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9 Grammar Rules all Bloggers Need to Know

Posted by on 10th Oct 2007 | 45 comments

Suffering from impotence, a man visits serveral doctors asking for help. All to no avail. Finally, out of desperation, he visits a witch-doctor. The witch-doctor gives him a potion that can only be used once a year and tells him to take it before he is ready to be intimate. Then, when the time is right he should say “1, 2, 3″ and his impotence will be cured for as long as he likes.

The man asks, “How do I make the potion stop working?”

“Oh, that’s easy,” the doctor replies, “You just say, “1, 2, 3, 4.”

That evening before he enters the house, the man drinks the potion. He surprises his wife by immediately leading her to the bedroom. Things are going well and the man whispers, “1, 2, 3.”

His wife gives him a funny look and asks, “What’d you say 1, 2, 3 for?”

And that is why you never end a sentence with a preposition!

Oh grammar, why must you be so funny? Okay, so it isn’t really funny or fun, but it is important. As promised, I will do my very best to make a very droll subject interesting. Grammar is one of those things that, when not done correctly, can make you look really stupid really fast. The careless use of “I could care less” can cause someone to start ignoring you faster than you can say “irregardless.”

The most important thing to remember – before you scroll past this post – is that all of the rules I’m sharing with you today apply to you. Even if you are not a blogger, following these basic rules will make you sound smarter regardless of your audience. Correct grammar is key if you want to be taken seriously in any venue. Breaking the rules can be fun and all, but you have to know them first.

Since the World Series is just a couple of weeks away, I decided the magic number for this post would be nine. So here are nine grammar rules that are often broken.

1. Who/Whom

The best way to figure out if you should be using who or whom in a sentence is to reword it. You can use the pronoun to determine the correct word. Here is an example:

Who/Whom is the best blogger ever?
He/Him is the best blogger ever.

Recite the second sentence (either aloud or in your head – whichever makes you feel less nerdy (Let’s face it, as bloggers our nerd quotients are probably high enough already) and decide which pronoun is correct. Are you done? Did you say “He” is the correct answer? Good. You’re right. And since we’d use “He” we know that the correct possessive is “Who.” You can use this replacement trick without fail and you’ll never misuse who/whom again.

2. Compliment/Complement

Do you know this one? If you do that’s great, but you might be surprised how many people get this wrong. Let’s say I wanted to tell my coworker (via email, of course) that her hat really goes well with her shirt. I would write:

“Your hat really complements your shirt.”

If I wrote that her hat “compliments” her shirt then I would be saying that her hat paid her shirt a compliment, not that it was a good pairing. I have a mnemonic device that I use for this: “I complIment you. My E-ring complements my necklace.” Yup, it’s lame, but it works.

3. However,
People are constantly messing this one up. The grammatically correct way to use “however” is at the beginning of a sentence, followed by a comma. Need a mnemonic? “However has a cap and a comma.” “Cap” being the capital letter at the start of the sentence. Repeat this a few times a day for a week or so and it will be forever stuck in your brain, I promise.

4. Split Infinitives
You’ve heard this term, but do you know what it means? It is actually very simple: an infinitive is simply a verb with the word “to” preceding it: to run, to write, to dance. The key is to keep the “to” and the verb together and not separate them by other words. The most likely offenders in a split infinitive are adverbs: to quickly run, to calmly write, to slowly dance. The correct way is to keep the infinitive together and follow it with the adverb: to run quickly, to write calmly, to dance slowly.

5. Lie, Lay, Lain, Laid, Lying

For such short little words, “lie” and “lay” can really cause big problems. You lie down on a bed. You lay a CD on the passenger seat. In an example from her book Painless Grammar, Rebecca Elliott, offers up this handy example:

For lie:
“Today I lie in bed.
Yesterday I lay in bed.
Many times I have lain in bed.
Yesterday I was lying in bed all day.”

For lay:
“Today I lay the book on the counter.
Yesterday I laid the book on the counter.
Many times I have laid the book on the counter.
Yesterday I was laying the book on the counter when Mom came home.”

6. Prepositions

The rule (and the joke) says that you should never end a sentence with a preposition. However, this is one of those rules that can be broken in some instances. The problem is, when you rearrange a sentence to make sure it doesn’t end with a preposition, it often comes out awkward. Let’s say I write, “This is the class for which I registered.” Grammatically, that is totally correct. Too bad it sounds weird and stuffy, especially if I am writing dialogue. So I write: “This is the class I registered for.” Half the English language snobs gasp and the other half shrug, realizing that sometimes you just gotta go with what sounds right.

7.1. When to Use Commas

At times, I tend to go a bit comma crazy. Some people suffer from the exact opposite disorder, making their way through entire paragraphs without a comma to be found. Having a handy list of instances for using commas helps me curb my obsession:

  • Before a coordinating conjunction (and, but, for, or, so, yet) that introduces an independ clause (a clause that can stand alone as a complete sentence)
  • After conjunctive adverbs (however, finally, furthermore, indeed, meanwhile, nevertheless, therefore, unfortunately)
  • After most introductory phrases and clauses (the part of a sentence preceding the subject and verb is usually an introductory phrase)
  • To emphasize an adverb
  • (I typed, quickly, to meet my deadline)

  • When adjectives come after the noun
  • In lists
  • With cities and states, addresses and dates
  • In numbers > 999
  • With direct quotations

Are you asleep yet? Perhaps it’s time for a seventh inning stretch. Here’s another grammar joke: How is a cat like a comma? I will get back to that at the end of the article. For now, let’s move on to the last two and a half rules.

7.2. Commas Continued…

Here are some more occassions to use commas:

  • When speaking directly to someone
  • Before and/or after an interjection, a parenthetical expression or a title after a person’s name
  • Between consecutive adjectives (This morning was a rainy start to a soggy, gray, cloudy, dark day.)
  • Before and/or after some Latin abbreviations (I love blogging, writing, reading, etc.)
  • After greetings and before closings – in friendly letters
  • Before and after appositives (Our supervisor, John Doe, is a poor manager.)
  • To indicate omitted words (“Saturday I went out for lunch; Sunday, dinner.”)

8. Always Use Complete Sentences?

This is a fun rule to break. So fun! Before I tell you when it is okay to break it, I will first define it. A complete sentence has a subject and a verb: “I write.” Easy enough. Generally, it is a good idea to follow this rule. Some fragments for style can be acceptable, but this can easily get too “cute” and your readers will get annoyed. Here are three instances where you can use fragments:

  1. When used for emphasis: “I thought my grades would be great, but when I got my report card I had Fs. Three Fs!”
  2. When used for informal dialogue: “Gonna see a movie?” “Sure.” “At ten?” “Nah. Too late. Seven?” “Okay.”
  3. When used for exclamations and interjections: “Wow!” “Ouch!” “Hell, Yeah!”

9. Cut the Crap

When we are speaking, an extra “a” or “of” here and there does not make a conversation awkward. However, when you are writing, be sure you take the time to cut out extra words. You want to use the words you need and ditch the rest. A good example of this is when someone writes: “He sat down on the chair.” When you sit, you are nearly always sitting down. It is safe to cut that word. “He sat on the chair.” Always use the least amount of words you can get away with. As a blogger, you are generally not writing to word count or page inches. This gives you the freedom to be as brief as you want to be. You might find reading aloud to be useful in helping you weed out the extras.

With that, I will leave you to your own devices. But before I go, I know you’re dying to know the punchline to the cat joke, so here it is: A cat has claws at the end of its paws and a comma is a pause at the end of a clause. That is without a doubt the nerdiest joke I have ever heard – and I work in IT!

I am a strong advocate for breaking rules in most situations. However, as far as grammar goes, the best plan is to buy a grammar guide so you are prepared. Then, when you’re in doubt, look it up. The thirty seconds you spend checking for accuracy could save you many readers and much respect.


45 comments - Leave a reply
  • Posted by Marko Novak on 10th Oct 2007

    This post helped me a lot. I just have to remember all the rules. My native language is Slovenian and you can imagine how many problems do I have with English grammar.

  • Posted by Nick on 10th Oct 2007

    "His wife gives him a funny look and asks, “What’d you say 1, 2, 3 for?”"

    That almost makes sense, except for the fact that guy didn't say "for" his wife did, therefore not affecting the spell, so its kind of funny but the logic is not right :idea:

  • Posted by Garry Conn on 10th Oct 2007

    :shock:

    From what people tell me from other countries, English language is very difficult to learn. I have many friends the speak 3 or 4 different languages and they all say the same.

    Heck for that matter, English is so screwed up, a lot of Americans can't even speak it correctly. :)

  • Posted by Sara Christensen on 10th Oct 2007

    Nick,

    I guess I should have worded it more carefully, making it clear that anyone could say "for" and the spell would end. =)

    Sara

  • Posted by Armen on 10th Oct 2007

    I have read quite a number of posts dealing with grammar issues. However, most of them address such basic grammar, it's usually pretty worthless. This, without a doubt, is the most useful grammar post I've ever read. Top job Sara, thanks!

  • Posted by monique on 10th Oct 2007

    Great tips! The one I *hate* (and unfortunately see all the time) is: "peak" vs. "peek". I don't know how many bloggers I've seen offering me a "peak" at something of theirs! Grrr.

  • Posted by Mal Dow on 11th Oct 2007

    Great post, Sara.

    The one that really gets up my nose is people writing "your" when they mean "you're".

  • Posted by jblanton on 11th Oct 2007

    Mal Dow,

    I found that out the hard way in my post earlier. Used your when I meant you're. I have to be more careful. I should have reviewed this post first. Would have saved me taking a black eye. :???:

  • Posted by Chuck Foxtrot on 11th Oct 2007

    My personal pet peeve is the use of 'then' when the author should use 'than.' Another one is 'of' as in '…could of' when clearly it should be 'could have.'

    Although I shouldn't be quite as big a snob since lie/lay gives me fits…

    Thanks for the post, Sara

  • Posted by Angel on 11th Oct 2007

    As long as you have The Elements of Style and On Writing Well you can't fail. It isn't rocket science, although writing with flair takes practice.

    I would, however, be apprehensive about using "however" at the beginning of a sentence all the time. I find it ugly. I think it's acceptable to use the word elsewhere.

  • Posted by CJ on 11th Oct 2007

    In regards your number 3 point, about "however"…

    While it is true that many people forget the comma after the 'however' that they place at the start of the sentence, using the word at the beginning of a statement is, I believe, the bigger grammatical mistake. For instance, when used like this…

    "However, when you think about the use of the word, what you'll discover…"

    …isn't correct. Rather, it should be used after the verb so as it looks like this…

    "When you think about the use of the word, however, what you'll discover…"

    In fact, I believe the only time it's ever correct to use the word at the start of a sentence is when qualifying something, for isntance, time or distance or spacial relationships, as in this example…

    "However long the movie may have seemed, it was rude to keep walking in and out of the theatre."

    Anyway, just my two cents.

  • Posted by Gunnar Bengtsson on 11th Oct 2007

    Pretty good post, but I was surprised to see split infinitives in that list. I thought the split infinitive myth had been properly laid to rest now, but I guess not.

    Splitting infinitives was done all the time in English in the eighteenth and nineteenth century. In the mid-nineteenth century, Henry Alford in his book A Plea for the Queen's English misguidedly called it a crime. (Some linguists trace the taboo to the Victorians' slavish fondness for Latin, a language in which you can't divide an infinitive.) This "rule" was popular for half a century, until leading grammarians debunked it. But its ghost has proved more durable than Freddie Krueger.

    The truth is, many sentences can't be formed without "splitting the infintive", as rearranging the words to get around the so called rule would sound impossibly convoluted and even change the meaning on occasion. Take a look at these two sentences:

    Kate's landlord wanted to flatly forbid singing.

    Kate's landlord wanted to forbid singing flatly.

    Grammar phobia is a good place to look at grammar rules that are actually old superstitions that modern grammarians no longer accept.

  • Posted by Jack on 11th Oct 2007

    Missed the famous one – ' and when to use '.

    Example one – contraction. We're (We are)

    Example two – possession. Bobby's horse.

    Example three – Possession with plural. The 3 girls have have five dolls. The girls' dolls are on the floor.

    I am sure you can think of others.

  • Posted by raj on 11th Oct 2007

    Great tips. It's good to be reminded. I've found that my grammar has actually degraded since taking up blogging. Well, in the past year anyway. Part of is that blogging is generally far more fast-paced a career than for print.

    However, I hope you don't mind me pointing out that it's not "neumonic". It's "mnemonic" (Think of that Keanu Reeves movie, Johnny Mnemonic.)

  • Posted by Michael on 11th Oct 2007

    Certainly helpful, I need to keep rereading this until it sinks in.

  • Posted by Sara Christensen on 11th Oct 2007

    Michael,

    My fault for not spellchecking. I do actually know how to spell it, just a typo. And I absolutely don't mind you pointing it out. Shame on me for writing a post about grammar and including a misspelling. Ick. =)

    CJ,

    What is your source for the "However" rules?

    Gunnar,

    My very favorite poet (John Donne) is a well-known infinitive-splitter. It is my understanding, though, that it is not strictly correct. Although in the example you give it is clearly necessary. I will definitely be looking into resources about it being a myth. Oh, the beauty of English and its seemingly endless exceptions.

    Thanks everyone for all the great conversation and feedback!

    Sara

  • Posted by Tom on 12th Oct 2007

    - It's mnemonic, not neumonic.

    - There's nothing wrong with split infinitives

    - There's nothing wrong with ending a sentence in a preposition.

  • Posted by Nate on 12th Oct 2007

    Thank you for a great list! I'll have to quickly add ( :wink: ) it to my recently StumbledUpon list.

  • Posted by Mgccl on 12th Oct 2007

    Split Infinitives? does anyone ever use that anymore?
    I mean, English is not my first language but I know not to use “to quickly run”.. it just doesn’t sound right.

  • Posted by Sara Christensen on 12th Oct 2007

    I corrected the spelling of mnemonic because it was driving me (and apparently some of you as well) crazy.

  • Posted by Rob O. on 13th Oct 2007

    One of my pet peeves:

    "IBM have announced details of a new widget…"

    That’s not quite right. It should either be:

    "IBM has announced…"

    or:

    "The so-called geniuses at IBM have announced…"

    The first example refers to the company as a single entity, whereas the second is referring to several people.

  • Posted by Rob O. on 13th Oct 2007

    Also, anytime "whilest" is used in a blog post, you immediately sense that the author is a very inexperienced writer.

    And almost certainly a guy who's already bought his ticket to this year's Renaissance Faire.

    And maybe all of about 14 years old.

  • Posted by Sara Christensen on 13th Oct 2007

    Rob,

    Renaissance Faire. Hilarious!!

    Sara

  • Posted by Rob O. on 13th Oct 2007

    Ah, well okay, RAJ, perhaps this is the point where I discover what condiment goes best with crow. How very American of me…

    :oops:

  • Posted by raj on 13th Oct 2007

    I’m assuming, Rob, that you meant “whilst”. At first, I thought the same as you. However, it seems that I see “whilst” used a fair bit by Australian and UK bloggers – not so much by American and Canadian bloggers.

  • Posted by cerebralmum on 14th Oct 2007

    I really think that starting sentences with conjunctions should have got a mention. Because I do it far too often. :lol:

  • Posted by Cugat on 14th Oct 2007

    "This is the class for which I registered" sounds perfectly fine to me, but maybe that's because I like properly structured sentences. (Does that make me stuffy or a grammar snob? Perhaps.)

  • Posted by John Manzo on 19th Jan 2008

    Seconding Gunnar and others. The "rule" about splitting infinitives is an arbitrary one. There is nothing–NOTHING–ungrammatical about splitting infinitives; it is merely a convention in usage, and a pretty silly one at that. We should all be happy to see it dead.

    There is, additionally, nothing incorrect or ungrammatical about ending a sentence with a preposition.

  • Posted by BS on 21st Jan 2008

    Well written advice, but in light of the subject matter dealt with, wouldn't that be, 'the other half shrugs', in the the third person singular in point 6?

    Not wanting to be stickler, this seems nonetheless to be a case in point. Goes to show you that one cannot be too careful.

  • Posted by Simon Townley on 29th Jan 2008

    Oh no, not the split infinitive myth again. It's perfectly acceptable to split infinitives in English. Always has been. The whole idea about not splitting infinitives got imported from Latin by some pompous types, and the myth keeps doing the rounds.

  • Posted by Peter B on 15th Feb 2008

    The who/whom and while/whilst distinctions are gratefully going away in most forms of English. Who/whom is a hangover from the days when English was an inflected lingo and changed pronouns and nouns for case.

    Who is the nominative/accusative and whom is the dative/genitive.

  • Posted by Tora Kiyoshi on 9th Mar 2008

    You have a typographical error in section 7.1. There is no such thing as an "independ clause." However, there is such a thing as an independent clause.

    I need to investigate more about the use of "however." One of my English instructors said however could be used after a semicolon; however, he was not very specific on when or how it could be done.

    -=TK

  • Posted by Will K on 12th May 2008

    I, too, have to disagree with #3. As Henry David Thoreau so pointedly recommended:

    "If a man does not keep pace with his companions, perhaps it is because he hears a different drummer. Let him step to the music which he hears, however measured or far away."

    And from Merriam-Webster:

    "I will help however I can."

    I think it's safe to say that however should go in the beginning of a clause, rather than a sentence, unless you are using it as Thoreau did.

    The rest is "da bomb." Nice post!

  • Posted by english make perfect on 20th May 2008

    :idea: you not only need to know blogging but also you need to know your language :shock:

  • Posted by Flimjo on 5th Jun 2008

    I was an English major, and some of these typical grammar mistakes drive me nuts. The split infinitives, in particular, are such a pet peeve. People don't realize how composition flows more naturally with better grammar. There are so many blogs out there with grammar and spelling mistakes left and right. These tips are great for improving the content of one's blog.

  • Posted by EditorJack on 5th Sep 2008

    There is NOTHING wrong with splitting infinitives–NOTHING, do you hear? I have a degree in English and have been a book editor and publisher for nearly 30 years. PLEASE put this "rule" to rest.

  • Posted by Marie on 6th Sep 2008

    Excellent post, Sara! However, you misspelled the word occasions under item 7, and you should replace least amount of with fewest in item 9!

  • Posted by Christy on 8th Sep 2008

    This was an absolutely wonderful article. Thank you so very much! I plan on printing and studying it!

    Christy

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  • Posted by MoneyWhiz on 13th Dec 2008

    Thanks for the tips, I'll be sure to keep them in mind when I write posts for my blog.

  • Posted by Bill in Detroit on 13th Dec 2008

    Kate’s landlord wanted to forbid singing flatly.

    Bad boy, Gunnar.

    Kate's landlord flatly wanted to forbid singing.

    "un-splits" the infinitive and still conveys the very definite prohibition against singing.

  • Posted by Yosemite1967 on 23rd Dec 2008

    I was taught that compound sentences should have a comma. For example, a part of one of your sentences was, "Repeat this a few times a day for a week or so and it will be forever stuck in your brain." I would've written, "Repeat this a few times a day for a week or so, and it will be forever stuck in your brain."

    Of course, the way to detect a compound sentence is to check whether each of its parts can stand as a separate sentence. In this test, the example above would be, "Repeat this a few times a day for a week or so. It will be forever stuck in your brain."

    It's my understanding that when one combines two sentences into a single sentence, he or she should separate them with a comma.

  • Posted by ka8 on 20th Oct 2010

    thanks, for the advice it is much more better then any one else's. i will bare it in mind sara when i type the next blog's. i no some people whom could care less but isnt that what these blogs are for!

  • Posted by Franzie on 9th Jan 2011

    Great blog. You touched on many of the grammar errors that bother me when I come across them, and which I believe detract from the impression of authority and professionalism that a really good and enjoyable blog should have.

    You inadvertently brought up an additional error when you stated, "Always use the least amount of words you can get away with." The correct expression is "Always use the least number of words you can get away with." You can count the number of words, so "number" rather than "amount" should be used.

    Stay the course, and keep helping all of us learn grammatical turns to watch out for!