37 essential rules of writing

Some explain grammatical structure, some distinguish homonyms, and some clarify usage. All will help you express yourself clearly.

When it comes to blogging for business, few things are more important than nailing the voice of your brand and bringing it to your ideal client. Few things other than grammar, that is. Whether you are a copywriter or a fiction writer, controlling the English language is of the utmost importance. For your reading pleasure, I have assembled 37 grammar rules/misused words—or common mistakes that virtually all of us make at some point or another.

1. Who/whom

To be precise, “who” is a nominative pronoun, while “whom” is an objective pronoun. In all practical considerations, though, that’s not a helpful definition. A good way to tell if you’re using the right one is to correlate “who” with “he/she” and “whom” with “her/him.” If the pronoun “he/she” works, “who” is the right choice. If it’s “her/him,” then it’s “whom.” See the examples:

“Who likes apples?” “He likes apples.”

“With whom does he live?” “He lives with her.”

2. Which/that

Again, to be technical, “that” is a restrictive pronoun. It is utterly vital to the noun to which it refers in order for the sentence to convey full meaning. For example: “I like movies that are sad.” If you removed the clause “that are sad,” the statement would be “I like movies,” which is indeed a sentence; however, it misses out on the full meaning of the original sentence, which is you like sad movies, not just any movies.

“Which,” on the other hand, is non-restrictive, which allows the addition of qualifiers. “I like ‘Titanic,’ which is a sad movie.” In this case, “which” qualifies the kind of movie “Titanic” is. “I like ‘Titanic'” is true according to the original meaning of the sentence, and the clause after “which” further defines “Titanic”; however, the sentence would be true and express the intent of the sentence (which is that you like “Titanic”) without the further qualification after “which.” When you use “which,” it’s like you’re giving bonus information about the sentence’s subject. In short: “that” restricts, “which” qualifies.

3. Continual/continuous

Yes, there is a difference. “Continual” means “always occurring.” So, “the clock struck continually on the hour.” If it’s a normal clock, that means once per hour. On the other hand, “The clock struck continuously” means that the clock never stops chiming and will probably be thrown out of the room in irritation.

4. Nor

A bit tricky. The best way to think about it is to think of “nor” following “neither” and “or” following “either.” So, “Neither the captain nor the first mate was happy when the gold doubloons turned out to be chocolate. Either the treasure map had been wrong or somebody had a bad sense of humor.”

5. Affect/effect

It’s a very common mistake, and the best way to remember it is that affect is nearly always a verb, while effect is usually a noun. “The sad movie affected me” verses “the sad movie had an effect on me.” To get more into the nitty-gritty of it, an affect (verb) causes an effect (noun).

6. Utilize

Do not utilize “utilize.” Is this technically a grammar mistake? No. But it’s entirely superfluous in writing as are most verbs that end in “-ize.” Yes, you can utilize a spoon, but why wouldn’t you just use it? (Note: there are some exceptions – in a lot of scientific writing conventions, for instance, “utilize” is standard. But about 97 percent of the time it’s really not necessary.)

7. Bring/take

You bring something to somebody/someplace. You take something away from somebody/someplace. Subjects take tribute to a monarch. The monarch says “bring tribute.”

8. Your/you’re/yore

Oh, boy, major pet peeve. “Your” is possessive. “Your car, your house, your apples, your computer, your baseball.” You’re is short for “you are.” As in “You’re driving me crazy when you confuse homophones.” Yore refers to the past, as in the “days of yore.” For example, “In the days of yore we bought candy at ye olde candy shoppe.”

9. It’s/its

Again, “it’s” is short for “it is.” “Its” is a possessive pronoun, just like “his” or “hers.” “It is an apple. Its leaf is green.” If you have trouble with this one, just try replacing the word with “it is.” If “it is” makes sense, use it’s. If it doesn’t, use its.

10. There/their/they’re

“There” refers to a place, or to the existence of something. “They live there. The house is there. The map is there. There is the street. There is a problem with all of these short sentences.” “Their” is possessive. If you are talking about more than one person and what they own, you need “their.” “Their house is nice. Their dog is black. Their street is wide. Their sentences are too short.” “They’re” is a contraction of “they are.” “They’re nice. They’re educated. They’re smart. Did you see those sentences? They’re too short.”

11. Then/than

A bit tricky, but can be broken down simply. Use “than” when you are comparing. “My apples are bigger than yours. My house is smaller than yours. My grammar is better than yours.” In all other instances where these similar-sounding words come into play, use “then.” “Then I went to the ice cream shop. I bought a vanilla cone, and then I bought sprinkles, too.”

12. Loose/lose

“Loose” means “not tight.” “Lose” means “to lose possession of.” So, “My pants are too loose, because I was able to lose weight.”

13. Me/I

Many people have issues with this, particularly when another person is involved with the sentence. Should you use “him and I” or “him and me”? A good rule of thumb is to remove the other person from the sentence and see what makes sense. “He doesn’t care much about my brother and me,” becomes “He doesn’t care much about me.” In this instance, “my brother and me” is grammatically correct. You wouldn’t say, “He doesn’t care much about I.”

14. Could of/would of/should of

No, no, and no. Now, the contractions could’ve/would’ve/should’ve are completely grammatically correct. What many people forget is that these are contractions of “could have,” “would have,” and “should have.” Don’t fall into the trap of ” ‘ve” sounding like “of” in speech!

15. Complement/compliment

A “complement” is something that supplements or adds to. So, “this Brie is a lovely complement to my merlot.” A compliment is something that you say is nice about another person. “You throw such lovely wine and cheese parties! I compliment you!”

16. Fewer/less

Can you count it? Use “fewer.” “There have been fewer candies in the candy bowl since John started working here. The subject “candies” is countable, so you use fewer. Is it uncountable? Use “less.” “I have liked John less and less since he started eating all the candy.” You can’t count “liked,” so “less” is used. This also applies to non-countable nouns, as well. “There is less milk in the refrigerator than before” uses “less” because you can’t say “I have four milks in the refrigerator.” Now, if you were saying bottles of milk, you would use “fewer” since you can count bottles. “I have four fewer bottles of milk in the refrigerator” is grammatically correct.

17. Principal/principle

A principal is the highest in rank. A principle refers to a truth. So, “The principal principle of the Declaration of Independence is that all men were created equal.” If you’re talking about somebody who runs a school, it’s “principal.” Just remember that the principal is your “pal,” and that’ll do you.

18. Historic/historical

A “historic” event is something that is important. So, “Roe v. Wade was a historic decision by the Supreme Court.” ‘Historical’ means something that happened in the past. “Historically, men have made more money than women in the workforce.”

19. Literally

Be careful with this one. If you use “literally,” you are actually saying that there is no metaphor involved. “I am literally starving to death,” translates to “I am near death due to a lack of food consumption, likely due to famine, pestilence, disease, poverty, war, or some combination thereof.” It does not mean that you skipped lunch in order to get to your meeting on time.

20. To/too/two

“To” is a preposition and helps form an infinitive. If that makes no sense, use “to” when the other ones don’t apply. “Too” means “as well,” or “also.” “Two” is the number 2. So, “I go to the store.” “My sister went to the store, too.” “Two of us went to the store.”

21. I.e/e.g.

The abbreviation i.e. means “that is,” whereas e.g means “for example. “I am a writing snob, i.e., I read Strunk and White for fun,” versus, “I think you should read a book on writing, e.g., Strunk and White’s ‘The Elements of Style.'”

22. A/an

Quick one here: Use “a” when the word begins with a consonant, and “an” when it begins with a vowel. “A banana, an apple, an orange, a papaya.” If the initial vowel takes on the sound of a consonant, use “a,” as in “a ukulele.” Conversely, it’s “an honor.”

23. Capital/capitol

“Capital” refers to a city; it can also refer to wealth or resources. “Capitol” is a building where lawmakers meet. “Washington, D.C., is the capital of the United States of America; it is also where the Capitol Building is located. Building the Capitol Building required a lot of capital in order to purchase supplies.”

24. Emigrate/immigrate

Immigration is when somebody enters a new country and lives there. Emigrate means to leave a country to go to another. “My great grandfather emigrated from Hungary. He and his wife immigrated to the United States in 1801.”

25. Refute/rebut

These actually do mean similar things, but there is a slight difference. To refute means to disprove something with evidence. To rebut is to disagree with. So if I said the chicken came first, you could rebut me and say that the egg did; however, neither of us could refute each other since the very nature of the argument is that nobody actually knows which came first. (Editor’s note: Reptiles, fish, and insects and their eggs predated birds, so the egg did come first.)

26. Enormity

Do not confuse this with “enormousness.” Enormity actually means “extreme evil.” This can be extremely amusing in certain situations, such as when George H.W. Bush said that he “couldn’t believe the enormity of the situation” when he was elected. Whatever your political leanings are, we likely can agree that “the enormity of the Holocaust” would be a better use of the word. Mel Gibson need not apply.

27. Disinterested/uninterested

“Uninterested” means that you are bored or have no interest. “Disinterested” means that you are a party removed from the situation. A disinterested party would be able to solve a dispute neutrally. An uninterested party couldn’t care less.

28. Decimate/devastate

If something is “decimated,” that actually means that 10 percent of it has been destroyed. (Fun fact: The word derives from a Roman punishment in which one in every 10 men were killed.) If you were talking about something being destroyed, “devastate” would be a better term.

29. Ultimate

Now, with this one you could accuse me of splitting hairs, but if you look at the word to the letter, “ultimate” actually means “the last.” So the Titanic’s first voyage was its ultimate voyage. But I would caution against calling high school graduation the “ultimate” day of your life—that might make it considerably more tragic.

30. Alright/all right

“Alright” is not a word. It is not all right to use alright.

31. Alternately/alternatively

Alternately is an adverb that means “to take turns.” “We alternately played cards in the game of war.” Alternatively is an adverb meaning “one or the other.” “We could play poker; alternatively, we could play war.”

32. Elicit/illicit

Elicit means to evoke a response. “When the word ‘elicit’ was used correctly, it elicited a cry of joy from me.” Illicit means something illegal. “The bank robber hid the illicitly acquired jewels in his basement.”

33. Hanged/hung

“Hanged” refers—very specifically—to the act of execution by means of suspension by the neck. “In the Wild Wild West, criminals were hanged.” Hung is the past tense participle of “hang.” “I hung the portrait on the wall.”

34. Precede/proceed

To precede means to come before. “The foreword preceded the book.” Proceed means to move forward. “After you learn the difference between precede and proceed, you may proceed to write sentences.” (Editor’s note: There’s a difference, too, between “foreword” and “forward.”)

35. Who’s/whose

Who’s is the contraction of “who is.” Whose is the possessive version of who. So it would be, “Who’s there?” and “Whose underwear is this?” Again, if the form “who is” makes sense, use that. If not, then it’s “whose.”

36. Nonplussed

Many use this to mean “calm and collected,” but the actual definition is perplexed or bewildered. Quite the opposite!

37. Farther/further

Farther is an adjective/adverb that means, “continuing to a more distant point.” Further refers to a greater degree. So, “We cannot move a mile farther until we further our plans.”

Whew! Come on, fellow grammarians: What common writing mistakes do you notice (or, admit it, occasionally commit) that you can’t stand?

Laura Hancock is the lead writer for ContentEqualsMoney.com, a content generation firm out of Lexington, Ky. This post first appeared on business2community.com.


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