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 often leads to prose that sounds more natural.
An example of a 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.
On the other hand, a guideline is a best practice. It’s not a rule; it’s a rule of thumb. An example of a grammatical guideline would be don’t end a sentence with a preposition. In fact, this guideline is commonly mistaken for a rule when in fact, it’s not. There are plenty of sentence constructs where the only sensible thing to do is end a sentence with a preposition.
Grammar Rules, Guidelines, and the Evolution of Language
Unfortunately, guidelines are often confused for rules. They are taught in schools and propagated through editors and armchair grammarians.
It’s important to understand that grammar, in general, is a form of consensus. When we all agree on how language should be structured, it’s much easier to communicate clearly and effectively.
Language is a living, breathing thing, and it evolves over time. Today’s rules are tomorrow’s guidelines, and in a few years they may fall out of practice altogether.
Guidelines Often Mistaken for Grammar Rules
Let’s look at a few guidelines that are widely misunderstood as rules. Warning: Proceed with caution when you flout these guidelines. As mentioned, grammar is a consensus, so there are still a lot of people who believe these are hard-and-fast rules. In fact, some of these guidelines may have once been grammar rules.
Split Infinitives: This myth states that you should not split an infinitive with an adverb. An infinitive is a basic form of a verb. If the verb is go, then the infinitive is to go. The guideline against splitting infinitives says that we shouldn’t insert the adverb between the words to and go. We would say “to go boldly” instead of “to boldly go.” But this isn’t a rule at all, so split your infinitives whenever it makes sense to do so.
Ending a Sentence with a Preposition: This non-rule, which says you must never end a sentence with a preposition, is one of my pet peeves because when you press a sentence that would naturally end with a preposition into this so-called rule, you end up with something that sounds forced, outdated, and uncomfortable. Consider the following sentence: To which store are you going? While this sentence adheres to the guideline, it sounds pretentious and would feel awkward coming from anyone under the age of two hundred. For prose that sounds natural and normal, use Which store are you going to?
Verbing Nouns: This annoys a lot of people, but I think it’s exciting to see new words emerge. A classic example is the use of the verb googling, which is derived from the proper noun, Google. We have to be careful here. If a perfectly suitable verb already exists, there’s really no reason to clutter up the language by creating a second verb with the same meaning. But as new technology emerges, like text messaging, it makes sense that we’ll create verbs like texting.
Starting a Sentence with a Conjunction: This can become a bad habit if left unchecked and can result in run-on sentences comprised of multiple clauses linked together by any of the four major conjunctions (and, or, but, and yet). Many sentences simply sound better when they stand alone as opposed to being linked by conjunctions. Consider the following: My friends are going to the football game, and I don’t want to go. This expression actually works better without the conjunction: My friends are going to the football game. I don’t want to go. Oftentimes, starting a sentence with a conjunction adds a punch to the prose: My friends are going to the football game. But I don’t want to go.
Using Whom in the Twenty-First Century: Whom is one of those words that has been pushed to near-extinction by the evolution of the English language. Nobody says, “To whom is this letter addressed?” We say, “Who is this letter addressed to?” (Ah, there’s a preposition at the end of that perfectly acceptable sentence!) There was a time when whom had its place in the rule book, but those days are long gone. Unless you want to sound like you just stumbled out of the eighteenth century, you should probably avoid it.
Using They for a Generic Singular Pronoun: This is a tough one that is in wide use but still sounds odd to many ears. If we’re talking about a generic person, the old practice was to default to the male singular pronoun. Here’s an example: If a reader likes your book cover, he is more likely to buy your book. We don’t know the actual gender of the generic reader. But using the male default was a biased approach that marginalized females by creating a sense that everybody was male. Many solutions have been offered, ranging from alternating between he and she to coming up with a brand-new, genderless generic pronoun for such cases. However, the most widely adopted practice has been to use they as follows: If a reader likes your book cover, they are more likely to buy your book. Although it sounds odd, it will likely come to sound normal as it’s used more often. Also, I would offer another solution, which would be to simply use plural generic nouns and pronouns whenever possible: If readers like your book cover, they are more likely to buy your book. Problem solved!
Final tip: Again, these are still best practices. If you can write a sentence without pinning a preposition to the end, then by all means, follow that guideline.
Can you think of any other guidelines that are often presented as hard grammar rules? What about grammar rules and constructs that have faded out of common use? Are there any rules or guidelines that grate on your nerves? Which ones do you break and why?
Fact verification: Grammar Girl
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 simple, 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:
- I want the bucket that has apples in it.
If you removed the clause “that has apples in it,” the meaning of the sentence would be lost. Nobody would know which bucket the speaker wants. 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 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 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 the subject as the giver or doer of an action and the 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 lying itself (down).
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.
It’s a battle between words: fewer vs. less. Are they interchangeable? Do these words have different meanings? How can we use them correctly?
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 vs. 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 vs. 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!
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-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-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:
|Present||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.
|Present||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 teenager 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 sentences 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, the words further and farther 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 further vs. farther mystery 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.
Further vs. Farther
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 further vs. farther 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 further and farther, then please do tell!
Do you have questions about any grammar rules? Are there any word pairs, like further vs. farther, that confound you? Leave a comment!