Words to Use in Specific Grammatical Form
It is surprising how much
ungrammatical writing appears in the public forum—even in
scholarship. Though gross grammatical errors are excluded from this discussion, this
category deals with errors that many people may not have known were grammatical
a/an hypothesis, historical: Use
"a" if the word has a sounded "h." Use "an" with an
unsounded "h." Only people from England or confused Anglophiles say "an hypothesis,"
"an historical moment," or "an halibut steak."
adjectives used as adverbs:
Not only is it true that adverbs modify verbs, but it also is true
that adverbs modify adjectives. This sentence compounds the felony: "He spoke real
good;" the expression should be "He spoke really well."
alright: This term is a
barbaric misspelling. One should write "The score board displayed a
bold ‘all right!’" not "The score board displayed a bold ‘alright!’"
alot: Nope. Write "a lot" or "many."
among: See "between."
as: The word is often
misused. (1) Do not use it as a substitute for "because" or "since"
have not heard from you, I am writing this letter"). (2) Do not use as a substitute for "such
as if: This phrase places
writing in the subjunctive mood—a realm of hypothetical situations.
In these situations, one states "were" each time one ordinarily might write "was." Hence, the
appropriate expression is "The man looked as if he were frightened," not "The man looked
as if he was frightened."
"Between" means "be twain" and twain means two. Thus, between can be
when contrasting two things. When more than two things are involved, substitute "among."
Thus, do not write "I cannot tell the differences between ethos, pathos, and logos." Instead,
write "I cannot tell the differences among ethos, pathos, and logos."
bring/take: You bring things to, you take things from.
but: In the nineteenth
century people were told never to start sentences with "but." We do not
live in the nineteenth century.
contractions: Do not use contractions in scholarly writing.
data are: Data is a plural
word. For a single piece of data write either "datum" or "a piece of
different than: Things are different from each other, not different than each other.
double negatives: Watch out
for double negatives. You may mean them, or you may not.
You probably do not mean "I don’t have no pencil," which actually means that you have a
pencil. Yet, you may mean "We were unable to reject the null hypothesis."
either/or versus neither/nor:
Get the forms consistent. If you write "either," the related
conjunction must be "or." If you write "neither," the related conjunction must be "nor."
everyone, everybody, anyone . .
. their: "Everyone," "anyone," or "everybody" are
terms. Do not write "Everyone should bring their notebooks." Instead use plurals ("All
students should bring their notebooks") or use a consistent singular form ("Everyone should
bring his or her notebook").
for: See "as."
gerunds and pronouns: A
gerund is an "ing" word. Pronouns take the possessive form with
gerunds. Thus, write "I want to extend my thanks for your spending time with me," rather
than "I want to extend my thanks for you spending time with me."
good: Use this word in the
adjective form. Do not say, "He did good," but "He did a good
job." But notice, "I feel well" means that one has a keen sense of touch. On the other
hand "I feel good" means that one is healthy. This last example is not a failure to use an
adverb, but a legitimate use of a predicate adjective.
graduated: You do not graduate from college. You "are graduated" by the school.
hardly: Be careful. Adding
hardly to a sentence makes the sentence into a negative claim ("he
could hardly believe his eyes" means he nearly disbelieved his sight). Another negation
changes the meaning entirely ("he could not hardly believe his eyes" means that he believed
what he saw).
however: Do not use this
term as a substitute for "nonetheless," "nevertheless," or
not start sentences with "however" (unless as an adverb, as in "However much I wanted to
attend, I was unable to get transportation"). Start with a gutsy word instead (such as
"nonetheless," "nevertheless," or "but"). "However" does not mean nonetheless, but "still" or
"yet." Thus, surround "however" by commas and put in the middle or at the end of a
have went: Write "have
gone" or just "went" but not "have went." Went does not require an
additional helping verb.
infinitive, split: As an
accident of the English language, infinitive forms of verbs use two
words. For instance, "to run," "to believe," "to try" are infinite forms of the verbs "run,"
"believe," and "try." In root languages, principally Latin, the infinitive forms were generally
contained in a single word. Thus, we should treat such phrases as "to think" as though they
were single words. A split infinitive sticks another word or phrase in the middle of the
infinitive ("I wish to boldly go where no one has gone before"). Do not split the infinitive in
formal writing (revised: "I wish to go boldly where no one has gone before"). Some writers
believe that split infinitives are used so much that they may be employed in acceptable
speech and writing. Unfortunately, most people who even know what an infinitive is
believe that you should not split them. When all of these opponents of split infinitives are
dead, you may use them, too. Until then, don't.
it: Avoid using this word without a specific referent in the same sentence.
I wish I was: No way. This
phrase places the sentence in the subjunctive mood. Thus, one
must say "I wish I were . . . ." See "as if."
me/I/myself: Most people
mistakenly avoid saying "me," but do not be fearful of the word.
"They threw the ball to Tim and I" is incorrect. A way to test for the correct word involves
casting the sentence into a form that excludes the other person. The appropriate word
should be fairly obvious. In our case, the sentence should read, "They threw the ball to Tim
and me" since, if we omitted the other person, the sentence would read, "They threw the
ball to me." Similarly, do not use the word "myself" as a pseudo-elegant replacement for
"me" as in the sentence, "You did a great favor for Bill, Betty, and myself." Use "myself"
when there is a reference back to a personal pronoun appearing previously in the sentence,
such as "I will fix the car myself."
more, better, greater, larger,
harder, etc.: These words require a "than" somewhere in the
sentence. Thus, it is a sentence fragment to write "Ford has a better idea" (better than
what? better than nothing? better than the competition?). Most of the time the word may
be replaced with other words that do not require additional words for comparisons, such
as "improved," "increased," or "superior."
neither: See "either/or" versus "neither/nor."
none: This word is a
pronoun that is a contraction of "no one." Thus, verbs associated with it
take the singular form. Thus one states "None of us wants to see The Lost World again,"
not "None of us want to see The Lost World again."
numbers: Never start a
sentence with an Arabic numeral (though they actually were invented
in India, our ordinary numbers are called Arabic numerals to distinguish them from Roman
numerals). If you must start a sentence with a number, spell out the number (do not write
"23 students took the test" but "Twenty-three students took the test").
plurals for compound words:
If the words are hyphenated or separated, make the plural to
the first word, such as "fathers-in-law" or "attorneys general." If the term is one word,
make the last part of the word plural, such as "spoonfuls."
pronouns: See "gerunds and pronouns."
real: "Real" is
an adjective. "Really" is the adverb. Thus, one must write "He had a really
time," rather than "He had a real good time."
semicolons: You can get by
quite well in life without using semicolons in sentences. Avoid
so: Follow this word with a
comparison, such as "It was so cold the icicles had goose
bumps." Do not use "so" as a substitute for the word "very" in formal writing ("I was so
happy you came to my party"). Do not start a sentence with "so" as a substitute for "hence"
("So, we searched for an alternate route").
subjunctive mood: See
"as if." When one is speaking hypothetically, the subjunctive mood is
used. In such cases the writer should substitute "were" for the place where "was" normally
take: See "bring/take."
that/this: Do not use these
words as pronouns unless you follow them with nouns. If you fail
to follow this rule, the pronoun may refer to any noun or pronoun appearing previously in
the paragraph. That condition produces what are called "indefinite pronouns." Thus, do
not write "This is true," but substitute "This notion is true."
that/which: Reserve the
word "which" to introduce nonrestrictive clauses. Thus, write "The
hypothesis that we tested was supported," but not "The hypothesis which we tested was
supported." On the other hand, write "The architect used the gingerbread style as though it
were going out of style, which it was." Most sentences may be improved by deleting most
uses of "that" and "which."
unique: Get it straight.
Something is either unique or it is not. Something cannot be "more
unique" than something else, nor can something be the "most unique" among others.
words give people grief and some grammarians have
recommended that "whom" and "whomever" be deleted from our language. Until it
happens, here is the rule. Use "whom" when this word takes the objective form. Thus, use
"who" unless the following situations emerge: the object of a verb (as in "Whom do you
trust?"); the object of a preposition ("I want to thank my father, to whom I give the credit
for my success"). But, sometimes using whom properly requires diagramming a sentence.
For instance, it is not proper to say "I have brought an extra pencil for whomever does not
have one," since the object of the proposition is not "whomever" but the entire phrase.
Thus, the sentence should state, "I have brought an extra pencil for whoever does not have
one." Similarly, it is not appropriate to use "whom" in parenthetical statements, such as the
following mistaken example: "Paul Newman admired Margaret Mead, whom he
considered to be a brilliant woman." Instead, one should have written, "Paul Newman
admired Margaret Mead, who he considered to be a brilliant woman." Since there often
are difficulties using "whom" and "whomever" properly, many writers advise people to
avoid using such terms altogether. Thus, instead of stating "Bill told his bad jokes to
whomever was around [incorrect]" or "Bill told his bad jokes to whoever was around
[correct]," one could write "Bill told his bad jokes to anyone around him."