Thursday, March 11, 2010

Heather's No-Nonsense Guide to Common Grammar and Usage Foibles

Grammar Snob

Today's post is about grammar and usage. Now I'll admit I'm not totally perfect in my usage - I've been known to utter an OMG or two (thousand), which I'm pretty sure isn't actually grammatically correct (especially since I'm 25). And I couldn't tell you the differences between a past participle and an infinitive verb. I know, so you're are you even qualified to give any kind of guidance on grammar?

I'm a journalist and magazine editor. A large part of my job is to turn the crap that gets turned into me by amateur writers and non-writers and make it readable. But when I was in college, my copyediting teacher didn't bother explaining to us the different terms for the parts of speech (granted, we probably should have remembered these things from high school). What he did do was give us little tips and tricks to help us remember the biggest, most irritating, and most confusing mistakes that people often have a hard time with. And today, I'm going to share some of those tips with you. Some of them are pretty basic, but I hope you'll get at least a little something out of it (or, at the very least, enjoy the hilarious clip from The Office that I'm going to include).
Me vs. I: This is a big one, and something that your parents and teachers probably corrected you on all the time. You might have said to your mom, "Hannah and me are going to the mall to scope out hot boys." And your dad said, "Hannah and I" and you rolled your eyes and left anyway. The me vs. I issue comes up all the time, but fortunately there's a very simple way to figure out if you should be using me or I: simply take out the other person from the sentence. In my earlier example, you wouldn't say "Me is going to the mall to scope out hot boys." That doesn't make sense. So you know that it should be I. But, if you were going to say, "The cute boys at the mall bought sodas for Hannah and me," that's correct, because you wouldn't say, "The cute boys at the mall bought a soda for I." Got it? 

Who vs. whom: I love this one, mostly because of this video (which contains the correct usage explanation, but mostly it's just hilarious):

OK,'s who when's the subject of the sentence and whom when it's the object. But what does that really mean? And if you're not sure, do you really want to spend the time to think about it that hard? No? So here's the little trick I use: if you want to know whether who or whom is correct, simply replace the whom/who with him/he or them/they. (I like to use him or he since him, like whom, ends in "m," but you can also use she/her.) Sometimes this requires altering the word order a little, but the trick still works. Check it out:
Who is that totally hot girl? (Is she that totally hot girl?)
The dancers, four of whom have pink hair, look just like Cyndi Lauper. (Four of them have pink hair.) 
Everyone differed as to who they thought had the best bow-fighting skills. (They thought he had the best bow-fighting skills.)
Sarah is dating a boy whom she met at a dive bar. (Sarah met him at a dive bar.)
Affect vs. effect: I still struggle with this one and have to take the time to really think about it. Affect is a verb, and effect is a noun, but both can technically and occasionally be either. In general, though, effect is just a noun, and affect is just a verb (unless you're talking about affect, the just remember that as the exception). And what's the easiest way to tell if you're dealing with a noun or a verb? Stick an article in front of it. If the sentence needs (or can have) an article, use effect. Otherwise, use affect.
The effect of the alcohol was slow. ("Effect of the alcohol was slow." doesn't make sense.)
His ability to dance well will affect his role in the school play. (His ability to dance well will THE affect...what? That makes no sense.)
His ability to dance well will have an effect on his role. ("An" is also an article, so in this case, use effect.)
She wanted to effect change on the world. (Annoying exception No. 1: effect meaning "to change")
He displayed a happy affect. (Annoying exception No. 1: generally only used in psychology, and best left alone.)
Peak vs. Pique vs. Peek: I'm going to go ahead and assume you all are smart enough to figure out to/too/two and their/there/they're, but this is one that I see used incorrectly all the time, especially at work, so I thought I would give a little refresher. I also see agents complaining about it a lot, so I know it's a problem in the noveling world. Peak means top, like a mountain peak. Peek means a glimpse, or to see. Pique is a French word meaning to stimulate or tempt. I use those words specifically to help you remember the difference between peek, peak, and pique:
Peak -> mountain -> both have an "a" in them "Heather's MS is so fabulous, she will rise to the peak of YA writers in no time!"
Peek -> see -> both have an "ee" in them "I can't wait to get a peek at Heather's MS!"
Pique -> tempt -> both have five letters "Wow, Heather's query is so great, it's piqued my interest in a full MS!"
Trust me, I could go on and on, but those are some of the main ones I see. I hope you learned something!

Are there any grammar or usage rules that you struggle with? Or are there any that you see misused often that really irritate you?



  1. Those are some good ones. I'll admit that I have typo issues. I know the difference between the words but sometimes I end up typing the wrong one. To, two and too is one example. I miss the second o on the word sometimes when typing. Then again, I have random words (like random, which almost ended up as renodm) that get all messed up from typing and thinking at different speeds.

    I don't always get commas correct. Commas, semicolons and colons are ones I don't have a strong understanding about. I figure that I'll work harder on the edit stage than during the drafting.

  2. Ok, I just have to comment on this one...

    For Heather's readers who may not know, I'm in college getting my teacher's training and certification. I work during the day, therefore I end up taking a fair few online courses. You would not believe me if I told you how many people in my classes, upper level classes at that, cannot use proper grammar, usage, spelling, etc. May I remind you that these are people studying to be teachers. I'm not perfect with grammar, and my love affair with spell check is pretty well known, but come on. They're/there/their are among the ones I see daily, and there’s a fellow who will use “once” instead of “wants”.

    To add my two sense, and to help out Dawn and others who (whom?) have trouble: The most common uses of commas are used to separate items in a series (such as this one), a parenthetical expression (see above paragraph “upper level classes...), two independent clauses when used with a conjunction (and, but, or; see sentence #2 in above paragraph), after a prepositional phrase that starts a sentence (sentence #1 above), after an adverb that begins a sentence (adverbs should be avoided anyway ;) ), and, of course, clerical stuff like dates and addresses. The most common use of semicolons is to separate two related independent clauses (I’ll use one in a bit to demonstrate). If you need more guidance, there are literally millions of websites that can help you. BTW, independent clause = can be its own sentence.

    These are great explanations, Heather, and pretty easy to remember. Affect/effect baffled me until I started back in school and looked it up myself, and I still have trouble with who/whom (as evidenced above. I think it really is a made up word...) Effect is the result of a cause if it's a noun, but it means "to cause" if it is a verb. I agree you should avoid affect as a noun; if you really want to use affect as a noun to show off your mad grammar skillz, you can replace it with the word "emotion" or a specific emotion (i.e. "exasperation") and you've got the effect you are looking for. (Like how I wormed that in there? Of course you do.)

    Another BTW since I just used it: That rule about not ending sentences with prepositions is obsolete and usually no longer recognized. So go ahead and end with prepositions, it's now ok to.

    The arrow affected the aardvark. The effect was eye-popping.

  3. Amendment: as long as the preposition is used properly and is not redundant, it's ok to end with one. If you can leave the preposition off and say the same exact thing, then you should leave it off. I know I broke that rule trying to be cute, but bad grammar is never cute. :)

  4. Thanks Heather, that post was awesome! The whole affect/effect thing does my head in!

  5. Hola, have a present for you over at my blog! Happy Friday!

  6. Nice! I, as you can probably tell from my blog, am not a grammar queen. But this was awesome and helpful and made sense:-) Thank you!

  7. Thanks for the awesome post! These are honestly some of my favorites, you can never get enough of the descriptions, the more you hear it and read it the more it will become like second nature!

  8. Dawn - The commas and semi-colons trip me up sometimes, too. Which is why I always have my AP stylebook close by at work! I've figured it out over time, though. Maybe I'll do a post on punctuation...

    Holly - Thanks for totally stealing my thunder and posting all the answers to Dawn's questions, and robbing me of a precious blog topic. Worst. Big sister. Ever. ;)

    Jade - Thanks! Affect/effect confuse me, too, but the "the" thing really does help.

    Annika - Hehe, thanks! I'm way behind on my blog awards...I need to get on that.

    Frankie - Your blog isn't bad at all! Plus I usually don't count blogs, as they are the Interwebz and therefore not representative of your real life.

    Jen - I agree; some of these took awhile to remember!

  9. Great tips! I always struggle with who/whom. This is a great way to remember. Thanks!

    I have something for you on my blog. :)

  10. Great post! I struggle a lot with lie/lay, despite looking up the rules every single time I use them. I'm not a stickler for grammar (because mine is terrible), but ones that irritate me are your/you're and its/it's, because they're perhaps the most basic of all grammar rules and are relatively easy to remember.

  11. This English teacher approves of your post! Great lesson, Heather. :-)

  12. Hehe The Office, the topic of many a french class conversation. And I have an award for you over at my blog ^_^

    Here's the link:

  13. Oh, very nice list! That last one gets me too, uually between pique and peak. Oddly enough, I think learning Spanish as a first language actually improved my ability to learn English. I was more sensitive, perhaps--more aware of the subtleties of Ensligh. I learned the rules of English right away, whereas more often English speakers jsut learn to speak and then learn rules after the fact. But, don't ever go by what I write on comments or my blog. That's probably the worse grammar ever. ha.

  14. Fun stuff. When I was in school, they decided to teach "new English". I never learned what an adverb or preposition were. When we got to Spanish, my teacher was appalled because he could not teach us Spanish grammar since we did not know English grammar. He had to teach us the English first. I still don't know a lot of the terminology. Affect/Effect stymie me to this day. No matter how many times it gets explained! I will try your helpful hint, though. Holly, the expression is my two "cents". My personal pet peeves? Lose/loose. And ice tea. It's iced, people!


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