Some rules are meant to be broken and some rules keep you from looking like an idiot. Grammar has both. If you want your writing or speech to be conversational, engaging and comprehensible, remember these 10 basic facts.
1. Thou Shalt Not Freak Out Over Prepositions
A preposition is the wrong thing to end a sentence with. But not really: Most of us don’t speak so stiffly that we’d say, “Grammar lovers are a group of which I’d like to be a part.” It’s cool to say, “Grammar lovers…they’re a group I’d like to be part of.” According to Patricia T. O’Conner, author of Woe Is I, the rule probably stems from the word’s meaning: “preposition” means “position before.” (She also notes that both Milton and Shakespeare ended plenty of sentences with prepositions and they did pretty well for themselves…)
2. Thou Shalt Stop Saying “Should Of”
It’s “should have” as in, “I should have paid more attention to my kindly English comp teacher.” (Same goes for “could of” and “would of.”)
3. Thou Shalt Not Let Your Participles Dangle
Hook your participial phrase to the right wagon, as in “Filled with rotting corpses, the wagon made its morbid way through the center of town.” If the corpses are in the wagon, you keep the phrase near the wagon. “The wagon made its morbid way through the center of town filled with rotting corpses,” is a totally different thing. (And, worst vacation spot ever.)
4. Thou Shalt Not Abuse Quotation Marks
It’s not “homemade” jam. It’s just… homemade jam. People seem to put quotes around a word they want to emphasize, but it’s wrong. Underline or italicize if you must.
5. Thou Shalt Honor the Compound Adjectives
The hyphen is your friend, your tried-and-true friend. If you’re modifying a noun with a series of words that are meant go together, you need to link them with hyphens. (There’s a big difference between a “baby eating dingo” and a “baby-eating dingo.”)
6. Thou Shalt Learn the Difference Between “That” and “Which”
Use “that” when the phrase that follows is essential to your sentence’s subject (called a restrictive clause, it limits the identity of the subject in some way). Use “which”–separated by a comma–when the subsequent clause can be excluded without messing with meaning. Example, “The bike that Jack stole, which had a broken bell, was never reported missing.” More here.
7. Thou Shalt Use “I” Only as a Subject
“I” is a nominative pronoun. Whoever made you think it was proper to always say “you and I” was dead wrong. (And maybe dead: that’s old-fashioned.) “Mom took Grace and I to the store” is wrong; it should be “Grace and me.” (If you can’t remember, take out the other part of the compound object: “Mom took I to the store” doesn’t sound so proper, does it?)
8. Thou Shalt Make Correct Word Choices
Maybe you’ve mastered “you’re” and “your” or “there,” “their,” and “they’re” but word confusion doesn’t end there. For example, “everyday” is a modifier, meaning commonplace or ordinary (think “everyday Joe”), while “every day” means each day.
9. Thou Shalt Refrain from Double Negatives
Parse this out: “I don’t want nobody telling me how to write” actually means you DO want someone to give you tips. “Don’t” and “nobody” cancel one another out. If you’re any good at math, remember it this way: when you multiple two negative numbers, you get a positive.
10. Thou Shalt Literally Ban the Word Literally From Your Vocabulary (Until You Know How To Use It and Even Then Maybe Never)
If you ever catch yourself saying, “I literally DIED” to a friend, then it’s safe to assume you’re a ghost. In this case, literally means you’re dead. “Figuratively” is the correct word to go with, though it doesn’t pack the same punch in claiming you’ve died. Best to just say, “I almost died.” (Much more poetic and mysterious if you trail off at the end, too…)
When you’re finished committing these 10 commandments to memory, check out these additional resources for more grammatical goodness…
Common Mistakes in Speaking English
Common English Grammar Mistakes
How to Avoid Common Grammatical Errors
Weird Al’s song “Word Crimes,” the anti-paean to the Internet community’s abuses of proper language.
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