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.
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.
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.
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:
“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.”
“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.”
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
- When adjectives come after the noun
- In lists
- With cities and states, addresses and dates
- In numbers > 999
- With direct quotations
(I typed, quickly, to meet my deadline)
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:
- When used for emphasis: “I thought my grades would be great, but when I got my report card I had Fs. Three Fs!”
- When used for informal dialogue: “Gonna see a movie?” “Sure.” “At ten?” “Nah. Too late. Seven?” “Okay.”
- 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.