Fix These 16 Potholes on Grammar Street

Don’t worry. I hated grade school grammar as much as the next guy. Still, as a magazine editor and, later, as a freelance book editor and (now) literary agent, I have come across far too many grammatical and usage mistakes in writing submitted to me. Not all of us can be Strunk or White (though every writer should own their valuable book, The Elements of Style). But we can profit from a little attention to the most common trouble spots:

  1. It’s and its. It’s (with an apostrophe) always means “it is,” and its is the possessive form of it (“its jaws gaped”). This is easy to remember; the apostrophe indicates a contraction, so remember what it contracts.
  2. Affect and effect. Affect is always a verb meaning to “cause a response” or to “pretend or assume a manner.” Effect can be a noun (a result or accomplishment) or a verb meaning “to bring about” (“the new manager will effect many changes”).
  3. Was and were. Of course it’s I was/you were/we were. But a problem usually arises between the subjunctive and indicative moods (yeah, I don’t know what that means, either). I’ll let Harry Shaw explain, in his Dictionary of Problem Words and Expressions: “Use were (the subjunctive), not was (the indicative), in such sentences as: ‘Suppose he were to arrive now’ (supposition). ‘He drank ale as if it were going to be prohibited forever’ (an improbable condition). ‘Roberta wishes that she were going to be invited’ (desire).” I wish it were a little easier, but there it is.
  4. Possessive forms. With the exception of Jesus’ and (sometimes) Moses’, when a singular noun ends in “s,” add ’s (Charles’s friend, Burns’s poems).
  5. Agreement between nouns and pronouns. One of the most common usage errors I see is the use of a plural pronoun which has a singular antecedent (e.g., “If the customer insists on a refund, they should be given one” should be: “If the customer insists on a refund, he or she should be given one” or “If customers insist on refunds, they should be given them”). I know, some people say that “the customer/they” is okay nowadays, but they are wrong. All of them.
  6. Subject/verb agreement. If the subject is singular, the verb must be singular—no matter how many words are between them. Strunk and White use the example: “The bittersweet flavor of youth—its trials, its joys, its adventures, its challenges—is not soon forgotten.” Just take out the interrupting phrase and the correct word becomes clear.
  7. A participial phrase at the beginning of a sentence. For example, “Walking slowly down the road, a tree loomed in front of him” should be changed to something like “Walking slowly down the road, he saw a tree looming in front of him.” The participial phrase should be related clearly to its subject.
  8. Parallelism. The sentence, “My objections are, first, the injustice of the measure; second, that it is unconstitutional” should become “My objections are, first, that the measure is unjust; second, that it is unconstitutional” (Strunk,p. 28). Or “My objections are, first, the injustice of the measure; second, its unconstitutionality.” Yeah, Strunk’s version is better.
  9. The word only. The placement of the word only is often a danger spot. For example, in the sentence, “I only wanted an ice cream cone,” the word modifies wanted. It indicates that I didn’t need an ice cream cone; I only wanted it. But the sentence, “I wanted only an ice cream cone” (with only modifying ice cream cone) indicates that I didn’t want more than an ice cream cone—certainly not an ice cream cone and a float as well. In the sentence, “Only I wanted an ice cream cone,” only modifies the word I. Thus, the sentence indicates that only I—no one else—wanted an ice cream cone. If only people would keep this straight.
  10. Accept and except. Accept means “receive” or “agree with” (“I accept your proposal”). As a verb, except means to omit or exclude (“We’ve been excepted from the list”); as a preposition, it means “other than” (“Everyone except me knew the answer”). Except should never be a conjunction (“I won’t go except you go, too”), except in dialogue.
  11. Alright and All right. Alright is not a word. It is not all right to use alright. All right?
  12. Feel and think. Current usage often uses “feel” rather than “think” (as in, “I feel our president is doing a good job”). However, they are not interchangeable. Feel indicates emotion, think suggests reason (“I feel grateful to have you as my mentor, because I think you have a lot to teach me”).
  13. Imply and infer. Shaw writes, “To imply is to suggest a meaning only hinted at, not explicitly stated. To infer is to draw a conclusion from statements, evidence, or circumstances.” Speakers imply; listeners (or observers) infer.
  14. Lie and lay. To quote “Dear Abby,” “To ‘lay’ means to set or put; to ‘lie’ means to recline. Remember, chickens lay eggs. People lie down.” So it’s “lie/lay/lain/lying,” and “lay/ laid/laid/laying.” I ain’t lying.
  15. Fewer and less. Can you count the items you’re writing about? If so, use “fewer.” If the quantity is not countable (referring to volume rather than number), use “less.” For example, you can have fewer ingredients, coins, or puppies, but less water, money, or love.
  16. “One of the only.” I must conclude with a pet peeve of mine. Strictly speaking, “only” means just one in number. So, when you write, “It was one of the only times I felt that way,” you should write, “one of the few times.” Unless you mean there were no other times, in which case you should write, “It was the only time I felt that way.” This is the only time I’m going to say this.


51 Responses to Fix These 16 Potholes on Grammar Street

  1. Brennan S. McPherson January 17, 2018 at 4:26 am #

    Number 3 still makes my brain ache.

  2. Nanci Rubin January 17, 2018 at 5:15 am #

    Thanks Bob, I needed a refresher course.

  3. Judith Robl January 17, 2018 at 5:24 am #

    Bob, I love grammar. As a former English teacher, I should.

    Thank you for the comments on the subjunctive “were”. I fear that grammar is not being properly taught in schools. Who teaches the eight basic parts of speech and proper diagramming of sentences now?

    Loved the dangling participle example. So was the tree walking down the road? If you ask that question, you know what the next noun must be.

    • Bob Hostetler January 17, 2018 at 7:58 am #

      Here’s one I read just last evening, from Harold Evans’s Do I Make Myself Clear?:

      Walking into Trafalgar Square, Admiral Nelson’s column is surrounded by pigeons reaching 169 feet into a pure blue sky.

      Oh boy.

      • Tisha January 18, 2018 at 9:14 pm #

        Evans is clearly not making himself clear. 😉

  4. Bill Hendricks January 17, 2018 at 5:51 am #

    Don’t forget “led” vs. “lead.” Contrary to popular usage, “lead” is NOT the past tense of the verb “to lead.” “Led” is. Napoleon led his troops to a tragic defeat at Waterloo. When someone writes that Steve Jobs lead Apple to success, I sort of chuckle and go, “Well, you’ve got your facts right, but you obviously need a lesson in style and usage.”

    • Bob Hostetler January 17, 2018 at 7:59 am #

      So many people have been lead astray. Er….

  5. Lori Closter January 17, 2018 at 6:19 am #

    This is great, Bob. Thanks. Recently, an online discussion indicated a trend away from using the past perfect tense that indicates previous action:
    I had done this, she had eaten the muffin, etc. Evidently people feel it’s too cluttered and want the simple past now — which I find appalling and confusing. Comments? I would also love to see a blog on the most common punctuation errors, particularly how to punctuate dialogue. I would share it with my writing group!

    • Bob Hostetler January 17, 2018 at 8:00 am #

      I don’t know anything about punctuation errors, Lori. Well! not much; anyway.

    • Dean C. Ortner, Ph.D., Ph.D. January 17, 2018 at 9:25 pm #

      Punctuation? Here is one for you:

      John where Mary had had had had had had had had had had had the professors approval


    • Tisha January 18, 2018 at 9:16 pm #

      Lori – I might be able to arrange that for you! I strive to write a blog post for writers every month, so let’s see what I can do for your group… Other than dialogue punctuation errors, what other errors do you tend to see or are frustrated with?

  6. Robin Patchen January 17, 2018 at 6:50 am #

    Preach it!

  7. Loretta Eidson January 17, 2018 at 7:02 am #

    Oh my, I’m going to print this out and do a word search in my WIP to make sure I’ve followed the rules. Thanks, Bob!

    • Jennifer January 17, 2018 at 7:25 am #

      Haha! I saved this directly to my home screen…but printing it for quicker reference is genius.

  8. Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 17, 2018 at 7:46 am #

    Oh, alright, Bob.

    I shall pay meet obeisance your dictums ere my writings become a fell galimaufry of error.

    • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 17, 2018 at 7:52 am #

      “…to your dictums…”

      Fie on the gyves of careless proofreading into which I so readily place my hands!

      • Bob Hostetler January 17, 2018 at 8:03 am #

        Also, my dictums are dicta. But I barely passed seventh-grade Latin, so I have no room to talk.

        • Andrew Budek-Schmeisser January 17, 2018 at 8:08 am #

          Yep, they’s dicta, fersure.

          My brain is still reeling from those 167-ft pigeons, reaching into a clear blue sky.

  9. Louise M. Gouge January 17, 2018 at 7:46 am #

    I have three more.
    Between and among. If you have two people, they may share a secret between them. If there are three people, they may share a secret among them.

    Speaking of between, I am so tired of hearing “between you and I.” Between is a preposition. It takes the objective case of the pronoun. It must always be “between you and me.”

    Then there’s this one, closely related to your example of the participial phrase failing to relate to the subject. “As a doctor, the flu shot is advised for everyone this year.” The flu shot is not the doctor. In fact, nothing in the sentence refers back to the introductory phrase. It should be, “As a doctor, I recommend that everyone should have the flu shot.”

    Thanks for opening this discussion. As a former college English professor, I have to bite my tongue all too often when I hear these errors. Television commercials are loaded with errors, and our young people are learning from these. Used to be that newscasters spoke properly. Now they’re setting bad examples with their careless/incorrect grammar usage.

    • Bob Hostetler January 17, 2018 at 8:04 am #

      Yes, yes, and yes, Louise. I couldn’t agree more. And I could care less. Because I care. (That’s another pet peeve of mine: the phrase, “I could care less.” But don’t get me started).

  10. Karen Saari January 17, 2018 at 8:10 am #

    Can we add ‘alot’ to the bunch? I always hate finding this word in a manuscript.

    Last Saturday I attended a writer’s group meeting where the subject was grammar and punctuation. We went over the basics and ended with how relaxed the rules of grammar have become over the last decade or two. The speaker encouraged us to learn the rules and then break them to accommodate our own voice.

    On the way home my friend and I were talking about this, and she ended by saying, “Can you imagine if the Bible was taught like this? Yes, learn the rules, but do whatever seems right to you.” And then we realized this was already happening.

    • Bob Hostetler January 17, 2018 at 8:14 am #

      Oh, yes, Karen. I hate “alot” somuch.

    • Shirlee Abbott January 17, 2018 at 10:14 am #

      Judges 21:25 – “Everyone did as they saw fit.”

  11. Sarah Hamaker January 17, 2018 at 8:23 am #

    Here’s one that drives me crazy: 1970’s, or any year with an apostrophe not indicating absent numbers (like it’s fine to use ’70s); and its cousin, realtors who write $500,000’s.

    Years and numbers CANNOT be possessive, people. Seriously. It’s impossible for a number to possess anything, so leave off the apostrophe.

    There, my good grammar deed for the day is done:)

  12. Sherri Stewart January 17, 2018 at 8:37 am #

    I don’t agree with the alright rule. The rule, according to Merriam, is the words are interchangeable, so find out what your teacher (or editor) wants and give it to them (him or her).

  13. Sharon Cowen January 17, 2018 at 8:58 am #

    Pressing Ctrl P! Please help with punctuation, too.

  14. Sheriena McEvers January 17, 2018 at 8:59 am #

    I’ve had trouble with the possessive of Jesus and Moses until I read that if there are more than two sibilant sounds in the word to use just an apostrophe. Moses’ or Jesus’. Moses’s would be too many s sounds.
    And regarding number 7,
    one helpful trick I use is to take the second phrase and put it first followed by the participial phrase and see if it makes sense. If not, change one or the other.

  15. Ann Onymous January 17, 2018 at 9:26 am #

    The American Dialect Society, the OED, and the Post’s style guide disagree with you on #5. Even AP & Chicago allow singular “they” in some cases, though NOT the one that’s common, especially among people of faith.

    • J.L. Callison January 18, 2018 at 4:16 pm #

      Agreed. Even the CMOS made the change in the 2018 edition. I don’t use the plural for the singular, for I feel the distinction between the genders is important for understandability, if for nothing else.

      Thanks, Bob.

  16. Vanessa Burton January 17, 2018 at 9:30 am #

    I definitely needed a reminder in this! Great stories are written grammatically correct! They’re, there, and their should be added, as well!

  17. Judi Clarke January 17, 2018 at 9:37 am #

    All right then, it’s going to take some focus to break me of the alright habit because I distinctly remember being taught the spelling in school. Merriam-Webster has a good “Ask the Editor” video explaining the history of alright, and although it is included in their dictionary (misleading), the editor agrees that all right is recommended. Evidently, my grade school teacher was of the informal persuasion. Even Grammarly and spell check don’t help me on this one. Pray for me, all right? 🙂 Thanks for the great post, Bob!

    • Carol Ashby January 17, 2018 at 10:07 am #

      Judi, one source (can’t remember which) on the alright vs. all right question said 30% or so of grammarians now say they are equally correct, with that number steadily increasing. Language is fluid, so it won’t be long before almost everyone recognizes that it’s all right to use alright.

  18. Linda Riggs Mayfield January 17, 2018 at 9:57 am #

    The sibilant sounds rule for adding an s or only an apostrophe for a possessive makes sense to me, but I had not seen it before. I have seen a rule for showing respect to Jesus’ name by not adding the possessive s. Sometimes we have no choice in how we form possessives. Almost all of my dissertation scholar clients are required to write to APA standards. The APA rule is to always add both the apostrophe and s except for uses of the singular form of names (like Descartes) that end with a silent s. Then the writer is to use only the apostrophe. That makes no sense to me, because then there would be no pronounced s at all for the singular possessive. The APA manual suggests avoiding the issue altogether for plural possessives by writing “the home of the Descartes.” Again, saying that aloud omits any s sound at all, which just seens wrong to me. Then– I am required to use Chicago Style for the newspaper column for which I’m a contributor. Its punctuation rules are quite different from APA’s. I won’t even get started on what I think of Chicago rules!?

  19. Carol Ashby January 17, 2018 at 9:58 am #

    Bob, I heartily recommend Diane Hacker’s “A Pocket Style Manual.” I first saw this book when my daughter had to buy it for her honors English classes in high school. It covers clarity, grammar, punctuation, mechanics, and other topics related to writing well. It provides short, clear descriptions and examples of both correct usage and common errors.

    Chapter 44 is a glossary of usage that addresses the kinds of word selection problems being discussed here. If you have to cite sources, it has 120 pages of examples of how to cite almost every kind of source (print, electronic, oral) in APA, MLA, and Chicago styles.

    My pet peeve is the deliberate dumbing down of the language in novels by those who insist on restricting verbs to the simple form. “We ran” (simple past), “we had run” (past perfect), “we were running” (past progressive), and “we had been running” (past perfect progressive) are NOT interchangeable if you want to convey what really happened to the runners and when. The dictum that says we should use only the simple past strips away the nuances of time that enrich the reading experience. Most of our readers aren’t so unskilled in spoken English that they can’t understand and appreciate the most accurate verb form. So why do we deprive them of that?

    Most importantly, “was running” is NOT passive. It’s the progressive form that shows a continuing action. “He was running when she tripped him” is NOT the same as “He ran when she tripped him.” Active is better than passive in most cases, but not every use of the present participle (the -ing form) is passive. That knee-jerk reaction comes from too many contest judges, who persist in calling the active progressive form the “passive” voice.

  20. Norma Brumbaugh January 17, 2018 at 10:05 am #

    Thank you.

  21. Marcia Laycock January 17, 2018 at 10:14 am #

    Thanks for these reminders, Bob. Even when we think we know the rules, it’s good to check our writing. I submitted an article to a reputable writing magazine once and the editor pointed out a ‘they’re’ that should have been ‘their.’ I was blushing but happy he still accepted the article! 🙂

  22. Kathy Ide January 17, 2018 at 10:56 am #

    Thanks for this post, Bob! There are so many grammar “potholes” we writers need to be aware of. That’s why I wrote “Proofreading Secrets of Best-Selling Authors,” which includes most of the topics you posted about plus many similar things writers struggle with–including an extensive section on punctuation. 🙂

    A couple of things I’d point out on your list, though:

    1. “It’s” does not always means “it is.” It can also mean “It has,” as in “It’s been a long time since I saw a really good post about grammar rules.”

    2. The Chicago Manual of Style and The Christian Writer’s Manual of Style used to recommend leaving the “s” off the possessive form of Jesus and Moses (although each manual gave a different reason). Now they both say the “s” should be there.

    Seeing “alright” makes me crazy too. Yeah, I know Webster’s includes it, but that’s because they reflect how people use words, not just the correct usage. My biggest pet peeve: Webster’s now shows two definitions for the word “literally”–and they are diametric opposites! The misuse of “literally” makes me figuratively insane.

    Thanks for caring about the proper use of words, Bob!

    • Carol Ashby January 17, 2018 at 1:42 pm #

      I have your book, Kathy, and it’s worth every penny it costs!

  23. Ann Shorey January 17, 2018 at 11:32 am #

    Thanks for the post! Here’s one more that makes me cringe: Using the word “hearty” when the writer means “hardy.” A “hardy” pioneer is capable of enduring fatigue, hardship, exposure, etc. A “hearty” pioneer is warm-hearted, affectionate, etc.
    I just read “hearty” today in a book description referring to immigrants. Grrr. Maybe they were hearty, but more likely they were hardy.
    I agree with you on alright vs. all right! That’s another cringe-worthy error. All right is all right!

  24. Sheri Dean Parmelee January 17, 2018 at 2:20 pm #

    Alleluia and amen, Bob. I wish my writing students could read your blog. Perhaps I will just suggest it to them!

  25. Robin E. Mason January 17, 2018 at 3:01 pm #

    #9 pet peeve!! and #14 – i defer to the British turn of phrase, “I’m going to have a lie down!”

  26. Dorothy Johnstone January 17, 2018 at 3:25 pm #

    Could we add “that and who” to the list? Is it correct to say people who wear green hats also wear green gloves or should it be people that wear green hats. It drives me crazy because to me, ‘who’ sounds much better than what.

  27. D.H. Rayborn January 17, 2018 at 4:14 pm #

    Superb article! One easier way to remember/explain subjunctive vs. indicative: indicative = reality and subjunctive = not reality. Of course, that opens the door for a terribly non-grammar-related metaphysical discussion, but it’s a nice simplification.

  28. Rachel January 18, 2018 at 1:40 am #

    Two more!

    Farther/further: if it is a literal distance, use farther. (I always have to remember “far” for distance.) If it is something intangible, use “further.”

    Also, assure/ensure/insure.

    To assure is to actually say, “I promise, this will happen.”

    To ensure is to literally make sure it does happen.

    To insure is to take out insurance in case it happens all wrong.

    Thanks for this great list!

  29. Thomas January 18, 2018 at 2:06 pm #

    For several of these of these items, your rules appear to conflict with acceptable (and even preferable) guidelines stated by the Chicago Manual of Style (17th edition), the Merriam Webster dictionary, and sources like Bryan Garner’s Modern American Usage. Those authorities seem to take a more realistic and less rigid and legalistic approach to grammar.

  30. Ann L. Coker January 18, 2018 at 7:37 pm #

    My pet peeve: the use of I and me, especially in a compound either in nominative or objective case. Touch on that sometime.

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