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What is good grammar? (Part two!)

English grammar and usage is a large subject, so here are a few more rules, questions, and areas you might want to bone up on to make sure you’re writing and speaking correctly!

What is the secret to correct spelling in English?

There is not set of simple rules for spelling in English. This is because English borrowed words from a multitude of other languages and often kept the unique spelling from that original language. Thus, English’s Germanic origins are clouded with words from French, Spanish, Latin, you name it.

The best advice I can give you—other than always using a spell check when you write—is to read copiously. Generally, the more you read, and the more often you see large words spelled correctly, and the better your spelling will be.

That’s it.

What is the difference between there, their, and they’re?

The first indicates place, the second is a plural possessive pronoun, and the third is a contraction of they are.

When I type quickly, I sometimes type there when I meant their, and my grammar check doesn’t always catch it (my spell check never does), so it pays to proofread one’s own writing before clicking Send.

What is the difference between your and you’re?

These two get mistaken even more than there/their/they’re I think. The first is a second person possessive pronoun whereas the second is a contraction of you are. I shouldn’t have to explain these, right?

When do I use it’s, and when do I use its?

Because we also use apostrophes to indicate missing letters (i.e., words like that’s for that is, and it’s for it is), this can cause problems and create exceptions.

One such exception is the word it.

What do you do if you want to make it possess something?

Answer: Just add the letter s—no apostrophe.

So, the habitat of it would be its habitat (not it’s habitat).

I know this exception can get confusing, but it’s (as in it is) the only one that really matters.

 Please contact me if you’re still confused by any of this. I’m always happy to help.

It’s simple, really! Lol.

When do I use every day, and when do I use everyday?

Too often, I see the word everyday written when the person should have written every day.


Because the word everyday is an adjective and comes before a noun to modify it, while every day comes only after a verb phrase to modify it.

Use everyday like this:

For too many years I worked at an everyday job (as in, my normal, ordinary job).


Getting struck by lightning is not an everyday occurrence.

In contrast, use the words every day only after a verb phrase, never before a noun.

For instance:

I drove to work every day on the dreaded Beltway for three years.

Here, the words every and day answer the question how long, as in how many months or years I drove to work on the dreaded Beltway.

So again, every day follows a verb phrase to add information to it, whereas everyday is an adjective and goes only before a noun, never after a verb phrase.

If this isn’t clear, feel free to email me, and I’ll try to explain it better.

What is the difference between fewer and less?

In the 1970s, a TV advertisement for Miller Lite boasted that their beer had “less calories than our regular beer.”

Now, I could care less about beer, but I do care about word usage. Because Miller was talking about countable calories and not an unspecified amount, they should have said fewer.

However, the advertising agency they hired likely wanted a shorter, punchier word for their ad, so they used less instead of fewer. And for many ordinary people, confusion has reigned ever since.

So, if you want to be correct, use fewer for number and less for amount.

Thus, I walked fewer miles than I did last week , and I drank less orange juice than the day before.

Again, use fewer when speaking of numbers or a countable amount, and use less when talking about a general amount of something.

As always, ping me if you don’t understand something in here or have a specific grammar or usage issue or question you’d like to see covered!

When do I use well and when do I use good?

My good friend Monique Smith asked me about the difference between well and good. Namely, when do you use each. In other words, is it okay to say, “I feel good?”

Formal grammar rules say that good is an adjective (it describes or modifies a noun) whereas well is an adverb (it modifies a verb).

So yes, it’s more correct to say that you feel well (since you’re talking about the verb to feel, and that it’s been a good day (not a well day) because you’re modifying a noun (day). But if you slip and say that you feel good today, everyone will understand you and even most grammar Nazis won’t complain.

What is the difference between which and that?

Thanks to my friend Geraldine Gobbi (who lives in the land where our language originated!), I am going to tell you the difference between which and that. As she put it, misuse of which versus that “puts my teeth on edge.”

Use which (after a comma) always to indicate extra description or information that could be omitted. Optional information, if you will. Technically, the clause that follows which is called non-essential.

Use that (with no comma) when the information that follows is connected essentially to the word before it. In other words, essential information always follows that.


I went to the store, which was open all day, to buy bread.

The extra info—the store being open all day—is just extra info, and you can cut it out and still communicate your message that you went to buy bread.

I went to the store that is open all day to buy bread.

In the second example sentence, the words that follow that mean you went to that particular store, rather than some other store (like one that is only open from 10 to 6, for instance) to buy bread.

What does it mean to write more directly? More clearly?

Some of the best advice anyone can give you regarding how to write better is to write more clearly, more directly. But what does that mean, and how do I do it?

Well, when you write, always try to word sentences in a shorter, more direct way. In other words, each time you write something, go back and see if you can’t reword it to be shorter and more to the point, without losing any key details. Do this relentlessly.

Write a book that makes a difference!

Want to make a difference in the world by sharing your knowledge or story in a book?

Contact me. I’m always happy to chat:

Happy writing!

What does it mean to write in parallel? Or, what is parallelism?

Whether you are aware of it or not, you probably speak in good, parallel sentences. But sometimes people forget to write using parallel constructions or to make sure list items are parallel.

What do I mean by that? Listen to what Julius Caesar said after he came back from Gaul (modern day France):

I came.

I saw.

I conquered.

Now, I’m not a fan of conquering, but I am a fan of simple statements made in parallel.

So, it really drives me nuts when I read a sentence like this:

“I went to the store to shop, for exercising, and because I wondered if Jenny would be working the cash register.”

I would prefer it if the sentence read:

“I went to the store to shop, to exercise, and to see if Jenny would be working the cash register.”

See how much more elegant that last sentence is? Don’t you all like elegance?

Anyway, in that second sentence, each item in the list begins with a simple infinitive verb (one that uses form, to ___).

Want to write better? Make sure to remember parallelism.

Do people judge me by the way I talk?

Let’s face it, as soon as you open your mouth, you give yourself away via your accent, your vocabulary, and your grammar, all of which tell everyone:

  • Your education level
  • Your income/social class
  • Your origins

Now, there’s nothing morally wrong with using slang, questionable grammar, or saying “me and him” rather than “he and I,” but if you want to swim with the big fish, you might want to pay attention to how you talk. Simply put, people sometimes judge you by how you speak—and write.

Crazy, I know.

But if you’re trying to close that sale, get hired for your dream job, or pitch your innovative idea, you may want to pay attention to how you speak and write.

So, this month, please send me your most pressing language questions or issues so you don’t let your tongue hinder your success.

What do you want to know or fix? Just let me know, thanks!

How do I proofread my book or article?

I’m going to guess that most of you don’t enjoy proofreading.

But really, who can blame you?

However, if you’re going to send an important email or post something on LinkedIn (especially) that your professional peers or overlords will read, please proof before you send—spend that little extra bit of time.

Luckily, a few free tools exist to help you:

  1. MS Word. As you probably already know, MS Word has a grammar and spell check, so use them. No, Word’s tools are not perfect, so you should also take the next step.


  1. Google Docs. Now, I hate writing in Google Docs (I won’t go into why here), but you can open a blank Google Docs document and paste your message into it.

    Google Docs will then display further grammar or usage errors that you and MS Word had otherwise missed. After you make the suggested fixes that make sense, you can then copy and paste your text back into your email or document.


  1. Reading aloud. Lastly, I also recommend closing your office door and reading aloud whatever you’ve written, which will allow you catch errors or awkward phrasing that you missed during a silent read.

Sure, you can also spring for Grammarly if you want, but the aforementioned tools/tips alone should catch most of your mistakes and cost you nothing but a little time.

What are citations, references, and bibliographies, and how do I use them??

Recently, I got to edit my sister’s book.

She’s been assembling a book that catalogs the desert shrubs and trees in her county and neighboring counties in Nevada.

Obviously, this isn’t a book with a broad audience, but there are ranchers in her area who can benefit from it (because it tells what plants their livestock can safely graze, and what plants can seriously harm their livestock).

And because she’s writing a reference book, she must properly cite its information.

First, because to not do so would be plagiarism, but more importantly because when you cite where you got something, you give your readers another source they can mine for information.

In other words, those pesky citation rules that arise when you write a research paper or a scholarly book aren’t there to torture you (though it may seem that way); they exist to help your readers find further info.

That’s it, mainly.

The same is basically true for rules of grammar and usage. They’re not there to punish or torture. They’re there to make communication clearer and more elegant.


What is the structure of a sentence in English?: subject-verb-object

In English, we usually speak sentences in the subject-verb-object form.

For example:

John                       kicked                    the ball

Subject                 verb                       object

So far so good, right?

“But what’s the big deal?” you might say. “Why do I need to know the difference between a subject and an object??”

Well, knowing whether a noun is the subject or the object helps when you are trying to decide whether to say (or write) I or me, who or whom, he or him, she or her, etc.

Sometimes, people say he and I when they should have said he and me, because the me in that case was acting as the object.

Anyway, if you’re not sure whether to use I or me, he or him, she or her, or who or whom, try to figure out if that word is the subject or the object (of the verb) in your sentence.

Easy-peasy, right?

Of course, you could always contact me. I’m always happy to confuse, sorry, to enlighten you further.

How do I use quotation marks?

How and when to use quotation marks is fairly simple. Here are the main guidelines.

Use double quotation marks to:

  • Quote spoken text.

For instance:

“I want to quit work today,” he said.

  • Around a song title, short story, lecture, episode title, or article in a longer work (like a book or a periodical).

For instance:

We read the short story, “The Lottery,” by Shirley Jackson when I was in junior high.

I like the song, “Satisfaction,” by the Rolling Stones.

  • To identify a word that is being used ironically. This is called a scare quote.

For instance:

I got my “paycheck” this week—it was for only $10.

Note: Too often people use scare quotes when they want to emphasize a word. This is incorrect. Instead, put the word in Italics if you want to emphasize it.

Use single quotes to:

  • Quote text that is already in quotation marks.

For instance: “I heard John say, ‘No!’ when he was asleep,” said Dan

How and when do I use dashes and hyphens?

Use dashes and hyphens in the  following ways:

Hyphens: use hyphens to connect two closely-related words or indicate a word that is breaking at the end of a line (because there isn’t enough room to fit the entire word). Do not use hyphens by themselves and within sentences. Instead, use dashes for that.

Dashes: Use an em dash (the wider of the two dashes) to offset an editorial comment in a sentence. Such as, I went home early—I wasn’t feeling well—and quickly went to bed. Use and en dash (the slightly shorter of the two dashes) to indicate a range between to values or numbers. The pages we read were pages 220–224.

What is subject verb agreement?

Subject/verb agreement in English means that the verb you use agrees—or correlates to—the subject doing the verb.

For instance, you would say I am, but you would never say he am. You would say he is, just as you would not say I is.

Always make sure that all of your verbs, whether they are action verbs or to-be verbs, agree with the subject doing the verb.

What are some funny word mistakes?

I love words almost as much as I love doughnuts, which is saying a lot, especially when words are misused to often humorous effect.

With that in mind, and for fun, here are a few amusing mis-wordings of the English language.

Many are from signs, a few from announcements posted on bulletin boards or telephone poles, and one is from the headline of a news article, but all of them are ridiculous:

  • “Attention: toilet only for disabled elderly pregnant children”
  • “Wash and Vacuum Senior Citizens $15.95”
  • “Don’t let worries kill you. Let the church help.”
  • “Don’t kill your wife with work: let electricity do it.”
  • And lastly, from one unfortunate headline:
  • “Center helps rape victims”

Remember to always proof what you’ve written and always watch your words!

Have a grammar question or a question about anything above? Fill in the comment form below:

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