The English Grammar Guide: Everything Writers Need to Know
Let’s get real here.
You’re a creative thinker, not a nitpicky English grammar geek.
When you sit down to write you like to write, not dither around with mechanics. You have freelance writing gig to complete, a marketing email to compose, or a term paper to turn in.
So when your powerful words start flowing, you don’t want to get in their way by thinking about all those little details.
Not to mention the time factor. As in you can barely find the bandwidth to write as it is, let alone edit for grammar.
But you also care about being perceived as intelligent and credible. And you’re smart enough to know that for your writing to be taken seriously, it needs to come across as polished and correct.
The problem is, it’s been a long time since Mrs. Pendergast’s sixth-grade English class. And you were pretty hazy on the grammar rules even back then.
Searching the Internet can quickly turn into a dive down a black hole of examples that don’t really fit (“thanks, but I’m not an ESL student trying to learn English”) and barely remembered terminology (“what the heck are dangling participles and question tags?”).
A handy writing tool like Grammarly or another grammar checker can certainly help, but you need more. What’s a writer with good intentions but limited time and resources to do?
Well, here’s the good news. Language evolves, and as it does, so do our notions about what is “correct.” You might be surprised to learn that some of what Mrs. Pendergast taught you is now considered outmoded.
Of course there are still rules to follow, but read on, and you’ll find they’re no longer quite so intimidating.
And with a little repetition, applying many of them will soon become second nature.
Ready to rock and roll?
Parts of Speech: The Basic Building Blocks of Language
Let’s start with a quick and painless (promise!) grammar lesson by reviewing the parts of speech. Not because you’ll ever need to spot a transitive verb in the present subjunctive at fifty paces, but simply because we need some common terminology for talking about the basic building blocks of language.
Yes, there are subcategories, exceptions, and sometimes even controversies about the parts of speech (you ain’t seen nothin’ until you’ve seen grammarians duking it out over the finer points of language), but for our purposes we’re going to keep this simple.
If you grew up in the United States, you probably remember the old Schoolhouse Rock song: “A noun is a person, place or thing.” Just remember that things can be abstract concepts as well as physical objects, and you’ve got it.
When life hands you lemons, make lemonade. Then find a friend to whom life handed a large bottle of vodka, and take your pitcher of lemonade over to her house.
And speaking of lemon-filled objects, there are both direct and indirect objects. “Kevin hates lemons” would be an example of a direct object. “Kevin gave Michelle his lemons” would be an example of an indirect object.
Finally, you have singular and plural nouns, and common and proper nouns.
A singular noun names one object (“I threw a lemon“), whereas a plural noun names several (“I threw many lemons“). A common noun is a generic name for an object (“I threw a lemon at him“), while a proper noun refers to the object by name (“I threw the lemons at Jeff“).
Verbs come in a variety of flavors (phrasal verbs, verb tenses, irregular verbs, auxiliary verbs, modal verbs, intransitive verbs, past tense, simple present, simple past, active and passive voice…), but we’ll keep things super simple:
Verbs are the action words which describe forms of doing and being.
If I just stepped on a corn flake, does that mean I am now a cereal killer?
Adjectives “modify” (further describe) nouns.
I’m an effective worker. In fact, I’m the most productive person I know when it comes to unimportant tasks!
Adjectives “modify” (further describe) nouns, and they can be comparative or superlative.
Time is extremely precious, so waste it wisely.
Pronouns replace nouns. They come in several varieties (relative pronouns, personal pronouns, demonstrative pronouns), but in basic terms they shorten and simplify sentences that would otherwise be far too long and cumbersome.
When I want your opinion I will give it to you.
(rather than: When Michelle Russell wants the opinion of the person now reading this article Michelle Russell will give that opinion to the person now reading this article.)
A preposition shows the relationship between a noun or pronoun and another element in the sentence.
The shinbone is a device for finding furniture in a dark room.
A conjunction shows the connection between the elements of a sentence structure.
She bought a new boomerang but couldn’t manage to throw the old one away.
A correlative conjunction connect two grammatical items that are equal. Examples would be either/or and both/and.
He both loved and loathed it in equal measure.
Interjections are stand-alone exclamations that act as conversational fillers, often expressing emotion.
Yes! With sufficient thrust behind them, pigs can fly!
Determiners are sometimes considered parts of speech and sometimes not. In either case, they are small words that introduce nouns.
My mother always told me a bargain is an item you don’t need at a price you can’t resist.
Similar to determiners, quantifiers are words that before nouns. However, instead of introducing them, quantifiers give us an amount.
He ate lots of bacon. Lots and lots of bacon.
Punctuation: The Mortar Between the Bricks
When you’re building a house, you don’t just drop one brick on another — you need to cement them together with some mortar. When you’re writing, if the parts of speech are your basic building blocks, then punctuation is that mortar.
Can you imagine reading text without any punctuation at all well in the earliest days of writing that is what it was like you can see how difficult it must have been can’t you
See how that’s like just stacking bricks with nothing to connect them? Add some punctuation and the wall is now firmly constructed:
Can you imagine reading text without any punctuation at all? Well, in the earliest days of writing, that is what it was like. You can see how difficult it must have been, can’t you?
Punctuation gradually evolved in different forms across cultures as a way of helping people figure out where to pause, and for how long, when reading out loud. The problem was, everyone did it differently, This was understandable when all writing was done by hand, but once movable type was invented the need for standardized punctuation became clear.
Even so, we’re still arguing about it. Grammar school might have led you to believe that we’ve successfully standardized things . . . but in a language as fluid as English, there is still a lot of room for interpretation. Let’s go over the main points of confusion, and you’ll see where the hard-and-fast rules are and where you get to decide how you want to punctuate things.
No form of punctuation sparks more controversy than the poor comma.
It’s a horribly overworked symbol to begin with, struggling with a full schedule as a conjunction splitter, quotation clarifier and phrase definer while also moonlighting as a separator of list items. It tries so hard to please everyone, but sadly, we all disagree on its exact job description.
So let’s give the comma a little love here and appreciate it for all that it does.
When a sentence contains an introductory phrase, the comma tells us so by separating it.
Any time a brief pause is indicated, in fact, the comma should be used.
A comma will mysteriously appear whenever one main action happens at the beginning of a sentence, and then even more happens after a conjunction like or, and or but.
Commas also cheerfully separate lists of more than two items, such as a bunch of blogs, a parade of posts, a set of sentences and a party of paragraphs.
Of course if you’re using what is known as the serial comma or the Oxford comma, that would read “. . . a set of sentences, and a party of paragraphs.”
So should you use the serial comma or not? Either is fine. Just be sure you’re consistent about it one way or the other.
In fact, the best general rule of thumb for commas overall is that there is no general rule of thumb. Even the old grammar guide that says to “use a comma wherever you would pause in speaking” is misleading, because we all speak so differently. (Imagine where the commas would fall, for example, in Morgan Freeman’s speech as opposed to Christopher Walken’s!)
One final note. Don’t overuse commas, but keep in mind that sometimes you really do need them to make your meaning clear.
Learn how to cut, marinate, and cook friends!
…reads very differently than…
Learn how to cut, marinate, and cook, friends!
Just sayin.’ 🙂
Colons and Semicolons
The colon is used to signal that some very specific information is coming — most often a list. Sometimes it’s a bulleted or numbered list . . .
There are three types of people in the world:
- those who can count
- those who can’t
. . . and sometimes it’s a list right there in a sentence.
If you want to make sure you get something done today, try adding these to your to-do list: wake up, make to-do list, cross off first two items on to-do list.
The semicolon indicates a pause that’s a little longer than a comma but not quite as long as an end-of-sentence period. It’s an elegant way of joining two phrases or sentences that might otherwise stand alone. This can be desirable when you’re at the editing stage of a post and you want to vary the pacing between shorter, crisper sentences and longer, flowing ones for the sake of variety and interest.
Zach was surprised; Tina turned out to be trustworthy after all.
Just don’t overuse semicolons; it will make you look slightly pretentious.
Apostrophes are very often used to indicate the omission of letters.
Don’t tell me it’s already 10 o’clock!
(replacing the missing letters from do not, it is, and of the clock)
But the primary use of the apostrophe is to show possession. You already know the basic rule for this — use ’s when the possessor is singular and s’ when the possessor is plural.
the cat’s toys (the toys that belong to only one cat)
the cats’ toys (the toys that belong to more than one cat)
However, if the plural form of a noun doesn’t already end in the letter s, you should add ’s rather than s’.
Why did you interrupt the children’s game? (not childrens’)
Here’s a common sticking point — what about when the singular form of a noun ends with an s? Editors wielding opposing manuals of style argue about this one all the time.
The truth is, both of the following forms are acceptable, although the first is generally more preferred:
James’s best friend
James’ best friend
To show possession by more than one singular person or thing, an ’s on the last one is all you need.
Hey, check out Cheryl and LuAnn’s new website!
Finally, be careful not to imply possession where there is none.
One of the best examples of this is what Lynne Truss, author of Eats, Shoots & Leaves, famously bemoans as the “greengrocer’s apostrophe” because of its frequent appearance on produce signs — that tiny bit of punctuation which turns simple, unwary nouns into raving mutants of unnecessary possessiveness.
Orange’s and lemon’s — 2 for $1.00
Freshest crabs’ this side of the Atlantic
Kids’ eat free all day!
These are all, quite simply, clueless mistake’s.
Hyphens and Dashes
The three types of horizontal punctuation marks are:
- the hyphen (the shortest one): –
- the en dash (the middle one): –
- the em dash (the longest one): —
(The en and em dashes are so named because in the days of fixed-type printing presses, they were the width of the capital letter N and the capital letter M, respectively.)
Most people use the hyphen only, and most of the time that’s fine when blogging. However, if you want to be scrupulously correct, you should use the en dash between date ranges and page numbers.
Pages 43–45 explain how World War I (1914–1918) wasn’t actually called that until after World War II (1939–1945) happened.
And you should use the em dash when you want to indicate a sudden shift in thought or tone, give more information, or lend some extra emphasis.
Dash it all anyway, she thought to herself — he looked positively dashing!
Many writers get confused about when to hyphenate compound words (groups of words that act as a single part of speech) and when not to . . . and why the rules seem to change from one sentence to the next. Let’s take a quick look at that.
When the compound word is a noun, hyphenate it when it’s clearly naming one single thing:
Fred gave his daughter-in-law a Jack-in-the-box.
Compound adjectives can be trickier. Here’s the rule — when it comes before the noun it modifies, hyphenate it. When it comes after the noun, don’t.
Look how quickly you became a well-known writer!
but . . .
She was well known for her business acumen.
(Note the exception that when the first word of a compound adjective ends in “-ly,” no hyphen should be used. So in the sentence “It was a beautifully written poem, ” “beautifully written” would not be hyphenated even though it comes before the noun. Hey, what would English be without annoying exceptions?)
Finally, use a hyphen for clarity when there might otherwise be confusion.
Don’t be surprised to see a bunch of fat-cat contributors appear around election time. (Without that hyphen, how would we know this sentence wasn’t talking about a group of overweight people who donate felines?)
Quotation marks serve a few important functions.
They are used, of course, to show when someone’s words are being directly quoted or spoken . . .
“I do not believe so, sir,” replied Jeeves.
. . . but they can also indicate technical jargon, slang, or otherwise unfamiliar or non-standard terms.
The doctor briefly explained the difference between “in vitro” and “in vivo” pregnancies.
Calvin proudly displayed his new “transmogrifier” to Hobbes.
Quotation marks are used around the titles of short works such as poems, songs, book chapters, articles, short stories, and program or presentation titles (but not long works such as entire books or series, which are italicized).
He could never remember whether “In Which Tigger Is Unbounced” came before or after “In Which Piglet Does a Very Grand Thing” in The House at Pooh Corner.
Incidentally, when it comes to dialogue, you should start a new paragraph every time there is a change of speaker — even if the new speaker says only one word. This helps the reader keep track of who is saying what.
“Get over here now!” yelled Harriet.
The biggest confusion about quotation marks is usually over where the punctuation at the end goes — inside or outside?
In the United States, at least, here’s how it works:
Periods and commas go inside the quotes.
“I never said such a thing,” she stated firmly. “And you can quote me on that.”
Colons and semicolons go outside the quotes.
That’s the thing about “Bohemian Rhapsody”; even if you never want to hear it again, you know that you know all the words by heart.
Question marks and exclamation points depend on the context. If the question or exclamation is part of the quote itself, it goes inside, but if it relates to the larger sentence, it goes outside.
“Don’t come near me!” Becky cried.
Did the customer really ask for a “girl cheese sandwich”?
British English is different. Those who “speak American” use double quotation marks, but those who ‘speak British’ use single quotes. British writers also place the comma or period outside the ending quotes rather than inside them.
A bit barmy, eh, mate?
These are the three spaced dots or periods used to show that something has been omitted from a quotation. (They are sometimes also used in a creative sense — but that’s a different story.)
The formal rules can get pretty technical, but unless you’re blogging in the legal or literary field, just remember this. If the part just before the omitted section is the end of a sentence, you should use a period as usual, then the ellipses.
“Yes, it was definitely the ketchup, Your Honor. . . . No, he left the mustard behind.”
And if the missing section occurs mid-sentence, just use the ellipses.
“Over the river . . . through the woods . . . hey, isn’t that Grandma’s house?”
Note the spaces between the ellipsis points — this is technically the right way to do it (and if you were being excruciatingly proper you’d use something even thinner called a “hair space”), but it’s also fine to run them together instead (like…this) as long as you’re consistent about doing it all the time.
Parentheses and Brackets
Parentheses tell us that something helpful but not absolutely necessary is being added.
See this helpful (but not absolutely necessary) parenthetical phrase?
But where does the punctuation go?
If the parenthetical phrase is in the middle of a sentence (like this), punctuation like that comma goes outside the parentheses because it relates to the sentence as a whole.
If the parenthetical phrase ends the sentence, the punctuation still goes outside the parentheses if it relates to the sentence as a whole (like this).
But If the parenthetical phrase is a sentence all by itself, the ending punctuation goes inside the parentheses. (Like this.)
Sometimes you can have both, which is correct even though it looks pretty weird (like this!).
Parentheses are often used as formatting devices to make information visually clearer.
The ideal person: (a) doesn’t smoke, (b) doesn’t drink, © doesn’t do drugs, (d) doesn’t swear, (e) doesn’t get mad, (f) doesn’t exist.
Square brackets are used to show when clarifying information within a quote is not part of the quote itself . . . or around the Latin term sic to show where a mistake really is part of the quote.
“This example [of a blog post] contains no speiling [sic] errors.”
Square brackets have a handful of other specific uses, such as in dictionary definitions, but they can also be utilized as visual or stylistic devices in the same way as parentheses.
What about brackets inside of brackets?
If you need multiple levels of closure [when one enclosed phrase (such as this) is inside another], you should use square brackets on the outside and parentheses on the inside.
If you’re a blogger, you are freer than writers in the more traditional forms of media to have a little fun with punctuation.
So don’t be afraid to use it in creative ways that lend flavor and tone.
You can use ellipsis points to show . . . um, hesitation.
Use long (em) dashes to signal abrupt transitions — like this! No — this!
“Those dashes are also great for showing when a speaker gets cut off in mid-conver — ” she said.
Many bloggers (perhaps too many of us) use emoticons made out of punctuation. 😉
You can even invent your own ways to build . . .
you know . . .
Just use creative punctuation like this sparingly. Be sure that it enhances and clarifies your message rather than needlessly muddling it.
Abbreviations: Handy Linguistic Shortcuts
Abbreviations are useful (and sometimes colorful) devices for shortening common words and phrases, but using them correctly can be a bit confusing.
Do you abbreviate the United States of America as USA or U.S.A.? (I strongly favor the latter, but different strokes for different folks.)
Should you start a sentence with an abbreviation like FYI? (In formal writing this is traditionally frowned upon, but in a blog post it’s usually fine unless it looks clunky.)
What does FUBAR stand for, anyway, and should you spell the whole thing out? (I’m certainly not telling you here, and it entirely depends on your audience.)
If you start blogging for an organization that has a style guide, go with whatever it says. If not, look up the abbreviation in the dictionary for guidance on how to spell and use it properly.
If you’re still in doubt after that, it probably doesn’t matter too much anyway (depending, of course, on your audience). Just pick one way and use it consistently. For example:
If you decide to use periods when abbreviating U.K. (where, incidentally, they refer to periods as “full stops”), be sure you do so when abbreviating E.U. and U.S.A. as well.
If you abbreviate the days of the week, standardize them to three letters each — e.g., Thu. (not Thurs.), Fri. and Sat.
i.e. vs. e.g.
While we’re on the topic of abbreviations, let’s talk about these two Latin terms. They are very often used interchangeably, but they actually mean two different things.
I.e. stands for id est, or “that is.” It’s used to further explain or restate something in different words.
The Hephthalites are known to have practiced polyandry; i.e., the marriage of a woman to two or more men.
E.g. stands for exempli gratia, or “for example.” It’s used to do just that — give one or more examples.
He liked all kinds of leafy green vegetables — e.g., lettuce, spinach and kale.
Here’s a memory aid for recalling when to use each of these two phrases. Instead of worrying about the Latin translations, just remember:
- i.e. = in other words (both start with i) or In essence
- e.g. = example given
Also note that a comma is used after the final period in each of these abbreviations.
To introduce the abbreviation, in most cases you can use either a comma, a semicolon, a colon, an em dash, or a set of parentheses. Again, just be sure you’re consistent in whatever choice you make.
He liked all kinds of leafy green vegetables, e.g., lettuce, spinach and kale.
He liked all kinds of leafy green vegetables; e.g., lettuce, spinach and kale.
He liked all kinds of leafy green vegetables: e.g., lettuce, spinach and kale.
He liked all kinds of leafy green vegetables — e.g., lettuce, spinach and kale.
He liked all kinds of leafy green vegetables (e.g., lettuce, spinach and kale).
The only caveat here is that if the text that follows the i.e. or e.g. could stand as an independent sentence:
They did what they always did at wedding receptions; i.e., she got tipsy and he flirted shamelessly with the new bride.
. . . you should not introduce the phrase with a comma — use any of the other punctuation methods. My own personal preference is the semicolon, as above, but any of them except for the comma would fine.
Foreign Terms: Exotic Expressions
Foreign words are another bone of contention among editors and other professional wordsmiths. The general consensus, though, is that if a term is likely to be unfamiliar to your readers, italicize it.
She executed a perfect nikkyo and her attacker instantly dropped to the floor.
Carmen’ as she watched Alonzo writhe in agony was chilling to watch.
But if the word has become a commonly accepted part of English, there’s no need to italicize.
Sorry — can you please read that back to me verbatim?
The company gave its employees carte blanche to wear whatever they wanted to work.
These same guidelines apply to common Latin abbreviations such as etc. and our buddies i.e., and e.g. from just above — they are now so common that they don’t require italics.
But expect to run into people who will argue that ad nauseam.
Numbers: A Source of “Total” Confusion
Ah, numbers. So many questions about them, and so many ways to be inconsistent. Let’s take a look.
Spelled Out vs. Numerals
Opinions on this differ widely. In general, spelling out numbers comes across as more formal, but possibly a little bit snooty. Of course, depending on the context (She lived at Eighty-Eight Kensington Road, where she routinely inspected the brass railings for dust using her spotless white gloves), that may be exactly what you want.
One common convention is to spell out any numbers from zero through ten and numerals for 11 and higher. But visual consistency should override this, so make exceptions where numbers are close together.
Once her blog posts became easier to read, she went from gaining about 3 subscribers a month to a startling 150.
Don’t begin a sentences with a numeral, even if it’s a small number.
Four hours ago I was simply minding my own business when . . .
Numbers in titles are another point of contention. Should your new list post be titled “10 Ways to Be a Kickass Knitter” or “Ten Ways to Be a Kickass Knitter”? Many writers use numbers in headlines because they’re more quickly readable, but it’s up to you.
Format dates however you like, but be consistent about it. If you start off writing 8/16/99, don’t switch to 06/23/72 later on. If you spell out January 1 when blogging about your New Year’s resolution, don’t update your readers later in the year by sticking letters at the end of the date on May 31st.
Years should be written in numerals, and when they’re abbreviated, the point of the single apostrophe should face left.
Their first single hit the airwaves in 1983, followed by two more in ’86 and ’88.
When referring descriptively to a decade, don’t include an apostrophe between the numbers and the letter s.
He’s a child of the ’80s.
She’s a child of the 80s.
He’s a child of the 1980s.
He’s a child of the ’80’s.
She’s a child of the 80’s.
He’s a child of the 1980’s.
Century names can either use numerals or be spelled out, but should not be capitalized.
Sometimes I wish I’d lived in the 19th century. (or) Sometimes I wish I’d lived in the nineteenth century.
The rule here is pretty much “no rules.” It doesn’t matter if you write 6:30 am, 6:30am, 6:30 AM, 6:30AM, 6:30 a.m., 6:30a.m., 6:30 A.M. or 6:30A.M., as long as you do it the same way everywhere.
(In some countries a period is used in clock times rather than a colon — e.g., 6.30 A.M.)
It’s better to write “noon” and “midnight” rather than “12:00 p.m.” and “12:00 a.m.” (which make people have to think too hard.)
Use the percent sign (27%) or spell it out (27 percent) — either is fine. Pick one way and use it.
The main mistake writers make here is doubling up the currency symbol and the word. If you write $1 dollar it’s like saying “One dollar dollar.” A simple $1 (or 1 dollar or one dollar) is the correct way to go.
Same thing with larger ranges. If someone is already a millionaire, don’t inflate their wealth even further by giving them $10 million dollars. Either $10 million or 10 million dollars is just fine, thank you very much.
In general, any number range, whether dates (1785–1802), pages (pp. 23–38), or some other type, gets that medium-length dash, the en dash, between its numbers.
When giving number ranges within text, don’t mix up words and symbols. People often make this mistake by writing things like They were married from 1975–2010 instead of They were married from 1975 to 2010.
Now let’s move into some of the typical areas where writers get confused. You know the ones I’m talking about — those tricky cases where you just know there’s a rule, but you can never remember what it is.
The “subject” of a sentence is whatever person or thing is doing the main action — what you might call the primary noun (or nouns). The subject should “agree” with the verb about whether they should both be singular or plural.
To mix them just sounds wrong. If I were to write “You and I is smart,” you’d know that one of us wasn’t.
But subject/verb agreement gets trickier with vague-sounding pronouns and more complex sentences.
The word and makes a subject plural (i.e., there is more than one main actor), so the verb should be plural too.
You and I are smart.
With the word or, it depends on the actors. If they’re both singular, the verb should be singular.
Goran or Lisa was at the pub every single time I walked in.
But if one is singular and the other is plural, the verb should agree with the one closest to it.
Either a candle or flowers were sitting on the Chens’ mantelpiece at all times.
In the case of “indefinite pronouns” (so called because they refer to somewhat vague numbers of things), you should determine whether the noun the pronoun refers to is singular or plural.
None of the food is very healthy.
(“food” is a collective noun that stands for one thing, so use the singular verb “is”)
None of them are going to the movie.
(“them” indicates multiple people, so use the plural verb “are”)
Anybody here want seconds?
(“anybody” refers to any one body/person, so it’s singular — use the singular verb “want”)
Most of my guest posts were quickly published.
(“most” refers to a number of individual posts, so use the plural verb “were”)
But amazingly, neither the post about the mating habits of the Brazilian termite nor the one on different types of postage stamp adhesive was accepted anywhere.
(both “neither” and “nor” refer to one single post, so use the singular verb “was”)
Don’t get confused by interrupting phrases and relative clauses. Like newly infatuated lovers, the subject and verb will always agree with each other no matter what comes between them.
That painter with the big orange pickup truck filled to the brim with buckets, brushes and ladders drives down my street every day.
That vs. Which
This is an old problem with a surprisingly easy solution. Look at the phrase or clause you’re considering and ask yourself, “If I take it out, will the sentence still have the same basic meaning?”
If the answer is yes, use which.
If the answer is no, use that.
Another way of looking at it is to consider whether the clause is, or could go, inside a pair of commas. If so, use which. If not, use that.
The map, which they used to drive cross-country, is in the glove compartment.
The map that they used to drive cross-country is in the glove compartment.
Both sentences tell us that the map in question is in the glove compartment, but mean different things.
In the first sentence, what the people used the map for is incidental. It’s as though the writer is saying, “The map is in the glove compartment. Oh, yeah — by the way, they used it to drive cross-country.”
The second sentence, on the other hand, refers to the specific map they used. (There could be other maps, too.) “Where is the map they used to drive cross-country? It’s in the glove compartment.”
First case, extra information. Second case, central to the plot.
See the difference?
Who vs. Whom
Running a close second behind “that vs. which” in the confusion competition is the “who vs. whom” conundrum. This is another tricky dilemma with a simple solution.
If you could substitute “he or “she,” use who.
If you could substitute “him” or “her,” use whom.
I haven’t seen the guy who lives down that hallway for weeks.
(because he, not him, lives down that hallway)
The kids, one of whom was fortunately wearing glow-in-the-dark sneakers, were found later that night.
(because one of him, not one of he, was found)
If this is unclear, switch the pieces of the sentence around first and then see which word works better.
For example, is “Who do you think will win?” correct, or should it be “whom”?
- First switch the sentence so that it reads “Do you think WHO will win?”
- Now do the substitution both ways. Which sounds right, “Do you think HE will win?” or “Do you think HIM will win?”
- Obviously it’s the first one, so “Who do you think will win?” is correct.
What about this one? “I wonder who I’ll be paired up with for the scavenger hunt.”
- First switch the sentence around: “I wonder I’ll be paired up with WHO for the scavenger hunt.” (I know that sentence is awkward and incorrect, but it’s just for the sake of figuring this out.)
- Now which is right — “I wonder I’ll be paired up with SHE for the scavenger hunt” or “I wonder I’ll be paired up with HER for the scavenger hunt”?
- HER sounds correct, so the original sentence should read, “I wonder whom I’ll be paired up with for the scavenger hunt.”
In casual conversation, though, sometimes whom sounds a bit stilted. “Whom should I cheer for?” (or, for complete sticklers, “For whom should I cheer?”) is technically correct, but the people next to you at the big game may look at you strangely, and not just because you don’t know which side you’re on.
So when it comes to your blog, know which way is correct, but don’t be afraid to bend the rules a bit here for the sake of sounding more conversational.
Who vs. That
I’ve saved this one for last because, frankly, I don’t agree with the rule.
I strongly feel that writers should always refer to people as “who” rather than “that.” However, my research indicates that my strong opinion on the matter has become outdated.
I flinch whenever I read (or hear) sentences like “Kobe Bryant is the athlete that inspired me to play basketball.” Not that Kobe needs my help, but to my ear, referring to him as “that” instead of “who” dehumanizes him.
Apparently, I’m old-fashioned in believing that people are people, not things. But for the record, it is now apparently permissible to refer to people as either “the folks who” or “the folks that.” (Ew.)
I’m pleased to say, though, that a thing is still always a “that.”
You can’t say “the company who patented the Giant Gizmo” because a company (the opinions of corporate lawyers notwithstanding) is not a person. It’s a non-living entity (the opinions of some science fiction writers notwithstanding). So you need to say “the company that patented the Giant Gizmo.”
More Tricks (& Traps) of the Writing Trade
We writers are living in tough linguistic times. The lines between formal written language and the more casual spoken word have blurred tremendously with the explosion of personal computers, e-mail, and the Internet.
So how do you successfully walk those lines? How do you ensure that your posts are conversational yet correct, compelling yet credible?
To return to our “building blocks” metaphor from earlier in the post, you need to take a step back from the level of the individual bricks (what we’ve been discussing up until this point) and consider the overall construction of your building.
Your goal as a writer isn’t to simply heap up ramshackle stacks of words. You want to move people. Inspire them. Educate them. Persuade them to think differently. To take action.
To do that, you need to look at the larger issues. Are your walls straight and attractively laid out? Does your building look inviting? Can you construct its rooms so that visitors are naturally led from one to the other in the sequence you’ve designed?
Much of this ability comes with the study and practice of effective writing techniques, and is outside the scope of a single post on grammar, no matter how long. What I can show you today, though, are some of the common ways writers leave stumbling blocks scattered around the floors of their word-rooms.
Clean those up, and you’ve gone a long way toward leaving a clear path through your writing.