You’ve probably already figured out that I’m a grammar nerd. How could I not be? I’m a copy editor, and just by virtue of the job alone, I’m pretty persnickety about spelling and punctuation and how words go together. In addition, I was raised by woman who respected language and words. She taught me to love words and that using them correctly makes you a better person. I think that’s true, mostly, and I do love language and learning new words.
But here’s the thing. English is tough—ask anyone for whom it is their second language—it’s hard to learn because so many words sound the same, but are spelled differently and mean entirely different things—their, they’re, and there, for example. Your and you’re. Here and hear. They’re called homophones and are different from homographs, which are words that are spelled the same, but sound different and have different meanings. Bass (the fish) and bass (a low deep sound). Lead (the metal) and lead (to go in front of). And just because it’s English and we can—sometimes homophones and homographs are all referred to as homonyms. G.K. Chesterton once said, “The word ‘good’ has many meanings. For example, if a man were to shoot his grandmother at a range of five hundred yards, I should call him a good shot, but not necessarily a good man.”
We set rules in English and then always, always break them. The one about it’s and its is one of my favorites and something that I fix in other people’s manuscripts all the time. Think about it.(Tee hee!) The rule about forming possessives is to add an apostrophe and and s or sometimes in the case of plural nouns just an apostrophe. (Of course there are exceptions to the plural possessive thing too, which can really make my eye twitch, so we won’t go into those.) But it’s and its breaks the possessive rule because the conjunction rule takes precedence. So it’s is the conjunctive form of it is and its is the possessive of it. Go figure.
Then there’s the whole whom versus who thing. Ye gods! The rule is that whom is an object pronoun, while whom is a subject pronoun. Sure, why not? (I can see you rolling your eyes!) So here’s an easy way to remember which one to use. Simply replace the who or whom with he or she or him or her. If he or she works, use who; if him or her works, then it’s whom. Example: Who did you call? I called him. So, it should be Whom did you call. Make sense?
A lot of editors don’t do this, but when I do a copyedit and I change something that the author has consistently gotten wrong, I put in a note of explanation, either that a misspelled word is corrected per Merriam Webster’s 11th Collegiate Dictionary, or if it’s a grammar thing, I explain the rule and cite it in The Chicago Manual of Style—now in its sixteenth edition. It’s a teaching thing and I hope makes them better writers, plus it also lets them know, I’m not just arbitrarily messing with their work. By the way, if you’re a writer and you don’t own those two reference books, get thee immediately to a bookstore and buy them. They’re essential.
So, the editor could certainly talk grammar endlessly, but I’m going to stop here. Maybe next time I get into a grammar nerd mood, we’ll talk punctuation. Oxford commas, anyone? Oy!