5 common language questions—answered

Punctuating a series of bulleted items, confusing homonyms and the tenses of lie and lay can vex writers in any field. Here is a handful of frequent fumbles, and how to get them right.

You’re writing a paper, but suddenly you stop because you’re not sure about a grammar rule. What do you do?

Many turn to grammar handbooks. Others use question-and-answer sites such as Grammarly Answers. Some questions are unique; others have been asked hundreds of times.

Wouldn’t it be nice to have the answers to some frequently asked grammar and language questions in one handy guide? Here’s a handful to get you started:

What’s the difference between fewer and less?

Can you count the items? Use fewer. Otherwise, use less!

Correct: Fewer than 20 of the 314 applicants received an invitation to interview for the position.

Correct: I have less time to read this year than I would like.

Is it me or I?

Remove the other noun and say the sentence aloud. If it sounds wrong, switch the pronoun.

Correct: Did you invite Billy and me?

Did you invite Billy? Did you invite me? They both sound correct, so me is correct.

Correct: Should Billy and I go to the store?

Should Billy go to the store? Should I go to the store? Again, they both sound correct, so I is correct.

Incorrect: Me and Sally sent gifts.

Me sent gifts. Sally sent gifts. Me sent a gift doesn’t sound right, so substitute I: Sally and I sent gifts.

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How do you punctuate items in a vertical list?

Answers vary on this issue so check your current style manual. In general, full sentences should include normal end punctuation. If single words or short phrases make up your list, be consistent about punctuation. Either consistently include punctuation at the end of each item or don’t use it for any of them.

What is the past tense of lie?

When lie is used to talk about the position of a something, the past tense is lay.

Correct: After the basketball game, the team banner lay on the gymnasium floor.

If that sounds wrong to you, it is because this verb is often confused with lay which means to put something down. The past tense of lay is laid.

Correct: He laid the team banner on the gymnasium floor after the game.

If lie means to tell a fib, the past tense is lied.

Correct: He lied about where he had spent the night.

How does affect differ from effect?

Affect is a verb that means “to influence.” Though effect can be a verb in some formal contexts, it is usually used as a noun. As a noun, it means “a result.”

Correct: The barking of the neighbor’s dog affects my ability to concentrate.

Correct: The barking of the neighbor’s dog has a curious effect on my ability to concentrate.

Though these questions are among the most common, you might have doubts about how to use certain other words and punctuation.

What can you do about those unanswered questions? Why not expand this guide with research of your own? Write down your questions, and look up the answers. Make note of your findings in a notebook. Then you will have your own handbook to consult.

A version of this article first appeared on Grammarly.

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