Before I begin, I just want to say this post is not meant to demean anyone. People make mistakes and that’s okay. Even the best writers throughout history weren’t perfect. My intention for this post is to be more of a teaching tool than anything else.
“What right have you to be lecturing us?” you might ask. The truth is, I don’t. As much as I’d love to be a professional editor, I’m not. Not yet. I did, however, ace all my grammar classes, and my writing is typically free of errors. If one does manage to squeeze through, I always go back to edit it.
I’m a perfectionist like that.
So, without further ado, in no particular order, here are five of my biggest pet peeves. They are all accompanied by a short grammar lesson, which you are free to ignore, mock, or use at your discretion.
Omission of the Oxford comma
The Oxford comma, also known as the serial comma, is the last comma in a list.
For example: I like to read, write, and take long nature walks.
In the above sentence, the Oxford comma comes after the word “write.” In my opinion, it makes the sentence look tidy, and does what commas are meant to do, which is show a natural pause in speech. The same sentence without the Oxford comma sounds like it’s spoken too fast.
The use of the Oxford comma is stylistic. There are some style guides, like AP, that don’t demand its implementation. Whether you use it or not is generally up to you. I do suggest for college essays that you err on the side of caution and slip the extra comma in there. I had a professor who would dock points for leaving it out.
Creating confusion is another risk for omitting the Oxford comma.
This image from a magazine cover is the perfect example.
This image was photoshopped to omit the commas, but it still remains one of the best examples of how crazy sentences can sound without the proper punctuation. Of course, Rachael Ray doesn’t cook her family or her dogs, but the way this sentence is written implies she does.
When haiku or tanka don’t have the correct number of syllables
A three-line poem does not a haiku make. Ditto for tanka.
Haiku and tanka are traditional forms of Japanese poetry. They are meant to be meditative, with a focus on the natural world. There is some discourse over how these two forms of poetry are taught in the west and whether it’s true to the Japanese vision or not, but for simplicity’s sake, I’ll leave that for another day.
Let’s break haiku and tanka down and discuss the differences between them.
A haiku consists of three lines that follow a specific syllabic pattern of 5/7/5. I’ll use one of my haiku for reference, utilizing a forward slash to denote syllables.
5: dew drops on cob/webs
7: the sun shines its gol/den light
5: on strands of white pearls
A tanka is an elongated haiku with two lines of seven syllables added for a total of 31. Some poets find its easiest to write a haiku then add two lines as a couplet.
Again, I will use my own writing for reference.
5: cast/les in the street
7: foun/da/tions of fall splen/dor
5: my child/ren climb up,
7: reach/ing for sky, laugh/ter bright
7: as the blaz/ing or/ange leaves
There are some other guidelines to take into consideration when writing either of these poetry forms:
- Avoid rhyming.
- Vary the rhythm from line to line.
- Use enjambment to create a longer poem consisting of multiple haiku or tanka.
I want to clarify, I’m not talking about every poem with three or five lines. I’m talking about the people who specifically tag something as “haiku” or “tanka” when it’s not.
Farther vs. further
These two words are used almost interchangeably but they mean two different things.
Farther is used for physical distances.
- The blue car is farther away than the red car.
- The family got lost and went farther north than they had planned to.
- He walked farther down the hallway.
Further, on the other hand, is meant for figurative distances.
- I wanted to discuss it further, but we ran out of time.
- Giving up is the furthest thing from my mind.
- I returned to the library to conduct further research.
Too many filler words
Filler words are unnecessary words or phrases that mark a pause or hesitation in speech. They often creep into our writing during the drafting phase when we’re not focused on writing for clarity.
Some common filler words include “that,” “just,” “very,” “even,” and “really.” Unnecessary adverbs are another example. Even common phrases like “In my opinion,” “For what it’s worth,” and “Per the aforementioned” are all fluff.
Once you finish writing something, perform a search and see how many times filler words appear. The number can be staggering.
This is something I’ve been working on myself. It’s an ongoing battle. In high school, my World Literature teacher told me that if the word “that” can be dropped from a sentence and it would still make sense, that I should omit it. Since then, I’ve avoided “that” like the plague.
Now if I could just learn to stop using the word just…
Venomous vs. poisonous
Another set of words used interchangeably, though they shouldn’t be.
I don’t have a big spiel for this last pet peeve of mine. The differences are pretty clear-cut: If a spider bites you and you get sick, it’s venomous. If you bite a spider and get sick, you were poisoned.
Thank you for attending this short grammar lesson. I hope you learned something today — truly. I love helping other writers to achieve their best. I wasn’t kidding when I said editing is my dream job.