4 of Your Grammar Questions Answered

Have you ever during the editing process come across a tricky grammar situation? While searching for an answer, you discover that different sources say different things. You’re not sure which source is correct; you can’t trust your intuition because when it comes to grammar, intuition is sometimes wrong; and unless you have a copyeditor at your office, you probably can’t poll your coworkers. Add to this confusion all of those grammar rules you learned way back when and the less-than-stellar grammatical practices of our society, and it’s easy to see why people don’t like grammar.

I’ve encountered this exact situation, and I’m willing to bet any blog writers out there have too. So I compiled four questions (three on grammar, one on vocabulary) and answered them. I hope it prevents some grammar- and/or vocabulary-induced headaches for you.

Question 1:

Can you use an apostrophe to make something plural?

Answer: No! (But there is an exception, which I’ll talk about.)

A few days ago, I went to an ice cream shop near my house and saw that the menu lists extra sundae toppings as “Extra’s.”

Apostrophes are used to make a word possessive (Mr. Fuddlebottom’s sundae looks delicious) and to stand in for something that’s missing (can’t instead of cannot, don’t instead of do not). They usually don’t make words plural.

Grocery stores are so notorious for using apostrophes to make words plural that there’s actually something called a “grocers’ apostrophe.” You’ve probably seen it when you spot at the grocery store signs marked “potato’s or “apple’s” or “pear’s.”

Plural (what grocers really mean):

Pears are $1.50/lb. this week!

Potatoes are on sale!

Possessive (when an apostrophe is correct):

This pear’s skin is yellow.

The potato’s smell was putrid. That spud was probably rotten.

So that menu at the ice cream store should say “Extras.”

Mr. Fuddlebottom likes many extras added to his hot fudge sundae.

But we’re talking grammar here, so of course there’s an exception. Apostrophes make things plural if you’re talking about single letters, like so:

Mrs. Bumblefluff told me to mind my p’s and q’s.

Mrs. Bumblefluff has three f’s in her last name.

(And when it comes to the phrase “do’s and don’ts,” spelling is a stylistic choice. Some style guides make “do’s” plural with an apostrophe, while others recommend “dos.”)

Question 2:

Can you end a sentence with a preposition?

Answer: Yes!

In grammar school and high school, I learned that ending a sentence with a preposition is always wrong. (Many people learn this, actually.) But it’s just not so! It’s completely OK to end a sentence in a preposition. Patricia O’Conner, former New York Times editor and author of the kickass book Woe Is I, explains that an 18th-century English clergyman wrote the first popular grammar book and said that a preposition didn’t belong at the end of a sentence. This position was really popular with schoolteachers who were educated in Latin because Latin sentences don’t end in prepositions. But English is a Germanic language, not a Latinate language. Germanic languages often end sentences in prepositions. And modern grammarians have long attempted to debunk this grammar myth.

If prepositions can fall at the end of sentences, then a sentence like this is perfectly correct:

Mr. Fuddlebottom went to go see the movie that everyone’s talking about.

Could I reword this to say, “Mr. Fuddlebottom went to go see the movie about which everyone’s talking”? Yes. But I don’t need to.

Question 3:

Is “much” the same as “many”?

Answer: No!

The word “many” is used with count nouns (i.e., things you can count) and “much” is used with mass nouns (i.e., things you can’t count).

Mr. Fuddlebottom traveled many miles to get ice cream.

(Miles can be counted.)

Mrs. Bumblefluff expressed much gratitude when I offered to buy her dinner.

(Gratitude can’t be counted.)

Question 4:

Why is incorrect usage of the word “literally” so rampant?

Answer: I don’t know!

But in all seriousness, I think this word deserves some discussion. People often use “literally” as an intensifier or for added effect, like so:

Mr. Fuddlebottom laughed so hard he literally died!

If I don’t get to the party on time, Mrs. Bumblefluff is literally going to kill me!

(As I write this post, someone in my office just began a sentence with, “Literally…”) But literally means “actually” or “in a literal sense as opposed to an exaggerated sense.” So if Mr. Fuddlebottom literally died laughing, then at least he passed while doing something he loved. And if Mrs. Bumblefluff is literally going to kill me if I don’t get to the party on time, then getting to that party is literally a matter of life and death. The right word in those sentences is “figuratively,” not “literally.”

Joe Biden has a penchant for the word. He literally used it nine times in one speech. If you incorrectly use “literally,” you’d have some evidence to fall back on. Webster’s includes in its definition “in effect; virtually.”

But The Oxford Dictionary says that using the word in a non-literal context is wrong, even if it’s widespread. Plus, if you say “literally” when you actually mean “figuratively,” you’re bound to have someone call you out.

And those are literally all the questions I’m going to address in this post!

To recap:

Apostrophes don’t make things plural unless you’re talking about single letters.

You can end a sentence with a preposition.

“Many” is used with count nouns, and “much” is used with mass nouns.

Think twice before you say “literally.”

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