One day a self-styled poet calls up and wants to know if it’s all right to use the phrase “hot diggity dog!”
The next day it’s an anxious writer who asks which is correct: silently or quietly. (Answer: It’s up to you.)
While many of us eke (not eek) out a living far from the grammar wars,a host of word lovers is on the front lines “where ignorant armies clash by night”— as Matthew Arnold wrote. These proud linguists are the volunteers who field questions at grammar hotlines and websites nationwide.
The on-call grammarians often are graduate students in college writing centers, although their ranks also include columnists and writing coaches. One list names dozens of grammar hotlines, but some are defunct.
The volunteers advise callers on what the word nerd means, explain that towels are left lying (not laying) on the floor, and spell out the word Styrofoam. One mother called a Florida hotline from the hospital seeking help in spelling the name she had selected for her newborn.
Volunteers answer questions from scribblers, court reporters, tongue-tied foreign students, and lawyers anxious that a misplaced comma could unravel a contract.
“For a lot of those, there’s no book to go to to look up the rules,” says Leigh Ryan, director of the University of Maryland Writing Center, which has a grammar hotline that fields roughly 100 calls a month.
The University of West Florida grammar hotline has responded to nearly 6,000 inquiries on a wide variety of topics since it was founded in 1984, says Mamie Webb Hixon, director of the writing lab that runs the hotline.
Typical questions deal with apostrophe use, she says, although there are odd ones, such as the student who asked whether it was correct to write bewaring. (The answer: yes. The usage predates Isaac Newton, who wrote, “I stirred them a little together, bewaring ... that I drew not in breath neare the pernicious fumes.”)
Here are nine common issues fielded by grammar hotlines:
1. Subject/verb agreement.
Many callers become confused trying to align their subject and verb when they insert a plural prepositional phrase between a singular subject and the verb, Ryan says. Example: The girl, as well as her friends, was here yesterday.
“They look at friends, and they think it should be were, and then they look at girl, and they don’t know,” Ryan says. “You have to go back and explain the subject of the sentence is girl, and the verb needs to agree with girl.”
2. Want to go with I?
You meet them every day—the people think the pronoun me is somehow vulgar, so they use constructions like this: Would you like to go parachuting with Anna and I? But there’s an easy means of remembering the correct with Anna and me.
“All you have to do is strip mentally strip Anna out of the picture, and you know exactly what to say,” says Barbara Wallraff, who writes the column Word Court.
3. Is irregardless a word?
Maybe, but it’s not a pretty one, grammarians say. Avoid it.
Take it from Merriam-Webster: “It is still used primarily in speech, although it can be found from time to time in edited prose. Its reputation has not risen over the years, and it is still a long way from general acceptance. Use regardless instead.”
4. Restrictive vs. nonrestrictive relative clauses.
A restrictive relative clause contains essential information, and it is not set off with commas: The lady who goosed Grandpa in church is peering in his bedroom window again.
A nonrestrictive relative clause adds information, but is not essential: The doctor, who is my friend, suggested that I take more vitamins.
The point is that the doctor prescribed vitamins, not that he, alone among a cohort of physicians, is the speaker’s pal.
“You could take out ‘who is my friend,’ and you don’t lose the meaning,” says Linda S. Bergmann, who directs Purdue University’s writing lab, which also fields questions.
5. Don’t I sound smart when I use big, fancy words like credentializeor utilize?
No. Credentialize doesn’t show up in such respected authorities as Merriam-Webster or The Oxford English Dictionary. And as for utilize, try use instead. “If there’s a one-dollar word that will do the job, use it,” says Wallraff.
6. They and their as singular pronouns.
People are trying to avoid sexist language, and they has slipped in as a singular pronoun, as in, Anybody who wants to ride the ostrich, raise their hand.
On the page, however, it’s bad form, Wallraff says.
“In writing, you have a little more time to think about it, revise it,” she says. “You can always find your way around it by making the antecedent plural, or just leaving the whole thing out.”
Another option: If you want to ride the ostrich, raise your hand.
7. Who or whom?
The Grammar Bible, whose co-author Michael Strumpf created a national grammar hotline, cites this sentence: He is a professor who we gladly recommend. The authors recommend writing more succinctly: We gladly recommend this professor.
But if word choice is important, they say, whom is the direct object of the verb recommend. Thus: He is a professor whom we gladly recommend.
Even respected writers get itchy on the subject of whom. According to Wallraff, Calvin Trillin once said the word whom makes anyone sound like a butler.
Still, she says, “I’m in favor of whom. You’ve got to be able to keep your cases straight. It’s like me and I.”
8. Dangling modifiers.
Casting his harpoon, the whale escaped Ahab.
Surely you see the problem with whales that throw harpoons.
9. Misplaced apostrophes.
One headline writer (Lord help the poor hacks whose copy he edits) asked West Florida’s grammar hotline which of the following was right:
a. New Children's Book Penned by Local Author
b. New Childrens Book Penned by Local Author
c. New Childrens' Book Penned by Local Author
Their answer: “Because the possessive form of the word ‘children’ is ‘children’s’ you would use ‘children’s book’ in your newspaper headline.” We’ll leave alone —for now—the passive voice in this headline, as well as the superfluous “new.” Does any author pen an old book for children?
These brave graduate students and patient grammar mavens serve a vital but unsung role out there on the darkling plain. And bless the seekers who take time to ask—though they aren’t always happy with the answers.
Ryan recalls one businessman who, certain he was right about a point of usage, called from work to pose a question. He said, “I want you to know you’re on speakerphone at a meeting.”
Ryan says, “I thought, ‘Oh, you’re going to regret this, because I have to tell you that you’re wrong.’”
This article first appeared on Ragan.com in March 2011.