Grammar Tips

Grammar Tip 1 – Objective Case

I am very fond of “him and his wife”—not I am very fond of “he and his wife.” I actually heard Hillary Clinton say the latter about Barack Obama in one of the Democratic nomination debates four years ago. I was shocked that a person who went to such a prestigious law school would make such an elementary mistake. Using “him” is called the objective case, and that’s what she should have said.

Grammar Tip 2 – Nominative vs. Objective Case

Do not say, This is for “you and I.” Say, This is “for you and me.” The “me” is called objective case (“I” would be the nominative case).

Okay. Here is the explanation for both grammar tips above.

There is something called case in English grammar, which refers to the form of a pronoun. There are two main cases we use in English: the nominative case and the objective case. In the nominative case, we have pronouns that act as the subjects of a sentence or clause (I, you, he, she, it, we, they, and who). In the objective case, we have pronouns that are acted upon; these pronouns act as objects (me, you, him, her, it, us, them, and whom). When you have a word functioning as an object of a preposition, use the objective case. Maybe because we had it drilled into us as kids to say, “He and I are friends,” we make the assumption that we should always say, “He and I,” even after a preposition (ex., between).

Correct: This is a problem between “her and me.” (not “her and I”)

Correct: I am fond of “him and his wife.” (not “he and his wife”)

Correct: This is a secret between “you and me.” (not “ you and I”)

Correct: Contact “Jane or me.” (not “Jane or myself”)

Grammar Tip 3—Agreement

A large percentage of the students “have” registered. A large percentage of the class “has” registered.

After the word “percentage,” you use a singular verb (ex., “has”) or a plural verb (ex., “have”). In the first example above, we use “have” because the word before it is plural (ex., “students”). In the second example, we use “has” because the word before it is singular (ex., “class”). When you have the word “percent,” use the same logic.

Correct: Ninety percent of the class is Latino.

Correct: Ten percent of the students are Asian.

Grammar Tip 4 – Agreement

A variety of magazines “make” the office appealing. The variety of magazines “is” appealing.

The rule is simple. When you say, “a variety” of something, use a plural verb. When you say, “the variety,” use a singular verb.

Grammar Tip 5 – Past Tense of “Lie”

The past tense of “lie” down is “lay” (down). Yesterday I “lay” down for an hour on the sofa. Incorrect: Yesterday I laid down.

Grammar Tip 6 – Past Participle of “Lie”

The past participle of “lie” (down) is “lain.” I “have always lain” in bed when I am sick. Incorrect: I have always laid in bed.

Here are the parts of the verb “lie,” which means to lie down or recline: lie, lay, lain. This is called an intransitive verb (which means it cannot take an object).

The verb “lay” is transitive (which means that it takes an object). The verb forms are lay, laid, and laid.

Correct: Every day last week, I “lay” down for a nap after lunch. (intransitive verb)

Correct: Yesterday she “laid” the baby down for a rest. (transitive verb)

Correct: I “laid” the cup on the table. (transitive verb)

Grammar Tip 7 – Subjunctive Mood

I wish I “were” (not “was”) bilingual. The “were” is not past tense; it is considered the subjunctive mood.

Just get into the habit of saying, “I wish I were” when making a contrary to reality statement. In fact, we always use the past form with hypothetical situations. Ex., I don’t speak Chinese, but if I “did,” I would get a job at the Chinese Embassy. For the verb “to be,” we use “were” with all of the pronouns. The subjunctive mood usually follows the word “if” (if I were you) and always follows “wish” (I wish I were). Note that you only use the subjunctive with “if” when you have a hypothetical situation. For the subjunctive mood in the present, use the past form.

Correct: If I saw a mountain lion in my backyard, I would scream.

Verbs like recommend, suggest, and insist trigger the subjunctive mood in the third-person singular, which means you drop the “s” and just use the simple verb form.

Correct: I recommend that he “go” to the doctor. (not “goes”)

Correct: I suggest that she “stop” smoking. (not “stops”)

Grammar Tip 8 – Avoid Dangling Participles

Washing the dishes, he rang the doorbell.  Say, “While I was washing the dishes, he rang the doorbell.”

Incorrect:  Driving down the street, a cat ran by me.

Correct: While I was driving down the street, a cat ran by. (Otherwise the cat was driving down the street.)

A past participle is the “ed” form of the verb (ex., surprised). These past participles act as adjectives (ex., The surprised man fainted). A present participle is the “ing” form of the verb, which also acts as an adjective (ex., The crying woman was inconsolable).

When you have a participial phrase (ex., walking down the street), the very next word must be the person who is doing the action (ex., Walking down the street, “I” tripped). You cannot introduce an extraneous word to follow the participial phrase. So, for example, it would be incorrect to say the following: Walking down the street, the mailbox seemed damaged. This would mean that the mailbox was walking down the street.

Correct: Walking down the street, I noticed that the mailbox was damaged.

Grammar Tip 9 – Pronoun Agreement

Everyone handed in “their” paper. Since the 1990s, the plural “their” with the singular “everyone” has become acceptable to a lot of excellent speakers of English.

In the aforementioned sentence, formalists (strict grammarians) feel that the “their” is incorrect, as “everyone” is singular. We say, “everyone has arrived” and not “everyone have arrived.” Therefore, they would use, “Everyone should hand in his or her paper.”

However, over the decades more and more people have been saying “their,” which fits the notion of everyone being plural. What this means is that you can use “their” in speech, but you would not be incorrect to use “his or her” as well.

Correct: Everyone should hand in their paper. (a newly accepted error)

Correct: Everyone should hand in his or her paper. (the traditional approach)

Grammar Tip 10 – Whom

This is the man “whom” I told you about. Use “whom,” which is the objective case.

If you refer to Grammar Tips #1 and #2, you will see that it is incorrect to say, “This is the man who I told you about” because of the preposition “about.” The object of the preposition has to be in the objective case (whom). Remember that “who” is the nominative case. However, in the following sentence, we need the nominative case (who): “I spoke to a woman who is the director of the office,” because it is the woman who is the subject of the clause (she is the director).

So remember that “who” is the nominative form, and “whom” is the objective form. Also, “whoever” is nominative, and “whomever” is objective.

The use of who or whom in a subordinate clause depends on the function of these words in the clause.  A subordinate clause depends on the main clause in the sentence in order to make sense (ex., when I was a child . . .). In the previous example, we need the main clause to give sense to the subordinate clause (ex., When I was a child, I cried a lot). “I cried a lot” is the main clause of the sentence because it can stand alone. Another phrase for the main clause is the “independent clause.”

Follow these four steps to decide on whether to use who or whom. These steps were taken from Warriner’s (1973) English Grammar and Composition.

1. Locate the subordinate clause.

2. Decide how the pronoun is functioning in the clause. Is it the subject? Or is it the predicate nominative?  In the following sentence, see an example of the predicate nominative: I am the teacher (“I” and “teacher” are the same person, separated by the linking verb “to be.” (A “predicate nominative” explains or identifies the subject of the sentence [Warriner, 1973]. It is a subject complement that follows a linking verb. A linking verb is a “state of being” verb, such as be, appear, seem, sound, taste.) Or ask if the pronoun is the object of the verb or whether it is the object of a preposition.

3. Figure out the case of the pronoun.

4. Choose the correct form of the pronoun (who or whom).

Now use the above steps to figure out which pronoun to use.

Ex., Barack Obama is the candidate who won the election in 2008.

Step 1: The subordinate clause is “who won the election in 2008.”

Step 2: In this sentence, “who” is the subject of the verb “won.”

Step 3: Since it is the subject of the verb, the pronoun is in the nominative case.

Step 4: The nominative form is “who.”

Now study the following sentences. See if you can apply the previously mentioned steps.

Correct: Did you talk to the woman who is the director?

Correct: I talked to Margaret, whom my friends recommended.

Correct: Hillary Clinton, whom I spoke to on the telephone, lost the nomination.

Grammar Tip 11 – Singular Verb for Period of Time

Amy Einsohn (2000) says to use a singular verb when referring to a period of time: The 1960s “is” often regarded as a decade of change.

This is a simple one. Use the singular verb after a period of time like a decade, despite the fact that the plural verb may be tempting.

Correct: The 1960s “was” a decade of social upheaval.

Grammar Tip 12 – “Its” vs. “Their” When Referring to a Company

Use “its” when referring to a “company,” not “their.”

Correct: A company should support “its” employees. (not “their” employees)

We tend to use “their” in the previous example, but the singular “its” is the correct form.

Correct: The company is laying off “its” entire workforce.

Correct: That firm missed “its” goals for the year.

Remember that “company” is singular (like “it”). If you said, “The companies,” then you would say, “Their.”

Correct: The companies have laid off “their” employees.

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PROOFREADING TIPS

After you are completely satisfied with the content of your writing, read the document over very carefully. Follow these simple proofreading tips to find typos and errors.

  • Never proofread when you are tired. Leaving the document overnight is best. Or wait at least a few hours. If you have little time, wait ten minutes and then maybe go into a different room to proofread. These tips might help you bring a fresher set of eyes to the proofreading experience.
  • Know how many readings it takes you to find all of the errors. One reading is never enough. I suggest two or three readings. If you can get another person to proofread, that is ideal. Two sets of eyes catch more problems. If you find very few errors, then you have probably read too fast. Assume that there are typos, as virtually every document will have some. Your mindset is very important. If you assume that there are no errors, you probably won’t find any.
  • If possible, read out loud instead of silently. Also, as you read, move your finger slowly across the page to track each word. Following these two tips will slow you down and make it more difficult for your eyes to trick you into reading something that is not there. (We’ve all had the experience of having left out a word from a sentence, but when we read it, our brain-eye coordination tricks us and we read the sentence as if it had the missing word.)
  • Never proofread on the computer screen. Always print your document and read the hard copy.
  • Have good lighting and a typing stand to bring your document closer to your eyes. Using Arial and size 14 font makes the document bigger and darker. This facilitates smoother reading.
  • Keep brushing up on grammar and punctuation so that you will know the common pitfalls in writing. This will guide you in what errors to look for. If you are using a particular format style (ex., APA), you might make a “cheat sheet” of the most prominent rules and keep that close to you when you proofread.
  • A proofreader wears a different cap than the writer. Don’t try to revise your content when you are in the proofreading stage. The goal of the final proofreading is just to catch mechanical errors.
  • If your writing project is important and you can afford professional editing, hire an editor to review the document for you.
  • When you are all done, put the document through Spell Check and Grammar Check. Spell Check will not catch typos that are actually words, but it will find some errors. Warning: Grammar Check is only correct about 60% or 70% of the time; in some cases it’s just completely wrong. However, it’s still worth using, especially if you are a native speaker. Putting the document through these final checks is the last step in the proofreading process.
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What’s Up with Those Single Quotation Marks?

Lately I have been seeing single quotation marks on certain words and phrases in the headlines that float across the bottom of the TV screen. These phrases have nothing to do with the story being reported on. I am referring mostly to CNN. I started noticing these rolling sentences shortly after the 9-11 attacks on the World Trade Center. I am not sure what annoys me more—the fact that they are using single quotation marks in place of double quotation marks or the constant bombardment of information on the screen.

I have also noticed that approximately 20% of the writing I get from my clients employs single quotation marks to designate important concepts or key phrases. This clearly violates the U.S.-American convention. So I am writing this article to clarify the use of single vs. double quotation marks for academic writing.

When to use single quotation marks:

It is always appropriate to use single marks when you have a quote within a quote.

Ex., Mary said, “I don’t care that John said, ‘I won’t eat that old pasta.’ I am going to eat it anyway.”

So the enclosed quotation (what John says) gets the single quotation marks. British usage sometimes does the reverse, and this may be where the trouble lies. They put the single quotation marks on the first speaker’s words and double quotation marks on the second’s speaker’s words (the quote within the quote).

Another use of single quotation marks:

People in certain academic disciplines are accustomed to using single quotation marks on particular terms and phrases, which is contrary to what the vast majority of writers do in the United States. These fields are linguistics, philosophy, and theology. Tina Blue, an online writer, points out the following example:

Ex., There is an essential difference between ‘being’ and ‘becoming’.

Note that in this case the closing single quotation mark goes before the period, which is also contrary to common U.S. usage.

Aside from papers in linguistics, philosophy, and theology, there is no justification for the use of single quotation marks (except for a quote within a quote). When you want to draw attention to key words or phrases, use double quotation marks. What follows is an exhaustive list of the various occasions when double quotation marks are called for.

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