Top grammar mistakes (aka all those rules you forgot)

We quickly categorize people by saying there are only two kinds in the world: Those who like the Beatles, and those who like Elvis. Those who reach Inbox Zero and those who think it's but a pipe dream. Those who loved diagramming sentences in sixth grade, and those who broke out into a sweat when the teacher swept the room to call someone up to the board.

I'm the former, on all counts (Beatles, Inbox Zero, diagram lover). But not all writers are, and for some, grammar proves a real challenge. Let me be the first to reassure you: You don't have to be a Grammar Master to be an incredible storyteller. You can weave a yarn, but maybe you have trouble conjugating verbs.

No worries -- Here are a few oft-forgotten grammar rules to improve your writing.

You don't have to be a Grammar Master to be an incredible storyteller. You can weave a yarn, but maybe you have trouble conjugating verbs. No worries! Here are a few oft-forgotten grammar rules to improve your writing.

Subject and predicate

You already know the subject of a sentence: It's who or what your sentence is about.

  • The coffee barista swept loose beans across the floor.

The predicate is always a verb and tells us about the subject, like what it is or does.

  • The coffee barista swept loose beans across the floor.

There's more detail in this sentence, but we have what we need: The coffee barista is the subject, and the subject swept. To figure out the predicate of a sentence, find the verb and ask who or what did that: Who swept? The coffee barista.

When a sentence is a mandate, the subject often isn't contained in the sentence:

  • Go tell your sister it's time for dinner.

The verb is go tell, but neither sister nor dinner is the subject. Who is being commanded to go tell? You. You is the subject of the sentence. You might remember from school that this is called "the understood you."

Matching verb tense to subject

There are a lot of verb tenses. Remember past perfect progressive, present perfect and future? My feeling is it's less important to be able to identify the tense you use as long as you've used it correctly.

  • My family goes to the beach every summer.

The subject, my family, is a collective noun. Collective nouns generally need singular verbs -- in this case, goes.

Compound subjects can make matching subject and verb tricky. Multiple nouns/pronouns united with and typically need a plural verb:

  • Elsa, Tiara and I have the same birthday.

Nouns/pronouns divided with or look to the noun/pronoun following or to inform the verb tense:

  • Mom or Dad picks us up from school every day.

Dad, who is a singular person, picks.

When the subject and verb are divided by another phrase, the verb tense still needs to match the subject:

  • My brother, with his friend Steven, rides his bike in the morning.

You can find the tense by removing the phrase dividing the subject and verb:

  • My brother ... rides.

Direct objects

First, don't stress: There isn't always a direct object in a sentence. I had a moment recently when I couldn't for the life of me remember what a direct object was, so I wrote a simple sentence, tried to figure it out and couldn't. Because it isn't always there! Phew.

A sentence's subject performs the action to the direct object:

  • Karen and Peter played Chutes and Ladders on the back porch.

Karen and Peter (subject) + played (verb) + what? Chutes and Ladders (direct object)

Only verbs expressing action have direct objects, not linking verbs:

  • Karen was happy to win the third game in a row.

Karen (subject) + was (linking verb) + what? happy (subject complement -- not direct object). A subject complement follows a linking verb (like all forms of be) and describes or complements the subject.

Ending in a preposition

This is a grammar rule that isn't hard and fast. In fact, many call it a myth. I think there's still merit in learning your way around a sentence in order to avoid it -- as long as the flow of the sentence isn't sacrificed. Your readers want to disappear into your work, not be distracted by your fancy finagling around ending in a preposition.

A preposition tells you about the relationship among the words in your sentence. It often begins a phrase that adds more context. Examples are: above, nearby, of, over, to, since and on. When I think about prepositions (confession: I do a lot), I think about this lyric from the Christmas song:

  • Over the river and through the woods, to Grandmother's house we go.

When you remove preposition phrases, the sentence should still make sense. Below, the prepositional phrases are in parentheses:

  • (Over the river) and (through the woods), (to Grandmother's house) we go.

We go makes sense as a complete sentence on its own, without the prepositional phrases: We (subject) go (verb).

Ending in a preposition looks like this:

  • Ew, what did I step on?

Yes, you can finagle the sentence to read Ew, on what did I step? But that doesn't feel natural.

Ending in a preposition can be unavoidable in other instances, like when the preposition is part of a phrasal verb. You've likely told people to come over to your house. It's unnecessary -- and perplexing! -- to say over to my house, you come.

Me vs. I

This one really gets my goat. Somewhere along the way in our schooling, we were told to correct ourselves from using me to using I. This was to fix our bad habit of starting sentences like Me and her ... (shudder). We were right to learn so, but for so many, the proper use of me vs. I didn't stick.

  • My parents told my sister and me they're divorcing.

To figure out if the phrase is my sister and I or my sister and me, remove what comes before I/me:

  • My parents told me they're divorcing or My parents told I they're divorcing.

Quite obviously, it's the former. That means that in the full sentence, you'll use me instead of I.

  • Sara and I went skydiving last Saturday.

Again, remove what comes before I/me:

  • I went skydiving last Saturday or Me went skydiving last Saturday.

Moody verbs

The subjunctive is a verb form for hypothetical statements. The use of the subjunctive has one big tell: when the sentence begins with "I wish" or "If":

  • I wish weekends were always three days.
  • If I were a wealthy man, I wouldn't have to work hard.

Since this is wishful thinking, your daydreaming about how things might or could be, contrary to fact, you use the verb were instead of was.

So when do you use was? When you're stating facts.

Possessive nouns

When you want to show ownership, you make a word possessive by either adding an apostrophe or adding an apostrophe and an s. As someone with a last name ending in s, I learned this lesson early. You're traveling to the Lewises' house or Katie Lewis's house. (Depending on the style guide you follow, you'll either be advised to add an apostrophe and an s to proper nouns or to add only an apostrophe. It's the difference between Texas's state bird and Texas' state bird. I follow the former.)

Here's the trick: If a noun is singular -- store -- add an apostrophe and an s: store's owner. In this example, there is one store, and it has one owner.

If the noun is already plural -- stores -- add only an apostrophe: stores' owner. In this example, there are multiple stores and they share an owner.

When two people own an item together, only the last name is made possessive:

  • Katie and Brian's house

When two people each have their own, each name is made possessive:

  • Katie's and Brian's desks

Which grammar rules confuse you or have you long forgotten?

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