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COMMON PITFALLS IN ENGLISH GRAMMAR,

SYNTAX, AND PUNCTUATION

1. Misplaced apostrophes
Apostrophes arent difficult to use once you know how, but putting them in the
wrong place is one of the most common grammar mistakes in the English
language. Many people use an apostrophe to form the plural of a word,
particularly if the word in question ends in a vowel, which might make the word
look strange with an S added to make it plural.
The rules:

Apostrophes indicate possession something belonging to something or


someone else.

To indicate something belonging to one person, the apostrophe goes


before the s. For instance, The girls horse.

To indicate something belonging to more than one person, put the


apostrophe after the s. For example, The girls horse.

Apostrophes are also used to indicate a contracted word. For example,


dont uses an apostrophe to indicate that the word is missing the o
from do not.

Apostrophes are never used to make a word plural, even when a word is
in number form, as in a date.

How not to do it:

The horses are in the field

Pens for sale

In the 1980s

Janes horse is over there

The girls dresses are ready for them to collect

How to do it properly:

The horses are in the field

Pens for sale

In the 1980s

We didnt want to do it

Janes horse is over there

The girls dresses are ready for them to collect

2. Your/youre
We covered this one before in our post on homophones, but its such a
widespread problem that theres no harm in covering it again.
The rules:

Your indicates possession something belonging to you.

Youre is short for you are.

How not to do it:

Your beautiful

Do you know when your coming over?

Can I have one of youre biscuits?

How to do it properly:

Youre beautiful

Do you know when youre coming over?

Can I have one of your biscuits?

3. Its/its
We said earlier that apostrophes should be used to indicate possession, but
there is one exception to this rule, and that is the word it. Unsurprisingly,
this exception gets lots of people confused.
The rules:

Its is only ever used when short for it is.

Its indicates something belonging to something that isnt masculine or


feminine (like his and hers, but used when youre not talking about a
person).

If it helps, remember that inanimate objects cant really possess


something in the way a human can.

How not to do it:

Its snowing outside

The sofa looks great with its new cover

How to do it properly:

Its snowing outside

The sofa looks great with its new cover

4. Could/would/should of
This common mistake arises because the contracted form of could have
couldve sounds a bit like could of when you say it out loud. This mistake
is made frequently across all three of these words.
The rules:

When people write should of, what they really mean is should have.

Written down, the shortened version of should have is shouldve.

Shouldve and Should have are both correct; the latter is more formal.

How not to do it:

We could of gone there today

I would of done it sooner

You should of said

How to do it properly:

We couldve gone there today

I would have done it sooner

You shouldve said

5. There/their/theyre
Weve met this one before, too; its another example of those pesky homophones
words that sound the same but have different meanings.
The rules:

Use there to refer to a place that isnt here over there.

We also use there to state something There are no cakes left.

Their indicates possession something belonging to them.

Theyre is short for they are.

How not to do it:

Their going to be here soon

We should contact theyre agent

Can we use there boat?

Their is an argument that says

How to do it properly:

Theyre going to be here soon

We should contact their agent

Can we use their boat?

There is an argument that says

6. Fewer/less
The fact that many people dont know the difference between fewer and less
is reflected in the number of supermarket checkout aisles designated for 10
items or less. The mistake most people make is using less when they actually
mean fewer, rather than the other way round.
The rules:

Fewer refers to items you can count individually.

Less refers to a commodity, such as sand or water, that you cant count
individually.

How not to do it:

There are less cakes now

Ten items or less

How to do it properly:

There are fewer cakes now

Ten items or fewer

Less sand

Fewer grains of sand

7. Amount/number
These two work in the same way as less and fewer, referring respectively to
commodities and individual items.
The rules:

Amount refers to a commodity, which cant be counted (for instance


water).

Number refers to individual things that can be counted (for example


birds).

How not to do it:

A greater amount of people are eating more healthily

How to do it properly:

A greater number of people are eating more healthily

The rain dumped a larger amount of water on the country than is


average for the month

8. To/two/too
Its time to revisit another common grammar mistake that we also covered in
our homophones post, as no article on grammar gripes would be complete
without it. Its easy to see why people get this one wrong, but theres no reason
why you should.
The rules:

To is used in the infinitive form of a verb to talk.

To is also used to mean towards.

Too means also or as well.

Two refers to the number 2.

How not to do it:

Im to hot

Its time two go

Im going too town

He bought to cakes

How to do it properly:

Im too hot

Its time to go

Im going to town

He bought two cakes

9. Then/than
Confusion between then and than probably arises because the two look and
sound similar.
The rules:

Than is used in comparisons.

Then is used to indicate something following something else in time, as


in step-by-step instructions, or planning a schedule (well go there then
there).

How not to do it:

She was better at it then him

It was more then enough

How to do it properly:

She was better at it than him

It was more than enough

Well go to the baker first, then the coffee shop

10. Me/myself/I
The matter of how to refer to oneself causes all manner of conundrums,
particularly when referring to another person in the same sentence. Heres how
to remember whether to use me, myself or I.
The rules:

When referring to yourself and someone else, put their name first in the
sentence.

Choose me or I by removing their name and seeing which sounds


right.

For example, with the sentence John and I are off to the circus, you
wouldnt say me is off to the circus if it was just you; youd say I am off
to the circus. Therefore when talking about going with someone else,
you say John and I.

You only use myself if youve already used I, making you the subject
of the sentence.

How not to do it:

Me and John are off to the circus

Myself and John are going into town

Give it to John and I to look after

How to do it properly:

John and I are off to the circus

John and I are going into town

Give it to John and me to look after

Ill deal with it myself

I thought to myself

11. Invite/invitation
This mistake is now so common that its almost accepted as an alternative, but
if you really want to speak English properly, you should avoid it.
The rules:

Invite is a verb to invite. It refers to asking someone if theyd like to


do something or go somewhere.

Invitation is a noun an invitation. It refers to the actual message


asking someone if theyd like to do something or go somewhere.

How not to do it:

I havent responded to her invite yet.

She sent me an invite.

How to do it properly:

I havent responded to her invitation yet.

She sent me an invitation.

Im going to invite her to join us.

12. Who/whom

Another conundrum arising from confusion over how to refer to people. There
are lots in the English language!
The rules:

Who refers to the subject of a sentence; whom refers to the object.

Who and whom work in the same way as he or him. You can work
out which you should use by asking yourself the following:

Who did this? He did so who is correct. Whom should I invite?


Invite him so whom is correct.

That is often used incorrectly in place of who or whom. When


referring to a person, you should not use the word that.

How not to do it:

Who shall I invite?

Whom is responsible?

He was the only person that wanted to come

How to do it properly:

Whom shall I invite?

Who is responsible?

He was the only person who wanted to come

13. Affect/effect
Its an easy enough mistake to make given how similar these two words look
and sound, but theres a simple explanation to help you remember the
difference.
The rules:

Affect is a verb to affect meaning to influence or have an impact on


something.

Effect is the noun a positive effect referring to the result of being


affected by something.

There is also a verb to effect, meaning to bring something about to


effect a change. However, this is not very commonly used, so weve left it
out of the examples below to avoid confusion.

How not to do it:

He waited for the medicine to have an affect

They were directly effected by the flooding

How to do it properly:

He waited for the medicine to have an effect

They were directly affected by the flooding

14. I.e. and e.g.


These two abbreviations are commonly confused, and many people use them
interchangeably. However, their uses are very different.
The rules:

I.e. means that is or in other words. It comes from the Latin words id
est.

E.g. means for example. It comes from the Latin words exempli gratia.

Only use i.e. and e.g. when writing informally. In formal documents,
such as essays, it is better to write out the meanings (for example or
that is).

How not to do it:

He liked many different cheeses, i.e. cheddar, camembert and brie.

He objects to the changes e.g. he wont be accepting them.

How to do it properly:

He liked many different cheeses, e.g. cheddar, camembert and brie.

He objects to the changes i.e. he wont be accepting them.

Below are some of the most common English mistakes made by ESL
students, in speech and in writing. Go through the examples and make sure
you understand the corrections. Then try the grammar test at the end to check
your progress.
1.
Wrong
Right

I have visited Niagara Falls last weekend.


I visited Niagara Falls last weekend.

3.
Wrong
Right

The woman which works here is from Japan.


The woman who works here is from Japan.

5.
Wrong
Right

Shes married with a dentist.


Shes married to a dentist.

Wrong
Right

She was boring in the class.


She was bored in the class.

Wrong
Right

I must to call him immediately.


I must call him immediately.

7.

9.

11.
Wrong
Right

Every students like the teacher.


Every student likes the teacher.

13.
Wrong
Right

Although it was raining, but we had the picnic.


Although it was raining, we had the picnic.

15.
Wrong
Right

I enjoyed from the movie.


I enjoyed the movie.

17.
Wrong
Right

I look forward to meet you.


I look forward to meeting you.

19.
Wrong
Right

I like very much ice cream.


I like ice cream very much.

21.
Wrong
Right

She can to drive.


She can drive.

23.
Wrong
Right

Where I can find a bank?


Where can I find a bank?

25.
Wrong
Right

I live in United States.


I live in the United States.

27.
Wrong
Right

When I will arrive, I will call you.


When I arrive, I will call you.

29.
Wrong
Right

Ive been here since three months.


Ive been here for three months.

31.
Wrong
Right

My boyfriend has got a new work.


My boyfriend has got a new job. (or just "has a new job")

33.
Wrong
Right

She doesnt listen me.


She doesnt listen to me.

35.
Wrong
Right

You speak English good.


You speak English well.

37.
Wrong
Right

The police is coming.


The police are coming.

39.
Wrong
Right

The house isnt enough big.


The house isnt big enough.

41.
Wrong
Right

You should not to smoke.


You should not smoke.

43.
Wrong
Right

Do you like a glass of wine?


Would you like a glass of wine?

45.
Wrong
Right

There is seven girls in the class.


There are seven girls in the class.

47.
Wrong
Right

I didnt meet nobody.


I didnt meet anybody.

49.
Wrong
Right

My flight departs in 5:00 am.


My flight departs at 5:00 am.

51.
Wrong
Right

I promise I call you next week.


I promise Ill call you next week.

53.
Wrong
Right

Where is post office?


Where is the post office?

55.
Wrong
Right

Please explain me how improve my English.


Please explain to me how to improve my English.

57.
Wrong
Right

We studied during four hours.


We studied for four hours.

59.
Wrong
Right

Is ready my passport?
Is my passport ready?

61.
Wrong
Right

You cannot buy all what you like!


You cannot buy all that you like!

63.
Wrong
Right

She is success.
She is successful.

65.
Wrong
Right

My mother wanted that I be doctor.


My mother wanted me to be a doctor.

67.
Wrong
Right

The life is hard!


Life is hard.

69.
Wrong
Right

How many childrens you have?


How many children do you have?

71.
Wrong
Right

My brother has 10 years.


My brother is 10 (years old).

73.
Wrong
Right

I want eat now.


I want to eat now.

75.
Wrong
Right

You are very nice, as your mother.


You are very nice, like your mother.

77.
Wrong
Right

She said me that she liked you.


She told me that she liked you.

79.
Wrong
Right

My husband engineer.
My husband is an engineer.

81.
Wrong
Right

I came Australia to study English.


I came to Australia to study English.

83.
Wrong
Right

It is more hot now.


Its hotter now.

85.
Wrong
Right

You can give me an information?


Can you give me some information?

87.
Wrong
Right

They cooked the dinner themself.


They cooked the dinner themselves.

89.
Wrong
Right

Me and Johnny live here.


Johnny and I live here.

91.
Wrong
Right

I closed very quietly the door.


I closed the door very quietly.

93.
Wrong
Right

You like dance with me?


Would you like to dance with me?

95.
Wrong
Right

I go always to school by subway.


I always go to school by subway.

97.
Wrong
Right

If I will be in London, I will contact to you.


If I am in London, I will contact you.

99.
Wrong
Right

We drive usually to home.


We usually drive home.

You might consider grammar an annoying technicality, a minuscule detail of


speech and writing not worth much effort.
But a study last year from the Society for Human Resources and Management
shows that 45% of employers plan to increase training for grammar and other
language skills (meaning they're unhappy with the levels now).
So what you say does matter as much as how you say it, especially in a
professional environment. We've compiled a list of the top mistakes people
make whether drafting an office memo or just chatting with coworkers around
the water cooler.
1. "Fewer" vs. "Less"

Use "fewer" when discussing countable objects. For example, "He ate five fewer
chocolates than the other guy," or "fewer than 20 employees attended the
meeting."
Use "less" for intangible concepts, like time. For example, "I spent less than one
hour finishing this report."
2. "It's vs. "Its"
Normally, an apostrophe symbolizes possession. As in, "I took the dog's bone."
But because apostrophes also usually replace omitted letters like "don't"
the "it's" vs. "its" decision gets complicated.
Use "its" as the possessive pronoun: "I took its bone." For the shortened version
of "it is" use the version with the apostrophe. As in, "it's raining."
3. Dangling Modifiers
These are ambiguous, adjectival clauses at the beginning or end of sentences
that often don't modify the right word or phrase.
For example, if you say, "Rotting in the refrigerator, our office manager threw
the fruit in the garbage." The structure of that sentence implies your office
manager is a zombie trapped in a chilly kitchen appliance.
Make sure to place the modifying clause right next to the word or phrase it
intends to describe. The correct version reads, "Our office manager threw the
fruit, rotting in the refrigerator, in the garbage."
4. "Who" vs. "Whom"
Earlier this year, "The New Republic" published a review of Mark
Leibovich's "This Town." Regardless of his opinions, the author deserves praise.
The title reads, "Careful Whom You Call A Hypocrite, Washington." Yes, Alec
MacGillis. Just yes.
When considering whether to use "who" or "whom," you have to rearrange the
sentence in your own head. In the aforementioned case, "whom you call a
hypocrite" changes to "you call whom a hypocrite." "Whom" suits the sentence
instead of "who" because the word functions as the object of the sentence, not
the subject.

It's not always easy to tell subjects from objects but to use an over-simplified
yet good, general rule: subjects start sentences (or clauses), and objects end
them.
For reference, "who is a hypocrite?" would be a perfectly grammatically correct
question to ask.
5. Me, Myself, And I
Deciding when to use me, myself, or I also falls under the subject/object
discussion. "Me" always functions as the object (except in that case); "I" is
always the subject. And you only use "myself" when you've referred to yourself
earlier in the sentence. It's called a reflexive pronoun it corresponds to a
pronoun previously in the sentence. For example, "I made myself breakfast" not
"my friend and myself made lunch."
To decide usage in "someone else and me/I" situations, take the other person
out of the sentence. "My co-worker and I went to lunch." Is "I went to lunch"
correct? You're good then.
6. "Lie" vs. "Lay"
Dear everyone, stop saying: "I'm going to go lay down." The word "lay" must
have an object. Someone lays something somewhere. You lie. Unless you lay,
which means lie but in the past tense. Okay, just look at the chart.
Present

Past

Lie

Lie

Lay

Lay

Lay

Laid

7. Irregular Verbs
The English language has quite a few surprises.We can't list all the irregular
verbs, but be aware they do exist. For example, no past tense exists for the
word "broadcast." "Broadcasted" isn't a word. You'd say, "Yesterday, CNN
broadcast a show."
"Sneak" and "hang" also fall into the category of irregular verbs. Because the
list of irregular verbs (and how to conjugate them) is so extensive, you'll have to
look into them individually.

8. "Nor" vs. "Or"


Use "nor" before the second or farther of two alternatives when "neither"
introduces the first. Think of it as "or" for negative sentences, and it's not
optional. For example, "Neither my boss nor I understand the new program."
You can also use nor with a negative first clause or sentence including "not."
For example, "My boss didn't understand the program, nor did I."
9. "Then" vs. "Than"
There's a simple distinction between these two words. Use "then" when
discussing time. As in, "We had a meeting, and then we went to lunch." Include
"than" in comparisons. "This meeting was more productive than the last one."
10. Ending Sentences With Prepositions
First of all, don't do it usually. Second, for those who don't know,
prepositions are any words that a squirrel can "run" with a tree (i.e. The
squirrel ran around, by, through, up, down, around, etc. the tree).
"My boss explained company policy, which we had to abide by" sounds awful. In
most cases, you can just transpose the preposition to the beginning of the
clause. "My boss explained company policy, by which we had to abide," or
better yet, rephrase the sentence to avoid this problem: "My boss explained the
mandatory company policy."
11. Subject (And Possessive Pronoun) And Verb Agreement
This rule seems a bit counterintuitive, but most plural subjects take verbs
without an "s." For example, "she types," but "they type." The pronoun
agreement comes into play when you add a possessive element to these
sentences. "She types on her computer," and "they type on their computers."
As a caveat, the pronoun "someone" requires "her or his" as the possessive.
Feel free to email your boss with any questions. The Wall Street Journal thinks
he or she will appreciate it.
*We had an internal argument about whether the headline should read
"Grammar Mistakes or "Grammatical Mistakes." Please weigh in on this question
if you think one is clearly more correct than the other.

20 Common Grammar Mistakes That (Almost) Everyone Makes


Column by Jon Gingerich January 31, 2012

317 COMMENTS

In:

Craft

Grammar

Vocabulary

Ive edited a monthly magazine for more than six years, and its a job thats
come with more frustration than reward. If theres one thing I am grateful for
and it sure isnt the pay its that my work has allowed endless time to hone
my craft to Louis Skolnick levels of grammar geekery.
As someone who slings red ink for a living, let me tell you: grammar is an ultramicro component in the larger picture; it lies somewhere in the final steps of
the editing trail; and as such its an overrated quasi-irrelevancy in the creative
process, perpetuated into importance primarily by bitter nerds who accumulate

tweed jackets and crippling inferiority complexes. But experience has also
taught me that readers, for better or worse, will approach your work with a
jaundiced eye and an itch to judge. While your grammar shouldnt be a
reflection of your creative powers or writing abilities, lets face it it usually is.
Below are 20 common grammar mistakes I see routinely, not only in editorial
queries and submissions, but in print: in HR manuals, blogs, magazines,
newspapers, trade journals, and even best selling novels. If it makes you feel
any better, Ive made each of these mistakes a hundred times, and I know some
of the best authors in history have lived to see these very toadstools appear in
print. Let's hope you can learn from some of their more famous mistakes.
Who and Whom

This one opens a big can of worms. Who is a subjective or nominative


pronoun, along with "he," "she," "it," "we," and "they." Its used when the
pronoun acts as the subject of a clause. Whom is an objective pronoun, along
with "him," "her," "it", "us," and "them." Its used when the pronoun acts as the
object of a clause. Using who or whom depends on whether youre referring
to the subject or object of a sentence. When in doubt, substitute who with the
subjective pronouns he or she, e.g., Who loves you? cf., He loves me.
Similarly, you can also substitute whom with the objective pronouns him or
her. e.g., I consulted an attorney whom I met in New York. cf., I consulted him.
Which and That

This is one of the most common mistakes out there, and understandably so.
That is a restrictive pronoun. Its vital to the noun to which its referring. e.g.,
I dont trust fruits and vegetables that arent organic. Here, Im referring to all
non-organic fruits or vegetables. In other words, I only trust fruits and
vegetables that are organic. Which introduces a relative clause. It allows
qualifiers that may not be essential. e.g., I recommend you eat only organic
fruits and vegetables, which are available in area grocery stores. In this case,
you dont have to go to a specific grocery store to obtain organic fruits and
vegetables. Which qualifies, that restricts. Which is more ambiguous
however, and by virtue of its meaning is flexible enough to be used in many

restrictive clauses. e.g., The house, which is burning, is mine. e.g., The house
that is burning is mine.
Lay and Lie

This is the crown jewel of all grammatical errors. Lay is a transitive verb. It
requires a direct subject and one or more objects. Its present tense is lay (e.g.,
I lay the pencil on the table) and its past tense is laid (e.g., Yesterday I laid the
pencil on the table). Lie is an intransitive verb. It needs no object. Its present
tense is lie (e.g., The Andes mountains lie between Chile and Argentina) and its
past tense is lay (e.g., The man lay waiting for an ambulance). The most
common mistake occurs when the writer uses the past tense of the transitive
lay (e.g., I laid on the bed) when he/she actually means the intransitive past
tense of lie" (e.g., I lay on the bed).
Moot

Contrary to common misuse, moot doesnt imply something is superfluous. It


means a subject is disputable or open to discussion. e.g., The idea that
commercial zoning should be allowed in the residential neighborhood was a moot
point for the council.
Continual and Continuous

Theyre similar, but theres a difference. Continual means something that's


always occurring, with obvious lapses in time. Continuous means something
continues without any stops or gaps in between. e.g., The continual music next
door made it the worst night of studying ever. e.g., Her continuous talking
prevented him from concentrating.
Envy and Jealousy

The word envy implies a longing for someone elses good fortunes. Jealousy
is far more nefarious. Its a fear of rivalry, often present in sexual situations.
Envy is when you covet your friends good looks. Jealousy is what happens
when your significant other swoons over your good-looking friend.
Nor

Nor expresses a negative condition. It literally means "and not." Youre


obligated to use the nor form if your sentence expresses a negative and
follows it with another negative condition. Neither the men nor the women
were drunk is a correct sentence because nor expresses that the women held
the same negative condition as the men. The old rule is that nor typically
follows neither, and or follows either. However, if neither either nor
neither is used in a sentence, you should use nor to express a second
negative, as long as the second negative is a verb. If the second negative is a
noun, adjective, or adverb, you would use or, because the initial negative
transfers to all conditions. e.g., He wont eat broccoli or asparagus. The negative
condition expressing the first noun (broccoli) is also used for the second
(asparagus).
May and Might

May implies a possibility. Might implies far more uncertainty. You may get
drunk if you have two shots in ten minutes implies a real possibility of
drunkenness. You might get a ticket if you operate a tug boat while drunk
implies a possibility that is far more remote. Someone who says I may have
more wine could mean he/she doesn't want more wine right now, or that
he/she might not want any at all. Given the speakers indecision on the
matter, might would be correct.
Whether and If

Many writers seem to assume that whether is interchangeable with if." It


isnt. Whether expresses a condition where there are two or more alternatives.
If expresses a condition where there are no alternatives. e.g., I dont know
whether Ill get drunk tonight. e.g., I can get drunk tonight if I have money for
booze.
Fewer and Less

Less is reserved for hypothetical quantities. Few and fewer are for things
you can quantify. e.g., The firm has fewer than ten employees. e.g., The firm is
less successful now that we have only ten employees.

Farther and Further

The word farther implies a measurable distance. Further should be reserved


for abstract lengths you can't always measure. e.g., I threw the ball ten feet
farther than Bill. e.g., The financial crisis caused further implications.
Since and Because

Since refers to time. Because refers to causation. e.g., Since I quit drinking
Ive married and had two children. e.g., Because I quit drinking I no longer wake
up in my own vomit.
Disinterested and Uninterested

Contrary to popular usage, these words arent synonymous. A disinterested


person is someone whos impartial. For example, a hedge fund manager might
take interest in a headline regarding the performance of a popular stock, even if
he's never invested in it. Hes disinterested, i.e., he doesnt seek to gain
financially from the transaction hes witnessed. Judges and referees are
supposed to be "disinterested." If the sentence youre using implies someone
who couldn't care less, chances are youll want to use uninterested.
Anxious

Unless youre frightened of them, you shouldnt say youre anxious to see your
friends. Youre actually eager, or "excited." To be anxious implies a looming
fear, dread or anxiety. It doesnt mean youre looking forward to something.
Different Than and Different From

This is a tough one. Words like rather and faster are comparative adjectives,
and are used to show comparison with the preposition than, (e.g., greater
than, less than, faster than, rather than). The adjective different is used to
draw distinction. So, when different is followed by a preposition, it should be
from, similar to separate from, distinct from, or away from. e.g., My living
situation in New York was different from home. There are rare cases where
different than is appropriate, if than operates as a conjunction. e.g.,

Development is different in New York than in Los Angeles. When in doubt, use
different from.
Bring and Take

In order to employ proper usage of bring or take, the writer must know
whether the object is being moved toward or away from the subject. If it is
toward, use bring. If it is away, use take. Your spouse may tell you to take
your clothes to the cleaners. The owner of the dry cleaners would say bring
your clothes to the cleaners.
Impactful

It isn't a word. "Impact" can be used as a noun (e.g., The impact of the crash
was severe) or a transitive verb (e.g., The crash impacted my ability to walk or
hold a job). "Impactful" is a made-up buzzword, colligated by the modern
marketing industry in their endless attempts to decode the innumerable
nuances of human behavior into a string of mindless metrics. Seriously, stop
saying this.
Affect and Effect

Heres a trick to help you remember: Affect is almost always a verb (e.g.,
Facebook affects peoples attention spans), and effect is almost always a noun
(e.g., Facebook's effects can also be positive). Affect means to influence or
produce an impression to cause hence, an effect. Effect is the thing
produced by the affecting agent; it describes the result or outcome. There are
some exceptions. Effect may be used as a transitive verb, which means to
bring about or make happen. e.g., My new computer effected a much-needed
transition from magazines to Web porn. There are similarly rare examples where
affect can be a noun. e.g., His lack of affect made him seem like a shallow
person.
Irony and Coincidence

Too many people claim something is the former when they actually mean the
latter. For example, its not ironic that Barbara moved from California to New
York, where she ended up meeting and falling in love with a fellow Californian.

The fact that theyre both from California is a "coincidence." "Irony" is the
incongruity in a series of events between the expected results and the actual
results. "Coincidence" is a series of events that appear planned when theyre
actually accidental. So, it would be "ironic" if Barbara moved from California to
New York to escape California men, but the first man she ended up meeting
and falling in love with was a fellow Californian.
Nauseous

Undoubtedly the most common mistake I encounter. Contrary to almost


ubiquitous misuse, to be nauseous doesnt mean youve been sickened: it
actually means you possess the ability to produce nausea in others. e.g., That
week-old hot dog is nauseous. When you find yourself disgusted or made ill by a
nauseating agent, you are actually nauseated. e.g., I was nauseated after
falling into that dumpster behind the Planned Parenthood. Stop embarrassing
yourself.

Sometimes it is difficult to know where to put a full stop and we like to hedge
our bets by putting a comma instead. Sorry to tell you but this wont work! If
you are hesitating about using a comma or a full stop, go for a full stop. You
are more likely to be correct.
Handy hints

Can you use a comma instead of a full stop?


Often it is because sentences are very short that we think a comma makes
more sense. Sometimes people see a close connection between the sentences
and therefore link them with a comma. Neither of these ideas is correct.
It was wet, I put up my umbrella. X
The first sentence is so short and so closely connected to the second that it is tempting
to put a comma. The correct version, however, is:

It was wet. I put up my umbrella.


The lead-singer of the band smashed his guitar on the stage, it was broken into small
pieces. X
This might at first seem correct because the ideas in the two sentences are closely
linked, but, to be grammatically correct, it should read:
The lead-singer of the band smashed his guitar on the stage. It was broken into small
pieces.
Then

'Then always starts a new sentence unless it has a connective such as and,
but or so in front of it. Then should not be overused as it is not a
sophisticated linking word.
I got into school at 8.45 and then I went to my registration class.
I got into school at 8.45. Then I went to my registration class.
However

However is not a cconnective. It is part of a new sentence. If you want to be


very correct, it should not be the first word in the sentence, although this is
accepted nowadays.
Many children are driven to school. A recent report, however, shows that the majority
walk or cycle.

Emma's skills in listening and talking are developing. However, she needs to
keep practising her reading at home.
Because

Yes, in spite of what your pupils will tell you, you can start a sentence with
because. Just make sure that you have an end to it and it is not left hanging
loose! The end is shown in bold.
Examples

Because it was raining, I bought a new umbrella when I was out.

Because many teachers were rather uncertain about some aspects of grammar,
this online module has been put together to support them.
Incorrect example not a sentence
Because there were many new courses on offer in the school to ensure that young
people had a lot of choice. X
You could change this to the correct version:
Because there were many new courses on offer in the school to ensure that young
people had a lot of choice, the school got an excellent report.
Although

Although works in the same way as because. It can start a sentence, but
must have an end, so it is not hanging loose.
Examples
Although most of the pupils had learned to tie their laces, a few still had problems.

Although it was raining, the boys were determined to go out to play


football.
Incorrect example here the although part should be the end of the previous
sentence.

Smoking has been banned in public places for some time now and this has
helped some people to stop. Although other people still find it hard to give up.
X
King Kong was created using layers of cotton, rubber and fur which were fixed
to a metal frame. Although several models were used in the film. X

COMMON FAULTS IN ENGLISH SYNTAX AND GRAMMAR

In my handout entitled Grades on essays and the mid-year test: for Eco.
201Y1 and 3031Y, I provided a list of the most common faults on student
essays & examinations, with the indication that those that were checked off
in the following list apply either wholly or partially to the answer given in the
student's paper or examination. This document may be found on-line on my
Home Page: http://www.economics.utoronto.ca/munro5/GRADEXa.pdf

The final one, no. 8, states that: Your written English is deficient in one or
more of the following:

Grammar and syntax (e.g. 'run-on' sentences, dangling modifiers), spelling,


word usage, punctuation. While the grade is not primarily based on the quality
of your English, bad writing nevertheless hinders my understanding of what
you are trying to express; and bad writing will almost inevitably produce a
lower grade.

Striving to write good English is not a matter of mere pedantry. For, in writing
any essay, report, examination, etc., your objective must be to convince the
reader of your arguments, with the greatest possible clarity. In achieving this
objective you must also appeal to the reader's sympathies, i.e. you must elicit a
favourable impression to maintain the reader's attention and interest in what
you have to say. Even if you are reasonably clear and cogent in your writing,
you are unlikely to maintain the readers' attention and sympathy if your
writing is clumsy, ugly, or in other ways deficient.

So please take the following examples of bad English seriously; and strive to
improve your written (and spoken) English.

1. DANGLING MODIFIERS:

A participle (a present or past-tense participle, serving an adjectival


function) that is lacking the correct noun to be modified (described):

Example: Before discussing the Dutch advantages in early-modern northern


commerce, it is important to understand the disadvantages to be found in the
Dutch economy.

As written, the present participle 'discussing' modifies 'it'; and 'it' cannot do
any discussing.

Correct forms:

(1) Before discussing the Dutch advantages in early-modern northern


commerce, we must first consider the disadvantages to be found in the Dutch
economy. [Correct: 'discussing' properly modifies 'we', who do the discussing .
But this is clumsy; and please keep personal pronouns out of your essay.]

OR: Before discussing the Dutch advantages in early-modern northern


commerce, historians should first examine the disadvantages to be found in
the Dutch economy. [Better, but still clumsy.]

(2) No analysis of the Dutch advantages in early-modern northern commerce


can commence without a prior examination of the disadvantages. [Solution: get
rid of the participle.]

Another example:

Wrong: By prohibiting the manual exchange of foreign coins, so often debased


and clipped, and by requiring that all commercial and financial transactions be
effected through Wisselbank deposit accounts, perfect monetary stability was
established in the Netherlands, with the scarce supply of silver reserved for the
overseas trades. [Who or what did the prohibiting?]

Correct: The Wisselbank, by prohibiting the manual exchange of foreign coins,


so often debased and clipped, and by requiring that all commercial and
financial transactions be effected in bills through its deposit accounts,
established perfect monetary stability within the Netherlands and thus more
effectively ensured that the scarce supply of silver would be reserved for the
overseas trades.
[Note as well the correct use of parallel structure in this complex sentence, in
the manner explained below, in no. 3.]

2. RUN-ON SENTENCE:

Two principal clauses that are strung together without appropriate


punctuation and/or conjunctions, thus forming two (or more) sentences
that run confusingly together.

Examples:

(1) The Dutch gained commercial and financial supremacy during the later
sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries, however, they lost that
supremacy to Great Britain during the later eighteenth and early nineteenth
centuries.

Fault: confusing 'however' (adverb) with 'but' (conjunction); 'but' is the proper
and only conjunction to be used in linking thee two principal clauses, which,
however, should also be separated by a semi-colon, for better clarity.
Note: 'However' may be used as a conjunction, but only in one restricted set of
circumstances, when 'however' means 'in whatever manner or way'. Thus: 'We
can go however he likes' [in whatever manner he likes]. Normally, however, the
word 'however' is an adverb and thus cannot and may not be used as a
conjunction (i.e. meaning 'but').

Correct: The Dutch gained commercial and financial supremacy during the
later sixteenth, seventeenth, and early eighteenth centuries; but subsequently,
during the later eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, they lost that
supremacy to Great Britain.

(2) During the fifteenth century, the Dutch gained supremacy over the
Hanseatic Germans in both the herring fisheries and the Baltic trades, many of
the German Hanse towns then suffered slow but irredeemable decline. [Note
how these two distinctly separate sentences run on together without the proper
conjunction or proper punctuation.]

Four possible correct alternative forms:

(a) During the fifteenth century, the Dutch gained supremacy over the
Hanseatic Germans in both the herring fisheries and the Baltic trades; and
subsequently, many of the German Hanse towns suffered slow but
irredeemable decline.

[The two principal clauses are properly separated by the conjunction 'and' and
also by a semi-colon.]

(b) During the fifteenth century, the Dutch gained supremacy over the
Hanseatic Germans in both the herring fisheries and the Baltic trades.
Subsequently, many of the German Hanse towns suffered slow but
irredeemable decline. [Two completely separate sentences.]

(c) During the fifteenth century, the Dutch gained supremacy over the
Hanseatic Germans in both the herring fisheries and the Baltic trades, so that
many of the German Hanse towns subsequently suffered slow but irredeemable
decline.

[Convert the second principal clause into a subordinate clause introduced by


the conjunction so that --- i.e. with the result that...]

(d) During the fifteenth century, the Dutch gained supremacy over the
Hanseatic Germans in both the herring fisheries and the Baltic trades, while
many of the German Hanse towns thereafter suffered slow but irredeemable
decline.

[Similarly convert the second principal clause into an adverbial subordinate


clause].

3. LACK OF PARALLEL STRUCTURE IN SENTENCE CONSTRUCTION:

The use of subordinate (relative) clauses and/or adverbial/adjectival


phrases that are dissimilar or unequal in form, in modifying the verb in
the principal clause:

Wrong: The Dutch gained supremacy in the northern herring trades, because
they developed superior, much larger-scale, more efficient fishing boats,
because of the fifteenth-century shift of the herring spawning grounds from
Scania in the Baltic to the North Sea fishing grounds between the Netherlands
and England, and also with the benefits derived from on-board salt-curing.

Correct: The Dutch gained supremacy in the northern herring trades, because
they developed superior, much larger-scale, more efficient fishing boats;
because such craft, during the much longer sea voyages, permitted and indeed
necessitated on-board salt-curing, whose very rapidity greatly improved quality;
and finally because, during the early fifteenth century, the spawning grounds
shifted from Scania in the Baltic to the North Sea fishing grounds between the
northern Netherlands and England.

Use either because [as a conjunction introducing a subordinate clause] or


because of [as a preposition introducing an adverbial phrase], but not both
forms together.

4. IMPROPER USE OF THE OVERWORKED CONJUNCTION 'AS':

Do not use 'as' to introduce a subordinate clause that follows the principal
clause, when 'as' in that subordinate clause explains why: in the sense of
'because, since, for'.

Example: I opened the front door as the salesman was insistently pressing on
the buzzer.

This can be confusing: does the sentence mean that I opened the door just as
and at the very moment that the salesman was pressing on the buzzer? -- the
only permissible form of 'as' in this particular construction; or, more likely,
does it mean that I opened the door because the salesman was so insistently
pressing on the buzzer? If the latter, the sentence is both confusing and
inelegant.

5. CONFUSING PRINCIPAL AND PRINCIPLE:

Principal means the primary, chief, leading, dominant, etc.; and it is


usually an adjective, as in a 'principal clause', 'his principal adversary'.
But it may also be a noun, as in 'the principal of the school.'

Principle is always a noun that refers to a specific concept, procedure,


code, intellectual mechanism etc. that governs or directs one mode's of
conduct, or method of analysis, etc., as in 'the principles of economics'.

6. USING GERUNDS (VERBAL NOUNS) WITH THE POSSESSIVE CASE.

A gerund is a verbal noun: a verb form acting as a noun, e.g. as the subject or
object of the principal clause in a sentence. As such, any other noun or

pronoun modifying that gerund must be in the possessive case [and not in the
objective case, in the latter example]

Wrong: The Exchequer officials queried them submitting tax receipts that were
so often carelessly compiled.

Correct but clumsy: The Exchequer officials queried their submitting tax
receipts that were so often carelessly compiled. [What was queried was not the
persons but the actual submission of the carelessly compiled tax receipts: the
pronoun thus must be in the possessive case in modifying the gerund
'submitting'.]

Better: The Exchequer officials queried the submission of the tax receipts that
they had so often carelessly compiled. [Change the gerund into a regular noun.]

7. DISTINGUISH BETWEEN 'DUE TO' AND 'BECAUSE OF': note that due is
an adjective, while 'because of' is a preposition introducing an adverbial
phrase.
The growth in English population from the 1740s was principally due to a
change in nuptiality and thus in the birth rates. [Was, from 'to be', is a copula
verb that may be modified by an adjective]

English population grew rapidly from the 1740s, principally because of a


change in nuptiality and thus in the birth rate. ['principally due to' would be
incorrect in this construction.]

8. AVOID CONTRACTIONS. Do not use the following: don't, isn't, wasn't,


can't, it's, etc. Please note as well that it's is the contraction of 'it is', and not
the possessive case of it.

9. 'DIFFERENT FROM' HAS NO PERMISSIBLE ALTERNATIVES: the ever so


common 'different than' and less common 'different to' are simply wrong and
unacceptable. Your views or actions, etc. cannot 'differ than' something else;
they must differ from the others. Those who commit this dreadful solecism
condemn themselves to inferior status as writers -- and worse!

SOME OTHER EXAMPLES OF INCORRECT USAGE:

None: Please note that this pronoun must take the verb in the singular,
because it means 'not one'. Never say: 'none of them are.....'

Decimate: Please note that this verb, with Roman-Latin origins, means
to kill one out of ten; and thus do not use it to mean 'to kill a large
number....'. To state that the Black Death (a combination of bubonic and
pneumonic plague) 'decimated' the population of mid and later 14thcentury Europe is a gross understatement, because the combination of
those plagues destroyed about 40 percent of the European population, by
the 1370s.

Plausible. Despite the very common and generally accepted usage,


'plausible' does not really mean credible or believable, since it conveys an
underlying tone of deceit.

Thus The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Current English (ed. H.W. and F.G Fowler,
3rd edn. 1934, with many reprints) defines plausible: 'Of arguments,
statements, etc.: specious, seeming reasonable or probable; of persons: fair
spoken (usually implying deceit). [From L plausbibilis]'.

The Webster's New Collegiate Dictionary (1975 edn.) similarly states, for
plausible: 'adj (L plausibilis: worthy of applause] 1: superficially fair,
reasonable, or valuable, but often specious; 2: superficially or pleasing or
persuasive; 3: appearing worthy of belief.'

More nuanced, perhaps in accordance with the current temper of the times, is
The Canadian Oxford Dictionary (1998 edn.), which more curtly states, for
plausible: 'of an argument, statement, etc., seeming reasonable, believable, or
probable.' [But note the use of the word seeming.]

11. THE USE OF WHICH AND THAT, WITH APPROPRIATE PUNCTUATION,


IN RELATIVE/SUBORDINATE CLAUSES: defining (restrictive) and nondefining (non-restrictive).

Since the vast majority of writers, including the vast majority of good writers,
neglect to observe the following rule about 'defining' and 'non-defining' relative
clauses, the failure to do so can hardly be considered a major sin, or indeed
even an error. Since, however, at least two editors have rapped me on the
knuckles for failing to observe this rule in the past, I have been forced to
examine this rule more closely, and have thereby concluded that observing it
does indeed add to clarity. Please do consider the following carefully, before
condemning this advice as mere pedantry.

A defining relative (subordinate) clause is one that specifies that the noun
so modified is unique (i.e. the only possible one); such a relative clause
should be introduced by the conjunction 'that' (rather than 'which'), and it
must not be separated by commas from the principal clause.

Example: The river that flows through London [England] is murky and turbid.

[The relative clause tells us specifically what river is meant, and indeed the
only river meant in this context. Removal of the relative clause would make the
sentence meaningless: The river is murky and turbid. We want to know
specifically what river is meant by this criticism.]

A non-defining relative clause is one that merely adds additional but noncrucial information; it should commence with the conjunction 'which'
(and not 'that') and it must be separated from the principal clause by the
two commas.

Example 1: The English river Thames, which flows through London, is murky
and turbid.

[By specifically naming this river, the author merely supplies additional but
non-crucial or 'non-defining' information about the river; and removal of this
relative clause in no way impairs the meaning of the sentence: The English
river Thames is murky and turbid.]

Example 2: The Humber River that flows through metropolitan Toronto is quite
polluted.

Explanation: This defining relative clause ensures that the European reader
does not confuse this particular and little-known Humber River, in Canada,
with the much better known Humber River in England.

Or: The Humber River, i.e. the one that flows through metropolitan Toronto, is
quite polluted.

[Here the defining relative clause modifies the noun 'one'.]

Example 3: The same rules apply to the use of the relative conjunction
'who' and 'whose' in defining and non-defining relative clauses, viz:

The British military officer who defeated Napoleon became a duke: the famed
'Iron Duke' of Wellington.

Arthur Wellesley (1769-1852), who received a peerage as the Duke of


Wellington, for his victories over Napoleon, was Great Britain's greatest national
hero in the nineteenth century.

The Duke of Wellington, whose peerage was the reward for his victories over
Napoleon, was Great Britain's greatest national hero in the nineteenth century.

The British general whose peerage was earned in the Napoleonic Wars was
Arthur Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, who is perhaps better known as the
Iron Duke.

See the following aids to improve your writing on my Home Page:

(1) The Oxford English Dictionary, 2nd edn.:


http://www.chass.utoronto.ca/oed/oed.html

(2) The Merriam-Webster OnLine Dictionary and Thesaurus: http://www.mw.com/dictionary.htm

(3) Roget's Thesaurus:


http://humanities.uchicago.edu/forms_unrest/ROGET.html

(4) The Human-Languages Page (iLoveLanguages):


http://www.ilovelanguages.com/

(5) H.W. Fowler: The King's English: http://www.bartleby.com/116/index.html

(6) William Strunk: The Elements of Style: http://www.bartleby.com/141/

(7) Bartlett's Familiar Quotations: http://www.bartleby.com/100/

(8) Advice on Academic Writing at the University of Toronto:


http://www.utoronto.ca/writing/advise.html

SYMBOLS TO INDICATE FAULTS IN SYNTAX AND GRAMMAR


Refer to the handout on writing terms essays, with the appendix on 'Major
and common faults in English grammar and syntax,' for a further
explanation of these terms.

RO Run-on sentence: a sentence containing two or more principal clauses (i.e.


two sentences), without proper conjunctions (e.g. but) and punctuation (semicolon or period). The most common version of this irritating fault is the
improper use of 'however' as a conjunction, instead of the proper one, 'but'; and
to do so with a comma, rather than the required semi-colon or period.

NAS Not a sentence. What you have written lacks a subject (noun) and/or a
proper verb; and it is therefore just a phrase or a subordinate clause.

DM Dangling modifier: a participial phrase in which the participle (a verbal


form with adjectival properties) does not properly modify or relate to the subject
of the sentence. For example: "looking at his watch, the thought occurred to
him that he was running late." Did the 'thought' look at his watch?

LPS Lack of parallel structure: see the aforementioned handout on English


grammar. The most common example of this fault is to provide an explanation
with a sequence of causes, using both 'because of' (adverbial phrase) and
'because' (conjunction introducing a subordinate clause).

FS Faulty syntax: other errors, as explained in the handout

GE Grammatical errors: e.g. subject (noun) and verb not in agreement;


improper use of personal or relative pronouns

WU Improper use of words: wrong words; incorrect meaning

SP Spelling errors

PE Punctuation errors

PEWT Punctuation errors involving the use of which and that

AT Abrupt transitions: abrupt change in topics and/or ideas between


paragraphs, without proper connectives and in particular without a proper
topic sentence to link them.