Writing well is a little bit imagination, a little bit talent and a lot of remembering how to put a sting of the correct words together in the correct order. English is a particularly tricky language, we have exceptions to every rule, we can spell the same sound eight different ways, and we can’t agree on the best way to teach people how to read, write and speak with it effectively for more than five or so years in a row.
There are a ton of things most of us forget about the nuances of using English within a very short time of when we learn them. I consider myself pretty adept on a keyboard and there are several mistakes I make regularly. (Misplaced modifiers, split infinitives, never remembering which affect/effect or complement/compliment to use. To name but a few.) Today we’re going to talk about some of the lesser known foibles of our grammar and hopefully come up with ways for all of us to remember these rules more consistently.
Subject/Verb agreement – This one is pretty straightforward. Your subject has to match the tense of your verb. For example, the boy runs to the store. Boy and runs are both singular, they agree. This gets tricky when you throw in ‘and’, ‘or’ and ‘nor’. A multi-part subject connected by ‘and’ will almost always be plural. Ex: Bob and Tina dance at the club. Bob and Tina is your subject, and it’s plural, so the accompanying verb ‘dance’ needs to be plural as well. A multi-part subject connected by ‘or’ or ‘nor’ may be singular or plural. Ex: Neither Bob nor Tina dances with Jim (singular subject) ~or~ His dogs or my cats are responsible for the mess.
Misplaced modifiers – I actually love misplaced modifiers, because I edit a lot of things and they make me chuckle. It’s a good rule of thumb (and sometimes hard and fast, as we’ll see with split infinitives) to keep the words we use to modify other words as close to those modified words as possible. It’s easier for your readers to understand, since they can’t see the whole thought process you had before you wrote the sentence. Here’s an example of a misplaced modifier: Covered in sweat, the war-torn landscape stretched in front of the warrior. Ew, I hate sweaty landscapes, don’t you?
Split infinitives – The most famous infinitives are ‘to go’ and ‘to be’, and all the tenses of each. Infinitives are considered one word (technically) because both words are required for the verb to make sense as intended. Therefore, we’re not supposed to split them up. This is a tough one to remember, because lots of fairly decent writers don’t pay any attention to this rule. We’ve all heard the most famous split infinitive – “To boldly go where no man has gone before.” Can you rearrange this phrase so it’s correct and still makes sense?
Mixed metaphors/malapropism– Does the Pope shit in the woods? <– mixed metaphor. Are you going to sit around procrastibating all day? <– malapropism.
Further/farther – both of these words relate to distance, but further is used to describe a mental distance while farther describes a physical distance. Ex: I moved my plate of cheese and crackers farther away from my cat’s twitching nose. Other ex: The longer it took to move ahead, the further away her dreams felt.
Compliment/complement- I’ve never found an easy way to remember which is which with these two words, so I’ll just explain. A compliment is what you pay someone, the colors pink and brown complement each other.
Affect/effect – Effect has a separate meaning as a verb (to effect change) and affect has a separate meaning as a noun (describing someone’s mood and facial expressions as their affect) but in cases where people confuse affect/effect effect is always a noun and affect is always a verb. Ex: Will the change in voter turnout affect the effect of the election?
Less/fewer – This one is similar to further/farther, in that the words have the same basic meaning in different contexts. Use fewer when you’re talking about a specific amount, use less when you’re talking in more general terms. Ex: I have fewer than five dollars in my wallet. Other ex: I have less time to finish writing this article than I thought.
Who/that/which – This is a trickier area, and there is wiggle room with what is considered acceptable. I’ve known writers and editors that feel all sorts of ways about the who/that/which dilemma. One hard and fast rule is when to use “who.” For example, this sentence: ‘The boy that stole my lunch money is standing right over there.’ should be: ‘The boy who stole my lunch money is standing right over there.’ Since we’re referring to an actual person, using who is better than using that. Both of these sentences are technically correct: ‘Hand me the key that unlocks this door.’ and ‘Hand me the key which unlocks this door.’ Some editors, teachers and professors have preferences, however.
Unique – Unique already means one-of-a-kind and original. There is never a need to call something ‘very unique.’