When it comes to grammar, word usage, and the finer points of writing (or speaking) the English language, there are so many rules to remember—and so many opportunities to make mistakes.
Here are a few basic tips to help you understand the more frequent causes of slips, trips, and face-plant falls in your writing.
Lie/Lay/Lain and Lay/Laid/Laid
This is one of the top 10 most common mistakes.
INCORRECT: I like reading more than laying around watching TV.
CORRECT: I like reading more than lying around watching TV.
PRESENT TENSE Lie/Lay
Lie means to rest. (The dog lies in the yard.) It’s an intransitive verb and doesn’t need a direct object. You can’t lie something; however, you can lay something.
Lay is a transitive verb and means to place or to put. Use lay when you can substitute the word set. (She lays the book across her lap.)
PAST TENSE Lay/Laid
The past tense of lie is also lay. So, this is what those sentences would look like in past tense:
The dog lay in the yard.
She laid the book across her lap.
PAST PARTICIPLE Lain/Laid
The past participle of lie is lain.
The dog has lain in the same spot in the yard for a week. (Yes, she’s still alive, it’s just her favorite spot.)
The past participle of lay is laid.
She has laid the book across her lap at 3pm every day since Sunday.
The best way to avoid making a lie/lay mistake is to memorize how the two verbs function:
I want to lie on the beach. I lay on the beach last Saturday. I have often lain on the beach.
Lay the book on the table. She laid the book on the table. She has laid the book on the table many times.
Subject – Predicate(Verb) Agreement
There are 12 different rules of subject/predicate agreement, but I’ll only cover the most common rule that trips many writers.
INCORRECT: The cost of basic necessities such as gasoline and groceries have risen exponentially.
CORRECT: The cost of basic necessities such as gasoline and groceries has risen exponentially.
It’s common to mistakenly pair a plural predicate with a singular subject (or vice versa) when the subject and predicate are separated by a phrase containing singular and/or plural nouns.
In the sample sentence above, the cost is the subject that has risen exponentially. Always keep your eye on the subject.
Who vs. Whom
INCORRECT: Whom shall I say is calling?
CORRECT: Who shall I say is calling?
This rule is easy to understand when you take a minute to mentally rearrange the sentence and exchange the who with she and whom with her.
Who = she
Whom = her
The correct choice is who because she is calling.
It also works with whoever/whomever.
INCORRECT: Tell the story to whoever you want.
CORRECT: Tell the story to whomever you want.
Whoever = she
Whomever = her
The correct choice is whomever because you want to tell the story to her.
Between You and I vs. Between You and Me
INCORRECT: Everyone overheard the disagreement between you and I.
CORRECT: Everyone overheard the disagreement between you and me.
The first sentence may sound correct, but between is a preposition and prepositions must be followed by an object. (Remember the preposition tree from grade school? A preposition can be in a tree, on a tree, near a tree, under a tree, over a tree, for a tree, etc.)
I is a subject/nominative pronoun (as are he, she, we, and they).
Objective pronouns: me, you, him, her, us, and them follow a preposition.
INCORRECT: Everyone overheard the disagreement between you and they.
CORRECT: Everyone overheard the disagreement between you and them.
Me vs. I
I know… You thought we covered that confusing usage in the last example. Well, not quite. Some people automatically assume that if the sentence sounds more formal, it must be the correct word choice. Wrong.
INCORRECT: He brought pizza for Angela and I.
CORRECT: He brought pizza for Angela and me.
Again, think about the preposition tree. In this sentence, Angela and me are direct objects. (Hint: Remove Angela, keep the pizza for yourself, and the correct word choice will be obvious.)
Another grammar slip often occurs in sentences when than or as is used.
INCORRECT: She is smarter than me.
CORRECT: She is smarter than I.
In a comparison using than or as when the last portion of the sentence is dropped, just tack on the missing words and the proper word choice will be obvious.
She is smarter than I am.
With a little practice and a true love for the written word, grammar really can be fun!
I had an early start. On Saturday mornings, in between my favorite cartoons, the 1970’s Schoolhouse Rock! commercials took my Generation-X mind on a musical grammar train with songs like “Conjunction Junction,” “Lolly, Lolly, Lolly, Get Your Adverbs Here,” and “Verb: That’s What’s Happening.” As a matter of fact, I remember having quite a crush on Verb Man.
But I’ll save you from listening to me reminisce while singing the lyrics; instead, I’ll share a list of 31 random writing tips emailed to me by a fellow scribe. I’m sure it’s making the rounds like the urban legend about the tourist’s missing kidney.
1. Verbs HAS to agree with their subjects.
2. Prepositions are not words to end sentences with.
3. And don’t start a sentence with a conjunction.
4. It is wrong to ever split an infinitive.
5. Avoid clichés like the plague. (They’re old hat.)
6. Also, always avoid annoying alliteration.
7. Be more or less specific.
8. Parenthetical remarks (however relevant) are (usually) unnecessary.
9. Also too, never, ever use repetitive redundancies.
10. No sentence fragments.
11. Contractions aren’t necessary and shouldn’t be used.
12. Foreign words and phrases are not apropos.
13. Do not be redundant; do not use more words than necessary; it’s highly superfluous.
14. One should NEVER generalize.
15. Comparisons are as bad as cliches.
16. Eschew ampersands & abbreviations, etc.
17. One-word sentences? Eliminate.
18. Analogies in writing are like feathers on a snake.
19. The passive voice is to be ignored.
20. Eliminate commas, that are, not necessary. Parenthetical words however should be enclosed in commas.
21. Never use a big word when a diminutive one would suffice.
22. Use words correctly, irregardless of how others use them.
23. Understatement is always the absolute best way to put forth earth-shaking ideas.
24. Eliminate quotations. As Ralph Waldo Emerson said, “I hate quotations. Tell me what you know.”
25. If you’ve heard it once, you’ve heard it a thousand times: Resist hyperbole; not one writer in a million can use it correctly.
26. Puns are for children, not groan readers.
27. Go around the barn at high noon to avoid colloquialisms.
28. Even IF a mixed metaphor sings, it should be derailed.
29. Who needs rhetorical questions?
30. Exaggeration is a billion times worse than understatement.
And the last one…
31. Proofread carefully to see if you any words out.
Now, get on that grammar train!
And for a fun grammar resource, check out Grammar Girl’s Quick and Dirty Tips Blog.