5 grade-school grammar gaffes to correct in 2017—and beyond

These elementary errors frequently appear in published writings and business emails, much to the detriment of their authors.

Is proper grammar in its final throes?

Casual messaging generally isn’t held to strict linguistic standards, of course, but today’s professional communications are littered with faux pas that would raise the ire—and the red pen—of any dedicated grade-school teacher. Such errors are, ahem, elementary.

Here are five basic grammatical blunders that professional communicators should correct immediately and permanently:

1. Objective case pronouns used as the subject of a verb.

The pronouns that should be used as objects of verbs or prepositions—me, him, her, us, them—all too frequently are used to drive the action in a sentence. Here’s the wrong, yet all too common, way:

Him and her have major differences about how to handle this situation.

Me and them will meet later to discuss it.

Do your teeth hurt yet? Try these corrected versions instead:

He and she have major differences about how to handle this situation.

They and I will meet later to discuss it.

It’s not great literature, but it is correct.

2. Subjective case pronouns used as the object of a verb.

This is the converse of the error in No. 1.

In these instances, pronouns that should drive the action—he, she, I, we, they—are misplaced as objects of verbs and prepositions. This most often occurs when the pronoun is used with a person’s name.

They forgot to include Brenda and I.

That came as a surprise to Garrett and she.

It was a first for both he and Esmerelda.

Instead, these should read:

They forgot to include Brenda and me.

That came as a surprise to Garrett and her.

It was a first for both him and Esmerelda.

3. Using “whomever” as a subject.

This might be considered point 1a.

Consider this incorrect usage:

Whomever is in charge should take care of the staffing shortage.

It’s commonly heard and just as commonly wrong—a simple misuse and one that’s easy to correct. If you would use a nominative pronoun, use who or whoever. If you would use an accusative pronoun, go with whom/whomever.

There is a trickier construction that many find baffling. I’m guessing that those of you who’ve gotten this far were those in Mrs. Pickering’s seventh-grade English class who would beam with delight at the prospect of diagramming sentences. There and then would have been uttered the dreaded term, “noun phrase.”

The noun phrase is the key to unlocking the whoever/whomever quandary. Here’s the correct form:

Please give this report to whoever runs the sales team.

“Wait,” you might cry. “You have a nominative form as the object of a preposition. Clearly that requires an accusative. Aaaaaaggghhhh!”

Calm thyself. The entire noun phrase—”whoever runs the sales team”—is the object of the preposition; that phrase, within the larger sentence, is a solid entity. The noun phrase itself, however, has a subject, the nominative “whoever.” Because “he or she” runs the sales team, you should use whoever.

4. Plural subject/singular verb.

This occurs so frequently that most readers have become inured to it. That doesn’t make it any less wrong.

Developing and sustaining a website is more complicated than you might think.

Nope. Two gerunds—developing and sustaining—act upon the website and drive the verb, so it should be:

Developing and sustaining a website are more complicated than you might think.

When you have a monolithic phrase—such as mergers and acquisitions or research and development—you can get away with a singular verb.

In the 1990s, mergers and acquisitions was a hot topic in the banking industry.

Research and development keeps us in the loop on all pending projects.

5. Lay/lie.

To lay is a transitive verb; it acts upon an object: lay, laid, has laid.

The hen lays an egg.

The gambler laid his cards on the table.

The architect has laid out the plans for his edifice complex (much to his mom’s delight).

To lie (as in recline) is an intransitive verb: lie, lay, has lain .

The collie lies on the kitchen floor.

Mervyn lay in bed until noon.

I had lain in the MRI tube for 30 minutes before they woke me.

That second one causes the confusion: Because the past tense of lie is lay, many people conflate the two verbs, and mistakes ensue.

Exacerbating the confusion is that to lie (meaning to fib) has different past and perfect tenses: lie, lied, has lied.

If Mervyn lied in bed, it probably involved his amorous exploits or insincere expressions of enduring affection. That Mervyn is a scallywag.

Let’s hope this explanation has laid all confusion to rest.

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