Dive into the world of linguistics and get lost in its endless river of knowledge. Grammar is a particularly important and vexing aspect of language that many people struggle with. Teachers have long contended with how to best teach grammar, and even major publications fall victim to a slew of grammatical errors. When crafting English content for your business or brand, it is essential to steer clear of the most common grammar mistakes; these indicate that your content may be less credible or professional than it claims to be, contributing to a lack of consumer trust. Here are 10 grammar issues you’re sure to find in spades. Make sure your future content doesn’t succumb to these easily overlooked errors.
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1: ITS AND IT’S
The reason one typically puts an apostrophe in the middle of a word is to replace a letter. That is how it works. Or, to put it another way, that’s how it works. By using an apostrophe, you are in effect combining the word “is” with the word that came before it. This is used often in both English speech and writing, particularly when changing “it is” to “it’s”. In fact, this became so commonplace that people started to spell the word “its” without the apostrophe. This is correct if the “it” in question is a possession, like in “Every dog has its day”. This is not correct, however, if you are trying to say “it is”. If the word “is” is involved, that is when you use an apostrophe. It would make no sense to say “Every dog has it is day”, so don’t write “Every dog has it’s day”.
There are other ways apostrophes contract words together, such as with “couldn’t”, a contraction of “could not”. An apostrophe can also indicate possession, such as in “Aunt Kelly’s pipe”. It would not be correct to say “Aunt Kellys pipe”. If, however, Kelly owns multiple pipes, one would say “Aunt Kelly’s pipes”. Just don’t write “Aunt Kelly’s pipe’s” as you should not use an apostrophe to indicate plurality. Don’t overthink it. Just ask yourself whether a word is being replaced or not. In the case of “pipes”, there is no replacement; it’s just the plural of “pipe”. One exception to this rule are lower case letters. “Cross your ts” is confusing, so it’s okay to write “cross your t’s”.
3: THEN AND THAN
The words “then” and “than” get confused frustratingly often. “Then” refers to a time. “Than” is used when comparing things. You can talk about how “things were much better back THEN; much better THAN they are now”. So don’t get these mixed up. You are better than that. Back then, before you learned the difference between “then” and “than”, you were less informed than you are now. Then, you made fewer mistakes than you did before, because you were clear on the difference between “then” and “than”. All clear? Good.
4: THEIR, THERE, AND THEY’RE
There, there. We all make mistakes. Part of acknowledging our mistakes is to be mindful not to repeat them in the future. Everyone has their problems and they’re theirs to sort out. Was that last sentence clear to you? Problems belong to people, so the problems are “theirs”. When referring to these problems, we can say “they are” their problems or “they’re their problems”. These words sound almost exactly alike, along with a third word, “there”. People confuse these words all the time. When you’re writing, be sure to know the difference. “There” usually refers to a physical location. “Their” refers to possessions. “They’re” is when you are saying “they are”.
5: THAT, WHO, AND WHICH
Always consider the context of the words of you are using. “Which” typically refers to a number of items or options, especially when used at the start of a question. Often, however, “which” adds additional but non-crucial information. Some sentences fall apart without the word “that”, because it refers to something essential to the meaning of the sentence. Some use “which” when the correct term is truly “that”. You can make this distinction by the importance of what’s being discussed. Just be sure to avoid both and use “who” when referring to people.
6: FEWER AND LESS
Be careful not to mix up “fewer” and “less”. Daily speech often sees people saying “less”, thinking it refers to quantity. It actually doesn’t, because quantity denotes a number of individual items. So people may write something like, “The team is winning less games than before”. The meaning comes across, so it’s easy for this one to slip past people. The correct way of saying this would actually be, “The team is winning fewer games than before”.
You must use “fewer” for things you are counting and “less” for more abstract concepts. For example, one could say, “the team is playing with less strength than before”. There is no definitive scale for strength, but one could observe a general decline. Other concepts like time and money are quantified with units, but it is acceptable to say you have “less money”. Money is a general concept, so you don’t have to specify “fewer dollars”.
7: I.E. AND E.G.
Remember the important distinction: “i.e.” means “in other words”, while “e.g.” means “for example”. If you are listing specific examples of what you just mentioned, use “e.g.”. If, however, you are clarifying something by making a single important point, that is when you use “i.e.”. One way to get around this issue is to do what the philosopher Alan Watts did in his lectures. Watts very frequently used the expression “that is to say”. But if you are clear on which letters are used for each purpose, it would be more efficient to use the abbreviations going forward.
There are some grammar issues that become hotly contested sources of controversy. There is a lot to be said for the fluidity of language as cultures shift over time. At the same time, some things just sound wrong in a sentence. Winston Churchill was particularly annoyed by a linguistic shift he observed, in which more and more people were adding prepositions to the ends of sentences. Prepositions are words that reveal the relationship between a noun or pronoun and other words in a sentence. A car could be traveling “down the road” or “up the road” or “along the road”, and so on.
Ending a sentence with a preposition like “to” or “by” is not grammatically correct. This is a trend Churchill would not put up with. He illustrated this by saying that ending sentences with prepositions was something “up with which I will not put”. It is more active to end a sentence that way than to end on a preposition like “with”. Churchill was a controversial figure with a mixed legacy, but he did win a Nobel Prize in Literature. So when it comes to writing, you could do worse than to take his advice on prepositions.
There are other controversial shifts in language that upend the meaning of a word. There may even be a word that is used for the opposite of its meaning. This has happened to the all-too-common word “literally”. You should only use the word “literally” during an accurate description of things that really happened. In recent years, people have ignored this rule and used “literally” in a figurative context. They may say something like, “It was so hot today, I was literally on fire”. No they weren’t. Not unless that conversation is happening in a burn ward. They mean to say it FELT as if they were on fire. This incorrect use of “literally” has become so rampant, the Oxford English Dictionary added it as a definition. Together, we can reverse this terrible decision and make sure “literally” is used properly.
10: THEY, THEM, AND THEIR
“They” is a third person plural pronoun. It is typically used to refer to more than one entity or person. Be careful not to use plural pronouns for an entity comprised of multiple people. Someone may refer to a company with plural terms because it is an organisation with many people working for it. Yet, the company as a whole is a single entity. So a company would not issue “their press release”, but rather “its press release”. There is a context where using “they” and the related terms “them” and “their” may be appropriate for a single person.
In another example of culture influencing language, some transgender people identify with “they” as a gender-neutral singular pronoun. This occurs with a subset of trans people who identify as non-binary; not completely aligning with one gender or another. Far from being a modern fad, there are civilisations throughout human history who accommodated such gender identities. It is increasingly acceptable to use “they” as a singular pronoun if the person in question is non-binary trans. If anything, this may be a more positive example of a language convention being altered by culture.