Grammar Tricks

Everyone has problems at some point with grammar. Is it “their” or “they’re”? What about “farther” versus “further”? If you never get caught up in these things, then you have a better memory than me.

I can usually remember them after a moment or two of thinking it through (as they all follow rules, or have handy tricks), but if you were never taught the rules or tricks then you’re going to have difficulties. Even when you know them, you can sometimes forget. Or if you overthink it, you can confuse yourself (I do this fairly often). So, I thought I’d bring together some of the common mistakes.

(Also, I know that there are other lists out there with common grammar mistakes -these are either ones I have problems with myself, or I see them on Facebook all the time and get annoyed.)

So you’re busy writing and you come to a sentence that you think is absolutely perfect… until you notice that grammatical Achilles’ heel staring at you from the page.

Here are some common mistakes and how to navigate your way past them!

  • Their, There, They’re
    • “There” refers to a location. As in, you can find the book over there. It can be a specified or unspecified location (e.g., There are three cats).
    • “They’re” is a contraction of “they are”. If you replace “they’re” with “they are” and it doesn’t make sense than you are using the wrong word.
    • “Their” is a possessive. This means it refers to something that belongs to they/them.
  • Your, You’re
    • Again, this is a possessive versus a contraction. “You’re” means “you are”, while “your” refers to something that belongs to you.
  • Its, It’s
    • Once more, possessive versus contraction. “It’s” means “it is” and “its” refers to something that belongs to it. Note that for all of these possessives, it could refer to a physical object, an opinion or idea, or simply another noun.
      • e.g., Their dog (noun), your beliefs (opinion/idea), its box (object/noun).
  • Farther, Further
    • Just remember that “farther” has the word “far” in it because it is referring to a physical distance.
  • Who, Whom
    • “Whom” is becoming less and less common in literature. Generally only the fussiest of people cares, but from a grammatical point of view, there is a distinct time and place to use “whom” instead of “who”.
    • If you can swap out the “who/whom” for “he” or “she” then you should be using “who”.
    • If you can swap out the “who/whom” for “him” or “her” then you should be using “whom”
  • Lay, Lie
    • The big confusion here comes from the fact that the past tense of “lie” is “lay”, but the past tense of “lay” is “laid”.
      • Lay/Laid requires a subject acting on an object. e.g., I lay the flowers on the ground/I laid the flowers on the ground.
      • Lie/Lay doesn’t require an object -it’s generally used to refer to the subject acting on itself. e.g., I am going to go lie down/I lay down.
  • Which, That
    • “That” is restrictive, and “which” is qualitative. In other words, use “that” when you are referring to things that have distinct limits/edges/numbers. Use “which” when talking about things that are relative.
      • e.g., My teacher says I should be more discerning about which friends I make. He thinks that I am too trusting. <– “which friends” is loose and does not mean “all”; “that I am too trusting” is broad, but still distinctly refers to trusting too much or freely.
  • Than, Then
    • These two always trip me up. Basically, use “than” when making comparisons, and “then” when referring to actions in time.
  • Continual, Continuous
    • They can refer to the same thing, but they do have distinct uses. “Continual” means it is happening over the course of time. “Continuous” means it is occurring without any stops or gaps.
  • Nor, Or
    • General rule of thumb is that it’s “Either or” and “Neither nor”. Outside of those two, when you have a second negative in the sentence, you use “or” with nouns, adjectives, and adverbs, but “nor” with verbs.
  • Moot
    • This does not mean that something is superfluous or unnecessary. It actually means that something is open for discussion -which is almost the exact opposite of what people usually mean when they use it!
  • Colon, Cologne
    • “Colon” is a part of the digestive tract, while “cologne” is a male fragrance product, similar to perfume. Alternatively, a “colon” is a type of punctuation. Specifically, the ‘stacked dots’ ( : ). More people are familiar with the term semi-colon ( ; ).
  • Envy, Jealousy
    • “Envy” is the emotion you have when you covet something that someone else possesses. “Jealousy”, on the other hand, is a fear of rivalry. Technically these two are synonyms of each other, but they evoke different states of mind.
  • Since, Because
    • “Since” is a reference to time, while “because” refers to causation (e.g., because X, Y happened).
  • Fewer, Less
    • Use “few” when referring to things that can be counted. “Less” is for amounts that you can’t count. e.g., I have fewer horses than him, so I like him less.
  • Anxious, Excited
    • “Anxious” is a mild state of fear, or a sense of anxiety. “Excited” or “eager” are better words if you’re trying to say someone is looking forward to something.
  • Disinterested, Uninterested
    • Simply put, a “disinterested” person has no stake in something. They are impartial. An “uninterested” person is not interested; they couldn’t care less.
  • Flammable, Inflammable
    • These two actually mean the same thing -that something will burn easily. This site has a quick explanation of the history of the words and why we changed from the original “inflammable” to using “flammable”.
  • Affect, Effect
    • “Affect” is the action, while “effect” is the result.
  • Nauseous, Nauseated
    • To be “nauseous” means you make people sick/produce nausea in others. If you are sick, then you are “nauseated”.
  • Irony, Coincidence
    • It’s a “coincidence” when a series of events appear to be planned (when they’re actually accidental). “Irony” is when the expected results are different from the actual results.
  • Whether, If
    • So “whether” is used when there are two or more alternatives. “If” is for when there are no alternatives.
  • Could/Couldn’t Care Less
    • Don’t say “I could care less” -that means you care at least a little bit, as there is a lesser amount that you could care. If you don’t care at all, then you “couldn’t care less”.
  • Don’t, Doesn’t
    • These are both contractions. Contractions are really easy to figure out if you’re using right, as long as you take a minute to think it through. “Don’t” is “do not” while “doesn’t” is “does not”. Still need a hint? “Does” is used with third person singular (he, she it).
  • Bring, Take
    • These two are a little confusing, as they use the same words in their explanations. The dictionary says:
      • Bring: come to a place with (someone or something) [e.g., she brought Luke home from the hospital]; cause (someone or something) to come to a place [e.g., what brings you here?]; make (someone or something) move in a particular direction or way [e.g., he brought his hands out of his pockets].
      • Take: lay hold of (something) with one’s hands -reach for and hold [e.g., he leaned forward to take her hand]; carry or bring with one -convey [e.g., he took along a portfolio of his drawings]
  • Have, Had, Of
    • These are rather muddled, and the “examples” (mistakes) are:
      • If I would have been told, I wouldn’t have done it.
      • I could of figured it out on my own.
    • In the first example, it should be “If I had been told…” I believe that this is simply a case of, when the sentence is an “if” statement, don’t use “would have”.
    • For the second example, just don’t use “of” after would, should, or could. Any time you want to use “of” after one of those three, replace it with “have”.
  • Went, Gone
    • “Went” is the past tense of “go”, while “gone” is a past participle, and adjective in its own right. So think of it like, “I go, I am going, I went” and “I will go, I have gone.”
  • Irregardless
    • This one always surprises me. Considering that most things nowadays have a built in spell check, it seems that people must willfully ignore the fact that “irregardless” is not a real word.
  • Alot, A Lot
    • Ditto. Once more “alot” should show up with a red line underneath it.
  • Me, Myself, I
    • It’s “I” to start a sentence, and “me” to end it (e.g., Susan and I went to the movies; Mark met up with Susan and me). A trick is to remove the other person’s name –“Mark met up with I” sounds funny, because it should be “me”. Use “myself” when the other two result in awkward sounding sentences.
  • Loose, Lose
    • Two “o”s means something is too big (as in my shoes are loose) or has escaped (the cat got loose). One “o” means you’ve lost something (your phone, a wager, etc.)
  • Principle, Principal
    • When it’s “ple”, it’s a moral belief or personal rule, and when it’s “pal” they are the first person (in rank, order, etc.) –or they run a school.
  • i.e., e.g.
    • These two get confused fairly often, and I used to mix them up all the time. But it’s actually pretty simple. “i.e.” means that the following list is finite. (i.e., there is only this item, and this one on the list) Whereas, “e.g.” means an example of what might be on the list

For this post I referenced:


One thought on “Grammar Tricks

  1. Pingback: English Public Service Announcement: The “an” epidemic | Write on the World

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