I used to pride myself on my grasp of the English language. I’d smile smugly and correct my friends’ grammar, while I silently thanked my parents and my education for my superior knowledge.
And then I got a good editor and I realised that, while I may be better than the average bear, my writing was still littered with grammatical errors. Oh, the shame!
So now, in an effort to appease the Gods of Grammar, I present to you the top ten grammatical errors that I used to (and probably still do) make.
Error Number One – Who versus Whom
I used to think (compliments of my lousy high school English education) that whom was just the more traditional/formal version of who. I would only use whom when I was feeling all la-di-da.
And then I found out I was wrong.
Hand-in-hand with that information came the realisation that I had forgotten all about sentence subjects and objects. Since that is the key to knowing when to use whom rather than who, I had to get a grip on that first.
So for those of you who are a little how-you-doin’ with your grammar knowledge (like me), the subject of a sentence is the thing/person who is doing something, while the object is having something done to them. For example:
Bob threw the ball at Jane.
Bob is throwing the ball therefore he is the subject. Jane is having the ball thrown at her therefore she is the object.
So the trick with who and whom is to work out whether the pronoun’s form is objective or subjective. If it is objective you use whom, if it is subjective you use who. For example:
Who threw the ball at Jane? (Where who is the subject.)
Whom did Bob throw the ball at? (Where whom is the object.)
This same rule extends to whoever and whomever. For example:
Whoever is responsible for throwing that ball is in trouble.
Whomever got hit by that ball must be in pain.
Error Number Two – I versus Me
A good friend of mine read my first book and then very gently pointed out that I had incorrectly used I and me quite a few times. I had been using whichever word sounded correct to me, which unfortunately wasn’t always the right one.
I and me by themselves are pretty self-explanatory.
I went to the shop with Jane. Jane went to the shop with me.
The problems arise when we add extra subjects and objects into the sentence.
Bob and I went to the shop with Jane.
Jane went to the shop with Bob and me.
Once upon a time I would have said Jane went to the shop with Bob and I, because I thought it sounded better. But the trick is to remove the other person out of the sentence and see which word you would use. For example you wouldn’t say Jane went to the shop with I, therefore you wouldn’t say Jane went to the shop with Bob and I.
It’s pretty much as simple as that.
Error Number Three – Misplaced Modifiers
So I probably should start with what a modifier is. A modifier is a word or group of words that modify something. For example let’s look at the following sentence:
I ate all the cake.
I could modify this with the word nearly.
I ate nearly all the cake.
So nearly is a modifier. But if I changed the position of the modifier within the sentence to – I nearly ate all the cake, the meaning of the sentence changes.
Here’s a more obvious example of how changing the modifier within a sentence changes the meaning of the sentence:
I nearly failed all my subjects.
I failed nearly all my subjects.
In the first sentence I just passed all my subjects while in the second I failed most of them.
When a modifying group of words is misplaced it has even more interesting ramifications on the meaning of a sentence. For example:
Covered in chocolate, she wondered what to do with the strawberries.
The words ‘covered in chocolate’ are a modifier and should be placed right next to the subject or object they are modifying. Unless she’s into some kinky stuff this sentence should read – She wondered what to do with the chocolate covered strawberries.
Error Number Four – Impossible Timings
Impossible timings is perhaps not the correct term for this error, but it’s the way I think of it. An impossible timing is when you end up with a sentence that says you did two things simultaneously when you couldn’t have possibly. For example:
I lit a candle and turned off the light.
What I am really saying here is that I lit a candle at the same time that I turned off the light, and while I guess this is physically possible it would be very difficult to do. It should read:
I lit a candle and then turned off the light.
The simple use of the word then puts the whole sentence into the correct chronological order.
Error Number Five – Affect versus Effect
I still have trouble with this. Every time I get to an effect or affect I pull out my grammar books so I can work out which is the right one.
According to Paula LaRocque in The Book on Writing – The Ultimate Guide to Writing Well, affect means to influence, impress, touch or sway. Effect, in its noun form, means consequence, result or outcome, and in its verb form means to result in or bring about.
(Weirdly, in my head I have translated this to mean that affect is used for airy-fairy stuff like feelings and emotions, while effect is used for serious things like stock markets. If only it were this easy!)
Grammar Girl (a.k.a Mignon Fogarty) in her book Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, says that the majority of the time you use affect as a verb and effect as a noun.
So if we put these two bits of information together then affect is normally a verb which means to influence, change, touch or sway. Effect is normally a noun which means ‘a result’. For example:
The rain affected our plans to have a picnic.
The rain had no effect on our picnic plans.
In the first sentence, the rain influenced or changed our picnic plans, while in the second the rain had no result on the picnic plans.
Error Number Six – Subject Verb Errors.
Basically this has to do with the fact that there are singular and plural nouns, and singular and plural verbs. We need to make sure that we always use a plural verb with a plural noun and vice versa. To add confusion into the mix there are also collective nouns, which, while referring to a large number of things/people, are actually treated as a singular noun.
I am excited.
We are excited.
The crowd is excited.
Even though the word crowd refers to a large number of people, it is actually a single entity. Like I, it is a singular noun and hence is used with a singular verb.
If you were to talk about multiple crowds then you would need a plural verb.
The crowds around the world are excited by the New Years Eve’s celebrations.
When I wrote my ‘How to Self-Publish’ book I referred to all of the publishing companies, such as Bookbaby and Amazon, as plural nouns. In my final edit I had to strip out all of the plural words I had associated with them – are, they, them, were and their – and replace them with the singular equivalents – is, it, was and its. I still feel nauseous when I think about it.
There is, of course, an exception to this rule and I will cover that now.
Error Number Seven – If and Wish and Were
So you know how I was just going on about singular nouns needing singular verbs? Well this is the rule that trumps that.
If and wish are always were.
Remember the song If I Were a Rich Man? If we went with the rule laid out in Error Six we would change this to If I Was a Rich Man, and we’d be wrong.
Even though were is a plural verb it is ALWAYS used when the words If or Wish are also used, even if the noun is singular.
So just as we would say – if they were going on holidays, we would also say – if I were going on holidays. Or – they wish it were so and I wish it were so.
Error Number Eight – Use of Commas with Adjectives Preceding Nouns
When you have more than one adjective preceding a noun, whether or not you need to use a comma depends on exactly what the adjective is modifying. For example:
It was a huge, brown haired dog. (You could also write huge, brown-haired dog.)
The adjective huge is modifying the word dog, the word brown is modifying the word haired, and together, brown haired is modifying dog. Therefore, you need a comma between huge and brown, but not brown and haired. If, however, the first adjective is modifying the second adjective you do not need a comma. For example:
It was a dark brown haired dog.
In this sentence the adjective dark is modifying the next adjective brown, which is in turn modifying haired. You do not need any commas.
Another way to test this is to use the word and between the adjectives. If it sounds silly you don’t need commas, if it sounds right you do. For example:
It was a huge and brown haired dog.
This sounds right therefore you need a comma.
It was a dark and brown haired dog.
This doesn’t sound correct, therefore you wouldn’t place a comma.
Error Number Nine – Which versus That
Which and that are in confusion when used in modifying statements. For example, should we use which or that in the following sentence?
Dogs, that are aggressive, should have to wear a muzzle when in public.
Dogs, which are aggressive, should have to wear a muzzle when in public.
The general rule is that you use that before a restrictive clause and which before all else. According to Grammar Girl, a restrictive element is a part of a sentence that you can’t get rid of because it restricts the noun.
So in the example above, the ‘are aggressive’ is restricting the noun, therefore we would use that.
An example of a sentence with a non-restrictive clause is:
Dogs, which need to be fed, can be expensive pets to keep.
All dogs need to be fed, therefore we use which. Not all dogs are aggressive, therefore we use that.
Error Number Ten – That versus Who
Basically who goes with people and that goes with things. So we would say – the person who threw that ball, and – the chair that fell over.
It can get a little confusing when it comes to things that we humanise. For example, I am sure that Tom Hanks’ character in ‘Cast Away’ referred to Wilson as a who. And I always use who when referring to my dogs.
Similarly you can use the word that almost as an insult when referring to someone, by de-humanising them. For instance – she’s just the woman that broke my father’s heart, as used to describe an ex-step-mother.
Phew! So now you know my top ten writing weaknesses. I am hoping that you’ve found this post helpful. There are links to Paula LaRocque and Grammar Girl’s books within this blog. Unless your grammar is superlative, I highly recommend both of these. I have them within arm’s reach whenever I write.
I have more information on both of these, as well as other grammar books I recommend, in the top menu bar under Writing Books.