Writer Wednesdays: The Grammar Hit-List

Here are some irritating little grammar mistakes I see over and over when I’m editing. And sometimes when I’m writing (cringe!). Don’t feel bad if you do them too — the English language is a quirky little booger!

Who/that: Only inanimate objects take the word “that” — “The house that burned down.” People take “who” — “The man who called.” So many writers say, “The man that called.” Not right!

That/which: Count how many things there are. If there’s just one, use “which”; if there’s more than one, use “that.” For example, “She picked up the necklace that was in the red box.” Are there two necklaces? Is one in a red box and another in a yellow box? If so, you’ve got the sentence right; there are two necklaces, and she picked up the one in the red box, not the one in the yellow box. No? Then the sentence should be, “She picked up the necklace, which was in the red box.” There is only one necklace, and it just so happened to be in a red box.

May/might: May means permission; might means possibility. So you would say “She may come along” if you’re saying she’s allowed to come; you would say “She might come along” if you’re saying she’s thinking about whether to come and hasn’t decided.  

Till/til: You might think “til” is correct because it’s short for “until,” but “till” is actually the older word and means the same thing. Some people even use ’til. So use till or until, nothing else.

Lay/lie: Ick, another nasty one. Here’s the deal — to lie (and I’m not talking telling untruths) is to recline your own body; to lay is to place an object. So I would lie down after I lay my book down. What about different tenses? Just memorize this: lie lay lain, and lay laid laid. For the first group, which means to recline, you would have: present — “I lie down”; past — “I lay down last week”; past perfect — “I had lain down.” And for the second group, which means to place, you would have: present — “I lay the book down”; past — “I laid the book down last week”; past perfect — “I had laid the book down.” And remember, there is no such word as lieing! Whether you’re talking reclining or tell untruths, the word is lying.

Apostrophe inside/outside quote marks: I have to admit, this one surprised me. I would have written: “That ain’t nothin,’” Joe replied. Yes, with an apostrophe and quote marks outside the comma. But I was wrong. According to Chicago Style, the sentence is correct thusly: “That ain’t nothin’,” Joe replied. Why? Because the apostrophe stands in for a missing letter (the G in nothing), so it has to stay right where it is. Crazy, huh? I can’t believe I had that wrong.

Then/and then: I looked for the answer to this forever and finally found it. If you have a compound sentence (two complete sentences — subject and verb — joined by a conjunction), you use a comma: “The sun rose, and the birds sang.” But could you say, “The sun rose, then the birds sang”? No, because “then” is not one of the FANBOYS conjunctions (For, And, Nor, But, Or, Yet, So). So if you join the sentences with “, then” you have a comma splice. The correct version: “The sun rose, and then the birds sang.” Even with “then,” you have to have a comma and a FANBOYS conjunction.

Who/whom: Ugh. We all hate this one. Basically, who is a subject; whom is an object. So you have to figure out the verb (the action), then who is doing to action. If “who/whom” is doing the action, the answer is “who.” If it’s she, Tony, the teacher, anything but “who/whom,” then your answer is “whom.” Try rewriting the sentence as a question. “I don’t care who/whom you love” becomes “You love whom?” It has to be whom because the verb is “love.”  Who is doing the loving? The subject, which is “you.” The object of “loves” is whom. What about a question? “Who/whom is coming to the party?” The verb is “is coming.” The person coming to the party–the subject–is who/whom, so you’d use “who.” Also, if you have a preposition in front of the who/whom, it’s whom: “This coffee is for who/whom?” “For” is a preposition, so the answer is “whom.”

80’s/’80s: Looks weird, but the correct answer is ’80s. You wouldn’t us an apostrophe to make a word plural, right? “We have lots of dog’s.” So you wouldn’t do it for numbers either. The apostrophe goes in front because it is standing in for missing numbers, namely the “19” in 1980s.

Alright/all right: Never use “alright”! It’s not a word. Use “all right.”

For awhile/for a while:  Never use “for awhile.”  Why? Because “awhile” already means “for a while.” Consider the following sentence: “I stayed outside for awhile.” Since awhile already means “for a while,” you’re actually saying, “I stayed outside for for a while.” So if you already have a “for” in the sentence, use “a while.”

All right, I could keep at this all day (what an annoying language we have!), but let’s take a grammar break. Next week, we’ll look at the stylistic issues publishers hate.


About alisaacarter

I am a writer of young adult novels, wife, mom of three, lover of animals, former magazine editor, reader of anything paranormal, and coffee fanatic.
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