All of the above is simply an accidental side-effect that happens to the average person. But what about the so-called grammar police? Why do some people (I plead guilty as charged) seem to take grammatical mistakes so seriously? Science has been kind to us and provided the answer to that question as well.
Why do people take grammatical mistakes personally?
Before I started writing this article, the same question popped into my mind. Why do I want people to stop making mistakes in grammar? Why do I see simple blunders as cardinal crimes? Naturally, as one does in this day and age, I decided to Google it. And what I found was shocking to say the least.
I always knew that grammar mistakes made my blood boil and that the feeling was similar to road rage. Thanks to Max at Mic, it’s now confirmed. If you’re like me and can’t avoid feeling confused and enraged at bad grammar, you’ll be happy to know there’s a culprit – your brain. Somewhere along the line, that thinking organ of yours started activating your fight-or-flight response at the sight of bad grammar. Crazy how that happened, am I right? And since fight-or-flight is an automatic reaction caused by stress and danger, you don’t have control over whether it happens or not.
Next time someone asks you why you’re so annoyed, show them this article. And if you’re on the other side, i.e., one of the people who don’t pay much attention to grammar, know that we don’t want to feel this way. To help us not to, take a look at the following common mistakes – and stop making them. Trust me, it will make all the grammarians out there feel a bit better and it will help you look more professional. It’s a win-win situation. As an extra treat, I’ll even reveal some secrets at the end of the article. Spoiler alert: some grammar rules were made to be broken.
Top 20 mistakes in grammar to stop making
1. Your vs. you’re
Although they might sound the same, these two are completely different things. The first one is possessive, meaning you own something. The second one is a contraction, i.e., short form of “you are”. Consider the following examples:
Your dog is cute, can I pet it?
I can’t believe you cheated on me again! You’re such a dog!
As you can see, there’s a difference between owning a dog and being one. And yes, I know this is not a conventional example of a sentence, but I’ve found that boring examples don’t stay with people anyways.
2. Their vs. they’re vs. there
We find ourselves in a similar situation as above, only now we have another word in the mix. If you take the previous explanation into account, you’ll get to the conclusion that “their” is a possessive and “they’re” is a contraction of “they are”. The only thing left is “there”, which refers to a place.
Imagine you know a couple, Jack and Jill. They have a dog and are going to the top of a hill. If you wanted to put all of that in one sentence, it would look like this:
They’re going there with their dog.
3. Its vs. it’s
Now, this one is a conundrum for those about to write. As you know, we mostly add ‘s at the end of a word to mark possession. For example, you’re currently reading an article by one of Assist-o’s writers. So it would be logical that “it’s” means that my dog owns something, right? Well, no.
If I wanted to refer to something owned by the third person, I would need to use “its”. Notice that “it” is a pronoun, so the possessive -s doesn’t work the same way as it does with nouns. To spot this one more easily, remember other possessive pronouns – none of those have apostrophes, do they? Take a look at the following example:
Is that your dog? It’s so cute! What’s its name?
As you can see, we have a contraction of “it is” in the second sentence, followed by a possessive “its” when asked about the dog’s name. Easy-peasy!
4. Whose vs. who’s
To finish up our possessive vs. contraction part of this list, I give you two more words that sound the same, but are not. Since you now know the reasoning behind the possessive -s and pronouns, you’ll see the same logic applies here. We again have “whose” as the possessive and “who’s” as a contraction of “who is” (or “who has”). To illustrate the difference, here’s an example:
[to everyone at the dog park]: Whose dog is this?
[to the cute dog you found]: Who’s lost you, boy?
Since I’ve already mentioned the possessive -s more than once, it would be only fair to mention the plural -s as well. Typically, you’d mark the possessive -s in a word by adding an apostrophe before you add the -s (except when it comes to the pronouns mentioned earlier). The plural -s is simply added to the end of the word, no apostrophes required. But what happens when you have to make an already plural word possessive as well?
5. Plural possessive nouns
If you paid attention earlier, you’re already intrigued about this one. Surely, if you add an -s to mark a noun as plural and then an ‘s to mark group possession, that’s the end of the story. After all, you’ve done everything by the book.
I hate to burst your bubble, but there’s some fine print when it comes to adding the possessive -s to nouns that already end in an -s. In a nutshell, you will only add the apostrophe while leaving out the second -s. Here’s how:
- A noun can end in an -s even if it’s not plural. Take for example the name Hans. If Hans has dogs, you’d only add an apostrophe after his name, resulting in “Hans’ dogs”.
- When it comes to plural nouns, you’ll also only add the apostrophe. For example, Hans’ dogs all have different names. To find out what they are, you’d say: “Hey Hans, what are your dogs’ names?”
6. Then vs. than
One small letter, one big difference, and one of my pet peeves. To avoid making this mistake ever again, keep in mind that “then” refers to a time, whereas “than” implies comparison. Got it? Good. Then don’t make this mistake more than once. See what I did there? Speaking of comparisons…
7. Incomplete comparisons
These always manage to rub me the wrong way. Every time I see a website heading that reads “Better service”, “Better product”, “Close deals faster” or anything similar, I wonder one thing. Better than what? Faster than what? Let me tell you why – it’s misleading advertising and the fact can be easily proven by using grammatical reasoning.
An incomplete comparison makes for an incomplete statement. If a statement is incomplete, you don’t have all the data. If you don’t have all the data, you don’t know what the company is comparing its product to. And if you don’t know what it’s comparing the product to, you can’t check it and potentially refute it. The problem here is not only cosmetic, but also moral. Those who resort to this kind of advertising are aware of the fact they’re misleading their customers and they’re doing it on purpose.
8. Alot vs. a lot
This one’s easy to explain – “alot” is not a word. I repeat, “alot” is not a word. If you don’t believe me, go ahead and Google it.
9. Pros and cons
…Not “pro’s and con’s”. Well, maybe, depending on the meaning you’re going for. Deciding is as simple as thinking about whether you want those words to be plural or possessive. For example, if you’re talking about positive and negative sides of something, you’ll use “pros and cons”. If you’re talking about the rights of a professional and a convict, feel free to opt for “pro’s and con’s (rights)” instead.
10. Between vs. among
Another simple one to keep in mind. “Between” implies two participants, while “among” means three or more. For example:
There was a misunderstanding between my friend and me.
There were some misunderstandings among the team.
11. Me vs. I
Take a look at the following sentence:
Please email those files to Janice and I as soon as you have them.
Sounds fancy, right? And there you go, the reason people use “I” in the wrong places. If you thought that’s the proper use of “I” in the sentence, you were wrong. The sentence should actually look like this:
Please email those files to Janice and me as soon as you have them.
Why, you ask? It’s simple – “I” is the subject form and “me” is the object form. To prevent yourself from making that dire mistake again, just try to remove Janice from the sentence. Now “me” makes sense, doesn’t it?
12. Vice versa vs. visa versa
Please, for the love of everything, stop writing “visa versa” – it’s not a thing. It doesn’t exist, and the proper spelling is “vice versa”. A visa is a document you get when you go to another country and that’s what it should be used for.
13. I.e. vs. e.g. vs. etc.
Since we started the Latin import portion of this list with the whole “vice versa” situation, I thought we’d continue in the same tone. When it comes to these abbreviations, there are three kinds of people:
- Those that avoid them because they’re not sure what they mean.
- Those that use them incorrectly, either because they’re convinced they know what they mean or because they’re unsure.
- Those that know what they mean and use them properly.
And I bet you’ve encountered all three types at some point in your life. In order to eliminate all confusion now and in the future, here’s what those abbreviations are short for and how to use them:
- I.e. = id est. Translated into English, it means “that is”. You will use it when you want to point out that you’re talking about the same thing in different words. Here’s an example sentence:
All employees receive a paycheck, i.e., compensation for their work.
- E.g. = exempli gratia. Or, in English, “for example”. Seems redundant to say, but it should be used for illustrating a situation:
In addition to their paycheck, the employees can use company benefits, e.g., birthday off, paid time off, etc.
- Etc. = et cetera. As you can see from the example above, this abbreviation means “and so on”. Be careful about how you use it, though. Sometimes, depending on the overall quality of your writing, it can make it seem as if you didn’t feel like enumerating more examples. It’s also worth mentioning that, if you put it at the end of a sentence, you shouldn’t add a double full stop.
14. Too vs. to
To stop mixing these two words up, all you need to know is that “too” is used the same way as “as well”. In addition to that, you can use it to modify adjectives. However, there are some comma usage rules:
- When “too” is the last word in a sentence, you need to use a comma before it. This applies only when you use it instead of “as well”.
I love grammar,too.
- If you’re using “too” instead of “as well” and it’s not the last word in the sentence, you’ll need to put commas both before and after it.
I,too, love grammar.
- Finally, if you use it in front of an adjective, keep in mind that you’re dealing with extremes.
I love grammar too much.
When it comes to “to”, remember that you’ll find it in front of nouns and verbs (most of the time). You can use it to express three things:
- An action: I’m going to sign those contracts.
- A destination: Let’s go to lunch first.
- A recipient: Please take these signed contracts to Anna.
15. Affect vs. effect
One’s a verb, the other one’s a noun. When you want to talk about the act of something having influence over you, use affect. On the other hand, when talking about the result of the influence, use effect. See the examples below:
That song always affects my feelings.
That song always has a strong effect on my feelings.
16. Peek vs. peak vs. pique
The three words people either avoid or use in the wrong context. Whatever the case may be, here’s what they actually mean:
- Peek = take a quick look
- Peak = highest point of something
- Pique = to provoke (positively or negatively)
Although this is not the peak of this article, I hope I piqued your interest and you don’t regret taking a peek. See what I did there?
17. Being too passive
And by that, I mean using too much passive voice when it isn’t necessary. Don’t get me wrong – it’s not a matter of avoiding the passive at all costs. It’s more of a dosage and context situation.
For example, if you’re writing content that’s supposed to be engaging and clear, using too much passive will ruin it for you. That said, there are instances when it’s okay to use it and when your sentences will sound just plain weird if you don’t. These are:
- You don’t know who exactly was responsible for doing something.
e.g. The server was hacked.
- You know who did it, but you don’t want to say.
e.g. Some mistakes were made during the client meeting.
- It doesn’t matter who did it.
e.g. A new office building was built in the city center.
- You want to emphasize who was responsible for the action.
e.g. The report was written by me, not Joe.
- You’re writing in a genre that requires you to use the passive voice, such as a scientific paper.
18. Farther vs. further
These both imply distance, so people often use them interchangeably. The truth is, the difference between them is so small that it’s been slowly disappearing for years now. That means that, in a couple of years, we might have only one still in use – my bet’s on “further”.
However, for the time being, we still use them in two different contexts. “Farther” denotes a physical distance, such as meters, kilometers, miles, etc. If we’re talking about an imaginary distance, then “further” comes into play. I know, I know – what’s an imaginary distance, right? Simply put, a distance becomes imaginary when you can’t physically measure it. Think of it this way: your TV is farther away from you than your coffee table, but your life goals seem further and further away.
It’s also important to note that you can use “further” to mean “additionally”. For example, if someone asks you a question, you might want to explain the matter further.
19. Using commas
Before you start reading this in the hopes all your comma prayers will be answered, I have to tell you – they won’t. The fact is, there are too many punctuation rules that involve commas to fit in a paragraph. An idea for a future article? We’ll see. For now, we’ll go through the most common use cases.
- The Oxford comma. I love it, I use it, and I think everyone should. You know when you see a series of three or more items and then a comma before “and”? That’s the Oxford comma. Whether you use it or not depends on the style guide you follow, but I’d make it a must if I could. Why? Because it can nip all confusion and misunderstandings in the bud.
- Separating an introductory word or phrase. As it happens, this is one of those instances when you need to use a comma.
- Separating independent clauses. Before we dive into the how, let’s first cover the what. An independent clause can, by definition, stand on its own. Technically, it doesn’t need the connection to another clause, but you might want to do it anyway for the sake of text flow. When you connect two independent clauses, you need to put a comma before the conjunction. The most common conjunctions that appear in these kinds of sentences are: and, but, or, so, yet. If you aren’t sure what you have are two independent clauses, simply remove the conjunction. If the meaning hasn’t changed, two independent clauses it is.
20. Who vs. that
The last item on this list, but not the least important, according to the number of times I’ve seen these two confused. While it’s true that you can exchange most relative pronouns for “that”, it’s not what happens with “who”. Simply put, you can only refer to things as “that”. Keep that in mind and avoid awkward situations.
Jeesh, that was a lot of rules to follow, right? If you’re nodding in agreement, you’re probably wondering what happened to the promise I made at the beginning. Where are the rules that you can break? And how come you can break them if they’re rules? Who decides whether or not a rule is important? Say no more – let’s get right to it.
Rules in English that were made to be broken
If you’re wondering why some rules are breakable and some aren’t, there’s something you need to know. English grammar hasn’t been prescriptive since the second half of the 20th century. So what does that have to do with anything?
It’s simple – when the grammar of a language is not prescriptive, it means there’s no group of people making up rules. It means that the rules are whatever the native speakers of the language use the most, and that grammar books are there to describe what a native speaker sounds like. That said, there was a time when English grammar was less descriptive and more, well, artificial. And that’s the period from which these breakable rules come from. Take a look and help yourself to a chuckle or two.
1. The word “none” is singular.
This might not seem like a big deal, but think about it. The rule implies that, every time you use “none” in a sentence, the verb should be singular as well. Since most native speakers use it with a plural verb, this is a rule you can freely break. To illustrate the issue, take a look at the following sentences:
None of us was happy.
None of us were happy.
The first one sounds weird, right? After all, you are thinking about more than one person, so using a singular verb just doesn’t fit. Not to get too technical, but this is what we call notional concord. If you want to know more about it, head over to Merriam-Webster.
2. You should under no circumstance end a sentence with a preposition.
While some people still agree with this one and will do anything to stop it, it’s sometimes simply impossible. Don’t get me wrong – when I say impossible, I mean impossible without sounding unnatural. If you need more reasons than that, let me tell you that you can find prepositions at the ends of sentences in textbooks, grammar books, and dictionaries.
To illustrate how ridiculous this rule is, let’s go back in history. Once upon a time, Winston Churchill was criticized for using prepositions at the ends of sentences. As a result, the famous sentence we still refer to today to show exactly how absurd this rule is was born:
“This is the type of errant pedantry up with which I will not put.”
3. Don’t split your infinitives, or else!
To understand why this ever was a rule, we’ll have to take another short, but interesting history lesson. See, there was a time when grammarians saw Latin as the perfect language. So, they used it as inspiration while writing grammar books for other languages, including English.
The tricky part here is that English and Latin don’t have much in common when it comes to infinitives. In short, it’s impossible to split a Latin infinitive to begin with – it’s all one word. Since English infinitives are, in fact, two words, sometimes you simply have to put another word between them. If that wasn’t true, we’d never have the chance “to boldly go where no man has gone before“.
Every language has a set of rules and conventions that can drive you up the wall, and English is no exception. And while language evolves over time, the way we use it now has an impact on how other people see us. For that reason, it’s good to know the current usage guidelines and how to implement them.
Luckily for all of us, the times of getting a grammar book from the nearest bookstore are long gone. The internet helps us share knowledge and, with the help of articles like this one, you don’t have to be a language expert to up your grammar game. All you need to do is identify the mistakes you’re making and start working on them. Go on, bookmark this page – you know it’ll come in handy!