June Casagrande is a veteran journalist and syndicated columnist. She is the author of Grammar Snobs Are Great Big Meanies, Mortal Syntax, and The Joy of Syntax. She is a former Los Angeles Times staff reporter, and her “A Word, Please” grammar column currently appears in several community news sections. Here she shares the five common grammar mistakes that great writers make.
Everyone makes grammar mistakes. But we make them at different levels.
Someone with no interest in words or writing might be more prone to confuse “you’re” and “your” or “its” and “it’s.” At the other end of the spectrum, serious wordsmiths are more inclined to commit errors involving “whom” or coordinate subjects like “John and I.” Here are five errors even the most literate people make.
- “Whom” between clauses. To understand the most common “whom” errors, first compare two sentences that do not contain the pronoun “whom”: “I know him.” “I know he works hard.” Why does the first use an object pronoun, “him,” while the second uses the subject pronoun “he”? Aren’t they both the object of the verb “know,” and if so, shouldn’t they be in the object form: him? Obviously not. “I know him works hard” is clearly an error. Yet the same error isn’t as clear when we’re dealing with “who” and “whom.” Look at this example: “The manager wanted to hire Yale alumni whom he knew would fit in well at the company.” That’s a mistake. It should be “who.” The object of the verb “knew” is not a single pronoun, “whom.” It’s a whole clause: “who would fit in well.” That verb phrase “would fit in well” needs a subject, so it needs the subject pronoun “who” and not the object pronoun “whom.”
- “Joe and I” used as an object. We’re taught that “I” is more proper than “me.” That’s often true. “Joe and me are having lunch” is grammatically inferior to “Joe and I are having lunch.” But sometimes “me” is correct. In “Thanks for taking the time to visit Stephanie and me,” the noun phrase “Stephanie and me” is the object of the verb “visit.” The pronoun “I” is a subject. The pronoun “me” is an object. So for the object of a verb like “visit,” you need “me.” Idiomatically, it’s acceptable to use “I” here. But people who know the rules will think you were trying to be grammatically correct and failed. When in doubt, try omitting the other person. Then you get “Thanks for taking the time to visit I” versus “Thanks for taking the time to visit me.”
- Faulty parallels. What’s wrong with the following sentence? “Carrie says Brian plans to study biology, math, French, economics and is considering joining the soccer team.” This sentence contains an error called a faulty parallel, which occurs when listed items fail to attach the same way to a stem. Here the stem is “plans to study.” We’re saying Brian plans to study biology, plans to study math, plans to study French, and so on. To avoid repetition, make all the items in the list share a single “to study.” It works fine until we get to the last item: “is considering joining the soccer team.” Our broken parallel says, “Brian plans to study is considering joining the soccer team.” That’s nonsense. Sometimes, fixing a faulty parallel is as simple as inserting “and” before the last true parallel item. “Brian plans to study biology, math, French, AND economics and is considering joining the soccer team.” Other times, it’s easier to break up the sentence.
- Danglers. Here’s another “what’s wrong with this sentence?” test for you: “Walking down the beach, my shoulders got sunburned.” Answer: Shoulders can’t walk. This is called a dangler — a modifying phrase that appears to modify the wrong thing. To fix these, put the modifying phrase closest to the thing it modifies. What is “walking down the beach”? A person. So name the person who was walking: “Walking down the beach, I got a sunburn on my shoulders.” When the dangling phrase is an “ing” or “ed” participle like “walking,” it’s called a dangling participle. When it’s a single word or phrase, it’s just a general dangler, as in, “A woman of great accomplishments, the promotion was bestowed on Mary.” Again, just put the recipient of the modification, Mary, as close as you can to the modifying phrase: “A woman of great accomplishments, Mary got the promotion.”
- Periods and commas outside quotation marks. In American English, a period or comma always comes before a closing quotation mark: Instead of the word “aggravated,” Chuck likes to use “irritated.” Question marks and exclamation points have a different rule. They can go either inside or outside depending on whether they modify the whole sentence or just the quoted portion: Alfred E. Neuman’s catchphrase is “What, me worry?” Did you know Bart Simpson’s catchphrase is “Ay, caramba”? You might notice British English or even Wikipedia putting commas or periods outside quote marks. That’s because they have different rules. In American English, the period or comma always comes first.