Five common grammatical mix-ups explained

Reading Time: 6 minutes

If you want your writing to be clear and effective, you need to avoid mistakes. That may sound obvious, but some errors are so common they are in danger of becoming accepted as correct. Nope, sorry. The “Rules” are in place for one simple reason—to make sure everyone can understand your meaning.

Does that mean you’re going to have to memorize stuff? Well, it will certainly speed up your writing if you do. Let’s go a few rounds with some of these common mistakes.

1. You’re versus Your

One of the best ways to remember this and other mistakes involving contractions is to recall that the apostrophe means something is missing. “Can’t” is short for “cannot,” “won’t” is short for “will not,” and so on. In the case of “you’re,” the term is short for “you are.” “Are” is a form of the overused verb “to be,” which all writers are told to avoid like the plague, because other verbs are stronger and more colorful. At any rate, “you’re” is used to refer to a single person, as in “You’re my best friend” or “You’re driving me crazy.” If you use the entire expression, the usage becomes clear: “You are my best friend.” If you’re unsure, use both words and see if your sentence makes sense.

“Your,” however, is a possessive. The term refers to something that is owned, as in “your cat,” “your opinion,” “your objective.” The same trick will work here if you are uncertain about the construction. Try substituting “you are” for “your” and see if the sentence works. You wouldn’t say “you are cat is beautiful,” which means you wouldn’t use “you’re cat is beautiful.” The correct usage is “your cat is beautiful”—which incidentally is what you’d better tell all cat people, even if their animal is a monster.

2. They’re, Their, and There

Like “you’re,” “they’re” is a contraction that stands for “they are.” Examples might include “They’re going to the beach,” or “They’re planning to remodel the basement.” Use what you just learned about “you’re” and proceed accordingly, with the proviso that “they” means you’re referring to more than one person.

“Their” is the possessive form of “they,” so it is used to refer to things that belong to others: their house, their vacation, their beliefs.

“There” refers to a geographical location: “The arena is over there.” Remember that “here” is contained in “there,” and you have a handy little device to help you remember you’re talking about a physical dimension.

3. It’s versus Its

Once again, this is the difference between a contraction and a possessive form. “It’s” is short for “it is,” and you can figure out if you’re using the word correctly by using both words. “It’s a long way to Tipperary” is correct, because you would say “It is a long way to Tipperary” (if you’re into English/Irish music hall songs from the World War I era.)

“Its” is a possessive, and indicates ownership. “The cow chewed its cud” is mildly disgusting but grammatically correct. Once again, try the trick and use the whole expression: “The cow chewed it is cud.” No. Don’t do that.

4. Then versus Than

This one is more difficult to remember because there is no helpful apostrophe to let you know you’re using a contraction. You’re just going to have to memorize the correct format, which comes down to understanding the distinction between a measure of time (then) and a comparison (than). You might help yourself by remembering there is an “e” in “then” and in “time,’ and an “a” in “than,” and in “comparison.” Yes, it’s clumsy, sorry.

Examples: “I want to go to the zoo first, then go shopping.”

But: “I like the zoo better than the mall.”

5. Who versus Whom

Oh, this one stumps everybody. Even experienced writers find themselves looking up the format, because insisting on correct usage can sometimes result in sounding snooty and pedantic, like the head butler at Downton Abbey. “Whom do you wish to see?” is technically accurate but the speaker sounds like a stuffed shirt. In the spirit of learning the right way to write though, let’s dive in.

Actually, let’s not dive in, because who vs. whom deserves a paper of its own, as it can be extremely complex. Instead, try using a trick to decide which is correct.

When you run up against a sentence like this: “Who/whom ate my sandwich?” and aren’t sure what to use, put he/she and him/her in place of the who/whom conundrum. You’d say, “He ate the sandwich” or “She ate the sandwich,” not “Him ate the sandwich” or “Her ate the sandwich.” Therefore, “who” is the word you want in this context.

Doing this handy little substitution will save you from having to study direct and indirect objects, and all the various ways actions can be performed upon them. Okay, well, if you insist–technically “who” refers to the subject of a sentence, while “whom” refers to the object acted upon by the verb. There!

Judgement calls

Some distinctions are even more complex and appear to have no clear guidance, such as “further” and “farther.” Fortunately, or unfortunately, depending on your viewpoint, there doesn’t seem to be a precise ruling on this one. No less an authority than Merriam-Webster suggests that the best guide is how the sentence sounds; for example, you wouldn’t say, “I have farther information.”

Both words can function as verbs, adjectives, or adverbs, and have different meanings depending on how they’re used. However, there are no true hard-and-fast rules here. We do know that “further” is older, and that “farther” developed as a variant to the term when people were speaking Middle English. The most common thinking is that “farther” refers to physical distance, as in “That cinema is farther than this one, let’s see the film here”; while “further” refers to a figurative distance: “They were further apart emotionally than ever before.”

Let your ear be your guide, as you are reading things aloud before you turn them in, right?

Metaphors and similes

The difference between metaphors and similes hinges on little words like “like.” They are both vehicles for comparison, but a metaphor is a direct while a simile indirect. That is, a metaphor says one thing IS another: “Time is money.” The metaphor doesn’t say time is like money, or similar to money, it IS money.

A simile is indirect: “She’s cold as ice.” This doesn’t say she IS ice, but that she can be compared to it. The takeaway here is that all similes are metaphors, but the reverse is not true. While both these grammatical forms can enrich your writing, they can also become boring or even obnoxious if overused. If you write, “He was nervous as a cat, busy as a bee, but hopeless as a puppy” your reader is probably going to give up. These constructions add flavor to your writing but shouldn’t be overdone.

Fun stuff

There is a lot of fun to be had with some of the quirks of the English language. These include malapropisms, odd plurals, and collective nouns.

Malapropisms occur when a speaker uses an incorrect word in place of a word that has a similar sound. Someone might say, “I’m amphibious, I can write with either hand,” when the correct word, of course, is ambidextrous. Malapropisms are often used deliberately for comic effect, as the team of Laurel and Hardy did in the 1933 film “Sons of the Desert,” when Stan Laurel explains Oliver Hardy is having a “nervous shakedown.”

These spoken fireworks have been popular with artists from Shakespeare to Gilda Radner to Dr. Who. The name of this verbal goof comes from the 1775 play “The Rivals” by Richard Brinsley Sheridan, who created the character of Mrs. Malaprop. She frequently mixed up her words and sent the audience into hysterics. You might quote Inigo Montoya: “You keep using that word, I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Odd plurals and goofball spellings

English is a very quirky language, and although it usually forms plurals by adding an “s” to a noun – as in one cat, two cats – this is not always the case. Some constructions are just weird—the plural of mouse is mice, but the plural of house is houses, not hice, which you might logically expect. You might put your foot in a boot, but you wouldn’t put your feet in two beet. Meanwhile, some plurals are the same as the singular. The plural of elk is not elks, but elk, and you have one moose and two moose, not two mooses, even though you have one goose and two geese. Go grab a drink, I’ll wait.

Goofy spellings abound as well. You “pay” a bill, but mark it “paid,” not “payed,” though that irritating mistake is starting to crop up on various internet sites.

Collective nouns

While we’re talking about plurals, let’s consider collective nouns, which are single words used to describe groups of things. You’re familiar with a flock of birds, but how about a murder of crows or a clowder of cats?

It’s even more fun to make up your own. What would you call a group of attorneys? How about a shark? A crash of glassware? A thorn of gardeners? The opportunities are endless.

When you have your terminology sorted out and want to join a team where you can put it to use, contact us at Words of Worth.