30 Simple but Effective Grammar Lessons

30 Grammar Lessons Every Writer Should Know

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.

For example:

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.

For example:

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.

For example:

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.

For example:

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.

For example:

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.

For example:

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.

For example:

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.

For example:

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.

For example:

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.

For example:

Schools have principals, but I have principles.

12. Literally

Literally means something actually happened and that what you are saying is true.

For example:

I was literally green with envy.

This means, I actually turned the colour green because I was feeling jealous.

Tip:

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.

For example:

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.

For example:

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.

For example:

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.

For example:

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)

Tip:

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.

For example:

Carissa emigrated from France to the United States.

Carissa immigrated to the United States from France.

Tip:

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.

Grammarly suggestions

For example:

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.

For example:

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.”

Grammar Lessons
Use a tool like Grammarly for tests like this

For example:

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.

For example:

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.

For example:

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.

For example:

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)

Tip:

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.

For example:

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.

For example:

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.

For example:

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.”

For example:

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.

For example:

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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11 thoughts on “30 Simple but Effective Grammar Lessons”

  1. Great post. There’s one point I’d like to query – incorrect words. “Alright” is often criticised but why when we have compound words such as “altogether”?

    From Oxford Dictionary of English 3rd edition Copyright © 2010 by Oxford University Press

    “Alright

    usage: The merging of all and right to form the one-word spelling alright is not recorded until the end of the 19th century (unlike other similar merged spellings such as altogether and already, which date from much earlier). There is no logical reason for insisting on all right as two words, when other single-word forms such as altogether have long been accepted. Nevertheless it is still considered by many people to be unacceptable in formal writing.”

  2. Pingback: Grammar

  3. Bryan, in your second point, this sentence is incorrect: “The second explains a man is nothing if he doesn’t have a women in his life.” It should read, “. . . if he doesn’t have a woman in his life.” I’m actually surprised to see that no one had yet commented on it.

  4. Thanks, this is great! I’m just learning, so have questions about the following sentences:

    “…please don’t let fears you have about grammar stop you writing.”

    Maybe should be:
    “…please don’t let fears you have about grammar stop you from writing.”
    or(?):
    “…please don’t let fears you have about grammar stop your writing.”

    “In reality, he affected changed.”
    Maybe:
    “In reality, he affected change.”

    “Don’t let grammar stop you finishing your next piece of writing.”
    Maybe:
    “Don’t let grammar stop you from finishing your next piece of writing.”

  5. Nice post, very helpful !

    I was a little confused by #5 h owerver. I was thinking this might be clearer: Effect is tangible. Affect is something Intangible.

    Is the 20% off for Grammary applicable toward a 1 year, single payment purchase?

    Btw, I wasn’t able to login using any of the options. I’m on Safari, OSX.

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