When I talk about grammar with family, friends, and coworkers, it’s usually because some writer who really should know better committed a grammatical gaffe.
Chalk it up to schadenfreude. Chalk it up to the comical nature of grammatical blunders. But who doesn’t enjoy chuckling at misplaced modifiers and dangling participles?
Pointing out grammatical errors can also be a great teaching tool: when you show people what not to do, the best practices become all the more clear.
But I wanted to shake things up a bit. I wanted to focus on positivity and praise rather than criticism. Instead of focusing on who did it wrong, I wanted to focus on who did it right. For every person out there who either dismisses the importance of grammar (please don’t) or makes grammatical mistakes, there is someone who not only knows that the AP Stylebook (or Chicago Manual) exists, but also puts grammar and usage guidelines into practice.
Let’s celebrate individuals of this variety and show true appreciation for their written work.
(And of course learn a few things in the process.) Here are three examples of writers killing it at grammar.
Who killed it: Gawker
What they killed: The rule regarding who vs. whom
When they killed it: April 2012 and February 2013
Where they killed it: These two headlines
How they killed it: The who vs. whom rule has nothing on Gawker. If the rule has something on you, don’t worry because it’s actually quite simple.
The word who refers to the subject of a sentence. The word whom refers to the object of a sentence.
A subject of a sentence does something or performs some type of action. An object of a sentence has something done to it. If I say, “My sister is watching a movie”, my sister is the subject of the sentence. My sister is the one doing something (she’s watching a movie). Movie is the object of the sentence. It’s having something done to it (it’s being watched by my sister).
So, who refers to subjects, and whom refers to objects. Take the first headline: If women stop eating alone, whom will we pity in restaurants?
Focus on the latter half of that sentence: whom will we pity in restaurants? The word whom refers to women, and in this part of the sentence, women is an object. They’re having something done to them: they’re being pitied by us (so sad). Because women is an object, Gawker was right to use whom here.
Now take the second headline: The person who owns the domain name of Guy Fieri’s Times Square restaurant did something amazing with it.
The word who refers to the person, and the person is the subject of the sentence. He does something: he owns the domain name of Guy Fieri’s restaurant. Because the person is a subject, Gawker was right to use who here.
Is this still bewildering?
If it is, here’s a trick one of my former English teachers taught me: when you’re unsure whether you should use who or whom, turn the sentence into a question. If you can answer the question with him, use whom. If you can answer the question with he, use who.
This is what the trick looks like with these Gawker headlines:
Who or whom did something amazing with the domain name of Guy Fieri’s restaurant? He did something amazing. (Use who.)
Who or whom will we pity in restaurants? We will pity him. (Use whom.)
One more example inspired by Gawker:
Guy Fieri is the chef who cannot catch a break. If Guy Fieri caught a break, whom would people ruthlessly mock?
Who killed it: BuzzFeed
What they killed: Decades and apostrophes
When they killed it: February 2013
Where they killed it: This headline and lead
How they killed it: BuzzFeed knows apostrophes. This article talks about the late nineties. The nineties can be written numerically in two ways. BuzzFeed uses both here:
Option one: the 1990s
Option two: the ‘90s
This rule holds for every decade. Girls who were teenagers during the late nineties were born in the eighties.
Option one: the 1980s
Option two: the ’80s
It’s a simple rule, but because it’s so tempting to throw in extra apostrophes when numerically writing decades, I praise BuzzFeed for getting this rule right.
Who killed it: The Atlantic
What they killed: The em dash
When they killed it: February 2013
Where they killed it: This headline
How they killed it: I’m giving The Atlantic props for correctly using the em dash – and this is coming from someone who cannot stand the em dash.
Em dashes seem to be taking over the world. I just saw someone use what he thought was an em dash – it was actually a hyphen – on Twitter. Different people give different guidelines on when to use this punctuation mark. I compiled as many as I could find.
Em dashes can be used solo or in pairs. When a writer uses a single em dash in a sentence, he or she uses the em dash to herald something important. The word, phrase, or clause that follows the dash is significant. Maybe it’s dramatic; maybe it’s shocking; maybe it’s interesting. Whatever it is, it’s important. The em dash tells readers to pay attention, and it lets them know that something especially noteworthy is coming up.
The Elements of Style advises using a dash “only when a more common mark of punctuation seems inadequate”.
This is why The Atlantic‘s use of the em dash is perfect. A car getting stuck at 125 mph is newsworthy, but a car getting stuck at 125 mph for an hour? That’s incredible, and through the use of the em dash, The Atlantic emphasizes the unbelievable aspect of this news story.
The em dash gives this headline vitality and liveliness. If The Atlantic simply said, “This guy’s car got stuck at 125 mph for an hour”, the headline wouldn’t have the same punch as it does with the em dash. And if The Atlantic used a comma or enclosed the phrase “for an hour” in parentheses, the headline wouldn’t be as animated as it is with the dash.
With the dash, the headline reads like this: “This guy’s car got stuck at 125 mph [dramatic buildup and drumroll here] for an hour.” And like this: “This guy’s car got stuck at 125 mph [wait a second; there’s even more to the story] for an hour.”
When em dashes are used in pairs, they set off nonessential elements of a sentence or introduce additional information. The New York Times recommends placing dashes in a way that if the words between them were taken out, the sentence would still make sense. Like this:
This guy’s car – a Renault Laguna – remained stuck at a high speed for an hour.
The words between the em dashes provide extra information about the car, and if I took them out, the sentence would still make sense.
According to PR Daily, when em dashes are used in pairs, they can communicate an emphatic aside. Like this:
That car – I don’t care what you think – is a dangerous piece of machinery.
And em dashes are also sometimes used in writing that has a stream-of-consciousness quality (think: the writing style of Catcher in the Rye). They indicate disjointedness. Like this:
I was telling my mom about this guy’s car – did I remember to get gas on the way home? – and how the guy almost died.
The New York Times recommends using only one pair of em dashes per sentence unless you enjoy obfuscating your readers.
Should you put spaces before and after em dashes? This is a stylistic choice. The Atlantic didn’t add spaces around the em dash in its title, but The New York Times adds spaces around dashes.
And I would be remiss if I didn’t mention hyphens while discussing dashes. There are two types of dashes: em dashes and en dashes (I focused only on em dashes here). Dashes are not the same as hyphens. Dashes and hyphens have different functions. Hyphens warrant another post, but the important thing to remember is hyphens are short, stubby, little things.
Hyphens look like this: –
Em dashes are longer than hyphens. Sometimes they function in pairs. But when they’re used solo, they demand quite the dramatic entrance. They have a flair for drama. They thrive on drama, but with proper attention, they’re not unruly. The Atlantic knows just how to tame them.