Outside of your grade-school grammar class, you might not do too much thinking about the nuances of sentence structure. You probably just rely on how something sounds. But all of those tricky word choices have rules to govern them. Whether you’re writing an email or accepting an award, having confidence in your word choices can help you communicate more effectively. We’ve rounded up the 10 most confusing English grammar rules and provided some quick tips that you’ll always remember.
Who vs. Whom
“Who vs. whom” is a grammar rule that always throws people off. In general, “whom” should be used in place of the object of a verb or a preposition. An easy trick to remember: If you can use “him” or “her” to answer the question, use “whom.” If you can only use “he” or “she,” use “who.”
“Who would like to go on vacation?” (He would.)
“To whom was the letter addressed?” (To her.)
Don’t End Sentences With Prepositions
This rule is a little more gray and depends on the context. (We’ve already broken it in this article.) In a chat with a friend or a casual note, it’s fine to end a sentence with a preposition. However, if you’re writing a formal paper or a letter, it’s considered incorrect grammar. This is when “who vs. whom” can come in handy and help you construct your sentences with elegance.
E.G. vs. I.E.
The acronyms “e.g.” and “i.e.” are both abbreviations of Latin phrases and can be used to further explain your point. Using each of these phrases correctly will elevate your writing.
“E.g.” stands for exempli gratia, which translates to “for the sake of example.” It can be used to introduce examples in your sentence. “I love fresh fruit with my desserts, e.g., strawberry shortcake or peach cobbler.”
“I.e.” stands for id est, which means “that is” or “in other words.” “My favorite desserts involve pastry and fresh fruit, i.e., strawberry shortcake”
Is “Neither” Singular or Plural?
“Neither” is a linking word, but it can be confusing to understand how it works with singular or plural verb tenses. There’s not one rule; there are conditions to it.
When “neither” is on its own, it takes a singular verb. Even though two items are up for discussion, the verb remains singular. For example: “Neither sandwich tastes good.”
If you’re using the phrase “neither…nor…,” then the verb matches the subject of the sentence.
Neither coffee nor tea keeps me awake. (Singular verb because coffee and tea are both singular nouns.)
Neither dogs nor cats eat chocolate. (Plural verb because dogs and cats are plural nouns.)
Affect vs. Effect
These two are very easy to mess up. They vary by only one letter and are often pronounced the same, but they are used differently. “Affect” is a verb that means “to make a difference to” or “to touch the feelings of someone, move emotionally.”
“Effect” is usually a noun and is the result of change. You can affect the competition, and the effect will be a different winner. An easy way to remember the difference between the two is this: To affect results in an effect, because “a” comes before “e” in the alphabet.
But here’s where it gets tricky. Sometimes “affect” is a noun, but it is almost exclusively used in psychological contexts. And sometimes “effect” is a verb. It specifically means “to bring about change.” For example: “The negotiators effected an agreement after many hours of deliberation.”
Take vs. Bring
“Take” and “bring” both imply movement, but they’re used differently. If you’re trying to achieve a specific atmosphere in your writing, it’s important to choose the correct verb. “Bring” has the implication of movement forward, or of addition. For example, “John is bringing enough chicken to share at the party.” “Take,” on the other hand, implies movement away and subtraction. For example, “John will take his chicken back home at the end of the party.”
Is None Singular or Plural?
“None” works like “neither” when it comes to the rules of verb tense. If the word it’s modifying is singular, then “none” is singular and it takes a singular verb. If the word it’s modifying is plural, then “none” is plural and the verb is, therefore, plural.
None of the apple was eaten. “Apple” is singular, and therefore “none” and the verb are singular as well.
None of the ballplayers were on the team bus after the game. “Ballplayers” is plural, so the verb and “none” are plural as well.
Which vs. That
It often seems like “which” and “that” are interchangeable grammatically, but there are rules. Fortunately, there’s an easy way to remember which one to use. If the sentence doesn’t need the clause that the word in question is connecting, use “which.” If it does, use “that.” With that rule in mind, there’s always going to be a comma before “which,” because it is not necessary to the sentence.
I bought a dress in purple, which is my favorite color.
My prom date wore the tie that matched my dress.
Adjective order is something that’s not often talked about, but it’s very noticeable when it’s performed incorrectly. There are cumulative adjectives, where a group of adjectives build on each other to describe a noun (the small purple fragrant flowers), and there are coordinate adjectives where multiple adjectives are used to describe a noun, but they are not dependent on each other (a heavy, antique armoire). Basically, cumulative adjectives don’t use a comma or “and” to separate them, but you could use “and” with coordinating adjectives and it would sound just fine.
When you’re stringing together cumulative adjectives, there is a specific order they go in. The true adjective order is as follows: 1) Quantity or number, 2) Quality or opinion, 3) Size, 4) Age, 5) Shape, 6) Color, 7) Proper adjective (often nationality, other place of origin, or material), 8) Purpose or qualifier.
If you break the order in any way, it just sounds wrong to your English-trained ears. For example, “I love that beautiful old green Ford hot rod car” is correct, but “I love that Ford hot rod green old beautiful car” is incorrect.
Some people have opinions about the Oxford comma. But they are just that: opinions. Either way you choose to style your commas is correct, but it’s still important to understand the power of the Oxford comma. Then you can choose whether to use it or not. (It may also depend on the style guide you’re using. Just keep it consistent.)
An Oxford comma, also known as a serial comma, is the comma used after the second-to-last item in a list of things. It can be used to reduce confusion in the list and clarify what exactly is happening within the sentence. As an example, “I love my parents, Lady Gaga and BTS,” might imply that Lady Gaga and BTS are your parents. However, with an Oxford comma, the sentence becomes, “I love my parents, Lady Gaga, and BTS,” which clarifies that you love three separate entities: your parents, Lady Gaga, and BTS.
Again, using the Oxford comma or not is a personal (or style guide) choice, so pick your platform and stick to your guns.