By Katherine Pisarro-Grant

Grammatical and stylistic mistakes to mind, especially when writing papers

It can be tedious to heed grammatical rules and stylistic conventions, and colloquial speech doesn’t necessitate strict adherence. When writing formally, however, following these rules isn’t just a way to obey some arbitrary grammar gods, but a way to ensure clarity and avoid ambiguity.

-Less vs. fewer – “less” is used to refer to nouns that can’t be counted or separated, usually collective plurals (e.g. “love,” “money”), while “fewer” refers to nouns that can be separated (e.g. “lovers,” “dollars”). This mistake is made all the time on grocery store express lane signs, who love to announce that they’re for “15 items or less.” (In fact, it could be argued that “less” is appropriate, if you’re taking it as “less than the entire unit of 15 items.” But that’s more of a philosophical question, and in formal writing one should abide by this rule.) Just think about it like this: no one ever breaks the rule the other way – “I have so much fewer respect for him now.”

A supermarket cleverly avoids the “less or fewer” question.

-“Reason why” – “Reason why” is redundant. The reason is the why. Just say “The reason was” or “the reason he did it….” Potentially even more redundant is “the reason is because.” Other common redundancies to avoid: “Where is it at?” – more a spoken phenomenon, for emphasis, but still, no preposition needed. “From whence” – “whence” means “from where.”

-“Myself” – people love to use this word superfluously, and it always sounds like they’re making royal decrees. “Myself” is only necessary when you’re: 1) emphasizing that you, not someone else, did something, or that you, perhaps unexpectedly, did something (“I gave it to him myself,” “I myself was a chef”); 2) expressing a reflexive action (“I slapped myself on the forehead,” “I gave myself a start” – you wouldn’t say, “I slapped me”).

-“Who” vs. “whom” – an oldie but goodie. “Who” is used when it’s the subject of a sentence, “whom” when it’s the object. To figure out which is correct, substitute it for “him” (object) or “he” (subject) – which one sounds wrong? “Whom did you meet?”  “Did you meet him?” (Not “did you meet he?”) “Whom” is pretty rare in colloquial speech, but should still be respected in writing.

-“That” vs. “which” – “that” is used to relate information essential to the meaning of the clause, while “which” is used for additional information. So, if you’re trying to name a certain painting with a unicorn in it, you would need to say “I bought a painting that depicts a unicorn.” If the painting happens to have a unicorn, then you would say, “The painting I bought, which depicts a unicorn, cost $50.” This same rule can help guide your use of commas: “The actress who won the award wasn’t present at the ceremony.” This is the equivalent of “that” – the fact that she won the award is crucial to the meaning. The equivalent of “which” would be using commas: “The up-and-coming actress, who won last year’s award, lives in New York.” The choice of “that,” “which,” and commas is essential to clearly conveying the writer’s intention.

What are your grammatical pet peeves? Any thoughts on these rules?

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