Grammar Girl on '101 Troublesome Words'

'101 Troublesome Words You'll Master in No Time'
Book cover courtesy of publisher

As "Grammar Girl," Mignon Fogarty uses her blog to answer reader questions about silly and challenging parts of language. She's out with her latest book, "101 Troublesome Words You'll Master in No Time," and joined The Daily Circuit Friday to take listener questions.

"I have a degree in English, but part of the reason I started Grammar Girl is I realized how much I didn't know after I graduated and started working as a writer and an editor," she said. "I look up these questions that people ask me. I never assume I know because if I do I am usually wrong."

A caller brought up the "dirty word" among linguists: prescriptivist. That's a person who tells others how to use words. Linguists prefer to be known as descriptivists, people who explain word usage.

"The caller is absolutely right, and I love to talk about this," Fogarty said. "Someone called me a prescriptivist once in a blog post and I was outraged. I was insulted. I yelled at my computer... It's true that language changes and that's what makes it fun and exciting... The problem is we do have these societal norms and people want to be perceived as intelligent and educated."

Grammar pet peeves of Fogarty and our listeners:

--Starting sentences with the word "so." "I think they're stalling for time," Fogarty said. "I think starting a sentence with 'so' is a way to give your brain a little bit of time to formulate what you want to say next... Some people have been taught not to start a sentence with a conjunction... That's actually not a real hard and fast rule. Particularly in fiction and more informal writing it's fine to start a sentence with a conjunction."

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--Who vs. whom, subject/object confusion. "The thing that people struggle with the most is issues where there's a difference when you're in the subject or object position," Fogarty said. "When people don't know whether to use who or whom, the reason they are confused is over subject-object confusion. You use 'whom' with the object and 'who' when it's the subject. You can think of the subject is the person who does something and the object is the one who is having something done to him or her or it. The way I remember that is I think of the sentence 'I love you' because 'you' is the object of the sentence and you are the object of my affection in that sentence. You can remember 'you' is the object.

--Irony vs. coincidence. "The tricky thing about irony is that it is based on what someone expects," Fogarty said. "Something that can be ironic to one person might not be ironic to another."

--Less vs. fewer You use fewer when you can count. "Fewer cars on the road" vs. "Less traffic on the road". You can't "count" traffic.

--The use of the phrase "begs the question." Fogarty said she went into the book thinking everyone used it wrong, but after her research she changed her mind. "The traditional meaning of 'begs the question' is something from formal logic," she said. "It's a circular argument. If I say, 'Carrots are healthy because they are good for you,' that's begging the question because healthy and good for you actually mean the same thing. So that's how you should use it." When she looked at 1,000 news articles, she found the phrase always used the wrong way. "I think that we're not going to reestablish the traditional meaning of 'begs the question.' But at this point, I would say if you mean 'raises the question,' say 'raises the question.'"

What are your grammar and language pet peeves? Comment on the blog.