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. Read more
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. Read more
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. Read more
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. Read more
The rule is simple: singular subjects take singular verbs and plural subjects take plural verbs.
But sometimes it’s difficult to tell whether a subject is singular or plural. That’s why subject and verb agreement errors crop up in so many pieces of writing.
Making matters worse is the fact that most people don’t know what subject and verb agreement means. In fact, too many people don’t know a subject from a verb.
When you’re fixing up your sentences and making sure they are correct, it helps to know the parts of speech, how to conjugate a verb, and how to diagram a sentence (so you can identify the subject). If you understand all those basic elements of language, then you can easily make sure your subjects and verbs agree.
Parts of Speech: Verbs
Traditionally, there are eight parts of speech: nouns, verbs, adjectives, adverbs, pronouns, prepositions, conjunctions, and interjections. As a writer, you should be able to identify all of these words in any sentence. For our purposes today, we’re only concerned with verbs.
Verbs are action words: write, walk, run, dance, do, be, sit, listen, fidget, and contemplate are just a few verbs in the English language.
There are two types of verbs: regular verbs and irregular verbs. All verbs get conjugated based on the subject of the sentence, which is the thing or person doing the action. Here’s how the regular verb dance is conjugated:
|He, She, It||dances|
In some languages, there are more variances in regular verb conjugations.
All regular verbs follow this same template for conjugation. Past tense takes -ed, present participle takes -ing, and so on. However, irregular verbs are a little more challenging. Each one has its own unique conjugation system. Let’s take a look at the conjugation for the irregular verb write.
|He, She, It||writes|
As you can see, past tense and past participle render wholly new spellings (whereas regular verbs simply tack -ed to the end of the word). Keep in mind that each irregular verb has its own rules of conjugation. For a more elaborate conjugation of the verb write, check out this chart.
Identifying the Subject of a Sentence
Every proper sentence must have a subject and a verb. The most basic example would be I write, which is a complete and correct sentence. As mentioned, the verb is the action word (write). The subject is the word that does the action (I). In the sentence I write, the subject is I because that’s who is doing the writing.
Let’s get a little more elaborate. Take a look at the following sentence:
I write poems.
If I is the subject (doing the action) and write is the verb (the action), then poems is the object, which is receiving the action.
As you can see with the section on conjugation, different verbs will be used in a sentence depending on the subject. You can say I write but you’re not supposed to say I writes or I writing. If you do, then your subject and verb do not agree. You can say She writes books, but you can’t say She write books or She writed books.
We don’t see a lot of mistakes with basic subject-verb agreement. In fact, such mistakes are rare for native English speakers. Kids and people who are learning English often have trouble with subject-verb agreement. And these mistakes aren’t limited to English. I made plenty of errors with subject-verb agreement as a young adult learning French. It’s especially problematic when irregular verbs are involved.
Easy as it seems, there are common mistakes in subject-verb agreement. Which sentence below is correct?
1. Each of the students write a book.
2. Each of the students writes a book.
If you guessed sentence number two, you guessed correctly. The following subjects all use the singular verb form: each, everyone, everybody, nobody and someone.
What about compound subjects? Which sentence below is correct?
1. My niece and nephew dance.
2. My niece and nephew dances.
The correct sentence is number one. An easy way to remember this is to replace the subject with a pronoun. In this case, “niece and nephew” would be replaced with they: They dance.
The words either and neither present an interesting challenge. Only one of the following sentences is correct:
1. Either my sister or my brother write.
2. Neither my sister nor my brother writes.
Number two is correct. With either and neither, we use the singular form of the verb. Unless one of the subjects is plural:
1. Either my sister or her friends dance.
2. Neither my sister nor her friends dances.
In this special case, the subject closest to the verb drives whether the verb is singular or plural. Since “friends” is plural, we use the plural form of dance. In this case, we replace “friends” with they to get They dance. The correct sentence is number one.
As you write, you will inevitably come across puzzling constructions involving subject-verb agreement. Here’s one last challenge for you to consider:
1. The team had a meeting. They decided to extend the deadline.
2. The team had a meeting. It decided to extend the deadline.
3. The team members had a meeting. They decided to extend the deadline.
How many of these paragraphs are correct?
A longstanding grammar myth says we’re not supposed to end a sentence with a preposition. For years, this myth has persisted, tying writers up in knots and making their heads spin around sentences that simply must end with a preposition.
For example: Which store are you going to?
Folks who were taught (and are now attached to the idea) that one should never end a sentence with a preposition will argue that the proper way to write the sentence is as follows: To which store are you going?
But nobody talks that way.
Grammar rules and myths
In the world of writing, grammar myths abound, but where do they come from? I suspect they are born not out of rules but out of rules of thumb. In many cases, it’s not a good idea to end a sentence with a preposition. Allow me to demonstrate:
Where do you work at?
The problem here is not so much that the sentence ends with a preposition. It ends with a completely unnecessary word. Remove that last word and you get a much clearer, more concise, and correct sentence:
Where do you work?
This begs the question: when is it acceptable to end a sentence with a preposition? In fact, what is a preposition?
What is a preposition?
Prepositions are one of the traditional eight parts of speech in the English language. They usually indicate a direction or placement in space (in, on, toward) or perform a similar function in a more abstract and less spatial way (of, for). They tend to indicate a relationship or movement of some kind:
The book is in my hand.
Put the blanket over the bed.
Let’s go to the hall of mirrors.
I have something for you.
The pens are with the paper.
Some of the most common prepositions are: on, in, to, by, for, with, at, of, from, as, under, over, about, above, below, behind, and between. There are plenty more, but you get the idea.
By the way, you can learn a lot more than you ever wanted to know about prepositions on Wikipedia.
When is it okay to end a sentence with a preposition?
If you’ve structured your sentence as concisely as possible, removed any unnecessary words, and the only way to refrain from ending it with a preposition is to make it sound like it arrived in a time machine from the eighteenth century, then you’re probably okay keeping the preposition at the end:
Who are you going with?
What are you waiting for?
We need something to put it in.
As you can see, these are all standard sentences. They adhere to the rules of grammar yet they all end in prepositions. Just try rewriting them without prepositions at the end:
With whom are you going?
For what are you waiting?
We need something in which to put it.
These are all technically correct too, if you don’t mind sounding like you were born three hundred years ago.
Try it for yourself
Take a look at the following sentence:
There’s an idea I never thought of.
There’s nothing technically wrong with the sentence, but we could rewrite it so it doesn’t end with a preposition:
I never thought of that idea.
Which one sounds better to you?
Grammar and common sense
The issue with ending a sentence with a preposition is more a matter of style or rhetoric than grammar. If you want proof, check out this list of references on ending a sentence with a preposition.
So go forth and end sentences with prepositions, but only when it makes sense to do so. Write your sentences to be clear and concise, and you’ll be fine. Keep writing!
Believe it or not, farther and further each have distinctly different meanings although people tend to use them interchangeably.
And it’s no surprise, because these two words look alike, sound alike, and the difference in meaning is quite subtle. Plus, there are a few circumstances when they are legitimately interchangeable.
Let’s solve the farther, further mystery for once and for all.
The word farther deals with physical distance, which can be measured. One way to remember this is to recall the phrase “far away.”
- I jog a little farther each day.
- Do you live farther away from the city now?
- The library is farther from my house than the bookstore.
Notice that in all of these examples, the word farther refers to a distance that can be measured.
Further also deals with distance, but not in the physical sense. We use further when we’re talking about figurative distance or a general advancement. Further also indicates a greater degree of something. Some terms that are synonymous with further include furthermore, moreover, and in addition.
Here are examples of how to use further correctly in a sentence:
- I’ll be delving further into the topic at a later date.
- I am further along in my holiday shopping than I was last year at this time.
- Further, I intend to finish my shopping before the end of the week.
Notice that in these sentences, further refers to distances that cannot be measured.
Farther / Further
In some cases, you can use either of these words, especially when the distinction isn’t clear. For example, if you are discussing a book, you could argue that there is physical distance between the pages that can be measured. However, since the distance between pages is not geographical in nature, usage of farther or further is ambiguous. When it’s not completely clear which word to use, you can choose either one, though it’s usually safer to go with further because it has less restriction that its cousin.
- I’m further along in the book than other members of my book club.
- The other members of my book club are further along in the book than I am.
If you have any tips for remembering how to correctly use the words farther and further, then please do tell!
Do you have questions about grammar rules? Are there any word pairs that confound you? Leave a comment with your suggestions for grammar topics!
The more experience I gain as a writer, the more I’m convinced that writing is one of the most difficult skills to master. It’s not enough to tell a great story, share an original idea, or create an intriguing poem; writers are also obligated to pay diligence to the craft. While the content (or message) of our writing is paramount, the way we use language can be just as critical.
Bad grammar is a distraction. If you can write a riveting story, readers will probably overlook a few grammatical problems. However, each mistake or incorrect construction will momentarily yank readers out of the story. Sure, they can jump back in, but it makes for a negative or unpleasant reading experience.
Good craftsmanship involves more than simply knowing the grammar rules or adhering to a style guide. It includes making smart word choices, constructing sentences that flow smoothly, and writing in a way that is neither awkward nor confusing.
10 Vital Grammar Rules and Best Writing Practices
The best writing follows the rules of grammar (or breaks those rules only with good reason) and is clear, coherent, and consistent.
In my work as a writing coach and as an avid reader, I see a lot of the same mistakes. These mistakes aren’t typos or occasional oversights. They appear repeatedly, among multiple writers and pieces of writing, and they make it weak or dull.
Most writers don’t want their work to be weak or dull. We want our writing to be strong and vibrant. If we learn the grammar rules and adopt best practices in the craft, our writing can shine.
Here are ten of most frequently ignored (or unknown) grammar rules and writing practices:
- Commas: except for the period, the comma is the most common punctuation mark and the most misused. It’s a tricky one because the rules are scarce, leaving usage up to style guides and writers’ best judgement. In weak writing, there are too few or too many commas. Be consistent in how you use commas and strike the right balance.
- Avoid weak words: very, really, and the verbs to be, to have, and to do are often markers of weak, amateur writing. Sometimes, we need to use these words, but there is often a more specific or vivid word available.
- Verb and tense agreement: these errors are often the result of shoddy editing and proofreading. A sentence that was originally in perfect past tense is changed to simple past tense but one of the words in the sentence is overlooked and you end up with something like She went the store and had shopped for produce. Another example would be The cats has one bowl.
- Stay away from passive voice: avoid passive constructions like The book was read by the girl. Passive voice is awkward, renders unnecessary verbiage, and sounds old-fashioned. Active voice is better: The girl read the book.
- Check your homophones: homophones are little devils because spell check won’t catch them and they often sneak past editor’s eyes. Too many youngsters aren’t taught proper homophone use (in other words, they don’t know spellings or definitions of their vocabulary). From common sets of homophones like they’re, their, and there to more advanced words like complement and compliment, it pays to learn proper usage and to proofread meticulously.
- Rare or uncommon punctuation marks: if you decide to use a punctuation mark like the ellipsis (three dots) or semicolon (comma with a period over it), then take the time to learn what it’s called and how to use it properly.
- Watch your pronouns: too many pronouns in a sentence cause confusion and makes it difficult for the reader to keep track of who is saying and doing what. Use the noun or name first in a paragraph, then use pronouns to refer back to whomever (or whatever) you’re talking about.
- Only proper nouns are capitalized: for some reason, a lot of people have taken it upon themselves to freely capitalize any words they think are important, a practice that is rampant in business writing. The Product is on Sale Now is not a grammatically correct sentence.
- Extraneous words (verbiage): verbiage is not text or writing; it is extraneous, unnecessary language. The best sentences and paragraphs contain only words that are absolutely necessary. They communicate as simply and straightforwardly as possible. Keep it simple and edit the excess!
- Consistency is key: the grammar rules don’t cover everything. As a writer, you will constantly be challenged to make judicious decisions about how to construct your sentences and paragraphs. Always be consistent. Keeping a style guide handy will be a tremendous help.
Of course, this list is just a taste of grammar rules and best writing practices that are often overlooked. What are some of the most common grammatical errors you’ve observed? Do you have any best writing practices to share? Leave a comment!
Accomplished writers respect the rules of grammar the way an acrobat respects the tightrope — grammar might be intimidating and complicated, but we need it in order to perform.
Yet sometimes, an acrobat takes her foot off the tightrope. She does a flip or some other trick of physical prowess that seems to defy the laws of gravity and exceed the potential of the human body.
Grammar rules lend structure and clarity to our writing and gives us common ground rules that we can use to communicate clearly and effectively, just like the tightrope gives the acrobat a foundation upon which to walk.
So when does a writer take her foot off the rules of grammar so she can perform spectacular tricks?
Good Grammar in Poetry Writing
I’m often asked by writers and poets how they should handle grammar, capitalization, and punctuation in poetry. When it comes to grammar rules, is poetry writing the exception?
Many poets demonstrate grammatical expertise, neatly parking periods and commas in their designated spaces and paying homage to proper capitalization.
Consider the following poem and how it follows the rules of grammar. Note that in poetry writing, the traditional rule is that the first letter of each line is capitalized regardless of whether or not it starts a new sentence.
Aunt Jennifer’s Tigers
By Adrienne Rich
Aunt Jennifer’s tigers prance across a screen,
Bright topaz denizens of a world of green.
They do not fear the men beneath the tree;
They pace in sleek chivalric certainty.
Aunt Jennifer’s finger fluttering through her wool
Find even the ivory needle hard to pull.
The massive weight of Uncle’s wedding band
Sits heavily upon Aunt Jennifer’s hand.
When Aunt is dead, her terrified hands will lie
Still ringed with ordeals she was mastered by.
The tigers in the panel that she made
Will go on prancing, proud and unafraid.
Writing Poetry Without Grammar Rules
Poets don’t always follow the rules, which is why poetry is attractive to writers who are especially creative, rebellious, and enjoy coloring outside the lines.
Grammar rules, particularly spelling and punctuation, are nothing more than a creative tool for many poets who choose to dismiss these rules altogether or use the them to decorate and add aesthetic elements to a poem.
Many poets have skirted grammar with great success. Many more have failed. E.E. Cummings is well known for giving grammar the proverbial finger, but he takes his anarchy one step further and actually alters basic sentence structure, and manages to do so quite effectively.
anyone lived in a pretty how town
By ee cummings
anyone lived in a pretty how town
(with up so floating many bells down)
spring summer autumn winter
he sang his didn’t he danced his did.
Women and men (both little and small)
cared for anyone not at all
they sowed their isn’t they reaped their same
sun moon stars rain
children guessed (but only a few
and down they forgot as up they grew
autumn winter spring summer)
that noone loved him more by more
when by now and tree by leaf
she laughed his joy she cried his grief
bird by snow and stir by still
anyone’s any was all to her
someones married their everyones
laughed their cryings and did their dance
(sleep wake hope and then)they
said their nevers they slept their dream
stars rain sun moon
(and only the snow can begin to explain
how children are apt to forget to remember
with up so floating many bells down)
one day anyone died i guess
(and noone stooped to kiss his face)
busy folk buried them side by side
little by little and was by was
all by all and deep by deep
and more by more they dream their sleep
noone and anyone earth by april
with by spirit and if by yes.
Women and men (both dong and ding)
summer autumn winter spring
reaped their sowing and went their came
sun moon stars rain
Cummings has dismissed capital letters altogether and he uses punctuation seemingly at random. Yet the poem works. Imagine it with the proper grammar rules applied and you’ll quickly realize that his way is more effective for this piece and what he’s trying to accomplish with language.
Poetry Writing – Where Rules and Creativity Cooperate or Collide
As the poetry canon grows beyond measure, poets increasingly reach for creative devices to make their work stand out.
Toying with grammar rules is one such device, but it is not something that can be approached carelessly. If you choose to forgo the rules because you don’t know them rather than as a creative technique, your lack of knowledge will show and the poem will present as amateurish. Of course, that’s true for all types of writing: learn the rules, and only after you have learned them, go ahead and break them.
I salute anyone who breaks the rules in the interest of art and great poetry writing just as much as I admire poets who craft meter and verse within the confines of grammar. So for this language-loving poet, either way is the right way. Walk the tight rope or jump from it and see if you can fly.
What are your thoughts on applying grammar rules to poetry writing? Are you a stickler for good grammar, even in your creative or experimental work, or do you like to bend and break the rules? Share your thoughts in the comments.
It’s important that we, as writers, know the tools of our trade. Part of our job is to understand the mechanics of language, which includes grammar rules. Yet many writers find themselves asking…
What are split infinitives?
It’s a term that grammarians and linguists throw around a lot, yet few people, including writers, seem to know what it means.
According to Wikipedia:
A split infinitive or cleft infinitive is an English-language grammatical construction in which a word or phrase, usually an adverb or adverbial phrase, comes between the marker to and the bare infinitive (uninflected) form of a verb.
So, what’s an infinitive? What’s a bare infinitive? Understanding these terms will help us figure out what split infinitives are.
An infinitive, or bare infinitive is a simple form of a verb. Examples include write, go, talk, sit, and understand.
When a participle, such as to, appears before an infinitive, it is then referred to as a full infinitive. Examples include to write, to go, to talk, to sit, and to understand.
So, how do we get split infinitives?
Infinitives become split infinitives when another word is inserted between the participle (also called a marker) and the bare infinitive:
We want to truly understand English grammar.
In the example above, the participle is to and the bare infinitive is understand. The full infinitive to understand is split by the adverb truly.
That’s simple enough. So, what’s the fuss?
As split infinitives became more popular in the 19th century, some grammatical authorities sought to introduce a prescriptive rule against them. The construction is still the subject of disagreement among native English speakers as to whether refraining from split infinitives is grammatically correct or good style.
In 1926, Henry Fowler wrote, “No other grammatical issue has so divided English speakers since the split infinitive was declared to be a solecism in the 19c: raise the subject of English usage in any conversation today and it is sure to be mentioned.” (source: Wikipedia)
Today, however, most linguists agree that split infinitives are acceptable.
Grammar Rules, Style, and Split Infinitives
While the grammar rules regarding split infinitives are being debated, style dictates that we write our sentences to be clear and consistent. Let’s take another look at our example sentence, but let’s move the adverb so our infinitive is no longer split:
We truly want to understand English grammar.
Note that this sentence sounds clearer, but we’ve changed the meaning. In the original example sentence, the adverb truly modified the phrase to understand. Here, it modifies want. When splitting infinitives, we need to make sure the word doing the splitting is modifying the right words in the sentence.
Let’s rewrite the sentence while keeping the meaning intact:
We want to master English grammar.
Here, the split infinitive to truly understand is replaced with stronger, more precise wording. Instead of truly understanding English grammar, we want to master it! This sentence is far clearer than the original. It has more punch, it doesn’t include a (somewhat questionable) split infinitive, and it communicates the exact same idea.
Split infinitives can sound awkward or clumsy when there’s a simpler, clearer way to construct the sentence.
The Final Frontier
One of the most famous of all split infinitives occurs in the opening sequence of Star Trek:
“Space: the final frontier. These are the voyages of the starship Enterprise. Its five-year mission: to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before.” – Captain James T. Kirk
If you can find the participle (marker), the bare infinitive (simple form of the verb), and the adverb (which is causing the split) in the excerpt above, then you’re up to speed on split infinitives. Finally, ask yourself how it could be rewritten without the split infinitive. Does it sound better or worse?
Now you know all about split infinitives. You know:
- What split infinitives are
- How to identify split infinitives
- Split infinitives are acceptable, but
- Split infinitives can make a piece of writing awkward, so
- Use split infinitives with care
Do you better understand split infinitives? Have anything to add? Do you have any questions about these or other grammar rules? Share your thoughts by leaving a comment.
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.
That and Which
As with most grammar rules, there are exceptions and exemptions from the standard ways that and which should be used in a sentence. To gain understanding of confusing word pairs, it’s always best to start with the basics. As we look at how to properly use that and which, we’ll focus on basic, standard usage.
That and which can be categorized into several different parts of speech. Both words can function as adjectives and pronouns. Additionally, that can serve as a conjunction and as an adverb. Today, we’re looking at how that and which should be used when they are working as relative pronouns.
From Wikipedia: “A relative pronoun is a pronoun that marks a relative clause within a larger sentence. It is called a relative pronoun because it relates to the word that it modifies.”
Like adjectives and adverbs, relative pronouns modify other words. Adjectives modify nouns:
- I have a car.
- I have a red car.
Adverbs modify verbs:
- I am walking.
- I am walking quickly.
The main difference between adjectives and adverbs is that adjectives usually modify things (nouns) while adverbs modify actions (verbs). Relative pronouns also modify words, but they often do so as clauses rather than as single, descriptive words. In the examples below, the clauses are italicized.
- Bring me the bucket.
- Bring me the bucket that has apples in it.
- The bucket, which has apples in it, is blue.
The difference between the words that and which, and how they are used as relative pronouns, depends on whether the clause they belong to is restrictive or nonrestrictive.
Restrictive and Nonrestrictive Clauses
Restrictive Clauses Are Necessary
A restrictive clause is necessary to the meaning of a sentence. For example:
- The bucket that has apples in it is the one I want.
If you removed the clause “that has apples in it,” the meaning of the sentence would be lost. The clause is necessary to the meaning of the sentence and is therefore a restrictive clause. Because it’s a restrictive clause, it should take the relative pronoun that.
Nonrestrictive Clauses are Unnecessary
A nonrestrictive clause is not necessary to the meaning of a sentence. In fact, it can be removed from a sentence without affecting its meaning. For example:
- The bucket, which is blue, has apples in it.
- There are apples in the bucket, which is blue.
If you removed the nonrestrictive clause “which is blue,” from either of the sentences above, the meaning of the sentences would not be lost. We’d still know that the bucket has apples in it. Note that in the second example, the nonrestrictive clause adds information about something that has already been identified. Because the clause is unnecessary to the meaning of the sentence, we know it’s a nonrestrictive clause, and therefore should take the relative pronoun which.
- Use that before a restrictive clause.
- Use which before a nonrestrictive clause.
The Easy Way to Remember the Difference Between That and Which
I Needed That
If you need the clause to maintain a sentence’s meaning, then use that. A quick trick for remembering this grammar rule is the phrase “I needed that.”
Because which is also an interrogative pronoun used to mark questions, it is questionable. You can take it or leave it. It’s not necessary. Think of the word which with a question mark (which?) to remind yourself that if the clause’s presence is questionable and can be removed, then you should use the word which to introduce the clause.
Exceptions and Notes
Here are some exceptions and notes to these rules.
- Which can be used restrictively when it’s preceded by a preposition. For example, “The bucket in which the apples have been stored is blue.”
- Which is almost always preceded by a comma, parenthesis, or a dash.
- In British English, there is little distinction between that and which.
Has this article helped clarify any questions you’ve had about grammar rules? Do you have any other questions about that and which? Do you have any tips to share for remembering how to use these two words? Leave a comment.
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 can pose a problem, especially if you’re writing for an erudite audience or if you are a stickler for using words properly and adhering to all known grammar rules.
In the example above, the second sentence (Who did you send those letters to?) breaches the standards set forth by proper grammar by ending a sentence with a preposition, and it breaks the rules of usage in the ongoing battle of who vs. whom.
Here are the two grammar rules violated by our example sentence:
- It ends with a preposition
- It uses who where whom is the correct interrogative pronoun
It’s worth noting that many grammarians today are increasingly granting exception to ending sentences with prepositions. As more and more writers and speakers place prepositions at the end of sentences, the practice is becoming more and 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 are 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 (Ph.D, 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).
So, 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) 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!