41 Little Grammar Rules to Follow to Sound Smarter
C’mon: Make your high school English teachers proud.
What’s the difference: “Hopefully” vs. “I Hope”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Hopefully means “in a hopeful manner.” “I hope the boss lets us out early” and “Hopefully, the boss lets us out early” aren’t the same thing. On the other hand, these are grammar “rules” you can safely ignore.
What’s the difference: “Importantly” vs. “Important”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
More or most important is probably what you want. Only if you’re a pompous blowhard do you say things importantly.
What’s the difference: “Their” vs. “His or her”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Everyone, everybody, and close cousin each are singular, so words that refer to them should also be singular. Or, since we all have our grammar hang-ups, you could just rephrase the sentence.
What’s the difference: “I” vs. “Me”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Between you and I sounds fancy, and therefore right, but don’t be so quick to belittle Cookie Monster (“Me want cookies!”). In this case, me is correct because it’s the object of the preposition between.
What’s the difference: “Assessable” vs. “Accessible”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
A library is wheelchair-accessible. Your house is assessable by the county that taxes it.
What’s the difference: “Badly” vs. “Bad”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Is your sense of touch physically impaired (almost never) or are you feeling some guilt after screwing up (almost always)? In the former, you feel badly; the latter, you feel bad.
What’s the difference: “Equally as” vs. “Equally”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
The as isn’t necessary. “I speak Latin and pig Latin equally well.”
What’s the difference: “Because” vs. “That”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
You never mean “the reason is because”; you mean “the reason is that.” Why? The word reason implies because. Likewise, why say “the reason why” when you can say “the reason”?
What’s the difference: “Lay” vs. “Lie”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
This is another case where people think (wrongly) that a particular word sounds more “educated.” Lay and lie are not interchangeable. Lie doesn’t require an object: “I need to lie down.” But lay does: “I need to lay my head down.” Confusion kicks in because of the past tense of both verbs—lie becomes lay; lay becomes laid—but the usage stays the same.
What’s the difference: “Lounge” vs. “Longue”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Chaise lounge is actually incorrect, and people have been getting this wrong for at least a century. The proper phrase is French and translates as “long chair.”
What’s the difference: “ATM” vs. “ATM machine”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Using the phrases ATM machine (automated teller machine machine) or “PIN number” (personal identification number number) is redundant. These are other redundant phrases to stop using immediately.
What’s the difference: “Historical” vs. “Historic”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
In short, historic means “significant” (“a historic election”). But if you intend “occurring in or relating to history,” go with historical (think “historical data” or “a historical link between the two world wars”). By the way, it’s never “an historic/historical event.” The vowel sound “a” should precede a consonant sound (like the hard “h” in historic).
What’s the difference: “That” vs. “Who”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
A human is a “who.” Anything else (yes, including animals) is a “that.”
What’s the difference: “Could of” vs. “Could have”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
This error pops up because of the similar pronunciations. But remember, every sentence needs a verb: “I could have written a better cover letter.”
What’s the difference: “Most everyone” vs. “Everyone”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Make up your mind: If you truly mean “every person,” use just everyone. If not, say most people.
What’s the difference: “Nauseous” vs. “Nauseated”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
In strict terms, nauseous means “to cause nausea” (as in “a hateful, nauseous person”); nauseated means “afflicted with nausea” (as in “I’m nauseated”).
What’s the difference: “Very unique” vs. “Unique”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
No need to say “very unique.” Unique things and people are one of a kind, absolute.
What’s the difference: “Intensive purposes” vs. “Intents and purposes”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
The right phrase to say is “intents and purposes,” but even if you do get it right, you don’t need this expression. It’s just filler.
What’s the difference: “Literally laughed my head off” vs. “Laughed my head off”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Literally means “actually” and is best reserved for real events.
What’s the difference: “Merge together” vs. “Merge”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
The phrase “merge together” is redundant (as are combinations like absolute necessity, free gift, and a pair of twins—unless you mean two sets of twins, that is).
What’s the difference: “Orientate” vs. “Orient”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Orientate is a word, but it means “to face east.” “The tour was designed to orient new students.”
What’s the difference: “Impact” vs. “Affect”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Impact shouldn’t be forced into service as a verb. No: “The decision impacts everyone.” Yes: “The decision affects everyone.”
What’s the difference: “Off of” vs. “Off”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Skip “off of.” Some words are perfectly fine on their own. “May I bounce an idea off you?”
What’s the difference: “In order to” vs. “To”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
What’s the difference: “Comprised of” vs. “Comprises”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Comprises equals includes. You’d never say, “My grocery list includes of milk, eggs, and kiwis.” Same goes for comprises. (Use of with compose: “The sculpture is composed of wire hangers.”)
What’s the difference: “Preventative” vs. “Preventive”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Grammar sovereign H. W. Fowler banned the long form (“preventative”) almost a hundred years ago. So someone who is health conscious might seek preventive care; responsible homeowners might take preventive measures to keep their roof from leaking.
What’s the difference: “Infamous” vs. “Famous”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
The rich and famous are widely known (and wealthy). But the rich and infamous have a reputation of the worst kind. Another way to look at it: Unless Aunt Donna’s chocolate chip cookies are notoriously evil and disgraceful, they are famous, not infamous.
What’s the difference: “Evoke” vs. “Invoke”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
A photograph evokes emotion; a joke evokes laughter—evoke means “to elicit or call forth.” Save invoke for when you mean “to call on a higher power, petition for support, or implement” (for example, “Allison invoked Robert Frost for her first assignment” or “The principal invoked the aid of the teachers”).
What’s the difference: “Denounce” vs. “Renounce”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
The two may sound similar, but their meanings are distinct: Denounce is “to condemn publicly or accuse formally” (“The judge denounced the CEO for insider trading”), while renounce means “to give up or refuse to follow” (“The CEO renounced his not-guilty plea”).
What’s the difference: “Uninterested” vs. “Disinterested”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Careful speakers who wish to convey a lack of bias want to use disinterested. Speakers who don’t care about such grammatical subtleties are uninterested.
What’s the difference: “Myself” vs. “I”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Myself is notoriously misused for I or me, often because people are trying (too hard, it seems) to sound smarter (wrong: “My husband and myself have belonged to the country club for years”). Myself is a pronoun best reserved for reflexive uses (when an action is directed toward the subject: “For Christmas, I gave myself a gift”) or for emphasis (“I myself have done that many times”).
What’s the difference: “Former” vs. “Latter”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
The difference is clear-cut, yet writers and speakers sometimes muff these two: Simply, former is the first of two; latter is the second. (And while we’re at it, formerly vs. formally: The former means “at an earlier time,” as in “Formerly the governor of California, Schwarzenegger …”; the latter means “by an established form or structure,” as in “The school is formally called the University of California at Los Angeles.”)
What’s the difference: “Neither/either are” vs. “Neither/either is”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Both neither and either are singular pronouns and should take a singular verb. Confusion sets in when the verb appears far from its subject or when a plural object falls after it: “Turns out, neither of the usually mischievous dogs were [read: was] responsible for tearing up the pillows; the cat wast to blame.”
What’s the difference: “Fall between” vs. “Fall through”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Logically speaking, you can’t fall between an opening; you fall into or through it. As such, don’t let logic fall through the cracks when you use this idiom.
What’s the difference: “Mute” vs. “Moot”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Moot’s most common meaning is “deprived of practical significance.” Mute means silent. So while they might want to be mute about a moot point, careful speakers will be vocal about the difference.
What’s the difference: “Just desserts” vs. “Just deserts”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
When you want someone to get what he deserves, you hope he reaps his just deserts. But on her birthday, a particularly well-behaved three-year-old might be allowed in just desserts.
What’s the difference: “Modern-day” vs. “Modern”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Quite simply, modern covers it. Modern-day is a redundant term. Modern speakers will sound smarter by using the superior word.
What’s the difference: “So-called ‘good grammar’” vs. “So-called good grammar”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
So-called introduces a term as falsely, improperly, or commonly referred to as something. So by default, it covers the need for quotation marks (or a speaker’s air quotes).
What’s the difference: “Exorbitant” vs. “Exuberant”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
While both mean “extreme,” the terms are often confused in relation to money. Exuberant refers to unrestrained enthusiasm or flamboyance; exorbitant means “exceeding an appropriate amount.” Another way to look at it: Exuberant use of a credit card leads to an exorbitant bill down the road.
What’s the difference: “Come” vs. “Go”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Come refers to movement toward the speaker (Henri says, “Come to Paris!”); go denotes the opposite (After you’ve stayed two months, Henri says, “You should go”). But idiomatic use sometimes clouds this rule, as “I’ll come over” is more comprehensible than “I’ll go over.”
What’s the difference: “Jealous” vs. “Envious”Emma Kapotes/Rd.com, iStock
Great grammarian Bryan Garner reminds us that “jealousy connotes feelings of resentment toward another, particularly in matters relating to an intimate relationship,” while “envy refers to covetousness of another’s advantages, possessions, or abilities.” So your ex is jealous of your new boyfriend but envious of your ability to use these two terms correctly.