Whether writing your first novel or applying for a new job, using grammar correctly helps you make a good impression. Watch out for these slip-ups...
Do you know what a gerund is? How about an absolute modifier? If grammatical terms bring you out in a sweat, it’s understandable. Unless you studied a foreign language for A-level or at university, you may never have been taught grammar in a systematic way.
There are some sad geeks – including me – who love grammar’s rules and nuances and other even sadder ones who practically make a full-time occupation of pointing out other people’s sloppy use of English. Sneering is never cool but the fact remains that basic grammar gaffes make editors, funders and employers wince. So before submitting a piece of writing, give it a quick once over for the following errors.
1. Using less instead of fewer
It may be the scourge of supermarket sign manufacturers across the Anglophone world, but the distinction between “less” and “fewer” is actually quite simple. “Fewer” is used for describing quantities that can be counted and “less” for those that can’t. For example:
“Funny. I’ve received fewer bids than expected for the life-size cardboard cutout of Mr Motivator I put on eBay last week.”
“Arnie, could you do that scene again please – with less emotion this time? Ta.”
2. Confusing that with which
I’ll spare you the scary-sounding terminology – non-restrictive clauses, anyone? – but essentially, “that” gives the sentence its primary meaning and “which” adds more information. So:
“The photos that I took at Crufts are going to be published.”
“The photos that I took at Crufts are going to be published, which means I can’t put them on my blog yet.”
If you remove “that I took at Crufts”, the meaning of the sentence is altered dramatically but if you remove “which means I can’t put them on my blog yet” from the second sentence, the meaning of the first part of the sentence is unaffected.
3. Should of
Look, if even Chris Brown can get this one right, so can you! Should’ve is an abbreviation of should have. Should of means nothing. Same goes for could of, would of, might of.
4. Treating company names as plural
Like puddlings of mallards and skulks of foxes, company names are collective nouns. Although a company is made up of individuals, grammatically it is treated as singular.
"IdeasTap is launching a new brief to have your film projected onto the Moon." (NB: this is not strictly true.)
The exceptions to this rule are football clubs and bands. Don't ask me why.
5. Getting your pronouns in a twist
Grammar evolves. Back in the day, if you started a sentence with a conjunction, it would be considered a linguistic outrage. But these days, it’s all the rage. So I hesitated to include mistake number five, because it’s misused with such frequency that I’d bet my OED on it some day being declared correct. For now though, it isn’t, so here’s the rule.
In a sentence, “I” is the subject of the verb. This means that it is the one doing whatever is being done. “Me” functions as the object of the verb so whatever is being done is being done to or with or at it. Where this tends to cause people trouble is knowing when to use “X and I” and when to use “X and me”.
This is correct:
“Last Tuesday, Nell and I spent the evening hanging out at the Wu mansion with Method Man.”
So is this:
“Last Tuesday, Method Man spent the evening hanging out with Nell and me.”
But this is wrong:
“Last Tuesday, Method Man spent the evening hanging out with Nell and I.”
If you’re ever unsure, try taking your Nell out of the equation. (Sorry mate – I’m sure Method Man would love to see you some other time.) Here goes:
“Last Tuesday, Method Man spent the evening hanging out with I.”
Sounds weird, right?
The Guardian style guide and Mind Your Language blog
The Economist style guide
The Writer style guide
Blog post about the wrongful use of alot instead of a lot
The Oxford Dictionaries grammar section
The YUNiversity grammar blog
What grammar points do you have trouble with? Let us know, in a comment below.
Image: wha? by lupinehorror on a CC BY 2.0 license.
For more articles, jobs and opportunities, visit our Writing and Publishing hub.