Sunday, September 15, 2019

Some Common Grammar Gaffes

by Jodie Renner, editor & author  

Is it "with Dave and me" or "with Dave and I"? Should it be"who" or "whom"? Do you "lie down" or "lay down"? Is it "the guy that just left" or "the guy who just left"? Is it "My Mom" or "My mom"? Should I use "that" or "which" there?

The English language is in a constant state of flux, evolving and changing along with technological changes, changes in attitude, the influence of other cultures, street language, slang expressions, etc. That means the English language is vibrant, not stagnant, just as is our society. Language needs to keep up with changes to facilitate communication.

But it’s probably a good thing to try to have some degree of consistency and standards, so we don’t all sink to the lowest common denominator of texting-style, “fast-food” language. [Sorry, I shake my head when I see "ur" in a Facebook post instead of "your"-- or "4" for "for," "r" for "are," or "u" for "you." How hard is it to type two more letters? It just reflects badly on the writer, I think.] Texting family and friends is one thing, but blog posts, articles, assignments, short stories, and fiction or nonfiction books require accurate spelling and correct grammar (except in dialogue, of course), in order to retain reader credibility and respect.
Here are a few common grammar blunders I see in my editing of books and my general reading. (All rules are per Chicago Manual of Style.)


Is it “my brother and me” or “my brother and I”? That depends. 

Is it “Give the books to Jane and I,” or “Give the books to Jane and me.”?

Is it “Carol and me went with them,” or “Carol and I went with them.”?

Is it “She and Brad are coming, too,” or “Her and Brad are coming, too.”?

Here's a simple little trick to know whether to use “I” or “me”; “he” or“him”; “she” or “her” etc.:

Just take out the “and” and the other person’s name or pronoun. What are you left with? Does it make sense?

For example, which is it? “Him and his buddy are going fishing,” or “He and his buddy are going fishing.”

Take out “and his buddy.” Would you say “Him is going fishing” or “He is going fishing.”? 

Since you’d use “he” when it’s alone in the sentence, then you’d say, “He and his buddy are going fishing.”

Or is it “Leave your sister and I alone for a few minutes,” or “Leave your sister and me alone for a few minutes”?

To figure this out, take out "your sister and" and think of whether you’d say, “Leave I alone” or “Leave me alone.”

Since you’d say “Leave me alone,” then it has to be “Leave your sister and me alone.”

Apply this little trick to the first two examples above, and you’ll know it has to be “Give the books to Jane and me,” and “Carol and I went with them.”

And by the way, "between you and me" is correct.

I could get into a lengthy explanation about subject (nominative) pronouns and object (objective) pronouns, but if you just use that little gimmick, it works every time.


Even though nowadays, in casual conversation or dialogue in novels, “whom” often seems affected or pretentious and out of place, it’s good to know the correct usage for nonfiction writing, academic writing, journalistic writing, some narration, and dialogue spoken by educated characters.

Here’s the general rule:

Who is used for the subject of a verb or the doer of the action: “Who saw him?”

Whom is correct for the object of the verb, or the receiver of the action: “Whom did he see?”

Whom is correct usage after prepositions (by, for, to, with before, after, beside, in front of, etc.), e.g., By whom? For whom? With whom? To whom? “To whom are you referring?” “The woman for whom he gave his life.”

Quick trick: A quick way to remember which to use: Ask yourself whether the answer would be “he” or “him”. If he, use who, if him, use whom. Who went with you? He went with me. Whom did you see? I saw him

Test the “who –> he” vs “whom –> him” trick with these sentences:

Is it “Whom should I say is calling?” or “Who should I say is calling?”

(He is calling, so “who” is correct here.)

Is it “Who will you choose to go first?” or “Whom will you choose to go first?”

(You’ll choose him, so “whom” is correct here.)

As I mentioned, the use of “whom” in everyday conversation often seems somewhat affected these days. So, unless you want to come off as sounding pedantic, it’s best to avoid using “whom” in casual conversation with friends or family. Also, avoid whom in casual dialogue in fiction, especially (obviously!) when rough or uneducated people are talking! 


“that” for “who”:

 –  “that” is for things; “who” is for people. I’m probably not the only one who winced a bit the first 100 times I heard Katy Perry’s great song, “The One That Got Away.” I even heard the radio announcer saying, “It should be ‘The One WHO Got Away,’ of course!”

Examples of correct usage:
The children who were playing ran in when it started to rain. The bikes and toys that were left outside got wet.
The boats that were in the harbor got tossed around in the storm.
The ladies who organized the church tea were surprised at the attendance.

“that” versus “which”: 

(This one’s directed at North Americans, as Brits use “which” where we use “that,”)
Quick trick: An easy way to remember whether to use “which” or “that”:

 “which” always follows a comma, while “that” almost never follows a comma.

Or think of it this way: If the sentence doesn’t need the clause/phrase that comes after the word to make sense, use “which.” If what comes after the word is essential to the sentence, use “that.” 

Here's an example to illustrate: 

The library, which is on Main Street, has about 30,000 books.
The library that is on Main Street has about 30,000 books.

In the first sentence, the one with “which,” we don’t need the extra information that it’s on Main Street for the sentence to make sense, as there’s only one library, and it’s on Main Street.
In the second sentence, we need the “that” part, as that tells us we’re talking about the library on Main Street, not some other library in town. So what follows “that” is essential to the sentence. 

Let’s look at another example:

The car, which was a Toyota, was badly crumpled in the accident.
The car that was a Toyota was badly crumpled in the accident.

The first sentence implies that there was only one car in the accident, and by the way, it was a Toyota. That’s nonessential information, so it’s enclosed in commas and introduced by “which.”
The second sentence tells us there was more than one car involved in the accident, and that the Toyota, unlike the others, was badly crumpled. The “that” clause gives us essential information.
So another way to look at it is “which” introduces nonessential info, and “that” introduces essential info. 

LAY vs. LIE:
This one stumps a lot of people, even a bestselling author I know, who has emailed me a few times for a reminder of when to use “lie” and when to use “lay.” It’s very common to mix up these two, especially with their weird past tenses, which just complicate the issue.

Basically, you lay something down, but you lie down. So “lay” takes an object – a thing after it that you’re putting down. Not counting ourselves, so a person just lies down. And even if it’s a thing, if it’s already there and nobody’s in the act of putting it there, it’s lying there, not laying there.

Correct usages:

Present tense:

Lie: I like to lie in the hammock. Mom often lies down for a nap in the afternoon. Ricky is lying down on the grass.

Lay: She lays the baby in the bassinette every night. She is laying the baby down right now.

So far so good. But here’s where it gets weird: The past tense of “lay” is “laid,” as in “I laid the book on the table.” But the past tense of “lie” is “lay” as “She lay down on the couch for a nap yesterday.” Huh?! Just another of the many ways that English is weird and often illogical.

So to reiterate:

Lay requires a direct object: You lay something down. 

Lie does not require a direct object: You lie down.

The verb tenses of lay: 

Present: lay, is laying.  Lay the report on my desk.

Past: laid, has laid, was laying.  She laid the ring on the table and walked out; she had laid it there before.

The verb tenses of lie: 

Present: lie, is lying: Why don’t you lie down for a while? The book is lying on the table.

Past: lay, has lain, was lying. The little boy lay in the shade, fast asleep. He has lain there many times, in fact yesterday he was lying in that exact spot.

So: He laid (past tense of lay) the wreath on the grave, where it lay (past tense of lie) for a month.

If you think you'll forget all this stuff, especially the past tenses, just copy and paste this somewhere to help you remember. That’s what I did before I finally got it into my head! 


There's often some confusion around capitalization of titles, family members, and places. Basically, it's "Mom" but "my mom," "Uncle Ted," but "his uncle,” etc. Also, "Doctor Edwards," but "the doctor," “Vancouver General Hospital” but “the hospital” and so on.

Use caps for proper nouns but not for generic nouns: 

the doctor, but Doctor Wilson; the president, but President Obama; the general, but General Eisenhower; the judge, but Judge Judy; the sergeant, but Sergeant Wilson; the prince, but Prince Charles; the police department, but the Chicago Police Department; the library, but New York Public Library, the hospital, but Toronto General Hospital. 

But when you’re addressing the president, it’s “Mr. President,” and when you’re addressing anyone else with a title, you still use the capital, even if you don’t use their name, as in “Yes, Sergeant, I’ll do that right away.” Also, “Yes, Your Majesty.” And “No, Your Honor.” 

But sir, ma’am, my lord, my lady, milady, etc. are not capitalized.  

Don’t capitalize terms of endearment or pet names, like dear, honey, sweetie, son, buddy, etc.: “Yes, dear.” 

Family names: Capitalize family names like father, mother, etc. only when using them as a name, as in “Dad, can I borrow the car keys?” or “Where’s Mom?” or “Thanks, Grandma,” but no caps when just referring to family members, as in “my dad” or “your mother,” or “his grandmother.”

See also Common Grammar Gaffes, Part II (past perfect, misplaced modifiers)

Jodie Renner is a freelance fiction editor and the award-winning author of three craft-of-writing guides in her series An Editor’s Guide to Writing Compelling FictionWRITING A KILLER THRILLER, FIRE UP YOUR FICTION, and CAPTIVATE YOUR READERS, as well as two clickable time-saving e-resources, QUICK CLICKS: Spelling List and QUICK CLICKS: Word Usage. She has also organized two anthologies for charity: VOICES FROM THE VALLEYS – Stories and Poems about Life in BC’s Interior, and CHILDHOOD REGAINED – Stories of Hope for Asian Child WorkersYou can find Jodie on her Amazon Author Page, at, and on Facebook. 

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