I have spent most of my adult life in English classrooms teaching various courses in literature and many, many, many courses in composition. I have never been a purist. I will probably always say “If I were,” but failure to use the subjunctive seems insignificant in light of other concerns. I like the quotation from Erasmus that Joseph M. Williams uses as an epigram to chapter two of Style: Ten Lessons in Clarity and Grace (an excellent guidebook for those interested in learning more about these qualities): “God does not much mind bad grammar, but He does not take any particular pleasure in it.”
Kindness, integrity, intelligence, honesty, a sense of humor—all of these matter much more than correct use of language. However, when I invest my time and/or money in reading, I want to be “particularly pleased,” and I find particular pleasure in well-crafted prose. I consider correctness in grammar and usage part of craft.
If I were given a magic ruler that could end crimes against the English language with a sharp rap against the knuckles of offending writers, I would begin by freeing the world of words from the following infractions.
Between you and I
This error has become common, but repetition does not equal correctness. I can’t think of a single writer who uses this phrase who would write “Go to the ball with I” or Please stand by I.” And yet these same writers fail to remember that between is also a preposition and should be followed by an object.
Just between you and me, the magic ruler would make sure that writers would always use “between you and me.”
Could of, Should of, Would of (or coulda, woulda, shoulda)
A sharp rap with the magic ruler would change these misspellings forever to “could have, should have, would have.”
Writers of popular songs are exempt from the ruler’s rap for using "coulda, woulda, shoulda; the rest of us should write “could have, should have, would have.”
Unless something is wrong with the nerves in our fingers, we do not feel badly. If we regret a thoughtless word or deed or if we are unhappy with the consequences of such words or deed, we feel bad. The rap of the trusty ruler may make us feel bad.
Eliminating this error won't make me feel bad.
“Passed” is the past tense of the verb “to pass.” That ‘Vette passed me as if I were Aunt Jenny driving on a sunny summer Sunday.” “Past” may be a noun or an adjective; it is never a verb.
Jack’s past is a quagmire of bad choices. (noun) Ella judged Jack by his past mistakes. (adjective)
If your errors are in the past, the ruler may pass you by.
In our genre, “sensual” means “hot.” More generally, it means “relating to the gratification of the senses or the indulgence of appetite.” It can carry a pejorative edge, as in “The driver’s sensual leer made Rebecca uneasy.” “Sensuous” means “pleasing to the senses, especially those involved in aesthetic pleasure.” The sensuous language added to the book’s appeal.
The magic ruler will not help you write scenes sensual enough to melt Kindles and Nooks, but it may be used to help you craft sensuous description.
“It’s” is the contraction for “it is.” “Its” is the possessive form of the pronoun “it.” An easy test here is to change the “it’s/its” to “it is.” If doing so makes the sentence nonsense, you should dump the apostrophe.
It’s best to eliminate the errors if you wish to avoid the ruler and its sting.
In most common usage, “affect” is a verb meaning “to have an influence on.” His touch affected me like a third glass of wine.
“Effect” is most often a noun meaning “a result.” The effects of the recession are measured in human misery.
Less frequently, “effect” is a verb meaning “to produce as a result.” My goal for 2012 is to effect a change in my writing habits.
Note: The correct idioms are “take effect,” “special effects,” and “personal effects.”
May the magic ruler affect all careless writers, and may the effects be immediate.
Do you take “particular pleasure” in well-crafted writing? What usage errors would you correct with my magic ruler? Or do you think I’m just another dusty old English teacher out of step with 21st-century English usage?
Note: A version of this post appeared on the Romance Vagabonds in 2009.