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Confounding commas, prickly participles

A roving grammarian tackles some of the most vexing questions about proper English usage.

The author and her Grammar Table in 2019 at the Featherstone Center for the Arts in Oak Bluffs.Brandt Johnson

I am a lifelong grammar nerd. I teach grammar, my grammar library is supersized, and I study languages for fun. In 2018 I grew tired of chatting about grammar online and decided I would instead prefer to chat about grammar on the street. I got a folding table, drew a “Grammar Table” sign, walked outside my New York apartment building, and began dispensing grammar advice (solicited only, of course) and fielding complaints. I’m still doing it today. In fact, I have now logged more than 27,000 miles around the country with the Grammar Table.

A lot of complaints I handle are about things people simply can’t remember. Commonly confused words, weird past participles, unusual spellings, grammar terms — we can look the same things up over and over, but for many of us, there is that annoying thing that just won’t stick.


One person’s linguatrauma may be an obvious, basic point to another, and vice versa. Some people struggle mightily with a particular pair of confusing lookalikes. Take “lose” and “loose,” which appear in numerous song titles across eras: “Every Which Way But Lose,” “Rikki Don’t Loose That Number,” “Footlose,” and “Loosing My Religion.”

Okay, please stop writing that letter to the editor now — I’m very sorry about what I did in that last paragraph, and I promise not to do it again.

People can be great spellers, but then there’s that word that refuses to stay remembered. English is unhelpful: “harass” with one “r,” “embarrass” with two. Why are there two “u”s in “vacuum”? Then there are the words that are so easy to get wrong: “hierarchical,” “separate,” “necessary,” “license,” “mischievous,” “jewelry,” “privilege.” A linguist friend offered this gross but memorable hint for remembering how to spell “bureaucracy”: It contains urea. One thing people almost always seem to recall is the word they messed up in that grade-school spelling bee.


The forms of “to lie” and “to lay” elude the memories of many highly literate people. It’s like this: He lies down, he lay down, he has lain down. He lays the book down, he laid the book down, he has laid the book down. People often disdain “lain.” “That just doesn’t sound right,” protested a Grammar Table visitor in Virginia.

“You know what I would like to do?” a woman in Indiana asked me. “I would like to take ‘lay’ and ‘lie’ and unify them. Because why do we continually fight this generation after generation? Let’s just blend them and make it all one.”

Some of these things have important nutritional implications. A Twitter friend complained, “If someone tells me they’re swapping pie for ice cream, I don’t know if they had pie and now have ice cream, or vice versa.” I know some of you are thinking, Wait, it’s obvious that they end up with ice cream, but it is a fact that a healthy number of people currently swapping pie for ice cream are sitting there waiting for pie.

Further complicating our language memory failures is that people can’t remember what they can’t remember. In Alabama, I helped a man recall that “affect” and “effect” were the words he confused. Usually, though not always, “affect” is a verb meaning “have an effect on,” and “effect” is usually but not always the corresponding noun. Still, there are complications. I’m not sure my explanations effect a change in people’s spelling, but they might affect their affect in a positive way, and that effect is totally worth it to me.


I have spent many joyful but I fear sometimes fruitless hours of my life explaining punctuation placement around quotation marks. Does the period go inside or outside the quotes? Pervasive confusion on this point suggests to me an area ripe for reform, but for now, at least in the United States, commas and periods go inside. I told a friend she was a “punctilious punctuator.” Now I’m telling you so you can see that the period after “punctuator” went inside the quotes. If you hate it, well, London is (usually) lovely in summer.

Many people confidently get appositive punctuation exactly backwards. Essentially renamings of previous nouns, some appositives need commas; some don’t. Ogden Egbert is an appositive of “my friend” in these two sentences: (1) My friend, Ogden Egbert, is a poet. (2) My friend Ogden Egbert is a poet. Which is right? Well, unless you have only one friend, Ogden Egbert does not get his own commas here.

Now some good news for the chronic forgetters. Confidence correlates poorly with correctness, and those who are most certain they know the details of what Ms. Jackson said back in seventh-grade English often can’t recall the details of yesterday’s lunch.

Grammar humility comes in handy for us all.

Ellen Jovin is the author of “Rebel with a Clause: Tales and Tips from a Roving Grammarian.” Follow her on Twitter @GrammarTable.