20 Grammar Mistakes and How to Fix Them

Grammar Guides

Most online marketing advice focuses on the content of your message: your vocabulary, what information you should include, and how to communicate with your clients and customers. What is just as important, and often overlooked, is how you communicate those messages: namely, your grammar. Presentation has just as much impact on your readers as the content itself, and bad grammar will not help your company’s reputation. Here are 20 of the most common grammar mistakes, and how to fix them.

1. They’re/their/there

These three words are confusing, because in spoken English they sound exactly the same, however they have very different meanings. They’re is a contraction of they and are: “They’re going to the cinema”. Their refers to ownership: “They lost their ball”. There refers to a place: “Jill was standing over there”.

2. Your/you’re

Like the trio they’re, their and there, your and you’re are homonyms, meaning they sound the same but have different meanings. Your is the possessive form of “you”, meaning it implies ownership: “Your grammar is improving”. You’re is similar to they’re: it’s a contraction of you and are: “You’re looking very well today”.

3. Apostrophes

Apostrophes are one of the most misused elements of grammar, however they are easy to get right once you know the rules. Most apostrophes appear in two situations: when indicating a possessive, and when indicating missing letters. An example of a possessive is: “Doreen’s house is lovely,” or “The dog’s bone had disappeared”. Apostrophes that indicate missing letters are found in “you’re” and “they’re” as above, and in words like “don’t” and “can’t”.

4. Its/it’s

The difference between “its” and “it’s” is an exception to the apostrophe rules above, and it’s easy to confuse them. “Its” indicates a possessive: “The dog had eaten its bone”, while “it’s” is used in place of “it is”: “It’s getting windy outside”.

5. Then/than

Then and than sound similar and only differ by one letter. Then has multiple meanings, and can refer to time: “Back then, things were different”, “Then, I went to the store”; or a result: “If you go now then you won’t be back in time for dinner.” Than is used in comparisons: “I’m taller than you”.

6. Which/that

That” is always used to introduce necessary information, while “which” is used after a comma to introduce extra information that could be left out without changing the meaning of a sentence. For example “People that enjoy books read a lot” suggests that not everybody reads a lot – just people who like books. In the sentence “My pen, which is green, is my trusty companion”, the important information is that the pen is the writer’s trusty companion: the fact that it is green is an additional detail.

7. Effect/affect

Effect is a noun: “The effect of this dreadful news was too much for him to bear”, while affect is a verb: “The news affected him in a way he could not bear”.

8. May/might

May implies permission, while might suggests a possibility. “We may go to the movies” means we’re allowed to go to the movies, while “We might go to the movies” implies that film-watching is a possibility.

9. Lose/loose

One letter makes all the difference, as demonstrated by lose and loose. “Lose” is a verb meaning to have misplaced or ceased to have something “I lose my keys every day”, while “loose” has two meanings. As an adjective (a describing word), it means not firmly fixed in place, and as a verb it means to set free: “His clothes had a loose fit”, “Loose the dragons!”

10. Principal/principle

It’s easy to get principal and principle the wrong way around. “Principle” is a noun, and is a fundamental law or opinion. “Principal can be a noun or a verb and has many different meanings. A Principal is someone who runs a school, while “her principal interest” describes the interest that is most important to her.

11. Farther/further

Farther” describes literal distance (remember it contains the word “far”), while “further” describes abstract or metaphorical distance. So if you were in a meeting, you might say “Before we go any further, I want to agree some ground rules”, while if you were on a hike, you might ask “How much farther before the next stop?”

12. Could of/could have

This is an easy one: it is always could have, as “could of” doesn’t exist. The same principle applies to “should have” and “would have”.

13. Try and/try to

This rule is also simple: “try to” is always correct, while “try and” is always incorrect.

14. Who/whom

Knowing when to use “who” and “whom” correctly requires some technical grammar knowledge. In short, you use “who” when the person you’re referring to is the subject of a sentence, and “whom” when they are the object. The subject of a sentence is the person or thing who is doing the action, and the object is the person or thing receiving the action or having it done to them. Therefore, “Who am I?” is correct, as is “To whom do I address this letter?”

15. Me vs. I

Whether to use “me” or “I” in a sentence also depends on the subject and object. We use “I” when we are the subject, and “me” when we are the object. For example, “Joe and I went to the cinema” is correct, because, if Joe were removed from the equation, we would say “I went to the cinema”, rather than “me went to the cinema”. Equally, “Samantha told Joe and me to go to the cinema” is also correct, because Samantha is now the subject of the sentence, and “Joe and me” is the object. If Joe were removed from the equation again, the sentence would read “Samantha told me to go to the cinema”.

16. Practise/Practice

Practise is a verb (a doing word), while practice is a noun (a thing). One way to remember which is which is that practice – the noun – ends in “ice”, which is also a noun. For example “She was practising her yoga postures”, “Her yoga practice was going well”.

17. Different than/Different from

Different from is always correct, as the word “different” is used to evoke a distinction between two things. Therefore, you always need to use “from”, in a similar way to “separate from”. For example, “My job at Macy’s was different from my role at Borders.”

18. Lay/Lie

Lay and lie are commonly confused, and you need to understand the grammar behind these two words to use them correctly. The verb “to lay” is a transitive verb. This means it needs to go with a direct subject, and one or more objects. In this context, “lay” is the present tense, and “laid” is the past tense. An example would be “I lay the book down on the chair”, where the object is the book.

To lie” is an intransitive verb. The present tense is “lie” and the past tense is “lay”, which is what makes these two verbs so confusing. Intransitive verbs don’t need an object, for example “I lay down”, or “The river lies between 18th Avenue and 20th Street”. In these sentences, there is no object directly following the verb “lie”.

19. Alot/a lot

“Alot” isn’t a real word. Instead “a lot” as two separate words is always correct.

20. Whether/if

Whether and if don’t mean the same thing, and are used in different contexts. Whether is used when you’re talking about a situation with two or more alternatives, whereas if is correct when describing a condition with no alternatives. For example, “I don’t know whether it will rain today” is correct, as is “I’ll only stay in at the weekend if it rains”.