It’s “Grammar Time” – Busting little-known grammar myths and pitfalls – part 1

9th December 2016

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Most of us are aware of the common grammar mistakes – even if we don’t always remember to adhere to them – after all, there are enough memes out there to remind us! And blogs pointing out these usual pitfalls are plentiful, whether it’s your/you’re, fewer/less, there/their/they’re – or its/it’s (the latter is one of my particular bugbears).

Personally, I like to get on my soapbox about busting the myth that you can’t start a sentence with ‘and’ or ‘but’. There are many reasons why you might want to start a sentence with a coordinating conjunction – such as making an impact – and no reason not to. And many agree with me, Jane Austen for one:

“But Jane could think with certainty on only one point— that Mr. Bingley, if he had been imposed on, would have much to suffer when the affair became public.”

I’ll also happily defend the use of the Oxford comma, as it’s undeniably necessary for certain circumstances – and this is one of my favourite examples…

With the Oxford comma: “We invited the strippers, JFK, and Stalin.” And without: “We invited the strippers, JFK and Stalin”.

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But how about the more obscure errors we’re all making but just don’t realise?

1. Which or that?

It’s often not recognised as a problem but confusing ‘which’ and ‘that’ is one of the most common mistakes out there. That is a restrictive pronoun and vital to the noun to which it’s referring. For example, “I don’t like books that aren’t science fiction” – this refers to all non-sci-fi books.

In comparison, which is a non-restrictive or non-defining relative clause. It adds information to a sentence but doesn’t limit, define, or ‘restrict’ another part of that sentence – such as “Her latest graphic novel, which was a sci-fi story, was gripping.”

2. Capitalisation

There are the obvious uses for capitalisation such as starting a sentence, denoting acronyms and in proper nouns like William Shakespeare, Bloomsbury and Waterstones. However, caution is needed if you use the more general noun rather than the proper noun as this shouldn’t be capitalised. For instance, “I studied at the University of Oxford” versus “I went to Oxford and had a look at the university.”

And while specific titles should be capitalised – e.g. the Archbishop of Canterbury – they shouldn’t be if the post is unspecific, as in an archbishop. The same goes for governments.

3. Impact and impactful

Over time, ‘impact’ has taken on a colloquial usage as a verb meaning strong influence – such as “How will the weather impact my British Library visit?” Many think it’s more emphatic than affect’, but technically that’s incorrect. The verb form of impact actually means to strike with force.

While, on a side note, ‘impactful’ just isn’t a word at all.

4. Singular versus plural

A common mistake made by people is around whether certain things should be using ‘its’ or ‘their’. Companies, teams, bands, parties and faculties are often written as plural – but even though they’re made up of several people (i.e. a collective noun), they’re all single entities. The correct approach here is to use singular verbs and ‘it’.

5. I’ve got 99 problems but no issues 

Another common misuse of words is ‘issue’ being used interchangeably with ‘problem’. However, they aren’t actually synonyms – there’s a difference, albeit a slight one. A problem is something negative that needs to be solved – whereas an issue is a topic of discussion. This misuse seems to have stemmed from people worrying about using a negative word, but we shouldn’t be afraid to talk about our problems!

6. Most importantly…

And to end with, a little-known nuance – and one I’ve been guilty of – is ‘most importantly’. ‘Importantly’ means in an important manner, just like slowly or happily means in a slow or happy manner – if you want to talk about the most important point use ‘most important’.

If you’re getting tied up in grammar knots, why not let us lend you a hand – find out more from our content experts.

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