Your Grammar Questions Answered (More or Less)

The most challenging grammar question I was ever asked came from a friend who spoke English as a second language. She asked, “Why does English need ‘the’ everywhere?” I wanted a reply that made sense for English–something more than “we borrowed ‘the’ from other languages.” I finally decided on this: English uses so many words as both nouns and verbs (for example, “vent,” “fight” or “post”) that “the” serves as an early-warning signal saying, “here comes a noun.” I doubt if many linguists would back me up, but that’s my story and I’m sticking with it.

Here are answers to a few more “oddest grammar questions”:

  1. Why does US English place quotation marks outside the period (…saying, “here comes a noun.”) and UK English place quotation marks inside the period (…saying, “here comes a noun”.) Answer: Because we are right and they are wrong. As you might have noticed, however, colons and semicolons belong outside the quotation marks; commas go inside along with periods; and question marks are sometimes in and sometimes out. Don’t ask.
  2. When should you spell out a number (thirty-two) and when should you use numerals (32)? Answer: Spell out one to ten and use numbers for 11 and above unless that creates an inconsistent list (we bought ten donuts, 32 cookies, six coffees, and 11 teas) or unless you are talking about money, time, or measurements ($1 million, 3 feet, 6 hours). Lawyers ignore this convention and use both numerals and spell-out figures at the same time–“the property cost $23,000 (twenty-three thousand dollars)”–but no one else does.
  3. How long should a sentence be? Answer: Short. If you write many long sentences in a row (that is, over 25 words), you will lose your audience as no one can retain information from the start of a 35 word sentence to the end without beginning to wonder what the original topic was and why they were ever interested in it in the first place, and the same thing is true of even short sentences with many long words (over 3 syllables) in a row. Short is better.
  4. What is the best online grammar checker? Answer: Paper. Use your dictionary and The Little Brown Compact Handbook. Online grammar checkers are right about 0% of the time.
  5. How do you know when you need an apostrophe s and when you don’t? Answer: You need the apostrophe s when something belongs to something else (we welcomed John Smith’s dog); you omit the apostrophe when you are talking about more than one (we welcomed the Smiths and their dog). A phrase like “people love our apple’s” is just plain wrong–it needs the plural (apples), not the possessive (apple’s). Unfortunately, the possessive of “its” (no apostrophe) is the possessive of “it” and the word “it’s” means “it is” (a verb). That has led many a store owner to announce “Its on sale now!” when its isn’t.

Got grammar questions? I’ve got answers!