Ten Rules of Grammar Everyone Should Know
Master the Language You Use and Criticize
Most people need a little grammar help. It's not only tricky because the English language is just plain weird, but because the rules are always changing. But, if you have read a lot, you probably already have an innate sense of what sounds right. Here are some rules to solidify those hunches.
1. The problem with "different."
Avoid using different as an adjective--it is vague and a cheap word. But sometimes it is necessary. If you must use it, use the correct preposition after it. Something cannot be different than. "Than" is used for something that is more or less than, so unless you are writing "more different than," which is also not a good adverb/adjective phrase, use "from."
Wrong: "His hat is different than yours."
Correction: "His hat is different from yours."
2. Let's clear up commas for good.
Commas are great. Vital. If we didn't have them, our sentences would be short. Or confusing. Use a comma after any adjective or adverb phrase that is beginning a sentence, for example:
"Apparently, the ducks did not like the Jello."
Use a comma between two parts of a sentence that could be their own sentences, but it doesn't make sense unless you connect them with a conjunction (and, but, yet, or, for, nor, so). The previous sentence is an example of this usage.
Use commas for lists. Long lists, short lists, tall lists, honey-do lists, dessert lists, or any kind of list.
3. Lay, Lie, Laid. The Final Say on Lay.
What a confusing word. Let me just spell it out:
If you are a human, you lie on your bed. Yesterday, you lay on your bed. In your life, you have lain on many beds. (By the way, when you go tanning in the sun, it's technically called lying out).
If you have an object that can be laid, you lay it down on the floor. Yesterday, you laid it on the lawn. In your life, you have laid many things out on the floor.
If you're a liar, you lie. Two years ago, you lied. In your life, you have lied many times.
4. Passive Voice. Be Very Afraid.
The wall was drilled. The car was crashed. The elections were held. These are backwards sentences in the English language, we call them passive voice, yet they are completely accepted. See how easy it is to slip into it? What I meant to write was, the writing world completely accepts passive voice. Passive voice is necessary sometimes, when there is no subject doing the verb. But these passive-voice sentences slow your reader down. They also create ambiguity. Often if you're using passive voice, you don't know what the subject should be and that's a problem for your piece as a whole.
Wrong: The picture was hung on the wall.
Correction: They hung the picture on the wall.
5. The Subjunctive
It is important that, when following a phrase such as "it is important that," you consider the verb tense, or "she consider the verb tense." When using a "he" or "she" form after stating something like "It is essential that," use the "you" form instead.
"It is crucial that he fix the car before leaving." You may want to write "fixes," but the opening phrase makes it the wrong tense for the present "he/she" verb. To help judge this distinction, rewrite the sentence in your mind for a minute, putting "should" in it. "He should fix the car before leaving." Both sentences are saying somewhat the same thing, so the verb "fix" should be the same.
Other examples (for the sometimes-needed passive voice situation):
"It is imperative that the dog be washed after a week of camping."
Also, when talking about a hypothetical situation, use the "you" form of the "to be" verb.
Wrong: "If she was richer, she could move to New York."
Corrected: "If she were richer, she could move to New York."
"If I were better at guitar, I would definitely play in your band."
"If he were gone, I could have some peace and quiet."
6. There, Their, Now.
"There" has the word here in it. So use it for placement. For example: "He put the mermaid over there."
And don't start a sentence with this There, or you will be writing an existential sentence--boring! (For example: There are many ways to eat a snake.)
"Their" has two vowels in a row--just like "our." It is for possession. For example: "Their cars were ruining the yard."
"They're" is a contraction for "they are." Simple enough.
7. Farther and Further
This one is complicated, and the difference can even be heard when speaking out loud. Farther is for physical distance, further is the degree or time to which the subject is extended.
8. Who and Whom
Oh the infamous confusion over who and whom. Some grammatical authorities are now accepting "who" across the board, simply because it doesn't matter all that much. This is why rule number 5 exists. People resort to "that" when they don't know whether to use who or whom.
But if you want to be confident with your whoms, wise owl, read on:
If you can replace the word in question with your name and the sentence still makes sense, then it is "who." If the sentence ends up strange, use "whom." For example:
Who: "It went to Jennifer, who was the smartest person in the class."
Whom: "Also at the party was Jane Jacobs, for whom we were all grateful.
In other words, if there is a preposition preceding it, it's "whom."
9. Possessive Adjective Pronouns
Wrong: "Him talking about marriage on the first date is a bad idea."
Corrected: "His talking about marriage on the first date is a bad idea."
This rule can be kind of confusing. Basically, you don't want an object pronoun (me, him, us, them, etc) with the subject of a sentence. The subject is "talking about marriage," so the pronoun modifying it shouldn't be phrased as an object because it comes before the subject. You'll find that when talking about someone's gambling habits or plans to go skiing, you'll need a possessive adjective pronoun (his, her, your, their, my, our, whose, its, one's).
But here's another example:
Wrong: "I am worried about Scott gambling."
Corrected: "I am worried about Scott's gambling."
If "Scott" weren't possessive, the sentence's meaning would become ambiguous. Is the speaker worried about Scott gambling if he goes to Vegas? Or is she worried about his gambling in general? Or is Scott a kind of gambling that's taking the gambling world by storm? We'll never know without that possessive addition or a clearer-written sentence!
10. Me and Him. He and I. Her and I...WHAT!?
This is the most common plebiscite. We like to put the other person before us in sentences: "Gray and I went to the store." But what if we put ourselves at the end of the sentence? "They bought the tickets for Gray and me." Since Gray and I are the indirect objects of the sentence, I must be me. If I didn't want to name Gray, the sentence would look like this: "They bought the tickets for him and me."
Many people just use "I" across the board, and it's a hard mistake to catch. Here's a test you can use. Take out the other person.
Wrong: "He brought flowers to Darcy and I."
Test: "He brought flowers to I."
Correction: "He brought flowers to Darcy and me."
Wrong: "Me and Casey went mini-golfing."
Test: "Me went mini-golfing."
Correction: "I and Casey (OR Casey and I) went mini-golfing."
11. Oops. One more:
Break these rules. If you're a creative writer, know that every great writer has broken rules of grammar. But know the rules before you break them--that is the only way you're allowed.
Great Reads and Resources
Diana Hacker is the Master.
A Writer's Classic.
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