Think grammar mistakes don’t matter?
Imagine you’re a dress designer receiving an award at a black-tie affair.
You prepare for weeks. If you’re a woman, you create the perfect gown in a gorgeous fabric, and you make appointments for hair and makeup the day of the event. If you’re a man, you find a bespoke tailor and have a custom suit made.
You spend all your spare time writing and rewriting your acceptance speech. Your sister has heard it a thousand times; your best friend knows it by heart already. All of your family and friends are coming to the affair.
The big day comes. You’re so excited you can’t eat a thing. You look perfect; not a hair out of place. Your clothes fit like a glove.
As you’re ready to head out the door and into the limo the award-givers have provided to take you to the event, you bang your head on a cupboard door that was left open in the kitchen. The jolt causes a bag of flour to fall from the cupboard and onto the counter. The bag rips open, and a cloud of flour rises into the air, landing right on your chest. There is now an unsightly white mess on your clothing.
When you arrive at the event, cameras are clicking and the lights are bright. As you walk down the red carpet, people stare at you with wrinkled foreheads. You find your seat, listen to a few boring speeches, and then your name is called. You get up, ascend the stage, and accept your award. You begin your acceptance speech.
But no one is listening; everyone is staring at the white blotch on your chest. “How can this person get an award for dress design if they can’t even see to it that their own outfit is presentable?” the audience says to themselves.
You descend the stage, oblivious to the looks people are giving you and each other. You’re so proud of yourself that you don’t even notice that no one is clapping.
Poor grammar is a splotch on your prose
I just finished a fun, three-book series of what I call “good trash.” However, there were some embarrassing grammar mistakes that made me cringe. The main character said “I had drank” instead of “I had drunk,” and several times said “her and I” instead of “she and I.” It really took away from an otherwise entertaining series, and I couldn’t help but question this author’s credibility.
If you want to publish, you must get your grammar right.
-ic and -ical issues
I often see writers misusing adjectives with either -ic or -ical at the end of them. We’ve all made bloopers with these words at one time or another.
The problem with -ic and -ical words is that their differences are generally nuanced. The good news is that some of these pairs and their meanings are slowly evolving into one entity, and soon one of the pair will probably fall into disuse. The bad news is that you can still make a faux pas with other pairs of words that will never meld into just one word.
Fowler’s two cents
If you’ve been following my Comedy Grammar posts, you know that Fowler’s Modern English Usage is one of my favorite books. I love Fowler because he’s decisive, honest, timeless (thanks to regular revisions and editions), and funny. This is what he has to say about -ic and -ical words:
Often the choice between them on any particular occasion is immaterial, so far as the writer’s immediate object is concerned. To those who can afford time to think also of the interests of the English language it may be suggested that there are two desirable tendencies to be assisted.
The first is differentiation…. Every well-established differentiation adds to the precision and power of the language…writers have a responsibility in the matter.
The second…is that of clearing away the unnecessary. When two forms coexist, and there are not two senses for them to be assigned to, it is clear gain that one should be got rid of.
In this group, each member of the -ic and -cal pairs means something distinct. However, as I mentioned above, the differences are often subtle.
In order to figure out which of the pair to use, I’ve come up with an unusual but workable hack:
“ic” describes the intrinsic nature of the noun it precedes, while “ical” qualifies and distinguishes the noun from other nouns.
Another way to put it is that an -ic adjective is the result or effect of the noun it modifies, while an -ical adjective causes the noun to be more specific.
Historic vs. Historical
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., gave a historic speech in Washington, D.C.
In other words, the speech itself wasn’t just any old speech; its very essence, the words themselves, made history. It was a historic moment.
On the other hand, the novel Les Miserables is historical fiction; the word historical singles out what type of fiction it is from a list of categories: spy fiction, young adult fiction, romantic fiction, humorous fiction, etc.
The reason historical wouldn’t work with Dr. King’s speech is that the word speech in this context doesn’t lend itself to being qualified into categories: the speech wasn’t historical as opposed to hysterical, nor was it historical as opposed to short, long, or motivational.
Classic vs. Classical
1. The guitar riffs on Led Zeppelin’s “Black Dog” are classic.
Here, the guitar riffs in and of themselves are one of a kind. Nobody can match them. They cannot be categorized into a group of adjectives such as slow, fast, boring, etc., because they are not of the same “weight,” if you will.
2. When I was a little girl I played classical music.
I played classical music as opposed to rock and roll or jazz.
3. When I was a little girl I played a classical guitar.
If I were playing a classical guitar, that would mean I was not playing an electric or an acoustic guitar. (Electric and acoustic don’t seem to fit in with Fowler’s differentiation rule, but they work in the “clearing away the unnecessary” department.)
4. When I was a little girl I played a classic guitar.
If I were playing a classic guitar, that would mean that my father, the music executive, got ahold of the the white, 1968 Fender Stratocaster guitar Jimi Hendrix used when he played “The Star Spangled Banner” at Woodstock, and gave it to me for my bat mitzvah. The fact that Jimi used the guitar makes it classic.
Mythic vs. Mythical
George blew that out of context to mythic proportions.
The Harry Potter series is full of mythical beasts.
The word mythic means legendary or not quite normal; in our example, the nature of the proportions caused them to be mythic. You couldn’t say that they were mythic as opposed to curvaceous or unbalanced, as here we are not describing what type of proportions but rather the effect that George’s outburst had on the proportions.
Mythical means imaginary, i.e., relating to myths. In our example, it could be one of many types of beasts: black, four-legged, biblical, winged – or mythical.
Economic vs. Economical
I feel like I’m cheating with this one, because these two words have very distinct meanings.
Economic means…wait for it…relating to economics. It also means relating to the manufacture, use, or selling of products and services:
The country I live in is experiencing unprecedented economic growth.
There has been an economic downturn in the mining centers of the province.
Bartering is an economic model that has not been taken seriously enough in our time.
Economic can also mean practical or functional in terms of money or marketing:
If you want to make money you need an economic way to spread your resources.
The word economical can be confused with the economic directly above, as it means thrifty, money-saving, or operating in a financially sound way:
During the Depression, American housewives found economical ways to serve their families nutritious dinners every night.
A car with manual transmission is more economical to run than one with automatic transmission.
Bartering is an economical way to acquire goods and services.
Clearing away the unnecessary
Fowler’s second category consists of -ic and -ical words that have evolved into one spelling:
- problematic – don’t use problematical (it’s like irregardless; yuck).
- biblical – the word biblic does not exist.
- canonical – there used to be a word canonic, but it has fallen into disuse. (And speaking about religion, rabbinic and rabbinical are of the “differentiation” type.)
- analytic vs. analytical – according to Merriam-Webster, these are now interchangeable when discussing something non-mathematical.
See if you can craft a paragraph or two using both -ic and -ical words – preferably from the same noun – and please do send it to me in the comments below or via email. Here are some pairs to consider:
- maniac (yes, it is also an adjective)/maniacal
I look forward to reading your paragraphs!
And as always,