Avoiding Grammar Nazis: A Grammar Jew’s Survival Guide

Grammar Nazis. They are people who believe it is their duty to amend any grammar and/or spelling mistakes made by others in conversation. And sadly, I am one of them. Yes, I am a full-time book publicist, a part-time writer, and a part-time Grammar Nazi. But not by choice; it is simply in my system. Who can blame me? I graduated with an AB degree in English and literature (which from the two, I excel better at the former—modesty aside). I also worked as an ESL instructor and as an editor; both jobs trained and required me to automatically correct any grammar and/or spelling error in someone else’s work. It’s automatic, a simple instinctive response to a stimulus. But unlike other Grammar Nazis, I seldom correct people’s post publicly; I would often send them a private message explaining their mistake and how to correct them (unless they are complete strangers, like random commenter on 9gag, MemeCenter, and YouTube, to which I would publicly post my comment concerning the mistake made).

You might ask why do Grammar Nazis do this? There are two main reasons (both of which are personal). One, I just can’t stand an incorrect syntax. Two, it entertains me to correct people’s mistake on syntax, and quite occasionally, to join an argument in a thread.

So, for all the Grammar Jews out there (yeah, I will refer to them as Grammar Jews since they are relentlessly persecuted by Grammar Nazis, see what I did there?), I have come up with a rather helpful list that may help you avoid Grammar Nazis and save yourselves from all the shaming and argument. The following are some of the most common word usage errors.

a, an

Use the indefinite article a before any word beginning with a consonant sound (a utopian [yoo-to-pē-ən] dream). Use an before any word beginning with a vowel sound (an officer) (an honorary [ˈä-nə-ˌrer-ē] degree). The word historical and its variations cause missteps, but since the h in these words is pronounced, it takes an a (an hour-long talk at a historical society). Likewise, an initialism (whose letters are sounded out) may be paired with one article while an acronym (which is pronounced as a word) beginning with the same letter is paired with the other (an HTML website for a HUD program).

affect, effect

Affect, almost always a verb, means “to influence, have an effect on” (the adverse publicity affected the election). Effect, usually a noun, means “outcome, result” (the candidate’s attempted explanations had no effect). But it may also be a verb meaning “to make happen, produce” (the goal had been to effect a major change in campus politics).

already; all ready

The first refers to time (the movie has already started); the second refers to degree of preparation (Are the actors all ready?).

altogether, all together

Altogether means “wholly” or “entirely” (that story is altogether false). All together refers to a unity of time or place (the family will be all together at Thanksgiving).

anyone, any one

The one-word anyone is a singular indefinite pronoun (anyone would know that). The two-word phrase any one is a more emphatic form of any, referring to a single person or thing in a group (Do you recognize any one of those boys?) (I don’t know any one of those stories).

anywhere, any place

The first is preferred for an indefinite location (my keys could be anywhere). But any place (two words) is narrower when you mean “any location” (they couldn’t find any place to sit down and rest). Avoid the one-word anyplace.

awhile, a while

The one-word version is adverbial (let’s stop here awhile). The two-word version is a noun phrase that follows the preposition for or in (she worked for a while before beginning graduate studies).

behalf

In behalf of means “in the interest or for the benefit of” (the decision is in behalf of the patient). On behalf of means “acting as agent or representative of” (on behalf of Mr. Scott, I would like to express heartfelt thanks).

between, among, amid

Between indicates one-to-one relationships (between you and me). Among indicates undefined or collective relationships (honor among thieves). Between has long been recognized as being perfectly appropriate for more than two objects if multiple one-to-one relationships are understood from the context (trade between members of the European Union). Amid is used with mass nouns (amid talk of war), among with plurals of count nouns (among the children). Avoid amidst and amongst.

can, could

Can means “to be able to” and expresses certainty (I can be there in five minutes). Could is better for a sense of uncertainty or a conditional statement (Could you stop at the cleaners today?) (if you send a deposit, we could hold your reservation).

can, may

Can most traditionally applies to physical or mental ability (she can do calculations in her head) (the dog can leap over a six-foot fence). In colloquial English, can also expresses a request for permission (Can I go to the movies?), but this usage is not recommended in formal writing. May suggests possibility (the class may have a pop quiz tomorrow) or permission (you may borrow my car). A denial of permission is properly phrased formally with may not (you may not borrow my credit card) or with cannot or can’t (you can’t use the computer tonight).

capital, capitol

A capital is a seat of government (usually a city) (Austin is the capital of Texas). A capitol is a building in which a legislature meets (the legislature opened its new session in the capitol today).

censor (vb.), censure (vb.)

To censor is to review and cut out objectionable material—that is, to suppress (soldiers’ letters are often censored in wartime). To censure is to criticize strongly or disapprove, or to officially reprimand (the House of Representatives censured the president for the invasion) (In some countries the government censors the press. In the United States the press often censures the government.).

connote, denote

To connote (in reference to language) is to convey an additional meaning, especially an emotive nuance (the new gerund parenting and all that it connotes). To denote (again in reference to language) is to specify the literal meaning of something (the phrase “freezing point” denotes 32 degrees Fahrenheit or 0 degrees Celsius). Both words have figurative uses (all the joy that parenthood connotes) (a smile may not denote happiness).

deserts, desserts

The first are deserved (your just deserts), the second eaten (the many desserts on the menu).

different from, different than

The phrasing different from is generally preferable to different than (this company is different from that one), but sometimes, the adverbial phrase differently than is all but required (she described the scene differently than he did).

ensure, insure, assure

Ensure is the general term meaning to make sure something will (or won’t) happen. In best usage, insure is reserved for underwriting financial risk. So we ensure that we can get time off for a vacation and insure our car against an accident on the trip. We ensure events and insure things. But we assure people that their concerns are being addressed.

every day (adv.), everyday (adj.)

The first is adverbial signifying the frequency of an action; the second is an adjectival that describes a noun in a certain category. (One may wear one’s everyday clothes every day.)

every one, everyone

The two-word version is an emphatic way of saying “each” (every one of them was there); the second is a pronoun equivalent to everybody (everyone was there).

farther, further

The traditional distinction is to use farther for a physical distance (we drove farther north to see the autumn foliage) and further for a figurative distance (let’s examine this further) (look no further).

former, latter

In the best usage, these words apply only to pairs. The former is the first of two, the latter the second of two.

immigrate, emigrate

To immigrate is to enter a country to live, leaving a past home. To emigrate is to leave one country to live in another one. The cognate forms also demand attention. Someone who moves from Ireland to the United States is an immigrant here and an emigrant there. An emigré is also an emigrant, but especially one in political exile.

impact

Resist using this word as a verb. Try affect or influence instead. Besides being hyperbolic, impact used as a verb is widely considered a solecism (though it is gaining ground).

its, it’s

Its is the possessive form of it (that is, it shows ownership); it’s is the contraction for it is (it’s a sad dog that scratches its fleas).

lay, lie

Lay is a transitive verb—that is, it demands a direct object (lay your pencils down). It is inflected lay–laid–laid (I laid the book there yesterday) (these rumors have been laid to rest). (The children’s prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep” is a good mnemonic device for the transitive lay.) Lie is an intransitive verb—that is, it never takes a direct object (lie down and rest). It is inflected lie–lay–lain (she lay down and rested) (he hasn’t yet lain down).

led

This is the correct spelling of the past tense and past participle of the verb lead. It is often misspelled lead, maybe in part because of the pronunciation of the noun lead (the metal) or the past tense and past participle read, which rhyme with led.

lose, loose (vb.), loosen

To lose something is to be deprived of it. To loose something is to release it from fastenings or restraints. To loosen is to make less tight or to ease a restraint. Loose conveys the idea of complete release, whereas loosen refers to only a partial release.

may, might

May expresses what is possible, is factual, or could be factual (I may have turned off the stove, but I can’t recall doing it). Might suggests something that is uncertain, hypothetical, or contrary to fact (I might have won the marathon if I had entered).

onto, on to, on

When is on a preposition and when is it an adverb? The sense of the sentence should tell, but the distinction can be subtle. Onto implies a movement, so it has an adverbial flavor even though it is a preposition (the gymnast jumped onto the bars). When on is part of the verbal phrase, it is an adverb and to is the preposition (the gymnast held on to the bars). One trick is to mentally say “up” before on: if the sentence still makes sense, then onto is probably the right choice. Alone, on does not imply motion (the gymnast is good on the parallel bars).

who, whom

Here are the traditional rules. Who is a nominative pronoun used as (1) the subject of a finite verb (it was Jim who bought the coffee today) or (2) a predicate nominative when it follows a linking verb (that’s who). Whom is an objective pronoun that may appear as (1) the object of a verb (I learned nothing about the man whom I saw) or (2) the object of a preposition (the woman to whom I owe my life). Today there are two countervailing trends: first, there’s a decided tendency to use who colloquially in most contexts; second, among those insecure about their grammar, there’s a tendency to overcorrect oneself and use whom when who would be correct. Writers and editors of formal prose often resist the first of these; everyone should resist the second.

whoever, whomever

Avoid the second unless you are certain of your grammar (give this book to whoever wants it) (I cook for whomever I love). If you are uncertain why these examples are correct, use anyone who or (as in the second example) anyone.

that, which

These are both relative pronouns. In polished American prose, that is used restrictively to narrow a category or identify a particular item being talked about (any building that is taller must be outside the state); which is used nonrestrictively—not to narrow a class or identify a particular item but to add something about an item already identified (alongside the officer trotted a toy poodle, which is hardly a typical police dog). Which should be used restrictively only when it is preceded by a preposition (the situation in which we find ourselves). Otherwise, it is almost always preceded by a comma, a parenthesis, or a dash. In British English, writers and editors seldom observe the distinction between the two words.

there, their, they’re

There denotes a place or direction (stay there). Their is the possessive pronoun (all their good wishes); it is best to remember that their should always be followed by noun or any noun equivalent. They’re is a contraction of they are (they’re calling now), and quite mostly, it is used as a subject of a sentence.

who’s, whose

The first is a contraction (Who’s on first?), the second a possessive (Whose life is it, anyway?). Unlike who and whom, whose may refer to things as well as people (the Commerce Department, whose bailiwick includes intellectual property).

whosever, whoever’s

The first is correct (though increasingly rare) in formal writing (whosever bag that is, it needs to be moved out of the way); the second is acceptable in casual usage (whoever’s dog got into our garbage can, he or she should clean up the mess).

your, you’re

Your is the possessive form of you (like their, it should always be followed by noun or any noun equivalent). You’re is the contraction for you are. (You’re laughing at your sister’s mistake again; that is not a good behaviour.)

These are the list I have come up with. There are a lot lists like this on the Internet though, so it should not be a problem learning how to correct mistakes like these. Should you ever have any clarifications or questions about this topic, feel free to leave them in the comment section below, and I’ll get to you as soon as I can.

66 thoughts on “Avoiding Grammar Nazis: A Grammar Jew’s Survival Guide

Add yours

  1. Wow that was strange. I just wrote an extremely long comment but after I
    clicked submit my comment didn’t show up. Grrrr… well I’m not writing all that over again. Regardless,
    just wanted to say excellent blog!

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