The 12 most go-to grammar tips

Think this short catalogue of the most common sub-literate usages is too elementary? Then you haven’t been doing much reading on the Internet lately, have you?

Most of us must communicate in writing—not necessarily with paper and a writing instrument. Digital media has changed only the tools. In fact, as new means of communication have multiplied, so have demands for the old-fashioned skill of conveying information in writing.

We still write cover letters, memos and notes. But now, we also write status updates, blog posts, emails, online comments, tweets, bullets for slide presentations, captions for visuals to share on social media, and so on.

In nearly all cases (text messages aside) correct grammar matters. This is especially true if communicating for work or to a professional audience. Using correct grammar begets credibility. Think of it as an extension of appearance: Spiffy beats sloppy.

The goal, though, is to be spiffy, swiftly. And that’s the purpose of this essay: It’s an organized, streamlined guide. It’s alphabetized. And, it gives one-word answers. (Example sentences follow each answer, giving context.)

So, next time you need grammar help on the fly, here are 12 go-to tips!

1. Accept/except

Accept = Receive
I must accept blame for the accident because I ran the red light.
He accepted the award on behalf of the whole group.

Except = Excluding
Everyone is going except Harry.
I like all vegetables except broccoli.

2. Advice/advise

Advice = Noun
The advice you gave me was really useful.
No, I don’t need, or want, your advice.

Advise = Verb
He advised her to be careful in dealing with the complicated situation.
I don’t know anything about it; please advise me how to proceed.

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3. Among/between

Among = Group
Now that you’re registered for the conference, please mingle among the crowd.
These fourth graders are among the best scholars in the entire school district.

Between = Two
This big secret must stay between the two of us.
The only distance that matters is between the start of the race and the finish line.

4. Disinterested/uninterested

Disinterested = Impartial
To avoid conflicts of interest, they sought a disinterested person to settle the dispute.
Judges are supposed to be disinterested and fair.

Uninterested = Bored
The boy was so uninterested in the lesson he fell asleep.
I was uninterested in the play and left at the intermission.

5. Eager/Anxious

Eager = Keen
She was eager to start school, which she looked forward to every year.
The graduate was eager for the ceremony to end and for the celebration to start.

Anxious = Worried
After his wife went into labor six weeks early, Mr. Smith was anxious as he rushed to the hospital.
Halloween makes me anxious because spooky creatures and movies scare me.

6. Elicit/illicit

Elicit = Obtain
I asked the group many questions about the topic to elicit their views.
A neighborhood survey that elicits many responses will produce more complete data than a small sample of opinions.

Illicit = Naughty
The dog was trained to hunt for illicit drugs hidden in luggage.
The married man arranged an illicit meeting with an attractive co-worker.

7. Lay/lie

Lay = …Something
Ah, the mother of confusing grammar conundrums. I kind of cheated here to fulfill my intention to use one-word clues. This trick, however, should remind you that lay must be followed by something (and often, is also followed by somewhere).

I lay the pen on the table.
Please lay the dirty rag in the laundry basket.
Chickens lay eggs.

Lie = Positioned
Lie still, so the teacher doesn’t hear us in here!
Many trees lie between the two houses.

Bonus tips for past tense:

Lay (…something) = laid
Last week, the man laid his keys on the table, and he found them just today.

Lie (positioned) = lay
Four hours ago, the political candidate lay down to rest, so he would be ready for the debate that starts now.

• Don’t get confused! The past tense of lie still means positioned!
• The past tense of lay still means to …something, somewhere.

8. Loose/lose

Loose = Free
The dog got loose because the fence was open.
To be comfortable, I always travel in loose clothing.

Lose = Missing
I hope I never lose this precious necklace.
When I lose my homework, my teacher makes me do it again.

9. Since/because

Since = Time
I’ve been losing weight since I started eating more vegetables and walking an hour daily.
Ever since the boy chose to be more polite, he found it was actually easier to be courteous.

Because = Causation
I opened the last can of soda because I was really thirsty.
Because I was running late, I put on one brown sock and one black sock.

10. That/who

That = Things
Did you see the chairs that were broken?
Please, quickly unload the groceries that sat in the car.

Who = People
The students who raised their hands regularly to ask questions got the best grades.
I felt sorry for the construction workers who toiled in the sweltering August heat.

11. They’re/there/their

They’re = Contraction
They’re coming to the play together and want to sit together as one group.

There = Place
Take the picture over there; not here, but there.

Their = Possession
The sole heir to the fortune was their only nephew.

Bonus tips:

There (place) is spelled similarly to these “place” words: Here, Where
Their (possession) has the word “heir”-a person who inherits possessions-within it.

12. Who/whom

Who = Subject
Who cleared the table?
Who loves her?

Whom = Object
You cleared the table with whom?
He loves whom?

Anticipating groans from the grammar police, I should make clear these twelve are just short-cut substitutes. One-word tips, by design, can’t address nuance, exceptions or special cases. This list, however, can be helpful in a pinch. Drag it to your desktop at work. Or print it out. Finding an answer when you get stuck won’t take long.

For more in-depth guidance on usage and writing, my favorites are When Words Collide, by Lauren Kessler and Duncan McDonald; On Writing Well, by William Zinsser; and the classic The Elements of Style, by William Strunk, Jr. and E. B. White. This advice from Messrs. Strunk and White is nearly a century old and still perfectly relevant: “Vigorous writing is concise. A sentence should contain no unnecessary words, a paragraph no unnecessary sentences, for the same reason that a drawing should have no unnecessary lines and a machine no unnecessary parts. This requires not that the writer make all his sentences short, or that he avoid all detail and treat his subjects only in outline, but that every word tell.”

If you’re writing content for an audience that includes the news media, the Associated Press Stylebook is also helpful. That guide, which gets updated regularly, is available online.

This article is republished with permission, courtesy of 12 Most.

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A version of this article first appeared on in Aug. 2014.

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