Grammar rules can seem like a nuisance. Honestly, do you really need to check every single document for appropriate hyphenation?
According to CUNY Journalism Press editor and writing coach Timothy Harper, the answer is a resounding “YES.”
“The whole point of grammar and punctuation is clarity,” he told Business Insider. If you write that a woman has “dirty-blonde hair,” for example, people know that you’re referring to the colour. “It doesn’t mean that she needs a shampoo,” Harper said, which it would if you’d written “dirty blonde hair.”
We asked Harper about the most common grammar mistakes he sees, and added some that drive us crazy on a daily basis. Read on for a list of tricky — but super important — rules that get broken way too often.
1. Confusing ‘fewer’ and ‘less’
Harper said he winds up correcting this mistake pretty often.
He explained that “fewer” is appropriate when you’re discussing countable objects. On the other hand, “less” is appropriate when you can’t count the thing you’re describing.
Here’s an example of each word in a sentence:
“Fewer than 20 employees attended the meeting.”
“I spent less than one hour finishing this report.”
2. Confusing ‘amount’ and ‘number’
Again, it’s a question of whether you can count the thing you’re describing.
Harper gave examples of how you might use each word:
“There is a really large number of books in that library”
“There’s a huge amount of water going over the dam right now.”
3. Confusing ‘it’s’ and ‘its’
Normally, an apostrophe symbolises possession. As in, “I took the dog’s bone.” But because apostrophes also usually replace omitted letters — like “don’t” — the “it’s” vs. “its” decision gets complicated.
Use “its” as the possessive pronoun: “I took its bone.” For the shortened version of “it is” use the version with the apostrophe. As in, “it’s raining.”
4. Confusing ‘who’ and ‘whom’
When considering whether to use “who” or “whom,” you have to rearrange the sentence in your head.
So the question, “Whom did you give the letter to?” changes to “You gave the letter to whom?” “Whom” suits the sentence instead of “who” because the word functions as the object of the sentence, not the subject.
It’s not always easy to tell subjects from objects but to use an over-simplified yet good, general rule: Subjects start sentences (or clauses), and objects end them. In short, who does it to whom.
For reference, “Who is a hypocrite?” would be a perfectly grammatically correct question to ask.
5. Confusing ‘him’ and ‘he’
Harper said he often hears people say something like, “Him and me went somewhere.” That’s incorrect. Instead you should say, “He and I went somewhere.”
Things get slightly more confusing from here. It’s incorrect to say, “He gave it to she and I.” Instead you should say, “He gave it to her and me.”
If you’re having trouble with this rule, Harper suggested taking away the “and.” For example, you can probably tell that the sentence “He gave it to I” sounds weird, so you can figure out that “He gave it to she and I” is also incorrect.
6. Confusing ‘me,’ ‘myself,’ and ‘I’
Deciding when to use me, myself, or I also falls under the subject/object discussion.
If someone else does something for you, use “me.” As in: “He showed me the products.”
If you’re the one who’s doing something, use “I.” As in: “John and I reviewed the products.”
And you only use “myself” when you’ve referred to yourself earlier in the sentence. It’s called a reflexive pronoun — it corresponds to a pronoun previously in the sentence. For example, “I made myself breakfast” works; “My friend and myself made lunch” doesn’t.
7. Confusing ‘lie’ and ‘lay’
It’s incorrect to say, “I’m going to lay down.” The word “lay” must have an object. So you can say, “I lay this blanket on the bed.”
However — and this is tricky — “lay” is also the past-tense version of “lie.” So you can say, “I lay down on the bed yesterday.”
Take a look at this handy chart:
8. Confusing ‘nor’ and ‘or’
Use “nor” before the second or farther of two alternatives when “neither” introduces the first. Think of it as “or” for negative sentences.
For example, you would say, “Neither my boss nor I understand the new program.”
On the other hand, when you use the word “not,” you can also the use the word “or.” So you’d say, “He is not skilled at maths or science.”
9. Confusing ‘then’ and ‘than’
Harper said this particular mistake is often a typo. But there’s a simple distinction between these two words.
Use “then” when discussing time. As in, “We had a meeting, and then we went to lunch.”
Include “than” in comparisons: “This meeting was more productive than the last one.”
10. Confusing ‘further’ and ‘farther’
Here’s another mistake that trips up many of Harper’s students. “Farther” refers to physical distance, while “further” refers to intangible distance.
For example, you’d say, “He lives farther down the road” and “He took the argument further than I would have wanted.”
11. Confusing ‘whether’ and ‘if’
Harper explained that “whether” means “this one or the other.” “If” refers to one thing that might or might not happen.
It would be incorrect to say, “Whether I have a beer, I’m going to go waterskiing anyway.” Instead you’d say, “If I have a beer, I’m going to go waterskiing anyway.”
On the other hand, you’d say, “I enjoy hanging out with my friends whether we’re drinking water or beer.”
12. Confusing ‘continual’ and ‘continuous’
This one is especially tricky, Harper said. “Continual” means something happens repeatedly but not necessarily all the time. “Continuous” means something never stops.
So you’d say, “He let loose a continual stream of obscenities,” implying that he stopped to take a breath at some point.
And you’d say, “The water gushed from the pipe continuously.”
13. Confusing ‘i.e.’ and ‘e.g.’
Harper admitted he sometimes has to double-check this one.
But the rule is simple: “i.e.” means “in other words” and “e.g.” means “for example.”
So you’d say: “He is the smartest person in the country (i.e. he is a genius). And you’d also say: “I love Dickens’ novels, e.g. ‘A Christmas Carol’ and ‘A Tale of Two Cities.'”
14. Using ‘they’ as a singular pronoun
Harper said this mistake is gradually being more common — and more accepted.
But he emphasises that “they” is strictly a plural pronoun. So it’s incorrect to say, “Everybody raise their hand.” Instead you could say, “Everybody raise his or her hand” or, better yet, “All the people raise their hands.”
Likewise, you wouldn’t want to say, “The team arrived really late at their hotel.” Instead you could say, “The team arrived really late at its hotel” or “The players arrived late at their hotel.”
15. Using dangling modifiers
These are ambiguous, adjectival clauses at the beginning or end of sentences that often don’t modify the right word or phrase.
For example, if you say, “Rotting in the refrigerator, our office manager threw the fruit in the garbage.” The structure of that sentence implies your office manager is a zombie trapped in a chilly kitchen appliance.
Make sure to place the modifying clause right next to the word or phrase it intends to describe. The correct version reads, “Our office manager threw the fruit, rotting in the refrigerator, in the garbage.”
16. Misusing irregular verbs
The English language has quite a few surprises. We can’t list all the irregular verbs, but be aware they do exist. For example, no past tense exists for the word “broadcast.” “Broadcasted” isn’t a word. You’d say, “Yesterday, CNN broadcast a show.”
“Sneak” and “hang” also fall into the category of irregular verbs. Because the list of irregular verbs (and how to conjugate them) is so extensive, you’ll have to look into them individually. Here’s a partial list.
17. Mixing up subject (and possessive pronoun) and verb agreement
This rule seems a bit counterintuitive, but most plural subjects take verbs without an “s.” For example, “she types,” but “they type.”
The pronoun agreement comes into play when you add a possessive element to these sentences. “She types on her computer,” and “they type on their computers.”
As a caveat, the pronoun “someone” requires “her or his” as the possessive.
18. Ending sentences with prepositions
Prepositions are any words that a squirrel can “run” with a tree (i.e. The squirrel ran around, by, through, up, down, around, etc. the tree).
For example, “My boss explained company policy, which we had to abide by” sounds awful.
In most cases, you can just transpose the preposition to the beginning of the clause. “My boss explained company policy, by which we had to abide,” or better yet, rephrase the sentence to avoid this problem: “My boss explained the mandatory company policy.”
19. Misplacing adjectives and modifiers
Harper said he’s often correcting sentences such as, “It was a red boy’s bicycle.” The sentence is incorrect because it implies that the bicycle belonged to a red boy.
So think about how you’re assembling strings of words and check to see if the arrangement makes sense. In this case, you would say, “It was a boy’s red bicycle.”
20. Using ‘since’ or ‘as’ to mean ‘because’
People sometimes think these three words have the same meaning, Harper said. But “since” and “as” refer to time, while “because” describes the reason for something.
It’s incorrect to say, “He went home since the play was over.” Instead you would say, “He went home because the play was over.”
But if you’re talking about timing, you’d say, “Since the play ended, he’s gone home.”
And if you say, “He went to the store as his brother dug the ditch,” it sounds like you’re saying: While his brother was busy digging the ditch, he was shopping.
However, if you want to explain that the reason he went to the store was because his brother was digging the ditch and couldn’t go, then you would simply say, “He went to the store because his brother dug the ditch.”
21. Misusing ‘from X to Y’
A lot of people use this phrase in both speech and writing.
But Harper said it’s incorrect to say, “That store has everything from cookies to corsets” if those are the only two products the store sells. In other words, there has to be something in between X and Y.
On the other hand, it’s correct to say, “That store has everything from A to Z” because there’s obviously something (the rest of the letters in the alphabet) in between.
This is an update of an article originally posted by Christina Sterbenz.
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