How good is your grammar? A grammar guru shares her tips and tricks

Commas
Does talking about commas put you in a coma? Mary Norris's lively grammar memoir will wake you right up.
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"Your the best!"

'Between You & Me' by Mary Norris
'Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen' by Mary Norris
Courtesy of W. W. Norton & Company

For grammar conscious readers, that sentence is a linguistic slap across the face. It's another blow in the language wars, which are raging on the page and online.

"Your" is fighting "you're," while "their," "they're" and "there" are at each other's throats.

Who can bring peace and proper usage to the land?

It may be Mary Norris, "Comma Queen" and longtime proofreader at The New Yorker.

In her new book, "Between You & Me: Confessions of a Comma Queen," Norris takes on some of the most frequent missteps in the English language.

But, remember: She's a queen, not a dictator. Rules are made to be broken — or bent — as she explained to MPR News host Bob Collins. No matter what your elementary school teacher told you, you can split an infinitive. Also, sometimes it's better to leave out the serial comma.

(The "your" mistake, however, is non-negotiable. It's "you're." Embrace the apostrophe. It's your friend.)

Highlights from the "Comma Queen"

Not all dictionaries are created equal

At The New Yorker, the staff uses the Merriam-Webster dictionary.

"It still has some of the personality of Noah Webster himself in it," Norris said. Webster was a slightly younger contemporary of George Washington and other founding fathers; he was in college at Yale during the American Revolution. His contribution to the fight was "to make an American language."

"Then" vs. "than"

Mixing up the two is "just a misspelling. I've done it myself," Norris said. "'Then,' of course, is the temporal word for 'not now but then,' and 'than' is a word used in comparisons."

The most "terrible mistake"

What's the biggest grammar faux pas, according to Norris? Spelling "miniscule" instead of "minuscule."

The proper spelling is "minuscule," but so many people get it wrong that many dictionaries include the incorrect spelling as a way to direct people to the correct entry, Norris said.

Do you want to boldly split that infinitive?

Have at it, Norris said.

"To tell you the honest truth, if I'm bored at work, I'll take the adverb out of the infinitive," Norris said. "But mostly I allow it if the emphasis is right. If the author is splitting the infinitive for a reason that makes the sentence better, then it's fine with me."

Nice try, Bob Dylan

Dylan's iconic song "Lay, Lady, Lay" may be pretty, but it's wrong.

Norris acknowledged that the repetition of the "la" sound is more beautiful to the ear, but it should have been "Lie, Lady, Lie."

The confusion is a common one. The key to avoiding this error is to know the principal parts of the two verbs "lie" and "lay."

"Lie," as a verb, means "to recline." It has the principal parts "lie," "lay" and "lain." "Today I lie down. Yesterday I lay down, and about this time this afternoon, I will have lain down," Norris said, explaining the proper use.

"Lay," however, means to place something. The principal parts are "lay," "laid" and "laid." "I lay the pen on the table today. Yesterday, I laid the pen on the table. Later today, I will have laid my pencil down for good," Norris said.

The most common mistake is to use "laid" for the past tense of "lie." "I laid down," though a common phrase, is incorrect.

"Should of" checked your grammar

"If you're going to spell it 'should of,' then you risk being called illiterate," Norris said. "'Should have' is fine and 'should've' is also fine."

The burden of "his or her"

Can you use "their" instead of "his or her"?

Some copywriters are making that switch, Norris said. In the sentence, "everyone took his or her seat," some editors will accept "everyone took their seat," even though it flouts previous conventions.

Norris, however, often tries to rewrite the sentence instead. For the above example, Norris said you could easily substitute "everyone sat down."

"What we're doing right now is we're avoiding the problem."

"Style changes come about suddenly," Norris said. "It does not happen because readers write in, it happens because some editor just loses patience in the middle of the night and says: 'I can't stand that capital 'E' in 'E-mail' any longer!' ... And so the capital 'E' became a small 'e' in 'e-mail,' and yet we retain the hyphen ... That will probably go in the next generation."

"The way we see it, the language is going to evolve with or without us, and it's not our purpose to rush it. We can always adapt later, but you look a little funny if you're the first to come out and change something."

To hear the full discussion with Mary Norris, including her opinion on the serial comma — also known as the Oxford comma — use the audio player above.

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