Grammar. Something many people seem to lose all concept of when typing ideas through their computers, but also occasionally when speaking. So here I’m going to catalogue a few common mistakes people tend to make.
First, let’s start with basics: the differences between “your” and “you’re”, “its” and “it’s”, and “their”, “they’re” and “there”. I would hope that you already know these, and of course everyone mixes them up sometimes if they’re not (shock, horror) carefully considering every single word they type. Regardless, a quick summary:
- the first in each set is a possessive pronoun, used to denote ownership
- the second in each set is a contraction of a pronoun and its conjugated form of “to be”
- “there” is an adverb, or occasionally a pronoun along the lines of “it exists” (there is food). This is said in German as literally “It gives”
And I’m certain you know this too, but “I”, as a pronoun, is capitalised. Always. Then there’s other stuff like “effect” and “affect”, the usage of “verse” as a verb from “versus”, the non-existence of “alot”, “i.e.” vs “e.g.”, etc. (Latin abbreviation C-C-C-Combo!)
But you can easily look these up elsewhere, I’d like to discuss some more obscure/lesser-known constructs.
Hence, on to level two. Before I go any further, it is important to state that I recognise there are no predefined rules in languages; the rules arise purely from how the language is used, and usage changes over time. This means some obscure concepts could easily be said to be no longer applicable and unnecessary.
While this is true, there are two things I have to say to that. The first is that some “rules” in common usage make literally no sense, and contradict other, more common rules
<sarcasm>(oddly enough, these ones seem to have a tendency of originating in the USA)
An example of this is the usage of “of” as an auxiliary verb, but only after “could”, “would” and “should”. (I’ll talk more about this later) Why is it allowed in this context? It goes against the entire structure of perfect tense phrases. Hence, I would argue that, even if a large majority of people accept this as correct, it shouldn’t be accepted.
The second thing I have to say is, of course, that knowing about this can make you seem intellectual/rude, depending on how you pull it off. Certain rules can easily add an air of sophistication to one’s writing.
So, that out of the way, a warning (that you might have already noticed): I make use of a lot of grammatical terms. The main reason for this is the same reason as why any field has its own array of jargon: it makes conversation about such topics easier.
If you aren’t familiar with these terms, I’ll explain the basic rules you need to/should follow, but if you’d like an understanding of why it is so, you can easily find out what they mean. You might have some extra reading ahead of you, but then you get to use all the fancy terms yourself.
Now that that’s out of the way, let’s begin with the classic “whom”: known by many, but seldom do they bother to find out how to use it. This is pretty simple: “whom” is used if you are asking about the object (direct or indirect) of a sentence, i.e. someone that is not “doing” the verb.
- Who’s insulting whom?
- Jack gave whom the book?
- Whom did Jill punch?
A rule you’ll commonly see is if the answer could (grammatically) be “him”, then use “whom”, otherwise use “he”. This is because the pronoun “him” is also affected by case in the same manner. And before you call anyone sexist, note that “she”/”her” doesn’t work so well (due to “her” not ending in an “m”)
Personally, I don’t use this, both because it’s easy to get the hang of and that mentally determining a possible answer to your question before you ask it is tedious.
There’s also the fact that if you then phrase your possible answer in the passive voice, it falls apart. For example, “Jack saw who/m?” “He was seen by Jack.” Note that even though the answer contains “He”, “whom” is appropriate as it is the object (Jack is doing the seeing).
Note that anything after a preposition is automatically an object. Hence, “to/by/for/about who” (et. al.) can never be correct.
Were in the subjunctive past
There’s a trend where “if I/it were” is being used less frequently, with “was” taking its place. As discussed above, this is not necessarily incorrect, common usage is common usage and rules/conventions change.
The reason for this is fairly simple: one would say “I was cold”, so why not “If I was cold, …”? The reason is because of something called the subjunctive mood, which has been seeing a decline in usage in the English language for quite a while. It is still preserved in some more grammatically rigorous languages, however (English has a history of its grammar being simplified over the centuries, like the lack of gender).
The subjunctive mood is quite simple: it applies to hypothetical/imaginary scenarios, rather than actual facts. Since “if” automatically denotes a hypothetical, it becomes subjunctive. There are some other, rather obscure changes that happen to verbs in the subjunctive mood, but the most frequent is the past tense of “to be” (“was”/”were”) always becoming “were”.
As stated above, it applies to any imaginary, “unreal” situation; beyond just “if”. Examples:
- I wish I were home right now!
- Had I requested that he were removed from the venue, we wouldn’t have had his insights.
It applies beyond just the past tense of “to be”, however, like “I ask that she be taken outside” (“be”, rather than “is”). Also, “will”/”shall”/”can” become “would”/”should”/”could”.
Prepositions at ends of sentences
This rule, as phrased above, is misleading; and is open to abuse by putting some (often derogatory) term at the end: “Where’s the party at, arsehole?”
Hence why I don’t phrase it like that. In fact, when you look at the word preposition, it becomes more apparent: “pre-position”. This is because a preposition goes before the noun phrase to which it refers (note: not “… phrase it refers to”). You might have to add “which” or something similar (as above) to make it work.
Roll the carpet upRoll up the carpet Where are we going to?To where are we going? What’s all this kerfuffle about?About what is all this kerfuffle/All this kerfuffle is about what? Who are you going with?With whom are you going?
“of” as an auxiliary verb
Whilst we’re discussing prepositions, an alarmingly common trend is seeing and hearing people say things like “It could of been better”. And unfortunately, this isn’t just unintentional like mixing up “its” and “it’s” can be: I’ve seen people, when corrected, state that both “have” and “of” are correct.
I’ll just say what should be said before explaining how ridiculous this is: always use “could/would/should have“. The only exception I can think of is if “of” is part of the name of something (names tend to be exceptions to these sorts of things). For example, “Could Of Monsters and Men come to our event?”
Where this error comes from is plain to see. “Could/would/should have” is contracted to “Could/would/should’ve”, which can sound like “Could/would/should of”.
Here’s the problem: “have” is an auxiliary verb, used (in these situations) with a past participle (like “eaten” or “been”). “Of” is a preposition, which is nothing like a verb. Substituting “of” for another preposition (even one with a similar-ish meaning) that doesn’t sound like “-‘ve” demonstrates how wrong it is: “The show could from been better.” “I wish they would from come.” “We really should from taken that cake”
This is a case where I’d say language evolving isn’t an adequate excuse. English is spoken by such a large amount of the world, especially in countries where it is not a native language, and all this does is make it more confusing and difficult.
It seems people want to add an extra, nonsensical rule: “The perfect tense is formed with the auxiliary verb ‘have’ and a past participle, however when used with ‘could’, ‘would’ or ‘should’, the preposition ‘of’ is a valid substitution.” Why the exception? There’s no justifiable reason, just people (understandably) not knowing the full depth of grammatical constructions. I’d argue that grammar should be taught more in English classes, but regardless, if people are made aware that is indeed very wrong (politely, hopefully), then it’ll become less of a trend.
This is another odd construction which seems to originate mostly in the USA. It’s very redundant. Not only that, but “of” isn’t used that way, it’s more along the lines of “originating from”. If any preposition has to go after “off” (which is itself a preposition), and it really doesn’t, then I’d argue that “from” is a much more suitable alternative. It goes well with “Onto”: On to, off from. Like, “I took it off from the top of the fridge.”
To continue with the USA special, this is an odd construct, intended to mean “motivate”. Now here’s the problem: “-ise” doesn’t mean what “incentivise” would have you believe. “-ise” is along the lines of “to make into”, thus “incentivise” should mean “to make into an incentive”. For example, a parent might “incentivise” lollies to encourage good behaviour.
The correct suffix for the context in which “incentivise” is frequently used would be “-ate”, i.e. “incentivate”. but, y’know, “motivate” already exists for that purpose.
Hopefully you learnt a bit from this, and more importantly, will remember the ideas or even point this to other people.
If there’s anything you think needs adding or improving, just tell me. Otherwise, I’ll try to add to this as I think of more things.
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