There are no grammar rules (except when there are)

4 grammar mistakes you didn’t know you were making

As much as this will make my dad clutch his pearls, I’m here to tell you there is no such thing as correct grammar.

Sorry I’m such a disappointment, dad.

It wasn’t that long ago that people were writing to-morrow and week-end and adding quotes to anything that felt slightly “slangy”. Grammar changes from generation to generation and between populations, so there’s no single way to be correct.

And that puts you in a sticky situation.

Because grammar still matters – if people spot what they consider an error in your writing, it’ll bottom out your cred. So, what do you even do? It all starts with your target audience – think about what they’d consider correct and stick with that. But to do that, you’ll need a wider grasp of grammar than you might have – you need to understand what is wrong and right for different audiences.

Here’s where I see writers tripping up most often.

 

  1. Fewer vs less

Everywhere as far as the eye can see, English speakers are using less, even when fewer is more traditionally correct. Just as you wouldn’t say, “How much cups do you have?”, you technically shouldn’t reply, “I have less cups.” Why? Because if you can count the items you should be using many and fewer. If you can’t count anything, use much and less.

 

Here are some examples:

How many cats are there now?

There are fewer cats than before.

 

I have a lot of chocolate – how much do you have?

I have less chocolate than you.

 

How many calories are in an apple?

Fewer calories than chocolate!

 

How much water is in the pool?

It’s been sunny, so there’s much less water.

 

There’s no real reason why less can’t be used in all these examples – people will get it! But if you’re writing for an older (or more librarian) audience, it’s a good idea to get this ‘right’.

 

  1. Which or that

The rules here can be hard to remember. Essentially, using which shows the information is additional – it’s an, “Oh, and by the way…”. Using that shows the information is crucial. Grammarly.com sums it up nicely: “which is as disposable as a sandwich bag. If you can remove the clause without destroying the meaning of the sentence, the clause is non-essential, and you can use which.”

 

Think about the difference between these two sentences:

The cat that got left outside overnight became unwell

The cat, which got left outside overnight, became unwell

The first, using that, implies that there are many cats, but it was, specifically, the cat left outside that needed the vet. The second sentence, using which, suggests there’s only one cat and it got sick, with some extra info – it was left outside. Here are some more examples.

 

My car, which is a Mustang, is so fast.

Meaning: I have one, super-fast car (and did I mention that it’s a Mustang?)

 

Please submit new processes that have been approved by the board.

Meaning: We only want new processes that have already been approved by the board, thanks.

 

I like coffee that has been brewed correctly.

Meaning: I only like correctly brewed coffee. All other coffee will be spat back into the pot.

 

  1. Affect vs effect

Yep, this is a tricky one, but I have some rules for you to write on a Post-It:

  • Noun? Write
  • Verb that can be swapped with accomplish? Write
  • Verb that can be swapped with influence? Write

 

Here are some examples.

She felt the heady effects of the champagne almost immediately.

The new strategy is especially effective for older homes.

Your lies really affected my confidence.

 

  1. I vs me

Remember asking your dad for an ice block when you had a friend over? “Can me and Josie have a Polar Pop?”

The reply inevitably was: “Can Josie and I…”.

Those stickler parents have a lot to answer for. Thanks to them a whole generation has grown up believing that and I is somehow more correct, grownup and formal than and me. Just like there’s a time for ice blocks and a time for Irish coffee – both have their place.

Here’s the complicated linguistic explanation: if you’re the subject (the person or thing doing the action in the sentence), then use I. If you’re the object (the person or thing that the action is happening to), use me.

The TL; DR version: remove the other person and see which option sounds more natural. An example: Here’s a photo of mum and I at the ball becomes Here’s a photo of I at the ball. That’s a big bag of nope.

 

Here are some examples:

Rowena and I will get back to you next week.

You’ll hear from Rowena and me next week.

 

You and I have enough confidence for the whole team.

The confidence will come from you and me.

 

This dinner was cooked by my sister and me.

My sister and I cooked this dinner.

 

 

Helen Steemson

The lead copy writer and creative director at Words for Breakfast. She spends much of her time working with the copy writing team across a variety of projects.