So, you wrote “then” when you meant “than.” So, on your latest Facebook update you wrote “their is something going on outside. Cops are running there sirens.”

It’s wrong on many levels, but so what? You’re simply trying to convey a thought or pass along information. Who cares if it’s grammatically a mess?

Well, guess what? Lots of people care. So many people, they could form an army. And if they did form an army, brother, you would be toast. You know why? Because you’re one of them. In the interest of getting your wit onto Facebook as quickly as possible, you throw everything you’ve learned about writing out the window. You mangle the English language without compunction because you don’t think it matters. The Grammar Army doesn’t hate you because you make mistakes. They hate you because you don’t even try to get it right.

“I’m a true believer,” rails France Shea, of Auburn, “that if the English language isn’t already dead, it must be in intensive care. There are so many things I hear nowadays that annoy me (and make me sad, too).”

You send statements out into the world in all lowercase or all caps. You don’t use punctuation. When it comes to spelling, you take your best shot and then let it fly. You were taught better than this. If you made it to the sixth grade, you know the basics.

“Where,” wonders Jan Barrett of Lewiston, “are the teaching nuns that pounded this stuff into our little heads back in the ’50s?”

We asked our readers what bothers them most about this trend in language abuse and they responded. Oh, how they responded. It was mostly emails, but I get the sense that if they knew where I lived, they would have come over to my house to grab me by the shirt and give me a shake.

It starts with the most basic thing: spell check. So you can never remember how to correctly spell “bivouac.” That’s OK. Who can? The fact is, your computer knows how to spell it right every time. And if your spell-checker is – oh, I don’t know – out being cleaned or something – there’s always Google. Type your trouble word into a Google search and it will auto correct it for you. Takes three seconds. Nifty, huh?

“With today’s technology,” says Charlotte Blier of Auburn, “there is no reason for spelling errors.”

These protectors of written English want to ignore your many, many, many misspelled words (“misspelled” isn’t all that easy, now that I’m typing it) but they can’t. They just can’t.

“As a language major in college and a former teacher, I am compulsive about wanting to correct spelling and grammar errors, wherever they occur,” seethes Janet M. Courant of Greene. “The errors just seem to pop out at me and make me crazy.”

And don’t even get them started on apostrophes (I had to spell check that). The twist with apostrophes (and I still got it wrong the second time around) is that the more that people try to use them correctly, the more likely it is that they will use them wrong.

Whom, me?

But look at me getting all righteous on you. I’ve been writing professionally for 20 years and there are still plenty of things that trip me up every time. Lay vs. lie? I’ve given up on that one. There are rules meant to clarify the matter, but the rules keep changing, I swear they do. Affect vs. effect? Hate it. The one that looks right is almost always wrong.

When my wife does first edits on my novels, she finds a ton of errors. A ton of them! Lay and lie is wrong in every instance. My participles (had to consult the spell-checker for that one) dangle like limp spaghetti. Inexplicably, I almost always misspell “motorcycle” and “soldier.”

“Mark does a good job,” that wife says, “while making just enough mistakes to keep my editor-self feeling happy and necessary.”

I’m lucky; I have editors. So many damn editors. Four or five of them will crawl, bug-like over this piece before it gets published. But I also have an earnest desire to write things correctly, which is half the battle.

“I wish I could say Mark’s grammar is impeccable,” said Karen Kreworuka, a Sun Journal editor and my personal hero. “It’s almost perfect. However, he sometimes uses the wrong word (pincher instead of pincer, for example); he still doesn’t know whether to use lie or lay, effect or affect, its or it’s. But on a scale of 1 to 10, I’d give him an 8. He writes good sentences.”


Along with general comments on the matter of bad grammar, the scads of you who responded to our query also included lists of your biggest peeves.

Lewiston’s Jim Witherell sent in a list of misused words so long, I grew a beard while reading it. And while reading it, I spotted a good half-dozen words that I frequently mess up, like “flounder” when I mean “founder.” Like “alright” when I mean “all right.” Like “yeah” when I mean “why, certainly, my good man.”

Amey Feeley is irritated by “different than” when it should be “different from.” Not to mention “should of” in place of “should have.” That one also bothers Jacqueline Leclerc, who describes it as a “top, teeth-grinding error.”

For Rosemary Bunn of Bethel it’s the then-vs.-than imbroglio. Randall S. Needham gets bent out of shape when someone uses “oh” when he or she means to say or write “zero.” Ellie Light derides the misuse of “fewer” and “less.”

Carolyn Tucker cringes most when somebody says “on accident” when they mean “by accident.” But when it comes to general errors in spelling, she holds business owners to higher standards – she goes nuts, in other words, when she sees a business sign with misspelled words.

“It tells me someone doesn’t care enough to make a good impression,” Tucker says. “It doesn’t take that long to look up a word. If you are missing all the letters, reword it please”

And on it goes, page after page of complaints and observations. When it came to the number of mistakes in our query, some folks simply corrected the many mistakes and called it good. They found 15 errors. Or 16 or 17. One woman spotted 20, while her husband guessed it was 19 and I think they may get divorced over it.

It’s an emotional issue and one that flares up all the time on Facebook, in chat rooms or in the delightful comments that follow the stories on the Sun Journal website. You think the whole thing is just nitpicking, but I’d argue that you’re wrong. You can write something beautiful and profound, eloquent and insightful, but if that statement happens to be riddled with errors, the message itself is diminished. Why should we listen to you when you haven’t even mastered the SHIFT key?


It would all be very clear if it was a simple matter of right and wrong. But some will tell you that it’s not. This whole internet fad has certainly affected and/or effected the way we speak and write, but the scary point is that some of the changes we all loathe may be here to stay.

“It’s funny,” says the Sun Journal’s Mark Mogensen, a fine editor I have come to respect in spite of my best efforts. “People who know the language well also know that it is always in a state of flux. My son, who loves the history of language, talks about how our language has changed and continues to change.

“Seems like part of what we experience with grammar is just wrong – people putting apostrophes on anything that has an ‘s’ at the end,” Mogensen says. “But then we have things that are wrong but will probably end up being right because everyone’s doing it.”

While most of us moan and gripe about the decline of tidy English, there is another point to ponder. It comes from local nursing instructor, Reiki teacher and author Meredith Kendall, of Lewiston, who calls these assaults on English “the evolution of grammar.” But she says it without much venom.

“As long as we’re communicating it’s all good,” Kendall says. “Right?”

Your pet grammar peeves

When we asked for your comments on spelling and grammar, we did so through a query that was hilariously filled with mistakes. I think it’s safe to say that a good time was had by all.

And many of you responded with your thoughts on the query . . . and your many, many, many more thoughts — your true, unvarnished feelings — about the mangling of the English language.

Here is a list of the top grammar peeves sent in by our querulous readers.

— “Should of” vs.” should have”: “I should have gone on that Carnival Cruise,” not “I should of gone on that Carnival Cruise.”

— “I” vs. “me”: “You and I should get off this Carnival Cruise,” not “You and me should get off this Carnival Cruise.”

— “Then” vs. “than”: “I ate more onion sandwiches than you.” Also correct: “We will go on a Carnival Cruise and then sue the heck out of everybody.”

—  “There” vs. “they’re” vs. “their”: “There is a large group of people. They’re going to sue the heck out of the Carnival Cruise company. I bet they’re already counting their bucks.”

— “It’s” vs. “its”: “If that dog gets off its leash, it’s going to get pretty ugly around here.”

— “Your” vs. “you’re” vs. “yore”: “As they said in days of yore, you’re going to have ye tookus avenged if you don’t put your pants back on.”

— “Fewer” vs. “less”: Explanation graciously supplied by Janet Courant: “We have fewer apples than pears.” In the grocery store, there are signs that read, “14 items or less.” Wrong! You can count the individual items, so it should be “14 items or fewer.” Use less when you cannot count items. For example: “It rained less this week.”

Knowing write from wrong: And we thought this would be so easy

By Lindsay Tice, Staff Writer

How many errors were in our query? It depends on how you look at it.

First, we didn’t realize it before, but “They’re their, people” could be read as “There, there, people” (three errors) or “They’re there, people” (one error). Our responders saw it both ways.

Second, thanks to a gremlin on our computer system, a question mark appeared at the end of a sentence in some copies of the query, while other copies instead included a period.

Finally, debates are now raging in the newsroom about the correct way to deal with the query’s run-on sentence and what, exactly, constitutes a parenthetical phrase. There has been bloodshed.

So, depending on how you looked at it and which copy of the query you saw, there are between 17 and 20 errors.

For those who saw more (26! 23!), we just want to note that, contrary to popular belief, it is perfectly OK to start a sentence with “And.” And two spaces aren’t needed between a period and the next sentence.

Of the 17 entries we received, 10 readers guessed between 17 and 20 errors. From a random drawing of those 10, the winner is . . . Judy Lane.

Grammar guru Judy; we’ll bee in touch!

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