In grammar, there are rules and then there are guidelines. Rules may sometimes be broken, but usually breaking the rules of grammar leads to prose that sounds awkward and is indisputably incorrect.
But breaching the guidelines may actually lead to prose that sounds more natural.
A hard and fast grammar rule would be the use of singular and plural nouns. We do not say I have ten cat or I have one cats. Both sentences are absolutely incorrect. Would this rule ever be broken? Maybe if you’re writing dialogue for a two-year-old. Read More
Today’s post is an excerpt from 10 Core Practices for Better Writing. Enjoy!
“And all dared to brave unknown terrors, to do mighty deeds, to boldly split infinitives that no man had split before—and thus was the Empire forged.”
— Douglas Adams
Everyone knows the old saying: rules were made to be broken. But some people love rules, live by them, and wouldn’t dream of breaking them. For these folks, good grammar means strict adherence to every rule, no matter how archaic or minute.
That’s too bad. Read More
There’s a lot of confusion about that and which. These two words are often used interchangeably, even though they’re not necessarily interchangeable.
Historically, that and which may have carried the same meaning, and some English dialects may allow for that and which to be swapped without affecting the meaning of a sentence.
However, in American English, the grammar rules offer a distinct difference between the two words. By the time you’re done reading this post, you’ll fully understand the difference between that and which, and you’ll be able to use both words correctly. Read More
It sounds pretty old fashioned: To whom have you sent those letters? Modern colloquial speakers expect something more along the lines of Who did you send those letters to?
While whom may sound outdated, it is still the technically correct word in certain situations.
In the example above, the second sentence (Who did you send those letters to?) ends a sentence with a preposition, and it uses who incorrectly.
Let’s examine the grammar rules surrounding who vs. whom.
Here are the grammar rules and common practices violated by our example sentence (Who did you send those letters to?):
- It ends with a preposition.
- It uses who where whom is the correct interrogative pronoun
It’s worth noting that many grammarians today say it’s acceptable to end sentences with prepositions. As more and more writers and speakers place prepositions at the end of sentences, the practice becomes more acceptable.
However, we’re not here to talk about prepositions. We’re going to take a look at how to properly use the words who or whom in a sentence.
Interrogative Pronoun! Are You Kidding?
Yeah, I guess it sounds pretty high-brow, and no, I’m not kidding. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m not one of those grammar snobs. I do, however, believe that writers who learn the rules can better get away with breaking them. If you’re a writer, then it couldn’t possibly hurt to know what an interrogative pronoun is and how to use it in a sentence, correctly.
Plus, learning about interrogative pronouns will help you know the difference between who vs. whom.
Simply put, an interrogative pronoun is a pronoun that is used in a question. You know these words: who, what, where, when, why, and how. Whence and whither are also interrogative pronouns, but I’ll spare you on those. For now.
Who Uses Whom Nowadays?
The word whom seems to have fallen out of favor, although some crotchety old aunt or anal-retentive English teacher might force it into your vocabulary at some point. For all I know, whom could still be used in British English, Canadian English, or Aussie speak. It’s safe to assume that a high profile writing assignment (PhD, anyone?) would require you to adhere to strict rules and to use whom where it would be expected. Also, if you were writing a historical novel or perhaps a fantasy tale with a medieval flair, you’d want to know such things so your characters would have realistic dialogue.
It’s also worth noting that as you learn the correct applications of who and whom, you may acquire a taste for using these words more properly, especially in writing (but probably not so much in your speech).
What’s the Difference between Who and Whom?
First I’ll give you the technical answer, and then I’ll follow up with a trick to help you remember whether to use who or whom in your own sentence crafting.
- Who refers to the subject of a sentence, while whom refers to the object.
Yep, it’s that simple.
I see you.
In the sentence above, I is the subject and you is the object. I always remember subject as the giver (or doer of an action) and object as the receiver (of an action). In this example, I am doing the action (seeing) and you are receiving the action (getting seen). Now let’s replace the subject and object with an interrogative pronoun.
When the subject is an interrogative pronoun, use who.
Since who is the proper interrogative pronoun for representing a sentence’s subject, you could say:
Who sees you?
(I do. I see you.)
When the object of a sentence is an interrogative pronoun, use whom.
I see whom? or Whom do I see?
(I see you.)
The following sentences would be incorrect: Who do I see? Whom sees you?
Quick Trick for Remember Who vs. Whom
Some months ago, while listening to Grammar Girl (one of my favorite podcasts), I picked up a neat little trick for remembering when to use who vs. whom. Both whom and him are pronouns that end with the letter m. So, all you do is remove the interrogative pronoun and replace it with he or him.
If you would replace the interrogative pronoun (who or whom) with him, then you should use whom:
I see whom?
I see him.
Whom did I see?
I saw him.
But if you would replace the interrogative pronoun (who or whom) with he, then you should use who:
Who saw me?
He saw me.
Grammar sure is fun.
Do you ever struggle with whether to use who or whom in a sentence? Got any tips or tricks for remembering who vs. whom? Leave a comment, and keep sticking to those grammar rules!
One of the most common grammatical mistakes that we see in both speech and writing is misuse of the words lay and lie.
This error is so common, it even slips past professional writers, editors, and English teachers — all the time.
Maybe eventually these two words will morph into one and have the exact same meaning, but until then, it’s worthwhile to learn proper usage. For now, their meanings are completely different.
Let’s take a look at this interesting word pair and find out whether we should be using lay or lie based on each word’s definition.
Dictionary.com lists forty-two different definitions for the word lay. Of these, twenty-eight are categorized as a verb used with an object, eight as verbs used without an object, and six are simply nouns. Plus, there are fifteen verb phrases that use the word lay, as well as nine idioms. This is a word that can be used in a lot of different ways!
Let’s keep things simple by focusing on what differentiates lay from lie.
In short, lay is something you do to something else. You might think that sounds funny, especially considering idiom number 58 (get laid), but it’s true, and of course “getting laid” is exactly what you should use to remember that you lay something (down).
The word lie only has twenty-seven definitions, so that’s a relief, although that’s not taking into consideration the nine additional definitions that deal with falsehoods.
Again, we’ll keep it simple. Just remember that you should use the word lie when there is no object involved.
Lay or Lie
Here are some tips to help you remember whether to use lay or lie in a sentence:
Every sentence has a subject and a verb. An example would be the following:
I is the subject, and write is the verb. Many sentences also have an object:
I write poems.
In this example, the word poems is the object. The object in a sentence receives the action of the verb. The subject is taking or making that action.
Subject: I (does the action)
Action: write (the action)
Object: poems (receives the action – i.e. gets written)
Learning to Use Lay or Lie is Easy!
The word lay should be used when there is an object receiving the action, i.e. something or someone is getting laid (down) by something or someone else.
I always lay my pencil by the phone.
I laid the book on that chair.
I am laying down the law.
Conversely, the word lie is used when there is no object involved, i.e. the subject of the sentence is doing the lying.
I lie down every afternoon.
The kitten lies there, dozing.
The dog is lying down.
Wait — There’s More
As with every rule, there are exceptions. Consider the following line: “Now I lay me down to sleep . . .” Well, in that sentence, the speaker (I) is laying himself or herself down. We don’t normally speak like this: I lay myself down. However, if you were to include yourself in a sentence as both as subject and object, you would use lay rather than lie.
Matters get even more confusing when we look at the past tenses of these verbs. For example, the past tense of to lie is lay:
Present tense: I am lying on my bed.
Past tense: I lay on my bed last night.
The past tense of lay is laid:
Present tense: I am laying my book right here.
Past tense: I laid my book right here yesterday.
Discerning between lay or lie is not an easy feat, but once you memorize the meanings and conjugations of these two oddly similar words, using them correctly will be a snap.
Do you have any tips for remembering whether a sentence calls for lay or lie? Are there any word pairs or grammar rules that confuse you? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
Occasionally, we come across the abbreviations i.e. and e.g., but what do they mean, and what is the difference between them? How do grammar rules apply?
These two terms originate in the Latin language and are just two of the many Latin phrases that have survived into modern language.
Both i.e. and e.g. are abbreviations for longer Latin phrases, so one of the smartest ways to memorize these terms is to learn what they stand for.
If you speak any of the Latin languages, you’ll have the upper hand in memorizing i.e. and e.g. And if you don’t speak any Latin languages, then here are some tips to help you better understand these two terms.
That is (i.e.)
Id est means that is. It can also mean in other words. According to our grammar rules, when this term is abbreviated, it is always written with periods between and after the letters: i.e., and it should always be followed by a comma, and then the remainder of the sentence. It often acts as a conjunction, linking two separate phrases or ideas together. It is interesting to note that the similar phrase il est is still fully alive in the French language, meaning he is or it is.
I am writing, i.e., I am putting my thoughts into words on paper.
I am writing, that is, I am putting my thoughts into words on paper.
For Example (e.g.)
Exempli gratia means for the sake of example, but we often construe it to simply mean for example. As with i.e., it is always written with periods between and after the letters when it is abbreviated. It is usually followed by a comma, but there may be exceptions based on context.
There are many Latin words and phrases that still exist in modern languages, e.g., carpe diem, which means “seize the day.”
There are many Latin words and phrases that still exist in modern languages, for example, carpe diem, which means “seize the day.”
Avoid a Mix-up: Tips for Remembering i.e. and e.g.
Abbreviated or not, these terms are not interchangeable. They simply do not mean the same thing. Still, they are often used in ways that are confusing, and since they look similar, they are easy to confuse. How to remember the difference?
These two abbreviations share the letter e. So, we must use the other letters, the i and the g, respectively, to remember which is which. The trick is to just remember one of them, and the easiest of the two is i.e., or that is.
If you can associate the i in i.e. with the word is, you’ll be fine, because e.g. doesn’t have the letter i, and neither does the phrase for example.
i.e. = that is
e.g. = for example
Another popular memory trick involves the made up word eggsample, which starts with e.g. and sounds a lot like example (as in “for example” or “for eggsample”), which, of course, is the meaning of e.g.).
Can you think of any other ways to easily remember i.e. and e.g.? Which Latin terms do you struggle with? Are there any grammar rules that confuse you? Leave a comment to share your thoughts or ask questions.
When we’re writing, we run into a lot of technical issues. Where do the quotation marks go? When is it correct to use a comma? How should titles be formatted?
Some of these questions are answered by the rules of grammar, spelling, and punctuation. But other questions are not addressed by grammar. There’s no official rule for how to format a title.
We writers need trusted resources that we can use to resolve all these issues, especially if we want to produce work that is both grammatically correct and stylistically consistent.
Style guides answer grammatical questions and provide guidelines for consistency. But there are lots of different style guides, from the The AP Stylebook to the The Chicago Manual of Style. Which one should you use?
Who Uses Style Guides?
- Students, scholars, and other members of academia
- Scientists, doctors, and those who work in specialized fields such as law or government
- Journalists and reporters
- Any writers who want their work to be consistent should use a style guide
What, Exactly, is a Style Guide?
A style guide is a manual that establishes rules for language, spelling, formatting, and punctuation. Within academia, these guides also provide standards for citations, references, and bibliographies. Many disciplines have their very own style guides, such as the Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association.
According to Wikipedia, “consistency is the major purpose of these style guides. They are rulebooks for writers, ensuring consistent language.”
These manuals promote good grammar and ensure consistency in areas where grammar is unclear. Style guides answer all those burly writing questions that are absent from the rules of grammar. Yet at the same time, the average style guide also answers those questions that deal specifically with the rules of good grammar. Basically, a style guide is an all-purpose writing resource.
Where Do I Get One?
You should be able to pick up any standard style guide at your local library or bookstore. University libraries and college bookstores should have a greater selection of specialized style guides. Of course, you can always order through Amazon or the online bookseller of your choice.
Many large companies and corporations use their own internal style guides, so if you are writing for a such an organization, they may need to provide you with their own style guide.
When is a Style Guide Appropriate?
A style guide is almost always appropriate. Since a style guide’s primary function is to render a work consistent and ensure good grammar, any work will benefit from its application. That includes creative writing, freelance writing, and blogging!
In many cases, a style guide is not only appropriate, it’s mandatory. If you’re writing for submission, it’s a good idea to check a publication’s submission guidelines to see if they require writers to use particular style guide.
Why Should I Use a Style Guide?
A style guide will make your work more consistent. Did you use a serial comma in the first paragraph, but leave it out in the third? Have you used italics in one post to refer to a book title, but in another post used quotation marks?
By establishing standards, a style guide will help you streamline your work. Once you are accustomed to using a particular set of guidelines, the writing process will flow more smoothly since you won’t have to stop and deliberate on grammar and style. Your readers will be pleased too, since inconsistency causes confusion.
How Do I Choose?
In many cases, the matter of which style guide to use is not up to the writer. As mentioned, publishers will provide guidelines explaining which style guide is required.
Most newspapers adhere to The Associated Press Stylebook on Briefing on Media Law (often called The AP Stylebook), whereas a small press publisher might ask you to use The Elements of Style (often referred to as Strunk and White). Professors and teachers generally require students to use the MLA Handbook for Writers of Research Papers, Sixth Edition.
What about freelance writers, bloggers, fiction writers, and everyone else?
The most popular style guide for general use is The Chicago Manual of Style, and this is also the style guide commonly used for manuscripts (i.e. novels and anthologies). Many other writing guides are based on Chicago or will defer to it for any areas of style that they do not specifically address. It covers formatting, includes rules for good grammar usage, and provides a roadmap that ensures your work is mechanically consistent.
For general use, Chicago is by far one of the best writing resources on the market, and for me, it’s been one of the best investments I’ve made for my own writing career.
Which Style Guide Should You Use?
If you’re writing for a newspaper, you might want to go with AP. I’m not a big fan of AP because much of their style is dictated by saving space for the printing press (thus the absence of the serial comma). I think Chicago is more useful for freelancing and copywriting as well as authoring and blogging.
However, having both won’t hurt, and any serious writer would be wise to start building a collection of style guides that might prove useful throughout the course of one’s career.
Do you use a style guide, and if so, which one? Are there other writing resources that you can’t live without? Share your favorites in the comments.
Many people don’t realize that these two words do not share the same meaning and therefore cannot be used interchangeably. As a result, both fewer and less are often used incorrectly.
The difference in meaning may be subtle, but it’s significant and remarkably easy to remember. Let’s see what Dictionary.com has to say about these two words:
fewer: adjective 1. of a smaller number: fewer words and more action.
less: adjective 1. smaller in size, amount, degree, etc.; not so large, great, or much: less money; less speed.
The grammar rules are clear; let me break them down for you.
Fewer or Less? Which is Correct?
Fewer and less respectively refer to a number of items or an amount of something. The easiest way to remember which of these adjectives to use in a given situation is this:
Fewer should be used when the items in question can be counted.
She has fewer books than her brother.
Less is used when the amount of something cannot be counted.
She has less interest in reading than her brother does.
Note that books can be counted item by item. However, interest is not a thing that can be counted, although we can discuss how much of it someone has.
The basic difference here is countability. Use fewer for countable nouns like individuals, cars, and pens. Use less for uncountable nouns such as love, time, and respect. Do note, however, that there are some sticky spots to watch out for when determining whether you should use fewer or less. For example, you might need less paper but you will need fewer sheets of paper. You have fewer pennies but less money. You want fewer chocolate bars but less candy.
Fewer or Less
Now you know how to tell the difference between fewer or less.
Do you have questions about correctly using fewer or less or any other word pairs? Maybe you have something to add to this linguistic look at tricky adjectives. Share your thoughts by leaving a comment and let’s discuss.
Proper capitalization is one of the cornerstones of good grammar, yet many people fling capital letters around carelessly.
Not every word deserves to be capitalized. It’s an honor that must be warranted, and in writing, capitalization is reserved only for special words.
Most of the grammar rules are explicit about which words should be capitalized. However, there are some cases (like title case) in which the rules are vague.
Capitalization of Titles
There are several contexts in which we can examine capitalization. When writing a title (of a blog post, for example), almost all the words in the title are capitalized. This is called title case.
Title case is used for titles of books, articles, songs, albums, television shows, magazines, movies…you get the idea.
Capitalization isn’t normally applied to every word in a title. Smaller words, such as a, an, and the are not capitalized. Some writers use a capitalization rule for only those words longer than three letters. Others stretch it to four.
There’s no fixed grammar rule for which words aren’t capitalized in a title, although they tend to be the smaller and more insignificant words; you should check your style guide for specific guidelines.
Capitalization of Acronyms
Every letter in an acronym should be capitalized, regardless of whether the words those letters represent start with capital letters:
- The acronym for Writing Forward would be WF.
- WYSIWYG is an acronym that stands for what you see is what you get. Although the words in the original phrase aren’t capitalized, every letter in the acronym is capitalized.
- Most people use acronyms heavily in text messaging and online messaging. In common usage, these acronyms are rarely capitalized: omg, btw, nsfw. However, if you were using these acronyms in a more formal capacity, they would be entirely capitalized: OMG, BTW, NSFW.
First Word of a Sentence
As I’m sure you know, grammar rules state that the first word in a sentence is always capitalized.
Capitalization of Proper Nouns
To keep things simple here today, we’ll refer to a noun as a person, place, or thing. You need not worry about the other parts of speech because only nouns are eligible for perennial capitalization.
There are two types of nouns that matter in terms of capitalization: proper nouns and common nouns. Proper nouns are the names of specific people, places, and things. Common nouns are all the other, nonspecific people, places, and things.
When considering whether to capitalize, ask whether the noun in question is specific. This will tell you if it’s a proper noun, which should be capitalized, or a common noun, which remains in all lowercase letters.
Proper Noun Capitalization Example
The word country is not specific. It could be any country. Even if you’re talking about the country in which you live, which is a specific country, the word itself could indicate any number of nations. So keep it lowercase because it’s a common noun.
Conversely, Chile is a specific country. You can tell because Chile is the name of a particular land in which people reside. When you discuss the people of that land, you won’t capitalize the word people. However, if you’re talking about Chileans, you definitely capitalize because Chileans are a very specific people, from a very specific country, Chile.
Hopefully that makes sense. If not, keep reading because I’m about to confuse you even more.
Capitalization of Web and Internet
Have you ever noticed the word Internet capitalized? How about the word Web? The linguistic jury is still out on these newfangled technology terms, but generally speaking, the Internet is one great big, specific place. The Web is just another word for that same place.
Wait — what about websites? Do they get capitalized? Only if you’re referring to the name of an actual site, like Writing Forward.
Capitalization of Web and Internet is not a hard and fast grammar rule. Lots of people write these words in all lowercase letters. If you’re not sure about whether to capitalize these words, check your style guide.
Common Capitalization Errors
Folks often think that capitalization should be applied to any word that’s deemed important. Here’s an example:
We sent the Product to the local Market in our last shipment. Have the Sales Force check to see if our Widgets are properly packaged.
It’s not uncommon, especially in business writing, to see nouns that are crucial to a company’s enterprise capitalized. This is technically incorrect but could be considered colloquial usage of a sort. Unless it’s mandated by a company style guide, avoid it.
Here’s correct capitalization of our example:
We sent the product to the local market in our last shipment. Have the sales force check to see if our widgets are properly packaged.
Now, in a rewrite of the example, some of the words will be again capitalized, but only if they are changed into proper nouns (names or titles of things and people).
We sent the Widgetbusters (TM) to WidgetMart in our last shipment. Have Bob, Sales Manager, check to see if our widgets are properly packaged.
What about Capitalization for Job Titles?
Ah, this one’s tricky. Job titles are only capitalized when used as part of a specific person’s title:
- Have you ever met a president?
- Did you vote for president?
- Do you want to become the president?
- Nice to meet you, Mr. President.
- He once saw President Obama in a restaurant.
Again, this has to do with specificity. “The president” or “a president” could be any president, even if in using the phrase, it’s obvious by context who you mean. However “Mr. President” or “President Obama” are specific individuals and they call for capitalization.
Do you have any questions about grammar rules regarding capitalization? Any additional tips to add? Leave a comment!
I recently started relearning how to play the guitar after a rather long hiatus. It’s not like I ever learned how to play it properly in the first place — so I’m a true beginner. And at times, I find it frustrating. I just want to pick the thing up and rip out a song, but I’m constantly tripping over my own fingers, and let’s not even talk about the pain that comes from pressing your fingertips against thick metal strings, repeatedly and for extended periods of time.
Writing’s not so different from playing the guitar. Sometimes we get hung up on the technicalities of the language, and the creative flow is hindered. It’s not easy to rip out a short story when you’re worrying about whether you can end a sentence with a preposition or whether your terminal punctuation marks go inside or outside of the quotation marks. These kinds of setbacks can be painful.
Learning the rules is a drag when you want to fly, but to master any craft, it’s essential to build a solid foundation. Learn the basics; memorize and practice them until they become second nature, and then you can really take off.
Good Grammar and Writing
You don’t have to learn good grammar in order to write — just like you don’t have to learn how to read music to play the guitar — but it sure helps if you want to make music instead of a bunch of noise. Your poem might be captivating, your short story compelling, and your essay might be a veritable masterpiece…when read aloud. But if in writing, the grammar is shoddy, you’re going to have a hard time getting published or finding readers.
Even with years of practice and learning, questions about grammar continue to arise. I’ve seen college professors (who taught English) wonder about the rules of good grammar or turn to a handy reference book to look something up.
That’s why I believe that good grammar is a commitment, and for writers, it’s a lifelong commitment. It’s not what makes a writer, but lack of good grammar can definitely break a writer.
The Grammar Lifestyle
I’ve always been interested in grammar and being able to write well. But since I launched this blog back in 2007, I’ve become increasingly dedicated to understanding grammar. Oh, I break the rules from time to time, but I least I know which rules I’m breaking and why.
Today, I thought I’d share some tips for making good grammar part of your daily life. These tips are taken from my own experience, habits, and practices. All of them have helped me expand my grammar skills and become a better writer.
- Stop being lazy: When you’re not sure if the way you’ve written a sentence is correct, take a couple of minutes to look it up instead of rewriting it or hoping for the best.
- Invest in writing tools and resources: These include reference books that deal with grammar and style. My personal favorite is The Chicago Manual of Style.
- Make it a chore: Some chores you do every day, while others can be tackled weekly or monthly. Set a schedule for regular grammar lessons and stick to it. They don’t have to be long. You can learn something valuable in five short minutes!
- Talk about it: Turn your grammar questions into conversations. Ask others how they use language. Oddly, I find that even non-writers are interested in basic grammar questions. And if you can’t find anyone who wants to discuss good grammar, take your conversation online. Remember you should always use a credible resource, but discussing grammar-related issues is an ideal way to learn the nuances, intricacies, and to gain broader understanding.
- Put it to practice: Every time you learn something new, incorporate it into your writing until it becomes second nature.
Good Grammar for Writers
Writing isn’t really about grammar; it’s about communication. A writer’s job is to share ideas, inform, and entertain. Yet grammar is essential to clear writing. If you write without understanding grammar, it’s like playing a game without learning the rules. You’ll be all over the place, your performance will be a big mess, and you won’t have a very good shot at winning.
So, make good grammar part of your daily life. Get it into your routine, and embrace it as part of the work you have to do in order to write well.