IQ140 - Grammar, Punctuation, and Word Usage

Grammar, Punctuation,
and Word Usage

Lay versus Lie

I have to admit that sometimes I still get confused
as it never rings perfectly in my ear:
To Set an Object Down   To Rest of Recline
1 - Lay Present tense 2 - Lie
3 - Laid Past tense 4 - Lay
5 - Laying Present participle
(doing it now)
6 - Lying
7 - Laid Past participle
(did it before)
8 - Lain

1 - "Don't shoot. I'm going to lay the gun on the table."
2 - "After that run-in with the police, I'm going to lie down for a nap."
3 - "I fell asleep as soon as I laid my head on the pillow."
4 - "I lay there for quite a while."
5 - "I'm laying my gun back in the drawer.
6 - "And I'm lying down for another nap."
7 - "Having laid the gun in the draw..."
8 - "...and lain down for two naps..."

Affect versus Effect

Affect is a verb and it means to change or influence.
   How is the injury going to affect his ability to play?
   His bad driving affected his insurance rates

Affect has an alternate use with regard to facial expressions:
   From his bland affect, I couldn't tell if he was happy or sad.

Effect is usually a noun meaning a result.
   The effect of the fire was to reduce the home to ashes.
   His bad driving had an effect on his insurance rates.

Effect can sometimes be a verb, too.
   We can effect change if we all vote.

Ending a Sentence with a Preposition

Our language is changing. In the ancient days when I went to grade school, proper English did not allow ending a sentence with a preposition, such as about, at, of, or the notorious with.

"Who are you going with?" is incorrect. "With whom are your going?" is correct.

"The topic I'm speaking about," had to be "The topic about which I am speaking."

It was called the subjunctuive case and it was a pain, resulting in such outragious constructions as that which is attributed to Winston Churchill. Instead of "That's something I won't put up with," he was forced, mockingly, to say, "That is something up with which I will not put."

Fortunately, in writing as well as speech, the rules have relaxed and a preposition is something you can end a sentence with.

The superfluous, yet ubiquitous, "at"
There is one ultimate preposition that is all but universal, even among TV news anchors: "Well folks, that's where we're at." It's adding a word that adds nothing to the message.

Eliminate the contraction and the sentence becomes, "Well folks, that's where we are." At is unnecessary; It's a word too far.

Use it in dialogue if you wish to indicate a sloppy speaker, but never in exposition.


An adverb is a word that adjusts or tweaks (modifies) the meaning of a verb, adjective, or another adverb.

Adverbs are most easily identified by ending in ly, but not always.

"I can't marry him, Harry doesn't dance," she said.
He defended his friend, "Harry dances beautifully."

The adverb beautifully describes the manner of his dance and adds to the image.

There's a great deal of controversy regarding the use of adverbs in writing. Some advocate for abolishing that part of the language. However, in this simple exchange the second speaker is not only defending his friend's ability to dance, but provides valuable information to the woman who wouldn't have accepted Harry's proposal of marriage if he didn't dance well. The man's entire fate hinged on that one adverb.

In the phrase, ...if he didn't dance well, the adverb is well, one that doesn't end in ly.

So, there's a justifiable case for adverbs, certainly in Harry's mind. The issue—from whence the argument derives—is the overuse of adverbs and their contribution to verbosity without adding to the meaning of the writing.

She angrily spit in his face. If she wasn't putting out a fire on his nose, of course she was angry. The word is not only unnecessary, it causes a stumble in the flow of the sentence.

Some other favorites:
Whispering quietly, shouting loudly, grimacing painfully, dancing and laughing happily, etc. The redundancy is obvious and makes the anti-adverb case.

Place adverbs judiciously (as opposed to haphazardly, randomly, provocatively). Whenever you're tempted to use an adverb, reread the sentence without it to descern if the adverb's absence changes the meaning or lessens the emphasis. Often, it won't.

Using the Semicolon

The semicolon is most commonly employed to connect two closely related sentences. Both sentences must be complete sentences that can stand on their own.

A writer may choose to end the first sentence with a period or connect the first sentence to the last with a subordinating conjunction, however, often the author wishes to indicate an intimate association of the information in the first sentence with that of the second:

He had a terrible drive home; the roads were slick with ice.

The sentences could be written:

He had a terrible drive home. The roads were slick with ice.
He had a terrible drive home because the roads were slick with ice.

But the author for reasons of pacing, meter, or symmetry with the surrounding sentences, preferred using the semicolon.

The second use of the semicolon is to separate items in a list where a comma might be confusing.

He grouped the items on his shopping list into categores: vegetables, fruits, and legumes; nuts, seeds, and berries; beef, chicken, and lamb.

The groupings are lost without the semicolor as a separater.


Commas are used like their buy-one-get-one-free. They are meant to separate clauses, not necessarily to indicate pauses as in speech.

In the past few decades, popular sources have trended toward reducing the number of commas even erring on the side of skipping some that intuition would indicate as necessary.

Commas set off prepositional phrases, those that begin with the prepositions above, across, against, along, among, around, at, before, behind, below, beneath, beside, between, by, down, from, in, into, near, of, off, on, to, toward, under, upon, with, and within.

These phrase might appear anywhere in a sentence: In the beginning, everyone was sober or Everyone in this place, beside you and me, is now drunk or I think we should leave, if that's what you mean.

Commas are used to separate sentences joined by a coordination conjunction: but, or, so, and, yet, for, nor.
He wanted ice cream, but he was trying to lose weight. or He lost ten pounds, yet that wasn't enough.

Contrary to the opening statement, you can often feel where commas belong by the rhythm of the sentence, not by pauses as much as by groupings of words.

The second use of the comma is to separate items in a list. See the next section on the Oxford comma.

The Oxford Comma

A topic of great dispute, the last comma in a string of items has become known as the Oxford comma. Some style guides, including the Associated Press's, do not use it, so you will not see this construction in newspapers and magazines.

Can you identify the difference between these two sentences?

No Oxford comma
It was a mixed crowd on Palm Beach that day and I ran into two hookers, Donald Trump and Rudy Guilliani.

With Oxford comma
It was a mixed crowd on Palm Beach that day and I ran into two hookers, Donald Trump, and Rudy Guilliani.

What a difference a comman can make. Always use a comma before the and/or that preceeds the final item in a list.

Less versus Fewer

Not so controversial as the Oxford comma, still the Associated Press style guide has recently opted to accept less in place of fewer in their unending quest for illiteracy.

   "The boss has scheduled me for less time on the clock," she said.
   "Yeah, I'm getting fewer hours, too."

If the items can be counted, as hours can be, then fewer is correct. If the item cannot be counted, "time" is not a metric, then less is correct.

There is a gray area; when an item is so numerous that it would not reasonably be refered to by number, then either can be used:
   There were less coffee beans in the bag than I expected.
Though to my ear, fewer is preferred. Your choice.

Number versus Amount

This is closely related to Less versus Fewer.

"What amount of people are you expecting at the rally?" This is incorrect unless you're gathering participants by weight.
"What number of people..." is correct.

"What amount of meat should I cook for the rally?" is correct as meat is not numeric.

Passed versus Past

Passed is only used as a form of the verb "pass."
He tried to grab my arm, but I pushed passed him.
The big fire engine has gone passed.

Past functions as a noun (the past), adjective (past times), preposition (just past), and adverb (running past), but never a verb.

It is past your bedtime. You have passed your bedtime.

When past is used as an adjective it refers to a time gone by or something from, done, or used in an earlier time.

Past this point usually refers to being in a position relative to the point.
Passed this point refers to being in motion relative to the point.
Both are grammatically correct.

This past weekend was a lot of fun. It passed too quickly.

Could have versus Could of

Simply, Could of is derived from a mispronunciation of the contraction could've. Could have is correct.

Same for: must, should, would. All are followed by have.

Me/I, he/him, she/her

I/he/she are subject pronouns and me/him/her are object pronouns; I/he/she do the action, me/him/her receive the action.

Every day she walks to the sea and looks straight ahead not at he him.
She is looking at the person. The person is someone to whom the action is taking place, the object of the action. ..looks straight ahead not at him.

It is she is correct; the nominative case pronoun is required even though It is her slides by via common usage.

Is He is taller than me correct?
Complete the sentence: He is taller than me am doesn't sound right.
He is taller than I am is better ==> He is taller than I is correct.

They as a singular pronoun

Grammarians have finally broken down and conceded a singular pronoun without gender specificy.

If your child likes athletics, he/she should participate... can now be more easily expressed as If your child likes athletics, they should participate...

It will take a while to become accustomed to it when speaking.

Was versus Were

Was is first and third person singular: I was or She was.
Were is plural and second person singular: They were or You were.

Often, the selection is easy; it just sounds right, however there are sources of confusion:
  • The group was responsible for the protest—or—several groups were responsible for the protest.
    While a group is many people, there is only one group, so it is singular.
  • Untrue statements: the subjective case uses were. If the statement is a simile, hypothetical, or wishful.
    • He follows her around as if he were her dog.
    • If I were in charge...
    • I wish I were smarter.
    Flags for the subjunctive are the words if and wish

The Real Basic Stuff

This topic is about the most basic use of words.

They're going to move their truck over there.
They're: Contraction of They are
Their: possessive; indicates something owned, in this case, the truck
There: A place; not here but there

Like you, I'm going to buy two donuts, too.
to can have one of three meanings: "I'm going to school to stay to 2:00pm."
   to school: means toward
   to stay: part of the infinitive, the action word/verb, stay
   to 2:00pm: means until
two is the number 2
too means also or in addition

You're going to ruin your appetite.
You're is a contraction of You are
your is a possessive, something that belongs to you. In this case, your appetite

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