e in e.g. stands for "for example."
7. Subject and pronoun disagreement
As of this year, the Associated Press Stylebook--a rulebook of sorts for journalists--now allows the use of they as a singular, gender-neutral pronoun.
In other words, according to the AP it is now acceptable to write "A person who smokes damages their lungs." See the disagreement? "A person" is--obviously--one person. But "their" is a word you would use if you were referring to more than one person.
Pounding its gavel, the AP has recognized that people use they as singular all the time--as awkward and incorrect as it is. Plus, the ruling helps in the event that the person in question doesn't identify as he or she. Even so, the lead editor of the stylebook has stressed that usually it's possible to write around this clumsiness.