15 grammar tips to make you smarter, from the world's coolest word nerd

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Mignon Fogarty is the Grammar Girl. And she is awesome.

Does this sentence need another comma? What's the difference between emoticons and emoji? How do I make product names (like the iPhone 7 or 6s) plural?

That's a sample of questions that Mignon Fogarty, a.k.a. Grammar Girl, answers on a weekly basis.

Fogarty is the founder and managing director of Quick and Dirty Tips, an advice blog that offers short, actionable advice from friendly and informed authorities to "help you succeed at work and in life." (Grammar Girl is one of the columns on the site.) She's also the author of the New York Times bestseller Grammar Girl's Quick and Dirty Tips for Better Writing, and has appeared on nationally syndicated television as an English-language expert.

I discovered Grammar Girl years ago when googling a question, and was quickly enamored of Fogarty's ability to make topics like punctuation, syntax, and sentence structure entertaining.

She presents a stark contrast to her archenemy, "the evil Grammar Maven, who inspires terror in the untrained and is neither friendly nor helpful."

So, if you're looking to increase your grammar prowess, here are a few of Grammar Girl's top tips:

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15 grammar tips to make you smarter

1. Who or whom

"Like whom, the pronoun him ends with the letter M. When you're trying to decide whether to use who or whom, ask yourself if the hypothetical answer to the question would contain he or him. If it's him, you use whom, and they both end with M."

2. Alright vs. all right

"Alright" may be a common spelling, but it's wrong.

"Nearly all usage guides condemn 'alright' (written as one word), but it occasionally shows up in the work of respected writers and many average people think it's fine, or even the preferred spelling," writes Fogarty.

Of course, Grammar Girl acknowledges that the pressure to save space in status updates and text messages means "alright" is likely to gain currency rather than fade--but if you want your work to appear professional, stick with "all right."

3. One or two spaces after a period

Until a few years ago, I was one of the millions who use two spaces after a period--because that's what we were taught in typing class.

But nowadays, it's wrong.

"The Chicago Manual of Style, the US Government Printing Office Style Manual, and the AP Stylebook are just a few of the style guides that recommend one space after a period," writes Fogarty.

Why? The complete explanation is complicated, but basically it comes down to this: Certain typewriter fonts needed two spaces after a sentence for good readability, but the transition to computers and modern word processing has eliminated that need. (Get the whole story in the link above.)

4. E.g. vs. i.e.

Here's the original question that introduced me to Grammar Girl, as I couldn't remember the difference between these two Latin expressions. E.g. stands for exempli gratia, or "for example." I.e. stands for id est and roughly means "that is" or "in other words." (One trick is to remember e.g. as "example given" and i.e. as "in essence.")

Fogarty's examples make it all clear:

E.g. means "for example," so you use it to introduce an example: I like card games, e.g., bridge and crazy eights. Because I used e.g., you know that I have given you a list of examples of card games that I like. It's not a finite list of all card games I like; it's just a few examples.

On the other hand, i.e. means "in other words," so you use it to introduce a further clarification: I like to play cards, i.e., bridge and crazy eights. Because I used i.e., which introduces a clarification, you know that these are the only card games that I enjoy.

5. Affect and effect

"By far the most requested grammar topic," writes Fogarty. "Most of the time 'affect' is a verb and 'effect' is a noun, but there are exceptions."

A four-page explanation including an example, a memory trick, and a cartoon to help you remember when to use each appropriately can be found at the above link.

6. Compliment vs. complement

As you may realize, a compliment is a kind or flattering remark whereas a complement is a full crew or set (i.e., when something complements something else, it means they go well together).

But how do you remember the difference?

Grammar Girl's quick and dirty trick: "To remember the difference between the spellings of these words, be a nice person and tell yourself: I like to give compliments. Put the emphasis on the I when you say or think it. The I can remind you that the type of flattering compliment is spelled with an i."

7. Systemic or systematic

Fogarty breaks down these two words with different meanings (although both relate to the word "system"):

Systemic describes something that happens or exists throughout a whole system. (The new police chief had to address systemic corruption.)

Systematic describes something that was thorough and intentional, methodical, or implemented according to a plan. (Ending systematic discrimination was his first goal.)"

8. Deep-seeded or deep-seated

The correct phrase is deep-seated, although the way we use the word seat has changed over the years, so the confusion is understandable. (The complete explanation can be found at the above link.)

9. Done vs. finished

"You may have been taught that you shouldn't use done to mean 'finished,' but it's not that simple," writes Fogarty. "The 'rule' against done has been widely taught in schools, but no historical pattern or logic supports it, and most credible modern usage guides either don't address it at all ... or simply note that done and finished are interchangeable."

So after your meal, you're both done and finished. And so is the turkey.

10. Further vs. farther

"The quick and dirty tip is to use 'farther' for physical distance and 'further' for metaphorical, or figurative, distance. It's easy to remember because 'farther' has the word 'far' in it, and 'far' obviously relates to physical distance." (Check out the link for examples.)

11. Anyway or anyways

Anyway is correct. Anyways, although increasingly more common, is wrong in that "wouldn't want to use it in a job application or a school essay" type of way.

12. Sightseeing or siteseeing

It's sightseeing, but to find out why you've got to go back into history. (Fogarty explains in the link.)

13. On accident or by accident

One of my favorite grammar pieces ever, this one illustrates how quickly language can change--and raises some interesting questions about what makes an expression "right" or "wrong."

The short answer: Most usage guides cite "on accident" as an error, but according to a research study, usage of the two different versions is influenced by your age. "Whereas 'on accident' is common in people under 40 or so, almost everyone who is older than that today says 'by accident.'"

14. Is 'funnest' a word?

Steve Jobs used it. So, yes.

(Just kidding--there's a little more to it. Check out the link.)

15. Quotation marks

Want a guide to using quotation marks in combination with other punctuation? It's too complex to summarize here; instead, check out Grammar Girl's explanation in the link.

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