Grammar is one of those funny things that sparks a wide range of reactions from different people. While one person couldn’t care less about colons vs. semicolons, another person will have a visceral reaction to a misplaced apostrophe or a “there” where a “their” is needed (if you fall into the latter category, hello and welcome).
I think we can still all agree on one thing: poor grammar and spelling takes away from your message and credibility. In the worst case, a blog post rife with errors will cause you to think twice about how knowledgeable the person who wrote it really is. In lesser cases, a “then” where a “than” should be is just distracting and reflects poorly on your editing skills. Which is a bummer.
I like to think that my grammar is pretty good for the average bear, but when I’m writing or editing things I’ll often turn to Google to make sure my instincts are right (especially when it comes to proper punctuation and its weird little tricks), or realize they’re not and quietly sob at my desk before composing myself and moving on.
Which is why I created this list (originally for readers of the Uberflip blog) — to have on hand for when you’re not quite sure, find the answer and get back to that article you were working on. It’s a work in progress that I dream of one day being the ultimate cheat sheet that addresses everyone’s biggest grammar pet peeves. If I’m missing something you think should be added, let me know!
You probably already know these, but a grammar cheat sheet just wouldn’t be complete without them.
Their is possessive, meaning it owns something. There refers to a place or an idea. They’re is a contraction for “they are.”
Example: Their grammar was impeccable. There were no mistakes to be found in the article. They’re probably going to be promoted soon.
Then refers to timing — you did one thing, then you did another. Than is comparative.
Example: I ate McDonald’s for dinner, then followed it up with a bowl of Haagen-Dazs. Still, my eating habits are better now than when I was in college.
Its is possessive, like their. It’s is a contraction for “it is.”
Example: It’s a shame we missed the baby ocelot exhibit but its lineup was way too long, even for an ocelot show.
Your/You’re (because I can’t resist)
Like its and their, your is possessive, meaning you own something. You’re is a contraction of “you are.”
Example: Your car is being towed because you’re the type of person who doesn’t read signs.
Other Commonly Misused/Misspelled Words
There is no “A” in definitely.
Example: “Definately” is definitely not a word.
Affect is a verb, as in something is affecting something else. Effect is the result of something being affected.*
Example: The effects of construction in Toronto greatly affect how rage-inducing my commute is.
*This isn’t actually a hard rule, as effect can be used in certain cases as a verb. For example, “I effected a solution.”
A lot are two words.
Example: People write “alot” a lot, but it’s a whole lot of wrong.
Loose refers to the tightness of something. Lose is used when something is lost.
Example: If your doorknob comes loose and falls off, you lose the ability to leave your apartment. Please send help and/or non-perishable food items.
Weather is all that temperature and precipitation stuff. Whether expresses a condition.
Example: I’m determined to wear shorts today, whether or not the weather complies.
Both of these are used to imply that something could happen or could have happened. May is used when there is a greater likelihood of something happening, while might is used to indicate there is little chance.
Example: I may have time to catch up on The Real Housewives of Beverly Hills tonight, but I might use that time to go for a jog instead.
Continual indicates something that continues over a long period of time, with intervals of interruption. Continuous indicates duration without interruption.
Example: Joey played Angry Birds continuously during class. His teacher would continually ask him to stop, before deeming him a lost cause and giving up.
Lay requires a direct object. Lie doesn’t require an object. The past tense of lay is laid, while the past tense of lie is lay.
Example: I lay my head down on the pillow/I laid my head down on the pillow.
Example: The rocks lie near the stream/The rocks lay near the stream.
Use that when you’re writing about something, and who when you’re writing about someone or a group of people.
Example: The apartment above me is the one that all of the noise is coming from. Jillian, the woman who lives there, owns several parrots.
That is used to introduce a restrictive clause which, if removed, will make the sentence nonsensical. Which is used with a nonrestrictive clause. Think of it as adding more information.
Example: My dog that is small has a total Napoleon complex.
Example: My car, which I’ve had for 10 years, still runs as well as the day I stole it.
A compliment is what you pay to someone or something. Complement refers to something going well with or enhancing something else.
Example: Emily has been getting a lot of compliments on her sweater today. People say the color complements the green in her eyes.
Nor is negative. Use nor with neither, and or with either.
Example: Neither Debbie nor Alison will be coming to the baby shower. Either they have food poisoning or we should expect an invite to their own showers about 8 months from now.
Comprise refers to what something contains, while compose refers to what something is made up of. You’ll know which one to use depending on how it is speaking about the subject of the sentence.
Example: One day in world wide web comprises more tweets, blog posts and emails than you can imagine.
Example: The United States is composed of 50 states.
Who is used when referring to the subject, or the person doing something. Whom is used for the object, or the person having something done to them. Tip: Who can often be applied when the answer is he/she/they, while whom works with her/him/them.
Example: Who forgot to close the back door and let the ‘possums in again?
Example: To whom is this suspiciously unmarked package being delivered?
Using I or me in a sentence when you’re referring to you and another person/people also depends on whether you’re the subject or the object. If you’re the subject, use I (or we). If you’re the object, use me (or us).
Example: If Heather and I get to the cottage first, we’re claiming the best bedrooms.
Example: They told Alex and me to go outside and get some fresh air.
Everyday is an adjective used to describe something that occurs daily or is commonplace. Every day means “each day.”
Example: Drinking coffee is an everyday habit for me.
Example: I drink coffee every day.
Defuse means to make something less dangerous or tense. Diffuse refers to something being spread, scattered, or dispersed.
Example: Elaine was desperate to defuse the situation after realizing she ate a $29,000 piece of antique cake from Peterman’s mini fridge.
Example: The light diffused through the room.
Colons are used after an independent clause that precedes a list, or to separate an explanation or example of the preceding clause.
Example: The Uberflip blog is a great resource for everything content marketing: social media, inbound marketing, copywriting, SEO, and more.*
*Shameless plug 1 of 2.
You can use semicolons to join independent clauses where connectors (and, or, but) and commas aren’t used, or to separate long or complicated items in a series.
Example: Everyone hopes this summer will be a good one; after the soul-crushing winter we’ve had, some serious sunshine is in order.
Place a hyphen between a two-word description that refers to the thing it’s preceding.
Example: Place a hyphen between a two-word description that refers to the thing it’s preceding.
A dash is like a comma in that it introduces a related element. A dash, however, is more dramatic as it interrupts the flow of the sentence. This dash, an em dash, is different from an en dash, which is shorter and usually only used to indicate a range of numbers.
Example: An Uberflip Hub is the best gift you can give your content — it’s much better than having everything live in sad, lonely silos.
Example: I’ll be out of the office from July 18-July 21, so don’t bother emailing.
Semicolons, colons and dashes always go outside the quotation mark, while periods and commas always go inside. Question marks and exclamation points are placed either inside or outside, depending on whether they apply to the quotation or the sentence itself.
Example: Did you mean the movie or the country when you asked if I want to come to “Madagascar”?
Example: When I asked my nephew who his favorite person is, he replied, “Aunt Hayley!”*
*A chocolate bribe may have been involved.
If a single thing or person owns something, use an apostrophe before the “s.” If the thing or group you’re referring to is plural, put the apostrophe after the “s.”
Example: The Uberflip office’s ping pong table is in high demand at lunch time.
Example: A second table may be needed to accommodate all of the team members’ thirst for ping pong.
Comma splices most often occur when a comma is used without a conjunction (like and, but, or as) or in place of a period or semicolon that divides or joins two thoughts that could be complete sentences on their own.
Example (wrong): Stacey was the nicest girl in class, she always shared the rainbow frosting from her Dunkaroos.
Example (right): Stacey was the nicest girl in class, because she always shared the rainbow frosting from her Dunkaroos.
Example 2 (right): Stacey was the nicest girl in class. She always shared the rainbow frosting from her Dunkaroos.
The Oxford Comma
The Oxford comma is the name given to the final comma in a series. It’s completely optional, but personally, I’m on team OC.
That’s all for now! Here’s hoping it saves you one fewer Google search (or potential grammar fail).
PS. I’m fully aware that writing post about grammar on the Internet means my own grammar will be ripped to shreds. So have at it! I can take it — that’s what wine is for.