Watch your step: 6 common grammar errors that can trip you up

Here’s a list of pairs of similar words that can confuse you and trip you up. I show you simple tricks to avoid falling on your writing face.

1 Which or that?

These two words might seem interchangeable, but in fact they have separate duties in making your sentence clear to the reader.

That defines the information in the next clause. Eg: “The findings that might have caused embarrassment were ignored.’”This tells us only the findings likely to be embarrassing were ignored. Any other findings could be accepted.

Which  always begins a clause set between two commas, and defines a piece of information that could be left out without changing the meaning of the sentence. Eg: “The findings, which might have caused embarrassment, were ignored.” In other words, “The findings were ignored.”

REMEMBER: Which goes  in front of a clause that could be omitted.

2 Who or Whom?

Whom is one of those words that is rarely found in general conversation, but creeps into pieces of writing when the author wants to sound more impressive. It does have a strict grammatical role, as the form of who to be used as the object of a verb or preposition. Like ‘which’, ‘whom’ suggests extra information that can be omitted. While it’s not  enclosed between commas, it sounds as if it should be. Eg: as the object of a verb: “The farmers whom Barnaby Joyce met were irate about the fracking.”

As object of a preposition: “The philosopher to whom she spoke, is highly qualified.”

Since ‘whom’ is so seldom used in everyday conversation, it is better to rewrite your sentence to avoid using it, unless you are writing formal or academic material. Eg: “The farmers who met with Barnaby Joyce were irate about the fracking.” Or, “Barnaby Joyce met with the farmers who were were irate about the fracking.”

’She spoke to the philosopher /a philosopher who is highly qualified.’

REMEMBER: Whom  is a formal word that with a little rewriting can be substituted with who.

3 Who’s or Whose?

These two words trick many people (even editors!) because in speech they sound the same. The way to sort them out is to stretch out the contracted words to reveal their meaning. Who’s is a contraction (easy way of saying) “who is”. Eg: “Malcolm Turnbull is a politician who’s disliked by some people and admired by others.”

Whose is related to whom. Unravelling whose gives us “to whom does it belong?” or “to whom it belongs”. What a mouthful! No wonder the language settled into whose! Whose can be used either as a question, Eg: “Whose car is this? It’s Philippa’s.’” or a statement, Eg: “Philippa, whose car was damaged, complained to the police.”

REMEMBER: Stretch the contractions. Who’s =  Who is
4 It’s or Its?

Like who’s and whose, it’s and its sound the same in speech, and like that tricky pair, they can trip up even experienced writers having a bad day. Again like the “whoses”, we have to unpack the contractions. It’s is simply “it is”. Eg: “It’s a horribly cold day today.” Note that saying or writing “it is” rather than “it’s”, usually suggests agreement or emphasis. Eg: “It is a horribly cold day, today.“

Its deserves its reputation as a grammar and spelling trap. The word is actually a possessive pronoun, but because it’s has already claimed the apostrophe that usually shows possession, its has to do without, confusing us. Eg: “The dog’s leash”, “The helicopter’s rotors”, the “car’s front lefthand wheel” all take its  if the object as already been mentioned. EG: “Rover is my neighbour’s (possessive) dog. Its (possessive) leash hangs on a hook by the door.”

REMEMBER: Stretch the contractions. It’s  =  It is.
5 Beware the greengrocer’s apostrophe

While we’re on the subject of apostrophes, let’s consider “the greengrocer’s apostrophe”. We’ve all seen them on shop windows and signs.   Given that there are so many examples, maybe the expression should be should be “the greengrocers’ apostrophe”. (See what I did there?) This increasingly common error, unfairly attributed to greengrocers—although they may have been the first, particularly if English was not their native language—uses an apostrophe before s (’s) to suggest plural. Fruit seem particularly susceptible.  Eg: avocado’s; banana’s. Strangely, tomatoes and potatoes seem immune, despite their singular forms: tomato, potato, ending in a vowel. Some non-fruit words ending  in a vowel also cop the ’s plural: Eg: auto’s, Nanna’s, barbecue’s.

REMEMBER: when faced with a vowel at the end of a word, an apostrophe always signifies possession. (Apart from our tricky friends it’s and its).

6 Me, myself and I

These are all forms of the first person pronoun, but which is what? It depends on whether they are the subject or object of the verb in your sentence. I is the easy one. Everyone uses I to refer to themselves as the subject. Eg: “I drove us all to the airport.”
I had a great time at the party.”
I am the champion of the world!”

Similarly, me is pretty straightforward as the object of the verb. Eg: “She handed the loaded pistol to me.“

“He wrote me a cheque.”

“They were unpleasant to me.”

Where people get tangled up is with myselfMyself, like themselves in the sentence above, himself,and herself, is a reflexive pronoun – that is – it is both the subject and the object of the same verb. Eg: “I made that fishpond myself.”This can also be expressed as “I, myself, made that fishpond.” “She fixed the leaking roof herself.” “They drove themselves to Tasmania.”

When you, or I, or they are the object in the sentence, and someone else, Margaret, for example, is the subject,the personal pronoun cannot be a reflexive one. Eg: “Margaret emailed the photo to myself” is incorrect. “Margaret emailed the photo to me.” “Geraldine fixed the leaking roof for her.”  The subject can also be a personal pronoun, rather than a name,  Eg: “He drove them all to Tasmania.”

REMEMBER: A reflexive pronoun can never be the object of someone else’s verb.

You can find helpful pointers on the use of grammar and punctuation in the Commonwealth of Australia Style Manual, and Mark Tredinnick’s Little Green Grammar Book.

Until next time,



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