Are You Guilty of These 8 Common Grammar Mistakes?

Grammar. Some of us love it, some of us hate it. Either way, it’s an inevitability all writers have to deal with. Your story may be the best thing since ink first hit paper, but if you’ve confused your homonyms and mixed up your pronouns, readers aren’t likely to battle their way past your first paragraph. The rules of the English language are brimming with intricacies, inconsistencies, and obscurities—a fact that can make it difficult for even the brainiest among us to master the technicalities of our craft. In the interest of simplifying a few of those complexities, here’s a quick reminder of some of the most common grammar mistakes.

1. Farther vs. Further

“Farther” applies to comparisons of distance, while “further” applies to time and degree.

Right: Jake ran a hundred yards farther than Jill. Wrong: Jack ran a hundred yards further than Jill.

Right: Jill expounded further on Jack’s running abilities. Wrong: Jill expounded farther on Jack’s running abilities.

When in Doubt

Try exchanging the word in question for “furthermore.” If it makes sense, the word you probably want is “further.” For example, “furthermore” makes no sense as a replacement for “farther” in the first sentence describing Jack’s running. “Furthermore” is not a correct replacement for “further” in Jill’s sentence, but because the sentence still reads with a semblance of sense, we know “further” is correct.

2. I vs. Me

“I” is a subjective pronoun (used as the subject of a sentence), while “me” is an objective pronoun (used as a direct object). When either of these words is used by itself, the correct choice is usually obvious, but the subject gets tricky when dealing with compound subjects and objects.

Right: Anna and I proved our insane curling skills at the Olympics. Wrong: Anna and me proved my insane curling skills at the Olympics.

Right: The curling competition ended in a tie between Anna and me. Wrong: The curling competition ended in a tie between Anna and I.

When in Doubt

Get rid of the second subject/object. If the sentence doesn’t make sense, you’ve probably chosen the wrong word. For instance, if we removed Anna from the right example of the first sentence, it still makes sense. However, if we remove her from the second sentence, we end up with an obviously incorrect structure: “Me proved my insane curling skills…”

3. Its vs. It’s

“Its” is the possessive form of “it,” while “it’s” is the contraction of “it is.”

Right: The 1967 Corvette stalled, its engine sputtering. Wrong: The 1967 Corvette stalled, it’s engine sputtering.

Right: The classic Corvette remains popular; it’s proven to be a perennial favorite. Wrong: The classic Corvette remains popular; its proven to be a perennial favorite.

When in Doubt:

Replace the word in question with “it is.” If it works, “it’s” is correct; if not, use the possessive form, sans apostrophe.

4. Lie vs. Lay

“Lie” is an intransitive (requiring no direct object) verb meaning to rest or recline, while “lay” is a transitive (requiring a direct object) verb meaning to put something down. If this isn’t confusing enough for most of us, we also have to deal with the respective past, past participle, and present participle tenses: lie/lay/lain/lying and lay/laid/laid/laying. Have your eyes crossed yet?

Right: Grandma needed to lie down after little Minnie’s visit. Grandma lay down after little Minnie’s visit. Grandma had lain down after little Minnie’s visit. Grandma is lying down after little Minnie’s visit. Wrong: Grandma needed to lay down after little Minnie’s visit. Grandma laid down after little Minnie’s visit. Grandma had laid down after little Minnie’s visit. Grandma is laying down after little Minnie’s visit.

Right: Grandma must have told Minnie at least three times to lay down that knife. Minnie finally laid down the knife. Minnie had finally laid down the knife. Minnie is reluctantly laying down the knife. Wrong: Grandma must have told Minnie at least three times to lie down that knife. Minnie finally lain down the knife. Minnie has finally lay down the knife. Minnie is reluctantly lying down the knife.

When in Doubt

Unfortunately, not many clever tricks exist for mastering this stinker of a rule. Your best bet is to either memorize the correct tenses—or cheat, like I do, by writing out a little chart and tacking it up near your desk.

5. Their vs. They’re

“Their” is a possessive plural pronoun, while “they’re” is the contraction of “they are.”

Right: Their Christmas excursion to the skating rink ended in pain and embarrassment. Wrong: They’re Christmas excursion to the skating rink ended in pain and embarrassment.

Right: They’re coming to the Christmas party if we have to blackmail them ourselves. Wrong: Their coming to the Christmas party if we have to blackmail them ourselves.

When in Doubt

Replace the word in question with “they are.” If it makes sense, stick with the contraction; if not, resort to the possessive form.

6. Which vs. That

These words are often used interchangeably to begin appositive phrases modifying a subject previously specified in the sentence, but they offer a subtle and important difference. Phrases beginning with “that” indicate something integrally connected to the subject. “Which” suggests a greater degree of separation between subject and appositive and requires a dividing comma.

Right: Andrew’s carefully plotted practical joke, which included a gallon of paint above the door, struck me as a bad idea. Wrong: Andrew’s carefully plotted practical joke, that included a gallon of paint above the door, struck me as a bad idea.

Right: The gallon of paint that hit Andrew in the face might be considered a cruel irony. Wrong: The gallon of paint, that hit Andrew in the face, might be considered a cruel irony.

When in Doubt

If you’re not certain of the correct word, ask yourself if the sentence still makes sense without the appositive phrase. In the first sentence, if we can get rid of the “which” phrase, Andrew’s generic practical joke can still be an understandably bad idea. However, in the second sentence, if we delete the “that” phrase, readers will be at a loss to understand why a gallon of paint might be considered a cruel irony. Just remember that “wicked whiches” aren’t necessary for a sentence to make sense.

7. Who vs. Whom

“Who” is a subjective pronoun, while “whom” is an objective pronoun. “Whom” has largely fallen out of standard usage, to the point that many readers accept “who” as both subjective and objective. However, if you’re interested in pursuing correct usage, it’s valuable to understand the difference between these words.

Right: He who laughs last probably didn’t get the joke. Wrong: He whom laughs last probably didn’t get the joke.

Right: I don’t know whom to blame for my wacky sense of humor. Wrong: I don’t know who to blame for my wacky sense of humor.

When in Doubt

Switch out the word in question for “he” or “him.” If “he” works in the sentence, you’ll know to use who, since both end with a vowel. If “him” works, you’ll know to use “whom,” since both end with an M.

8. Your vs. You’re

“Your” is the possessive form of “you,” while “you’re” is the contraction of “you are.”

Right: Your new haircut looks like a cross between a Wookie and a hair band singer. Wrong: You’re new haircut looks like a cross between a Wookie and a hair band singer.

Right: You’re not really going out in public like that, are you? Wrong: Your not really going out in public like that, are you?”

When in Doubt

Replace the word in question with “you are.” If it makes sense, stick with the contraction; if not, resort to the possessive form.

Keep your proofreading eyes open for these sneaky grammar crimes, and you’ll be able to avoid most, if not all, of the embarrassing mistakes that can brand you a careless amateur. You’ll also keep your name of the grammar nazis’ most wanted list.

10 Common Grammar Mistakes Writers Make [Infographic]

Sign Up Today

hwba sidebar pic

Sign up to receive K.M. Weiland’s e-letter and receive her free e-book Crafting Unforgettable Characters: A Hands-On Introduction to Bringing Your Characters to Life.

About K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland

K.M. Weiland is the award-winning and internationally-published author of the acclaimed writing guides Outlining Your Novel, Structuring Your Novel, and Creating Character Arcs. A native of western Nebraska, she writes historical and fantasy novels and mentors authors on her award-winning website Helping Writers Become Authors.

Comments

  1. This is something I always battle with. This scary thing we call grammar. 🙁
    But I am planning to learn it extensively through signing up in a class of it soon. Until then, just bear with it. :/

    • K.M. Weiland | @KMWeiland says

      Based simply on where you live, I’m guessing English isn’t your first language. If so, you write it better than many native speakers speak it!

  2. Great infographic! It looks like I have to print it out!
    My biggest problem is Who vs. Whom. Almost always I use the wrong pronoun.
    Thanks for the help!

  3. Hi KM, Your blog is probably the most informative I have yet discovered. Thank you very much.
    I would however, and not wanting to sound too much like a grammar nazi, like to point out that in British-English, the correct grammatical form is “Anna and I” not “Anna and me”. Informally it can be “me and Anna” or “Anna and myself” or “myself and Anna”. To an Englishman from Liverpool, “Anna and me” sounds like nails scratching a slate chalkboard.
    Okay, so I sound like a grammar nazi

  4. Jessica Salmonson says

    4. Lie vs. Lay drives me up a tree and it’s almost always the respective past, past participle, and present participle tenses that give me such a headache. Maybe I did use the right one but I doubt I did so I’ll look it up just to make sure. It doesn’t help that they all look similar to each other thanks to this dyslexia! (such a pain sometimes.) The Grammatically website helps 🙂 I really love when it adds in commas I missed.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.