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When Correct Grammar Looks Incorrect

In the course of everyday communication, most native speakers in any language don’t stop and think about grammatical rules as they speak or write. English is my native language, and I compose sentences and paragraphs without consciously thinking of grammar in every phrase. The conscious editing occurs when I go back to refine content. As a native speaker, I am actually grammatically correct most of the time, because in the course of growing up immersed in a language, I have internalized the rules, exceptions and patterns of language. If I switch to French, I have to think about grammar and construction in the written word. In conversational French, I just hope that good will rather than good grammar can communicate most of my intention.

When we move from “gut level” grammar to refined, edited communications, sometimes there is a conflict between what is grammatically correct and what looks correct. And this conflict can lead to interesting editorial conversations. I remember an incident quite a few years ago when I corrected a grammatical error several times in a communications piece, but the project manager insisted that my correction didn’t look good, so she didn’t want to make the change. Of course, I didn’t want something going out with my editorial approval that had a grammatical error, even if it was an error that only 1% of the population would notice.

Our particular conversation was over the use of an apostrophe on a word that was actually plural, not possessive. We were focused on the plural of the words “do” and “don’t.”  These words are often used as a pair, referring to lists of items we should or shouldn’t do. The usage that many people think looks correct is do’s and don’ts.  However, depending on which style guide you follow, dos and don’ts can be correct.

In the particular case of “dos and don’ts” the Chicago Manual of Style says “dos” is correct, and the AP Stylebook prefers “do’s” with the logic that the apostrophe is used to clarify the meaning or pronunciation, not signify possession. And for those who don’t think one of these options looks correct, that’s the role of style guides, to confirm what is correct.

I can’t remember who had the final word in our disagreement, but I do know that the role of editor sometimes includes a touch of diplomacy.

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