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by Brenda Looper | August 10, 2022 at 3:54 a.m.
Brenda Looper

Migraines are never fun. Some people have migraines far worse than mine, and all I can do is salute them and marvel at their ability to withstand them without threatening to disembowel everyone in their paths.

Me? I turn into a grammar grouch, which is weird for someone who focuses primarily on conversational grammar and doesn't tend to be bothered by the occasional non-grammatical utterance because she understands that's how people talk.

Friday and Saturday I felt myself sinking into the depths of grouchiness as a migraine settled in and kept me from soaking up daylight (not that I do a lot of that anyway, but still ...) and spending time with friends and my dear fur-nephew Charlie.

On the bright side, at least now it seems I'm getting migraine warnings again for the first time since my stroke, though they differ from before. However, since I didn't know that's what they were, I was unprepared, which might have made the grouchiness worse. What I do when I get migraines is retreat into a dark room with minimal sound, which means I spend too much time with my own thoughts and dwell on poor grammar. Pity the poor writer I come across when I'm in such a state; the migraine grammar grouch is kinda mean.

A few things that set her off:

• Apostrophe abuse. It's not just the people who think that plurals are made with apostrophes. That's only in rare cases when, without apostrophes, a word is formed that isn't intended, like when talking about grades and more than one A, you'd use A's because As is a word. More than one Johnson? Use Johnsons rather than Johnson's unless you're talking about something that belongs to one Johnson.

It's also the people who use apostrophes willy-nilly and, in some cases, create words that don't exist. It's either its (possessive) or it's (it is), but never its'. I'd occasionally see that one from one or two people, but it seems to be spreading, so just stop using that. The last thing we need is to normalize its'. (What even is it? Possessive? Just something to drive me up the wall?)

• Hyphens everywhere they shouldn't be and not where they should be. In general, use hyphens for compound adjectival phrases where people might misunderstand the phrasing to mean something else without the hyphens, especially if used before the word they're modifying. Some, like brand-new, should always be hyphenated. Some, like between -ly adverbs and other modifiers ("frequently misunderstood cause"), should almost never be hyphenated. And when a phrase is understood regardless of a hyphen (like 18th century script), it usually doesn't need one.

• Using "a" when it should be "an" and vice versa. Speaking of 18th century, I've seen entirely too many people use "a" in front of it. The general rule to follow when determining whether to use "a" or "an" is whether a soft (mostly vowel) or hard (consonant) sound would follow, not whether the next word begins with a vowel or consonant. Eighteenth is pronounced "ay-TEENTH," which means "an" would be the correct choice. Nineteeth is pronounced "nine-TEENTH," so would take "a." As for words beginning with "u," it depends if the word begins with a "yu" sound (used, which would take "a") or "uh" (unspoken, which would take "an").

"Historic" and "historical" are sometimes the exception, as the "h" is usually pronounced, but can take "an" depending on the tone of what's written.

• Complete disregard for punctuation. Whether it's the lack of punctuation, too much, the wrong punctuation, or odd spacing around it (please, never ever put a space before punctuation other than ellipses unless you want editors' heads to explode), it tells the reader you don't care, just as much as if you don't spell-check or fact-check. Punctuation helps people understand what you mean, and the lack of it, or putting it in the wrong place, etc., can completely change the meaning.

• Misplaced modifiers. In general, you'll want to put the modifier as close to what it's modifying as possible, or you'll risk people misunderstanding what you wrote. The Bryan Writing Center at Blinn College in Texas offers a funny misplaced modifier: "The clerk handed a vanilla ice-cream cone to the boy covered with chocolate." We would hope it's the ice-cream cone, not the boy, that's covered in chocolate, though I wouldn't sneeze at it if someone offered to cover me in chocolate. By re-ordering the sentence ("The clerk handed a vanilla ice cream cone covered with chocolate to the boy."), we make clear that it's not the boy covered in chocolate.

Mmmm, chocolate ... pardon the drool.

I make a lot of mistakes in grammar myself, so don't think my migraine-fueled ire is just for those who write for or to the paper. I cringe oftentimes when reading old Facebook or blog posts with grammatical errors that I know better than to make.

We could all stand to be more careful with our writing, lest we be misunderstood by those who don't know us or have something to gain.

Perfection won't happen, but more clarity might. That's not a bad thing.

More migraines, on the other hand ...

Assistant Editor Brenda Looper is editor of the Voices page. Email her at Read her blog at

Print Headline: Grammar grouch


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