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How to Win the Grammar Game

As orig­i­nally pub­lished in VirtualPROMOTE Gazette http://jimworld.com

By Judy Vorfeld

Are you one of the many bright peo­ple who speaks well but has trou­ble with the mechan­ics of writ­ing: fol­low­ing those con­fus­ing rules con­cern­ing spelling, punc­tu­at­ing, cap­i­tal­iz­ing, etc.? Is a rel­a­tive, co-worker or edi­tor con­stantly whip­ping out a dic­tio­nary, style guide, or gram­mar hand­book to point out mis­takes in your writ­ing, mak­ing you want to slam their fin­gers in Chapter 6?

If so, have you spent pre­cious time striv­ing to learn who’s right? Or is that whose wright?

Does it mat­ter? If you’re speak­ing, per­haps not. If you’re writ­ing, it may matter.

The rea­sons for not writ­ing well are var­ied, but that doesn’t stop peo­ple from being good communicators…from cre­at­ing fan­tas­tic sto­ries and plots…from giv­ing life and light and mean­ing to words.

You are bright. Never for­get that.…

Now it’s time to move for­ward and have fun writ­ing right!

Yes, I said fun!

Let’s find ways to avoid com­mon mis­takes in

  • Spelling
  • Pronunciation
  • Capitalization
  • Punctuation
  • Usage

And much more!


A and An: “an his­tor­i­cal book” is not idiomatic in American English. Before a pro­nounced (breathy) h, the indef­i­nite arti­cle should be a. A hotel; a his­tor­i­cal. Precede a word begin­ning with a “breathy” h with an a. (6.60CMS14)

Due to or Because of? Due to mod­i­fies nouns and is gen­er­ally used after some form of the verb to be (is, are, was, were, etc.). Jim Wilson’s suc­cess is due to tal­ent and spunk (due to mod­i­fies suc­cess, not tal­ent). Because of should mod­ify verbs. Ted resigned because of poor health (because of mod­i­fies resigned). (1101GRM7)

Its or It’s? This is one of the most com­mon prob­lem areas of our lan­guage, prob­a­bly because pos­ses­sives almost always use apos­tro­phes. Its is an excep­tion. Its: The pos­ses­sive form of the pro­noun it is never writ­ten with an apos­tro­phe, e.g., … read the book. “Its title is …” or, “What is its value?” It’s: con­trac­tions of it is and it has. It’s time to go. It’s been great. (AHD3)

Nauseous or Nauseated Often used incor­rectly, but don’t get nau­se­at­ing about its usage. Nauseous means sick­en­ing to observe: dis­gust­ing. Nauseated means sick to one’s stom­ach. Pregnant women often expe­ri­ence nau­sea. When they describe the way they feel, they should say, “I feel nau­se­ated,” but if a preg­nant woman says, “I feel nau­seous,” don’t cor­rect her gram­mar: give her a hug and some gin­ger ale! Timing is everything.

Their, They’re, or There? Their: pos­ses­sive form of the word they, e.g., Their Web site is full of typos. They’re: con­trac­tion of the words “they” and “are,” e.g., They’re doing a great job on their Web site. There: at or in that place, e.g., “Now there is a stun­ning Web site. (AHD3)

Your or you’re? This is prob­a­bly the sec­ond most com­mon prob­lem area in our lan­guage. You’re: con­trac­tion of the words “you are,” e.g., “You’re up for an award. Someone said you’re leav­ing.” Your is a pos­ses­sive form of a per­sonal pro­noun, e.g., “I like your Web site. Tom, thanks for giv­ing your time to this effort.” Both: “Your knowl­edge of HTML shows that you’re a ded­i­cated designer.” (AHD3)

Let’s tackle just a few of the most con­fus­ing word pairs and groups:

  • Accept: receive.….Except: exclude
  • Adverse: opposed.….Averse: not interested
  • Affect: change, influ­ence.….Effect: (v) to bring about (n) result, impression
  • Appraise: value.….Apprise: inform, notify
  • Lay: to set down, to place or put an item down.….Lie: to recline
  • Principal: first in author­ity; main par­tic­i­pant; amount of a debt less inter­est.….Principle: basic truth or assumption
  • Ensure: to make sure or cer­tain; guar­an­tee; to pro­tect.….Insure: to take out or issue insur­ance; to pay or be paid money in the case of loss.….Assure: con­vince, make sure of some­thing, to give con­fi­dence; to declare or promise confidently
  • Their: belong­ing to; pos­ses­sive of “they” (another case where a pos­ses­sive does not have an apos­tro­phe).….There: at, or in that place.….they’re: com­bi­na­tion of “they are”
  • To: in the direc­tion of; toward.….Too: in addi­tion; as well, also.….Two: more than one; less than three


  • Adjectives are mod­i­fiers. They describe nouns & spec­ify size, color, num­ber, etc., e.g., The small “x” in the upper cor­ner of the win­dow is used to exit your file.
  • Adverbs describe verbs, adjec­tives & other adverbs, e.g., The exhausted sec­re­tary screamed loudly as her mon­i­tor flick­ered slowly, then died.
  • Alliteration can give a pleas­ing sound to a sen­tence, as long as it’s not over­done, e.g., World Wide Web … smelly, slimy SCSI … res­o­nant ringing.
  • Clauses are groups of words with a sub­ject and pred­i­cate. A main clause stands alone as a sen­tence; a sub­or­di­nate clause is incom­plete and is used with a main clause to express an idea. Main:I will play Tetris, Subordinate: when I have time.
  • Compound nouns usu­ally form the plural by plu­ral­iz­ing the fun­da­men­tal part of the word, e.g., attor­neys gen­eral; spelling matches; vice presidents.
  • Conjunctions join words, phrases or clauses. Coordinating con­junc­tions: and, but, for, or, nor, either, nei­ther, yet, so, so that. (Yet & so are also used as adverbs.) Subordinating con­junc­tions join two clauses (main and dependent/subordinate): although, because, since, until, while, etc.
  • Metaphors sug­gest com­par­i­son between two dif­fer­ent things, e.g., Bill Gates has a heart of gold…His mind is a sharp razor.
  • Mondegreens: Misheard lyrics. Example: “Donuts Make my Brown Eyes Blue” rather than “Don’t it Make my Brown Eyes Blue” or “Are you Going to Starve an Old Friend?” instead of “Are you Going to Scarborough Fair?” or “Ham on Rye” rather than Kenny Loggins “I’m alright.”
  • Noun The name of a per­son, place, thing, qual­ity or action. Nerd, Bellingham, desk, truth, dis­cov­ery, frus­tra­tion.
  • Phrases are closely related words with no sub­ject or pred­i­cate, and may be used as nouns, verbs, adjec­tives, or adverbs, e.g., Waiting for Technical Support has kept me at my desk all after­noon (noun). The typ­ing could have been done ear­lier (verb). The per­son with the bleary eyes is a com­puter nerd (adjec­tive). Buy mem­ory chips now, since the price will go up soon (adverb).
  • Predicates are one of two main com­po­nents of a sen­tence. They are verbs and the words used to explain the action or con­di­tion. They always agree with the Subject, e.g., Choosing the right ISP can be a dif­fi­cult process.
  • Prepositions show how nouns or pro­nouns relate to other words in a sen­tence, e.g., Little Susie rolled the $800 CD ROM into the bath­room; her mother hid behind the shower cur­tain, pray­ing for self-control.
  • Pronouns are sub­sti­tutes for nouns, e.g., Judy sat at her com­puter and opened WordPerfect. Suddenly, her mind went blank, so she con­tacted Luz Vergara, the WordPerfect Wiz.
  • Proper nouns form their plu­rals by adding s to the sin­gu­lar or es if the word ends in s, z, ch, sh, or zh, e.g., the Carolinas, Robinsons, Piersons, Judys, Joneses, Savages, Morrises.
  • Similes show a sim­i­lar­ity between two things, using “like.” Bill Prowell has a mind like a razor…After six hours at the com­puter, her eye­lids felt like lead weights.
  • Subjects, one of two main com­po­nents of a sen­tence, are nouns, pro­nouns, or phrases used as nouns, e.g., Choosing the right ISP can be a dif­fi­cult process.
  • Verbs make things hap­pen, show action or state of being & also indi­cate time of action or being, e.g., Jeff’s son waved good­bye to the com­puter repair­man (past). I need to shut down Windows (present). You will enjoy learn­ing HTML (future).
  • Voice. Active is prefer­able to pas­sive to cre­ate action and inter­est. Connie typed the let­ter (active). The let­ter was typed by Connie (pas­sive). Sometimes, in cer­tain types of schol­arly and sci­en­tific doc­u­ments, pas­sive voice is preferred.

You can win the gram­mar game! If you need any kind of help with word stuff, con­tact Judy Vorfeld. Who knows, your ques­tion may be the sub­ject of a future arti­cle! (With your per­mis­sion, of course!)


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