Grammar Gremlins – Be Rid of Them and Sound Smarter

Grammar and other usage errors grate on the ears of people in the know – just as fingernails on a chalkboard do. There are several good reasons for knowing and using correct or polished grammar: you sound smarter in the worlds of education and business, you have more confidence in your ability to speak to anyone, and you can guide your children to learn the right way to speak right from the start. Here are my top 10 grammar gripes. There are more than ten that occur frequently in basic, everyday American English that we could work on to repair. These are presented in recognition of May is Better Hearing and Speech Month, but our collective attention to correct language usage is needed every day of the year.

Before getting started, realize as you read that some of my topics and examples will sound incorrect to you. That will be because you are so used to hearing yourself and others make these errors daily, and you think the wrong way is right. Check these out by doing a quick online search of grammar errors. Using the format of a popular late-night television host, I will count backwards from number 10 to number 1, saving my personal most-gruesome grammar gremlin for last.

10. Subject-Verb Disagreement:

I hear subjects and verbs "argue" in everyday speech uttered by everyday people and by people who broadcast the news. We need more agreement in this world! We all know what singular and plural mean. If the subject is singular, the verb must be, also. Similarly, if the subject is plural, the verb must be. Use your knowledge to check if you usage is correct. "One" means one, right? The number one is singular, so you must use a singular verb such as "is". This applies to the words everyone, anyone, each person, no one, nobody, and none. The word couple, as in a married couple, represents a singular entity, so it must have a singular verb, also. The words data and bacteria are actually plural words, so they must have plural verbs-really. I'm amazed how many people with advanced science knowledge do not realize this.


Everyone must bring his or her permission slip back. (Not: Everyone must bring their permission slips back.) ÂEUR¨

None was home. (NOT: None were home.)

The couple was on vacation. (NOT: The couple were on vacation.)

The data are wrong. (NOT: The data is wrong.)

There are bacteria on everything. (NOT: There's bacteria on everything.)

9. Subject and Object Pronoun Scramble:

The use of "I" as a subject pronoun and "me" as an object pronoun should be clear to most people. So, line up I, he, she, we, and they as subject pronouns to use before verbs. Keep me, him, her, us, and them as object pronouns to use after verbs. It seems the most common error occurs when people forget their manners and do not let others go first, figuratively speaking. When talking about yourself and someone else, use the pronoun for the other person first.


She and I went to the concert together. (NOT: Her and I went …, or, worse yet, Her and me went, or Me and her went ….)

Mom gave it to her and me. (The "check" on this is to break out each part to see if it is right. In this case, Mom gave it to her, and Mom gave it to me are both correct. It is NOT correct to say, Mom gave it to she and I.)

8. Past Tense Verb Switch Out:

I still rehearse some of the verb "declensions" I learned in high school. I hope they are still being taught; it would help people to know the right forms. Let's toss the past participles (used with "have") into this section, too, to add clarity. Here we go with some declensions of common verbs:

drink drank drunk

sink sank sunk

swim swam swum

run ran run

go went gone

see saw seen


I drank all of my milk. (Not: I drunk all of my milk.)

I have drunk 4 glasses of water. (NOT: I have drank.)

I went to the store.

I have already gone to the store. (NOT: I have went ….)

I swam ten laps.

I have swum ten laps.

7. It's No Lie: Lie vs. Lay is a Top Tripper-Upper:

This usage error can actually be embarrassing.

Conjugate these:

lie lay lain * lying (* use with have: have lain) – Use this to mean reclining: He lies around all day. She lay in bed with a fever. I have lain in bed for days. I am lying on the couch because I do not feel well.

Lay laid laid * laying (* use with have: have laid) – Use this to mean placing something, and always use an object word with it: I lay the book on the table. I laid my coat on the chair. I have laid my keys somewhere, and now I can not find them. I am laying my stuff out on the floor to dry.

6. Contractions vs. Possessives Puzzlers:

The apostrophe in a contraction replaces one or more letters that have been removed. It's = It is. They're = They are. We use the apostrophe to show possession when we state a subject's name but not with the pronoun for that same subject. Avoid making the "apostrophe sprinkling" error on pronouns – double check what you are really saying. Watch your use of your and you're. They should be pronounced differently, too.


The dog was wagging its tail. (NOT: The dog was wagging it's tail. Check this error: The dog is wagging it is tail-NOT!)

They're going to the game. (Check it: They are going to the game. NOT: Their going to the game.)

You're really going to like this. (Check it: You are really going to like this. NOT: Your really going to like this.)

I want to see your new car. (NOT: I want to see you're new car-which would check out as, I want to see you are new car.)

Tip: Pronounce your as "yore" and you're as "yoo-er" to help you keep these two straight.

5. Comma Conundrum:

I frequently see "comma sprinkling" errors.

There should be a comma between two clauses that can each "stand alone" as separate sentences without the conjunction (and, but, so, etc.)


We drove to the mountains, and we stayed in a really cute cabin. (This is correct because each clause is a separate complete sentence: We drove to the mountains. We stayed in a really cute cabin.)

There should NOT be a comma between one independent (stand alone) clause and one dependent (incomplete sentence) clause.

We drove to the mountains, and stayed in a really cute cabin. WRONG ( "stayed in a really cute cabin" is not an independent clause.)

We drove to the mountains and stayed in a really cute cabin. RIGHT

4. May vs. Can Switcheroo:

May is defined as being permitted or allowed and can is defined as being able to. If someone asks, "Can I go with you?" the correct answer really is, "I do not know, are you able to?" Enough said. I really wish parents would teach children to ask, "May I …?" rather than, "Can I?" I do not know why "May I" has apparently become viewed as stilted or too hard for a child to say. It actually is easier for young children to pronounce the / m / sound in may than the / k / sound in can.

3. Less vs. Fewer Fritz Out:

This one's simple and used so annoyingly incorrectly in a lot of advertising these days. Use less for "mass nouns" that represent things that have an amount that can not be counted and use fewer for "count nouns" that are possible be counted.


Calories can be counted, so something can be said to have fewer calories.

This beer has fewer calories than our other beers. (NOT: less calories!)

Hair is usually thought of in a mass (when is the last time you counted strands of hair on your head?) So use the word less for this one.

My daughter has less hair than my son did at this age.

2. When a Guy is Not a Guy :

We're getting close to my top pet peeve on this one. I detest the expression, "How are you guys tonight?" most especially when I am being greeted by someone at a nice place (restaurant, hotel, etc.) My response inside my head is always a simmering, "I'm not a 'guy'." The word you is just fine all by itself, thank you very much. Try saying, "How are you?" the next time you greet someone. It truly sounds terrific.

1. Who vs. That Craziness:

Since when is a dog a person and a person an animal or inanimate object? I know we love our pets and often personify them, but they are not people. The word who was designed for people, and it needs to stay that way, unless we are ready to switch places with animals and machines. If I collected $ 10 every time I heard or read these two pronouns misused on television or in newspapers and magazines, I could pay my mortgage with that money each month. Watch how often a dog, company, or other non-human is referred to with the word who and how often a person is assigned the pronoun that. If you start noticing, you will feel as crazy as I do. I am sorry about that!

If you have read to the end and are thanking me right now for enlightening you on a few or several of these language blunders, I will say, 'You're welcome "to you rather than another expression I love to hate which is," No problem. "That expression makes me growl. Grrr.