Grammar geekery isn’t sexy. It isn’t sleek or smooth or prestigious. Hell, sometimes quasi-interesting is overstepping the mark when it comes to the realm of adverbs, pronouns and conjunctions.
But, as someone who churns out copy for a living, let me tell you: grammar is but a teeny-tiny component of a much larger picture. Sadly, grammar is often relegated to somewhere in the final stages of the creative process, mere after-thought in the world of language and literature. But, despite its tweed-jacket-wearing nerdy personality (oftentimes perpetuated by generations of humdrum English teachers), grammar is the glue that holds the literary world altogether.
So, I’ve put together a list of some of the most commonly misused words that create grammar gaffes. I routinely come across these misapplications, and I’ve made all these blunders a hundred times over myself. Some of the most acclaimed authors in history have made these mistakes. Rather than perpetuate the mistakes of others, learn from them. Don’t live to see the day when one of these snafus appears in your prized work of fiction.
Which and That
This little conundrum is one of the most commonly perpetuated grammar mistakes around. Understandably so. That is a restrictive pronoun. It is vital, and specific, to the noun to which it is referring. On the other hand, which introduces a relative clause. It enables qualifiers that are not necessarily essential. So, in a nutshell, which qualifies, and that restricts.
Consider these two sentences:
- The dogs, which have red collars, are young.
- The dogs that have red collars are young.
In the first sentence, the phrase ‘which have red collars’ is adding information about dogs. The words are telling the reader more about the dogs than they previously knew: their collars are red, not any other colour. Yet, the fact remains, all the dogs are young.
In the second sentence, the phrase ‘that have red collars’ limits the dogs about which we speak. No longer are we speaking about all the dogs, we’re talking only about the dogs with red collars. This time, only the dogs with the red collars are young. Not all of the dogs.
Let’s face it; the majority of people are unaware of difference between the two words, using them interchangeable. In most instances, this doesn’t really cause any undue confusion. The problem arises in formal or technical communications, like contracts, technical specifications or tenders. In documents such as these, the ambiguities caused by using the terms interchangeably can cause serious legal or financial issues.
My quick tip: use which (surrounded by commas) if a group of words adds information. Use that if you want to limit the set of things about which you’re writing.
Affect and Effect
Affect is almost always a verb. For example, Twitter affects my attention span. Effect is pretty much always a noun. For example, Twitter’s effects on me can also be positive. Affect means to cause, influence or produce an impact – to cause an effect. Effect is the phenomenon caused by the affecting agent. It is the result or outcome of the affect.
Whether and If
Although these two words tend to be used interchangeably, particularly in informal writing, they are not actually a substitute for one another. The formal rule is that if should be used in a conditional sentence, and whether should be used when you need to show that two alternatives are possible.
Just in case you are still feeling a little perplexed, a conditional sentence is one that expresses a factual implication or hypothetical situation and the consequences thereof. The validity of the main clause is conditional on the existence of specific circumstances. The outcome is dependent on the existence of particular elements.
For example, you could use whether and if interchangeably in the sentence: I don’t know whether Fred will arrive on Saturday. In this sentence, the meaning is clear. Fred may or may not arrive on Saturday.
In the sentence, I don’t know whether Fred will arrive on Saturday or Sunday, the meaning is also clear. There are two possibilities: Fred will arrive on either Saturday or Sunday, but I’m not sure which.
If I substitute whether for if, making the sentence, I don’t know if Fred will arrive on Saturday or Sunday, the meaning changes. Now, as well as not being sure whether Fred will arrive on Saturday or Sunday, I’m not sure if he will arrive at all.
Contrary to common misuse, the word moot does not actually mean that something is superfluous, unnecessary or expendable. In fact, it means ‘subject to debate, dispute or uncertainty’. No further details for you on this one. It is simple one of my pet peeves (hence the inclusion).
Continual and Continuous
Once again, while these words are quite similar, and often used interchangeably, they really shouldn’t be. Both of these adjectives describe duration, but in slightly different ways. Continuous should be used to indicate duration without any gaps, without any kind of interruption. For example, the continuous blaring of the heavy metal music gave me such a migraine.
Continual should be used to indicate duration over a long time period, but with some type of interruption. For example, continual repairs to the asphalt disrupted traffic flow for over six months.
Disinterested and Uninterested
Again, these two are not synonyms. Someone who is disinterested has no personal involvement, receives no personal advantage, and can therefore act fairly. They are impartial. Judges and umpires are meant to be disinterested. For example, a fund manager might be interested in the performance of a stock, even if he hasn’t invested in it in. In this case, the fund manager is disinterested. He cannot personally gain from this stock. Conversely, someone who is uninterested does not show any interest. They could not care less.
We could continue in this vain for some time. But, rather than bombard you with our grammar geekery any longer today, we’ll put in a pin in this lesson. Tune in next week for the next instalment!
P. S. If you’re wondering what a water lily has to do with grammar tips, let me enlighten you…not a thing! Rather than relying on boring stock imagery, we’ve decided to go with beautiful photos. Photos that inspire. Photos that make us smile. Fingers crossed; they make you smile too!