Grammar Oddities, Part One

Weird grammar. In the English language there are exceptions to every rule, and then, some of the rules are just weird. Today we are going to take a break from photography to talk about some oddities of grammar. Some are obscure, some just piss me the hell off.  As always, I am no grammar queen.  There may be mistakes in this very post!

“Awhile” vs “A while”

It’s true. This one just pissed me the hell off. When I returned to writing years ago, I had forgotten many, many little rules and such. This was one of them.

“I’m going to be gone for awhile,” I wrote in my story.
“Nope. After the word ‘for,’ a while has to be two words,” My beta reader informed me.
“Why? For the love of god why?”
“Beats the fuck out of me, but that’s the way it is.”

There is a reason. Of course there’s a reason, there’s always a reason. The definition of “Awhile” is that it’s an adverb that describes a length of time. “A while,” on the other hand, is a noun that means a length of time. Oh! So that’s the secret! It’s so crystal clear for me now—not! In any event, if it comes after the word “for,” then “a while” should be two words. It’s two words when it’s near any preposition. Thus “a while ago.” That’s enough to keep you out of trouble.

Compound Possession

“Hank’s and Danique’s wombats are rabid.”
“Hank and Danique’s wombats are rabid.”

In the first example, Hank and Danique each own their own rabid wombat. In the second, Hank and Danique share custody of multiple rabid wombats. Oh, the humanity! I suggest avoiding this one altogether by a slightly wordier re-write.

“Hank and Danique each own wombats that are rabid.”
“The wombats that Hank and Danique keep in the backyard have all gone rabid.”


There are many places where grammar choices rely on meaning rather than form, but here’s where shit gets real.

If one is writing about a statement that is not true:
“If I were a rabid wombat, I would bite you in a heartbeat,” then one uses “were” not “was.”
Thus the Broadway hit, “If I Were a Rich Man” is correct while Gwen Stefani’s “Rich Girl” has all the wrong grammar.

Conversely, if one is writing about a hypothetical situation or asking a question, then one uses the word “was.”
“The reporter asked me if I was happy about Animal Control clearing out the rabid wombats.”
“If a rabid wombat was here, I would have noticed it.”

My problem with subjunctives is that there is a fine and vague line between what is not true and what is hypothetical.

“I would have freaked out if a rabid wombat was here last night, but they had all been rounded up by Animal Control.”

It sounds hypothetical, but the speaker knows it’s not true, so I suppose it should be “were” instead of “was.”

When poor Billy had to wear a cone.

When poor Billy had to wear a cone.

About JulianneQJohnson

I am a writer in Indiana who lives with two cats, two ferrets, and one fiance. I enjoy cheap coffee and expensive chocolate.
This entry was posted in Grammar, writing and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

18 Responses to Grammar Oddities, Part One

  1. Cathy Testa says:

    Ironically, grammar gets in the way of writing. Thanks for making me feel normal about the frustrations of following the rules. I think I’ll stay awhile…uh a while, awhile. Oh crap. Lol. Cathy

  2. JunkChuck says:

    I would comment but I am scared silent.

  3. Thank you! Even though I AM secretly venerated as Grammar Queen by those who know, I never understood the difference between “awhile” and “a while.” Your practical explanation just saved me many hours of fighting with Grammar Check, the bane of my existence. Well done!

  4. slevjay says:

    And English is my first language. I don’t remember learning this is school. I always thought awhile was one word with one meaning. Learn something new everyday. Thanks for the insight. Good thing I don’t want to be an English teacher.

  5. fireflyby says:

    Hi Julianne!
    I am an English teacher who has also trained as a TEFL tutor (Teaching English as a Foreign Lang). Doing the TEFL nearly killed me as we studied grammar and phonetics in a way that nobody does in schools.
    I learned rules about things that I hdn’t known even existed. I learned about tranisitve and intransitive verbs; countable / uncountable nouns; usage of ‘me’ and ‘I’; gerunds, First/second/third conditionals; explaining present perfect, past perfect and present simple continuous… I could go on forever!!
    Anyway… I have come out of it as a bit of a Grammar Nazi except where my own blog writing is concerned… And then any which way will do!
    What a hypocrite!


    • Blogs are different. There a place where sometimes you just talk like you talk. Good for you for being able to do that after your advanced grammar oddity training! And thanks for the list. Some of those are bound to end up in grammar oddities, part two!

  6. Don’t forget about the Oxford comma too!

  7. Denise says:

    We need a picture of a wombat!
    The subjunctive is a bit crazy. The French use it all the time. That was weird, learning it in school. There were rules, but then you’d come across some situation which was half one way and half another. You kinda just had to go with it and see what felt right.
    You are right, sometimes it’s just better to rewrite the sentence 🙂

  8. Oh the sweet intracacies and (sometimes) displeasures of the English language. The more you explore the vast landscape of grammatical rules, the weirder they get.

  9. Wow. I don’t remember learning any of these rules. (Un)fortunately for me, I just handed in an english assignment. I expect it’ll come back with comments about what I missed. Are contractions still unacceptable in academic writing? I hope not. “She’s dressed in a different costume than the other children,” sounds correct to me. “She is dressed in a different costume than the other children,” sounds like what someone just learning english would say. I’m not a grammar expert, though! 😦

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