GRAMMAR MATTERS Is messing it up letting you down?

Grammar relates to the structural rules governing clear use of a language.  Smooth, flowing sentences with clear meanings are contingent upon good grammar, spelling and punctuation; missing or misplaced punctuation can change the intended meaning of a sentence or make it obscure.

The English language is not static; it has changed over the centuries, many words becoming obsolete or acquiring a new meaning.  And it continues to change, borrowing words from other languages and introducing new words, especially since the eighties, with the dawning of the digital and information eras.  Notwithstanding these changes, grammar remains the anchor of the English language, constraining its drift into the murky gloom of ambiguity.

Writing isn’t easy. Even professional writers are known to suffer from writer’s block or argue about points of grammar. That should be reassuring for the rest of us.

In this blog I’m aiming to cover 26 points of grammar (from A–Z) that often cause confusion. 

A     Apostrophe

An apostrophe can indicate possession:
• The dog’s bone (one dog, one bone)
• The dogs’ bones (more than one dog, more than one bone)

It can also indicate a contraction, i.e., missing letters:

• We’re (we are) going to school (apostrophe indicates missing ‘a’)
• It’s (it is) a warm day (apostrophe indicates missing ‘i’)

An apostrophe is not required in the following sentences:
• The music of the 60s
• Its eyes were shining in the dark

B      Because and Since

These words are not interchangeable, but it is not unusual to see since misused when referring to causation.  Because refers to causation, whereas since refers to passage of time.

• Incorrect:  Since you arrived early, we can select the best seats
• Correct:  Because you arrived early, we can select the best seats
• Correct:  Since your arrival, the sun has shone each day

C      Continual and Continuous

This is a tricky one as the meanings are similar; however, continual means that something occurs regularly but with breaks between, while continuous means something occurs without any breaks.

• High-speed trains continually pass their home
• The river flows continuously towards the sea

D      Different From/To/Than

I see this one misused regularly and so have to ensure I don’t miss it, especially different to. Although greater than and slower than are correct when using comparative adjectives, the word different is an adjective highlighting distinction; something differs from something else, so different from is correct.

• Incorrect:  Methods of teaching differ from those used when I went to school – they are different than those I learnt • Incorrect:  Methods of teaching differ from those used when I went to school – they are different to those I learnt     • Correct:  Methods of teaching differ from those used when I went to school – they are different from those I learnt

E      Effect and Affect

Effect can be both a noun (result) and a verb (to bring about), whereas affect is almost always used as a verb meaning to influence. So it’s easy to see why these words cause some confusion.

• The effect (noun) of the sun on the skin can be detrimental
• His plan was to effect (verb) changes in the way the business was run
• Sunshine positively affects (verb) people’s moods

F      Fewer and Less

These are often confused. Less refers to hypothetical quantity; fewer refers to actual numbers. The rule is if you can count it, use fewer; otherwise, use less.

• There were fewer (the number is known) entrants this year than last year
• I am less happy (no specific quantity) now the date has been changed

G      Got and Have

I remember my English teacher finding the word got thoroughly distasteful; consequently, it tends to stick in my throat if I attempt to use it, and I confiscate it whenever possible. I am, therefore, not objective in expressing my opinion of this unpleasant little word. It is, of course, the past tense of get, which we use freely, but got has deservedly acquired a bad reputation. Visually, it’s ungainly and unattractive; and orally, it’s an alarming, choking sound, best buried and forgotten.  How often do we hear, ‘I have got…’? Have is present tense; got is past tense, so they do not belong together. Usually, have is sufficient.

• Incorrect: I have got new shoes
• Correct: I have new shoes
• Correct: I got a good mark (but ‘I achieved a good mark’ surely sounds better )

H      Hyphens and Dashes

They look similar, but they have different functions. Hyphens are used, without spaces, to join words, such as in compound adjectives and compound nouns:

• We stayed in a top-class hotel
• He caught sight of himself in the looking-glass

The dash most commonly used in the UK is the en-dash. This is used, without spaces, to show ranges:

• 2–3 dogs
• Monday–Friday
• 6 p.m.–6 a.m.

It can also be used, with spaces, singly or in pairs:

• He told them to hurry – but it was too late
• She explained to the children – who found it difficult – that they must practise every day

I      I, me, and myself

At the beginning of a sentence, this doesn’t present a problem:
• Correct: I walked in the park and met Stephen
• Correct: John and I met Stephen at the club

But when the phrase is at the end of a sentence, me replaces I:
• Incorrect: Stephen met I at the club
• Incorrect: Stephen met myself at the club
• Correct: Stephen met me at the club

• Incorrect: Stephen met John and I at the club
• Incorrect: Stephen met John and myself at the club
• Correct: Stephen met John and me at the club

A common error would be, ‘Stephen met John and myself at the club’ or, ‘Stephen met John and I at the club’. This confusion is reduced when the second person (John in this case) is removed; i.e., we’re unlikely to say, ‘Stephen met myself at the club’ or ‘Stephen met I at the club’. The easy way to know how to phrase it, therefore, is to imagine that the object of the sentence is only one person.
The word myself is a reflexive pronoun:
• I kept the secret to myself
• I saw myself in the photograph

J      Jimjams, Jim-Jams and Jim Jams

Used as a colloquialism, the traditional meaning of jimjams refers to a state of nervous restlessness, usually associated with mental health: peculiarities, depression or tremors linked with withdrawal from excessive alcohol consumption. Today, jim jams or jim-jams are usually used colloquially to refer to pyjamas (British spelling) or pajamas (US spelling).

K      Kind of

This is often used in place of rather, but should be avoided in anything other than an informal style of writing.
• Incorrect: It’s kind of dark in here
• Correct: It’s rather dark in here
• Incorrect: I want a kind of surprise party for her birthday
• Correct: I want something like a surprise party for her birthday

L      Lay and Lie

The transitive verb lay, which requires a direct subject and at least one object, is often confused with the intransitive verb lie, which does not need an object. The present and past tenses of lay are lay and laid, while the present and past tenses of lie are lie and lay.
• Lay – present tense: I lay the vase on the table and sit down
• Lay – past tense: Last week, I laid the vase on the table
• Lie – present tense: The valley lies between two high hills
• Lie – past tense: The valley lay between two high hills

M      Misplaced Modifiers

The relationship of words is indicated by their position in a sentence. Misplaced words can result in ambiguity.
• Incorrect: Visible between the clouds, her father pointed to the plane
• Correct: Her father pointed to the plane, which was visible between the clouds
In the example above, misplaced father becomes the modifier, indicating that father, rather than the plane, is visible between the clouds. The modifier should be positioned next to the word it needs to modify.

N      Number Consistency

a)   A subject and its corresponding verb should be consistent in number.

• Incorrect: A range of suggestions were put forward
• Correct: A range of suggestions was put forward

In the above example, range is singular, so the singular verb was must be used.

b)   A pronoun must agree in number with its antecedent. This can pose something of a dilemma in the English language.

• Incorrect: Someone left their coat on the floor
• Correct: Someone left his/her coat on the floor

Unless the gender is known, only the clumsy his/her option is available to the politically correct.

O      Oxford Comma

Contrary to conventional UK practice, which excludes this comma unless it is necessary to avoid ambiguity, the Oxford comma comes before the last item in a list of three or more.
• Monday, Wednesday, and Friday (Oxford Comma)
• Monday, Wednesday and Friday (more general UK convention)

To avoid ambiguity, a comma may be necessary when an item includes a pair, such as in the following sentence:
• She studied English language and English literature and French
This would suggest that she studied three subjects. A comma would help to clarify that English language and literature was studied as one subject:
• She studied English language and English literature, and French

P      Principle and Principal

Two words that are easily confused. However, principle refers to a moral belief or rule that helps distinguish between right and wrong; whereas principal refers to a person who is first in rank, such as a school principal. (Maybe remember this by linking the ‘a’ ‘in principal’ with A-grade and school principal.)

Q      Quotation Marks

Quotation marks indicate words that are actually spoken, but reported speech, which is often introduced with the word that, quotation marks are not used.
• He asked, ‘What time does the train arrive?’ (actual speech)
• He asked what time the train would leave (reported speech)
• She said, ‘I’ve already seen the film.’ (actual speech)
• She said that she had already seen the film (reported speech)

R      Run-on Sentence or Comma Splice

A run-on sentence joins two independent clauses without punctuation or the appropriate conjunction. A comma splice is similar, but uses a comma to join two clauses that have no conjunction. There are different ways to correct such sentences.
• Incorrect: He was the team captain he played twice a week (run-on)
• Incorrect: He was the team captain, he played twice a week (comma splice)
• Correct: He was the team captain. He played twice a week (two sentences)
• Correct: He was the team captain; he played twice a week (semi-colon)
• Correct: He was the team captain and he played twice a week (conjunction)
• Correct: Because he was the team captain he played twice a week (subordinating conjunction)
• Correct: He was the team captain; therefore, he played twice a week (semi-colon and transitional word)

S      Split Infinitive

There is no grammatical rule regarding splitting the infinitive; however, some people react strongly to its use in formal writing. Nevertheless, the split infinitive has a place. It can be useful when choosing to stress an adverb; e.g., to precariously balance rather than to balance precariously. Abiding rigidly to the practice of avoiding the split infinitive can result in an overly formal writing style, and
‘I would love to instantly arrive without travelling’
captures the momentum more so than
‘I would love to arrive instantly without travelling.’
Good judgement is more useful here than adherence to rules.

T      That and Which

That restricts, which qualifies. Not surprisingly, I rarely proofread text in which these two words are not confused.
‘That’ is a restrictive pronoun. ‘Which’ is used to introduce a relative clause and is preceded by a comma. The relative clause is extra (or parenthetical) information allowing qualifiers that may not be essential to the sentence. This sounds confusing and is easier to understand with examples.
e.g. There were several buses. The bus that broke down was John’s.
Incorrect: John was on the bus which broke down.
Correct: John was on the bus that broke down.
e.g. There was one bus and it broke down. John happened to be on it.
Correct: The bus, which John was on (relative clause), broke down.

U      Under and Below

Under is used more often than below and usually refers to three-dimensional objects; under a bridge, under a canopy, under a tree. It is also used when referring to layers of clothing; under a jacket, or for numbers; under an hour, under a pound.
Below is used to refer to the level of something, as in ‘the temperature was below zero’, ‘the terms and conditions are printed below’, ‘the gym is located below the restaurant’.

V      Voice of the Author

The voice of the author is what makes the author unique; the author’s personality and character are expressed in the writing technique. An editor must respect the individuality of the author. This requires striking a balance between ensuring text is grammatically correct and maintaining the author’s writing style. This may be a delicate balance. With the exception of formal writing, an engaging writing style that breaks grammatical rules may sometimes be preferable to highly edited text.

W      Who and Whom

Who is a subjective pronoun, used when the pronoun is the subject of a clause. Whom is an objective pronoun, used when the pronoun is the object of a clause. The use of who or whom will depend, therefore, on whether it refers to the subject or the object of a sentence. There is a simple rule for working out which to use:

he = who
him = whom

Do we say, ‘She asked who/whom the story was about’? The story was about him, so it should be ‘She asked whom the story was about.’
Do we say, ‘We know who/whom let the dogs out’? He let the dogs out, so it should be ‘We know who let the dogs out’.

X      X Rated, Well Known, Well Made

Sometimes, these words are hyphenated, and sometimes they’re not. Used without a hyphen they are known as postpositive adjectives. In the English language, adjectives usually come before the noun they modify:
• It was a beautiful day
• It was haunting music
When two words are combined to form a compound adjective (a single adjective made up of more than one word) that is placed before the noun they modify, they are hyphenated:
• They watched an X-rated film
• He was a well-known musician
• She purchased well-made furniture for her new home
However, if the two words appear in a postpositive position (after the noun they modify), they are not hyphenated:
• The film they watched was X rated
• The musician was well known
• The furniture she purchased for her home was well made

Y      Your and You’re

Your is a possessive adjective, which indicates that something belongs to someone; while you’re is a contraction of you are. Unless you can expand you’re to you are, it is incorrect:
• Incorrect: The teacher has marked you’re homework
• Correct: The teacher has marked your homework
• Incorrect: Your on holiday until the end of the week
• Correct: You’re on holiday until the end of the week

Z      From A to Z and A–Z

Hyphens and dashes have been covered earlier; here, I wish only to highlight that for a span of years or any range of groups or numbers, it is incorrect to use a mix of words and en-dashes.
• Incorrect: from A–Z
• Correct: from A to Z
• Incorrect: between A–Z
• Correct: between A and Z

Proofreading, Proof reading or Proof-reading? Or who really cares anyway?

Proofreaders today are usually freelancers. They look for errors in typing, spelling and punctuation but do not normally make substantial changes to a text. However, most proofreaders also offer copy-editing services, which involve more detailed intervention, such as improvement of sentence structure, even reorganising entire paragraphs when discrepancies occur between actual and intended meanings. It’s important for an editor to strike a balance here though; all writers are different, and their work is unique. Over-editing can introduce mediocrity, removing the fire from a piece of writing in the process of making it ‘correct’. The focus of both proofreading and editing, therefore, should be on enhancing the quality of a document, making it as good as it can be, without silencing the voice of the author.

Today, technology such as Microsoft Word is useful for reducing the risk of documents containing non-words; e.g., tomorow instead of tomorrow. Errors such as this are easily missed, especially for self-checking authors with pre-existing context-related expectations, as we often mistakenly see what we expect to see rather than what is actually there. It is not difficult to understand tomorow as meaning the day after today, but let’s consider sentences containing words with jumbled letter strings. There is some evidence that wrod oerdr dseno’t mtaetr, the olny iproamtnt tihng is taht the frsit and lsat ltteers are in the rghit pclaes. [1] Despite looking, at first glance, like gobbledegook, the sentence is, nevertheless, understood by many people, which is evidence that the brain doesn’t necessarily register each individual letter in a word but, perhaps, engages in some kind of shape recognition.

Fortunately, spell-check software would clearly have a ball with such a sentence, but correctly spelt words used in error are unlikely to be detected in an automatic spell-check.

For example, only one letter separates, ‘We are now able to offer you the position’, from ‘We are not able to offer you the position’. And what if a sentence does, literally, hang on a letter: ‘The defendant has pleaded guilty, and we are not able to propose a community-based sentencing option’?

Checking such sentences can be tricky, especially when editing our own work, because, as stated above, we can wrongly identify a word that we expect to see rather than processing the individual component letters.

Context is everything, and we don’t normally need to be so precise in order to be understood. How often do we read, ‘Remove film lid and place in pre-heated oven’? I must admit to promising myself that I shall respond to the company, complaining that the film lid is charred and my food still frozen; but, of course, I never do. Taking a red pen and correcting the instructions on the packet before discarding it has had, so far, to suffice. Sometimes, it’s necessary to take a prescriptive approach to writing, such as in science, medicine and law, for example; but at other times, such as in creative writing, it may be prudent to value communicative skills – enthusiasm, energy, sentiment – over correctness. There’s no consensus of opinion over this, of course. Why else would someone create the Apostrophe Protection Society or, in fact, its counterpart, the Kill the Apostrophe movement? I really don’t want to become OTT about a few punctuation marks, or to become so disturbed that I share Lynne Truss’s (2003) zero tolerance approach to punctuation and find myself, like Lynne, ‘quite stranded’, feeling ‘cheated and giddy’, and in very bad cases ‘fall over’ whenever I encounter a missing comma. [2] No, I prefer to consider myself objective, dispassionate and able to take the middle road.

And now, for lunch; has anyone seen my red pen…?



[1] Word order doesn’t matter, the only important thing is that the first and last letters are in the right place.

[2] Truss, L., (2003) Eats, Shoots & Leaves, London, Profile Books Ltd., p. 92.