Common Tough Spots



Advice and Advise Affect and Effect Alright and All Right
Alot and A Lot Among and Between Apostrophes
Aren’t, Ain’t, and Amn’t As and Like Awake, Awaken, Wake, and Waken
Can and May Capitals Comma Usage
Complimentary and Complementary Comprise Could Have and Could of
Dangling Participles Data, Criteria, Media, and Phenomena Dessert and Desert
Dived and Dove Dragged and Drug Dropped Infinitives
E.g. Everyone, Everybody, Anyone, and Anybody Feel, Appear, and Seem (Linking Verbs)
Fewer and Less Further and Farther Good and Well
Historic and Historical Hopefully I.e.
If I were / If I was Insure and Ensure Irregardless
Its versus It’s Led and Lead Lie and Lay
Linking verbs and pronouns Lighted and Lit Literally
Little and small Loose and lose Many and Much May and Might
Myriad Nauseous and Nauseated Neither / Nor and Either / Or
Parentheses Past Participles of Irregular Verbs Prepositions and Personal Pronouns
Principles and Principals Real and Really Split Infinitives
Stationery and Stationary Swim, Swam, and Swum There, Their, and They’re
Verbizing or Verbing Whether and If Which and That
Who and Whom Whoever and Whomever Will and Shall


Advice and Advise

Advice is the noun.  Advise is the verb.  A common error in written English is to use advise when you should be using advice.

I advise you not to give Aunt Ruth any unsolicited advice, or you might end up with your head in a vice.

Affect and Effect

Effect is the noun.  Affect is the verb.  A common error in written English is to use one instead of the other.

When Aunt Ruth plays the tuba, it affects all of nature around here. 

The effect it has on the animals is amazing–moose by the dozen stampede into the neighborhood.

Alright / All Right

Alright is not a word.  Don’t use it.

All right folks, it’s time to get busy with our grammar lesson!

Alot / A lot

Alot is not a word.  Don’t use it.

I like my new toilet a lot!

Among and Between

In general, between is a preposition referring to a position relative to two things.  The preposition among is used in reference to three or more things.  There are exceptions to this.

Binky, Aunt Ruth’s pet elephant,  sat between Aunt Ruth and me in the taxi.

Aunt Ruth tried to hide among the blimps at the air show, but her pink eyeglasses gave her away.

Exceptions include using betweenwhen talking about two or more things that are united in some way.

Between the five of us, we were able to scrape together enough change to buy Aunt Ruth a fruitcake.



The apostrophe can be used for contractions or for indicating possession.  Care must be taken when dealing with its and it’s, or whose and who’s, or your and you’re, but it is not tricky, really.  You just need to pay attention (easier said than done sometimes, I know).

It’s a rainy day.  (It’s is a contraction, so use the apostrophe.)

The elephant washed its trunk on this rainy day.  (Its is possessive without an apostrophe.)

I went to visit the Hansens. (There is nothing possessive here, so do not use an apostrophe.)

I ate some of the Hansen’s cheesecake. (This is possessive, so use the apostrophe.)

This is your possum. (Your is possessive, not a contraction.)

You’re absolutely right. (This is a contraction, so use the apostrophe.)

This is their anniversary. (Their is possessive without an apostrophe.)

They’re going to celebrate by inviting over Aunt Ruth. (They’re is a contraction, so use the apostrophe.)

Whose book is this? (Whose is possessive without an apostrophe.)

Who’s on first? (Who’s is a contraction, so use the apostrophe.)

Isn’t this just grand? (Isn’t is a contraction, so use the apostrophe.)


Aren’t, Ain’t, and Amn’t

First off, aint is not to be used in any context where you expect the reader or listener to take you seriously or where you do not want the reader or listener to “downgrade” you in any way.  I’m not being snobby, that’s just the way it is.  As a side note, using ain’t as part of an unintentional double negative is a great writer’s trick to tell the reader a lot about the nature of the character who utters the phrase. “Mister, I ain’t eatin’ no stinkin’ fancy mustard” is a line that could take you far. The contraction aren’t is, of course, a contraction of the phrase are not. When do you use this?  Well, for example, “we are not pleased” could be written or spoken as “we aren’t pleased.” Where aren’t gets interesting is when it is also used with I. This is also where amn’t enters the picture. I am not going to the party. There are some pockets in the English speaking world where am not is contracted as amn’t. I amn’t going to the party. For the most part, though, amn’t is not well understood and should be handled the same way you handle ain’t. It’s unfortunate, because I do like amn’t.

As and Like

This is one of those areas where even ardent grammarians will say they don’t care, the battle is over. Still, it’s important to understand the distinction. Like is a preposition. It can take a noun or noun phrase. In general, use like when the clause does not have a verb; use as when the clause has a verb. Example:  He smells like a cat.  Since “a cat” has no verb, use like. He howled as sadly as a hound dog howls at the moon.  Since “a hound dog howls at the moon” has a verb (howls), use as.

Awake / Awaken

This can get really confusing, but the main thing to remember is this: awake is usually used in an intransitive way (that is, it is not an action that someone performs on someone else). I should awake by 6:00 am.  I awaked (awoke is also fine here) at 5:45 am this morning.  I had awoken at 4:30 am yesterday morning. Wake is similar to awake. I should wake by 6:00 am. I waked (woke is fine) at 5:45 am this morning. I had woken at 4:30 am yesterday. You can use “up” with wake but not with awaken.  I should wake up by 6:00 am. Awaken and waken are similar, though some prefer to use awaken as intransitive and waken as transitive. I should awaken by 6:00.  I awakened by 6:00.  I had awakened by 6:00. I should waken by 6:00.  I wakened by 6:00.  I had wakened by 6:00. Yeah, I know this is confusing. My advice would be to pick a verb and stick with it — or perhaps pick one for transitive and one for intransitive. Oh, heck, you’re smart enough. Go ahead and learn ’em, and your world will be a better place.

Can / May

Can implies ability; may implies permission. “Can I eat dessert?” “I don’t know why not, unless your lips are stapled shut.”


Capitalize: Words that appear at the beginning of the sentence Names of people, places, and organizations Titles of people and places Compass names when referring to a region, not a direction The president lives in the East. Madame  President, why are you going west for a holiday?


When in doubt, leave it out. Use commas to separate items in a list. For breakfast I had Aunt Ruth’s fruitcake, Aunt Ruth’s orange juice, and Aunt Ruth’s apple pie. Use commas to separate oppositives. My Aunt Ruth, the one with the dollop of egg white in her hair, is disguised as a lemon meringue pie. Use commas to separate complex sentences with a conjunction if they are whole sentences. I went to the store to buy Aunt Ruth some eggs, but when I got home I found she had already laid some on the counter.


Complimentary describes something that is free or someone that says something nice about somebody / something. Complementary describes something that “goes well with” something else. The breakfast is complimentary. My brother was complimentary this morning when he said he loves my mohawk haircut. My wife’s dress is complementary with the wallpaper.


Think of comprise as meaning “to include.” The room comprises furniture. Furniture does not comprise the room.

Could Have

The contraction “could’ve” is “could have” and not “could of.” Most of the issue here is the tendency for us to get lazy in speech and pronounce “could have” as “could of.” Don’t do that.

Dangling Participles

Clinging to the window ledge, the street below looked so far away. What’s the trouble with this? The trouble is that the street is not clinging to the window ledge. I am clinging to the window ledge, hoping I do not fall. A correct way to say this might be: Clinging to the window ledge, I observed that the street below looked so far away.


The word “data” is plural and “datum” is singular. Rarely do you hear datum used, though. The data indicate that most of us do not use this correctly.


Dessert is something sweet and delicious at the end of a meal. Desert is dry, arid, and formidable. The debate over whether fruit is a dessert is an entirely different matter and will be addressed in the Aunt Ruth Grammar Cookbook (someday).


The question sometimes comes up whether it is better to use dived or dove as the past tense of dive. Either is fine.


Yes, it’s dragged and not drug that is the past tense of drag.

Dropped Infinitives

Well, this isn’t really so much about dropping the whole infinitive as it is dropping the “to be” when it should not be dropped. The food needs cooked. The hippo needs washed.


For example …


This should be treated as a singular, not a plural, noun.  Everybody is going to be happy today, and that’s an order.


Linking verb city … You can feel with your hands, most likely, and when you do you might feel well.  But if you wake up, the sun is shining, your favorite college football team just won the national championship, and everything’s coming up roses, you can say you feel good.  Why? In this case, you are using the linking verb sense of feel, not the “how do my hands work” sense of feel. With linking verbs, you can use adjectives, and good is an adjective.


Use fewer on countable things, use less on non-countable things. The line in the grocery store should say “10 items or fewer” instead of “10 items or less.”


This one bugs me, but so be it. It used to be that one used “farther” to refer to distance, and one used “further” to refer to depth of something. I have studied this issue further than you. In these modern times, you may use further to refer to either distance or depth. Either is fine. Farther is on its way out.


How are you doing? I’m doing well. How do you feel? I feel good. You played a concert yesterday, and you played without any errors. In fact, it was beautiful. You played well. You didn’t play good.


Something historic is historical … but not everything historical is historic. Historic implies some degree of fame, or a well known attribute. Historical is something, anything, that happened in, uh, history.


Can we talk? “Hopefully” is misused most of the time. When you want to refer to doing something in a hopeful manner, you may say you did it hopefully. But if you mean “I hope that…” and you aren’t referring to doing something in a hopeful manner, then by all means say “I hope that” and not “hopefully.” Hopefully, I planted the seed in the garden. That is, when I planted the seed I was hopeful that an omelet plant would appear.
Example of WRONG usage: Hopefully, she will arrive on time. This is wrong (most likely) because we do not know that she will arrive in a hopeful manner.


That is, or that is to say …

If I were

For something that is “future conditional” or not true, use “if I were” … If I were king, I would go to all the Nebraska football games.


To insure something means that (in general) a reimbursement will be made against damages. My car is insured so that if Aunt Ruth falls on it from the sky and crushes it, I will be given money to buy a replacement (for the car, not for Aunt Ruth). To ensure is to (in general) guarantee.  My roommate told me to ensure that he was awake by 6:00 a.m.  I poured ice water on his face while he was sleeping to ensure that he woke up in time.


Irregardless is not a real word. Regardless, some people use it anyway.


“Its” is possessive. The bug ate its own hamburger at the picnic. “It’s” is the contraction for “it is.” It’s going to be a hot day.


Led is the past tense of the verb “lead.”


I am going to lie down. Yesterday I lay down. I have lain down in the past. I am lying down.” I am going to lay the egg on the counter. I laid the egg in her hair. I have laid the egg on the counter before. I am laying the egg in her refrigerator (or, the other night I saw an elephant laying an egg in my refrigerator).


A linking verb is not traditional in that the nouns / pronouns on either side of the verb may be subjects. Pronouns in the object form (me, him, her, us, them) are not used directly with the linking verbs.


The past tense of the verb light. This may be used instead of lit, or vice versa.


This gets overused, and often when people say “figuratively” they mean literally.
I was literally starving to death.


This is not difficult for native speakers, but for foreigners trying to distinguish between little and small can be tough at times. The words aren’t necessarily interchangeable.

I would like a little milk for lunch.
I would like a small milk for lunch.


Loose sometimes gets used instead of the (correct) lose. I was afraid I was going to loose my green pencil.


Many and Much are confused by some. Use “many” for countable things and “much” for uncountable.
There are many grains of sand in my hand; there is much sand in my hand.


May and Might are subtly different, though modern usage has nearly eroded the distinction into oblivion. Generally speaking, some event that may happen is more likely to happen than some event that might happen.
I may go for a walk in the morning, and (if I’m not too tired) I might go to the store afterward.
Bear in mind that might is also the past tense of may.
I may go to the show.
I might have gone to the show.
Finally, be careful with context and meaning. May can imply permission. Some grammarians suggest using might in cases where using may could be construed as having permission.
I may not go out with you for dinner. (Is that because I don’t have permission or is it because you have body odor and I don’t know how much of it I can take?)
I might not go out with you for dinner. (So there is a possibility that I won’t be going out with you for dinner, but it doesn’t hint at permission as being the difficulty.)


Myriad can be a noun or an adjective. There were myriad buffalo in my room this morning. A myriad of buffalo also joined me for breakfast. Most buffalo would rather eat their bagels plain.


For eons it was the case that if someone said he was nauseous, you could say, “You are correct.” Being nauseous meant that you caused nausea in others. This has become so misused (and overused) that now when you are not feeling well, it is acceptable to say you are nauseous. I prefer not to say that though.


Neither and nor go together, as do either and or.
Neither Jane nor Tarzan had any idea that movie producers with cameras were hiding behind the trees.


Parentheses are such that if you remove the parenthetical expression from the sentence, the existing punctuation will still work.

The nauseating nephew invited his (favorite) great aunt over for dinner.
This is correct.

Past Participles

A participle is a verbal adjective; the past participle expresses the action or state as completed.

Something accomplished, something done, has earned a night’s repose. — Longfellow.
Up rose old Barbara Frietchie then, bowed with her four-score years and ten. — Whittier.


A preposition is a word used with a noun (or equivalent) to form an adjective modifier or an adverb modifier. The noun (or equivalent) is the object of the preposition.
In formal writing, don’t use one of these things to end a sentence.
Also, do not use a subject pronoun (I, he, she, we) as the object of the preposition.
He gave the gift to her and me. This is correct.
He gave the gift to her and I. This is incorrect (the object of the preposition “to” is “her and I,” but “I” cannot be an object).


Principals are the heads of school systems; principles are rules or guidelines.


Real is an adjective; really is an adverb. Since adverbs modify adjectives (and adjectives do not modify other adjectives), something might be really cool, but it is not real cool (unless both real and cool are modifying some noun).

Split Infinitives

It is considered good practice when you have an infinitive, such as “to swim,” not to split it between the “to” and the “swim.” There is a tendency to want to put the adverb in between the “to” and a verb … but this can lead to ambiguity.


Stationary means to remain in one place; stationery is something one puts in an envelope.


Swim is conjugated as swim, swam, swum. I will swim; yesterday I swam; I have swum. This verb, along with a number of other irregular verbs, can be difficult to learn to conjugate. All I can say is practice, practice, practice.


There, their, and they’re can get confused when we are not careful with our writing. Their is the possessive case. They’re is the contraction for they are. There is for everything else.


Verbizing occurs when a noun is turned into a verb.  Host, impact, and access were originally nouns.  Hosting, impacting and accessing didnt’ used to exist as legitimate words until they were verbized.


Use weather when you have two (or more) choices that you know are going to happen; or if you are not sure, you can add or not (let me know whether or not you are going to spontaneously combust) . Use if for the conditional (let me know if you are going to spontaneously combust).


Which and that get confused, unfortunately. Use which with questions (which dessert are you going to choose) or when describing something further (the tuba, which is my favorite instrument, played beautifully at last night’s concert). Use that when referring to a particular item (the dog that is to your left is the one who ate my little sister).


Who is the subject; whom is used for the object case. Who gave the flu to whom.


In using will and shall, the main thing to remember here is that shall should not be used in second or third person unless it is being used as a command. “Tell him he shall bring me my cup of coffee this morning or I will lop off his ears.”


“Yours” is possessive. Do not ever do “Your’s.”