Some might consider grammar an annoying technicality, a detail of speech and writing not worth the time fussing over.
“That’s bunk,” writes Nick Corcidolos, a headhunter in Silicon Valley since 1979.
“The way you use language reveals who you are, how you think, and how you work …. You can pretend otherwise, but you can also walk around buck-naked believing you’re invisible because you’ve got your eyes closed,” he writes.
So how you say what you say matters, especially in professional contexts.
We’ve compiled a list of common grammar and usage mistakes people make, whether they’re writing an email or chatting with coworkers. After all, good usage and grammar matter, even on dating sites.
1. “Fewer” and “less.”
Use “fewer” when you’re talking about countable things: “He ate five fewer hot dogs than his rival.” “Fewer people attended the meeting this week.”
Use “less” for things you normally don’t count, like duration: “It took me less than three hours to read the entire book.” “There’s less water in this glass.”
2. “It’s” and “its.”
An apostrophe often indicates possession: “I took the dog’s bone.” But an apostrophe can also indicate the omission of letters, as in “don’t” for “do not.” This is where “it’s” and “its” can get confusing.
Use “its” as the pronoun: “I took its bone.” For the contraction of “it is,” use the version with the apostrophe: “It’s raining.”
If you can’t keep these straight, avoid using the contraction “it’s” altogether, and instead spell it out as “it is.” That should help you limit “its” to its correct use as a third-person possessive pronoun.
3. Dangling modifiers.
These are misplaced words or phrases that often appear at the beginning or at the end of sentences. They don’t modify the right word or phrase. For example:
“Rotting in the refrigerator, our office manager threw the fruit right in the garbage.”
That sentence suggests your manager is a zombie trapped in a kitchen appliance.
Be sure to place the modifying clause as close as possible to the word or phrase it’s supposed to go with. The sentence above should read something like this:
“Our office manager threw the fruit, rotting in the refrigerator, right in the garbage.”
Or, better: “Our office manager threw the fruit, which had been rotting in the refrigerator, right in the garbage.”
4. “Who” and “whom.”
When considering whether to use “who” or “whom,” rearrange the sentence in your head.
For example, “Whom are you calling a hypocrite?” becomes “You are calling whom a hypocrite.”
“Whom” suits that sentence, not “who,” because the word functions as the object, not the subject. Thus: “Whom are you calling a hypocrite?”
“I’m calling him a hypocrite.”
(You wouldn’t say “I’m calling he a hypocrite.”)
“Him” functions as the object of “you,” the subject.
It’s not always easy to tell subjects from objects, but, to use a good general rule, remember that subjects start sentences (or clauses), and objects end them. For reference, “Who is a hypocrite?” would be a perfectly correct question to ask, since “who” is the subject.
5. “Me,” “myself,” and “I.”
When deciding whether to use “me,” “myself,” or “I,” you’re talking about subjects and objects again, as above.
“Me” functions as an object and “I” as a subject. Usually, you use “myself” only when you have referred to yourself earlier in the sentence. It’s called a reflexive pronoun.
For example, “I made myself breakfast” is correct but not “My friend and myself made breakfast.” But “My friend and I made ourselves breakfast” would be correct.
To decide correct usage in a sentence like this:
My friend and [“me” or “I”] went to lunch.
Take the other person out of the sentence and you get “I went to lunch.”
(You wouldn’t say “Me went to lunch.”)
Thus: “My friend and I went to lunch.”
Which is correct here?
He’s taking Jane and I to the park.
He’s taking Jane and me to the park.
The second is correct, because you wouldn’t say “He’s taking I to the park.” (This error is likely the result of hypercorrection.)
6. “Lie” and “lay.”
Public service announcement: Stop saying “I’m going to lay down.”
The word “lay” must have an object. Someone lays something somewhere. You “lie.” Unless you “lay,” which means “lie,” but in the past tense. OK, just look at the chart:
7. Other irregular verbs.
English has quite a few surprises. We can’t list all the irregular verbs, but be aware that they exist.
For example, “broadcast” is the same in the present tense and the past tense. (“Broadcasted” is not standard English.) “Yesterday, CNN broadcast a show.” The same goes for “forecast”: “Last night they forecast rain.”
“Sneak” and “hang” fall into the category of irregular verbs, but the list is extensive, and you’ll have to look into them individually. (Try here.)
8. “Nor” and “or.”
Use “nor” before the second alternative when “neither” introduces the first. Think of it as “or” for negative sentences — and, no, it’s not optional.
Neither Jenny nor I understand the new program.
You can also use “nor” with a negative first clause or sentence including “not”:
My boss didn’t understand the program — nor did I.
9. “Then” and “than.”
There’s a pretty simple distinction between these two words. Use “then” when talking about time, as in “We had a meeting, and then we went to lunch.”
Use “than” in comparisons: “This meeting was more productive than the last one.”
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