Who doesn’t love a good grammar lesson?
I do, I do!
OK, I’m joking.
Even though I like to write about writing, I don’t consider myself a grammarian and if you want to write, please don’t let fears you have about grammar stop you writing.
If you’ve been to school, if you read, and if you spend time considering the written word, you know more than you think and can easily avoid common grammar mistakes.
Stephen King says as much in On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft. He also advises writers to get on with the business of writing, but to keep grammar on top of their toolbox.
With the master’s advice in mind, here are 30 grammar lessons to keep on top of your toolbox:
1. Which and That
Which is used to inform.
That is used to define.
This is the house that Jack built.
This house, which is mine, was built by Jack.
2. Punctuation Matters
Lynee Truss explains this best in Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation
She uses this example:
A woman, without her man, is nothing.
A woman: without her, man is nothing.
The first sentence explains a woman is nothing if she doesn’t have a man in her life.
The second explains that a man is nothing if he doesn’t have a woman in his life.
Can you see the difference?
3. Girl’s and Girls’
If the apostrophe comes before the S, there is one girl.
If the apostrophe comes after the S, there are many girls.
The girl’s cake implies one girl owns the cake in question.
The girls’ cake implies several girls own the cake in question.
4. Fewer and Less
Fewer refers to people or things in the plural.
Lesser refers to things that can’t be counted.
I wrote fewer posts this week than last week.
I write less often when I’m tired.
5. Effect vs Affect
To effect is to bring about change.
To affect is to influence.
Barack Obama wanted to effect change. In reality, he affected change.
6. It’s and Its
“It’s” is short for it is or it has, where as its is a possessive pronoun.
It’s a fine day.
The car is broken down. The car is known for its unreliability.
7. Farther and Further
Farther implies a distance that can be measured.
Further describes a time or quantity.
Russia is farther away from the United States than Canada.
My knee injury is causing further problems for me.
8. Nauseous vs Nauseated
To be nauseous means to have the ability to make others feel sick.
To be nauseated is to be made feel sick by something.
The green steak is nauseous.
I was nauseated by the steak meat.
9. You’re and Your
You’re is an abbreviation for you are.
Your means possession.
If you made it this far, you’re learning about grammar.
I hope your grammar is improving.
10. Compliment and Complement
A complement adds something to something else, where as you give someone a compliment when you want to tell them something nice.
Coriander is a complement for chicken.
I compliment you on your choice of ingredients sir!
11. Principal and Principle
A principle is a fundamental truth or standard.
A principal is the most important participant or a high rank.
Schools have principals, but I have principles.
Literally means something actually happened and that what you are saying is true.
I was literally green with envy.
This means, I actually turned the colour green because I was feeling jealous.
Avoid use literally when writing metaphors.
13. Incorrect Words
Step forward: okay, nevermind, irregardless, alright and alot.
Instead say: OK, never mind, regardless, all right and a lot.
14. Then and Than
‘Then’ means one event proceeded another, where writers use ‘than’ for comparison.
I went to the garage. Then, I went to the shop.
I have less money than you.
15. May and Might
‘May’ means there’s a real possibility of something happening.
‘Might’ means there is far more uncertainty about this event.
You may fail this grammar test if you don’t study.
If you stay up late the night before the grammar test, you might fail it.
16. They’re, Their and There
This is one of the most fundamental English grammar lessons to learn, yet it’s often missed even by seasoned writers.
“They’re” is a contraction of “they are,” while “their” is the possessive pronoun for “they.” The third spelling, “there,” is a preposition that shows where something is.
They’re over there looking at their new puppy.
17. I and Me
“I” is the subjective form of the first-person pronoun. It should never end a sentence.
“Me” is the objective form of the first-person pronoun. It should never start a sentence.
Tom and I decided it was time to start exercising. (correct)
Tom and me decided it was time to start exercising. (incorrect)
Joanne chose to give the award to me. (correct)
Joanne chose to give the award to I. (incorrect)
If you’re having trouble remembering, replace the pronoun with the third person pronoun. If “him” fits, then you should use me.
For instance, you would not say, “John gave the box to he,” but rather, “John gave the box to him.” Thus “me” would be the correct first-person pronoun to use.
18. Emigrated vs. Immigrated
“Emigrate” means to move away from a place. “Immigrate” means to move to a place. These words are easily confused because they can both be used to describe the same move.
Carissa emigrated from France to the United States.
Carissa immigrated to the United States from France.
Always use the word “from” with emigrate and the word “to” with immigrate, and you will get these tricky words right. It also helps to think of the words “exit” and “emigrate” together. To emigrate is to exit a country.
19. Wet vs. Whet
The word “wet” means to be damp with liquid. It can also be used as a verb to mean to dampen with liquid.
The word “whet” means to sharpen or stimulate. Therefore, whetting one’s appetite uses the latter spelling.
The grass was wet with dew in the morning.
I encourage students to read books to whet their creativity.
20. Do vs. Due
To “do” means to accomplish something. When something is “due” it is owed. These words are commonly misused in the phrase “make do,” which is spelled correctly in this sentence:
We will have to make do with the food we have in the fridge until the grocery store opens.
Conversely, you would use “due” in this sentence:
The library books were due Monday.
21. Per Say and Persay
Per say and persay are both incorrect spellings of the phrase “per se.”
This phrase comes from a Latin phrase that means “in itself” or “intrinsically.” This phrase can be easily avoided in writing, but it should be spelled correctly when used.
I didn’t dislike the dessert, per se, but I didn’t enjoy it either.
22. Free Rein vs. Free Reign
The word “reign” refers to the rule of a king or queen. The phrase “free reign” is incorrect. This particular idiom comes from the reins used to control horses, so it should be “free rein.”
The toddlers were given free rein to create art with the washable supplies.
23. Moot vs Mute
“Mute” is a word that means to be silent. Saying “mute point” means you are making a point that says nothing. The correct use of the word is “moot,” which means debatable or doubtful.
Suggesting an alternative was moot after the team had made their choice.
24. Peek vs. Peak
The word “peek” means a quick look at something.
The word “peak” refers to the top of a mountain.
Saying you will give someone a “sneak peak,” therefore, is incorrect use of the word.
The client got a sneak peek at the finished designs before they went to the printer.
25. Comma Splice
A comma splice occurs when you put two sentences together and forget the comma and connector, or conjunction. This error is also commonly referred to as a run-on sentence.
If two phrases could stand alone as separate sentences, then they require a comma and connector to join.
Cecile chose the blue candy, and she ate it in one bite. (correct)
Cecile chose the blue candy and she ate it in one bite. (incorrect)
Take out the conjunction. Do the two phrases stand alone? If so, then you are forming a compound sentence that requires a comma.
26. Misplaced Modifiers
Modifiers are phrases that act as adjectives and adverbs to describe another word in the sentence. They should be placed directly beside the word they modify.
The modifier needs to clearly describe one word in the sentence.
When these clauses are placed incorrectly, misplaced modifiers can make the reading confusing.
The mother handed sandwiches to all of the kids in cute little baggies.
This sentence makes it sound like kids are in baggies. Instead, it should read: The mother handed sandwiches in cute little baggies to all of the kids.
27. Pronoun/Antecedent Problems
The word, phrase or clause that a pronoun replaces is called an antecedent. Pronouns and their antecedents need to be clear and match in gender and number.
The grandpa gave his grandson a new toy, and he was happy.
In this example, “he” could refer to both the grandson and the grandpa, so it is unclear and incorrect.
The grandpa was happy when he gave his grandson a new toy.
This is a better choice, because “he” clearly describes the grandpa.
Each student gave their choice for the student council.
This is incorrect because the student is singular and therefore can’t be described by “their.”
Each student gave his or her choice for the student council.
This is correct.
28. Really vs. Real
Really is an adverb that means “in actual fact.” Really is used to describe verbs, adjectives and other adverbs.
Real is an adjective that means “not fake” or “genuine.” It is used to describe nouns.
The couple had a really nice time on their honeymoon. (correct)
The couple had a real nice time on their honeymoon. (incorrect)
29. Loose vs. Lose
The word “loose” means “not tight.”
The word “lose” means “to cease to have” or “to be unable to find.”
The loose change in his pocket was easy to lose.
30. Could of, Would of, Should of
“Could of” is an improper spelling of the contraction “could’ve,” which is short for could have. The same is true for the other being verbs.
I could of gone to the concert, but I was too tired (incorrect)
I could have gone to the concert, but I was too tired. (correct)
Applying These Grammar Lessons
Don’t let grammar stop you from finishing your next piece of writing.
King writes grammar lessons are “mostly a matter of cleaning the rust off drill bits and sharpening the blades of your saw.”
In other words, concern yourself with grammar but don’t become so concerned about grammar that it stops you finishing what you started.
If you’d like to read more about grammar, I recommend reading Eats, Shoots & Leaves: The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation by Lynne Truss and The Elements of Style by William Strunk and E.B. White.
I also recommend using a grammar checker as another line of defence.
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