21 common grammar mistakes and how to avoid them

Grammar rules can seem like a nuisance. Honestly, do you really need to check every single document for appropriate hyphenation?

According to CUNY Journalism Press editor and writing coach Timothy Harper, the answer is a resounding "YES."

"The whole point of grammar and punctuation is clarity," he told Business Insider. If you write that a woman has "dirty-blonde hair," for example, people know that you're referring to the color. "It doesn't mean that she needs a shampoo," Harper said, which it would if you'd written "dirty blonde hair."

We asked Harper about the most common grammar mistakes he sees, and added some that drive us crazy on a daily basis. Read on for a list of tricky — but super important — rules that get broken way too often.

1. Confusing 'fewer' and 'less'

Harper said he winds up correcting this mistake pretty often.

He explained that "fewer" is appropriate when you're discussing countable objects. On the other hand, "less" is appropriate when you can't count the thing you're describing.

Here's an example of each word in a sentence:

"Fewer than 20 employees attended the meeting."

"I spent less than one hour finishing this report."

2. Confusing 'amount' and 'number'

Again, it's a question of whether you can count the thing you're describing.

Harper gave examples of how you might use each word:

"There is a really large number of books in that library"

"There's a huge amount of water going over the dam right now."

3. Confusing 'it's' and 'its'

Normally, an apostrophe symbolizes possession. As in, "I took the dog's bone." But because apostrophes also usually replace omitted letters — like "don't" — the "it's" vs. "its" decision gets complicated.

Use "its" as the possessive pronoun: "I took its bone." For the shortened version of "it is" use the version with the apostrophe. As in, "it's raining."

4. Confusing 'who' and 'whom'

When considering whether to use "who" or "whom," you have to rearrange the sentence in your head.

So the question, "Whom did you give the letter to?" changes to "You gave the letter to whom?" "Whom" suits the sentence instead of "who" because the word functions as the object of the sentence, not the subject.

It's not always easy to tell subjects from objects but to use an over-simplified yet good, general rule: Subjects start sentences (or clauses), and objects end them. In short, who does it to whom.

For reference, "Who is a hypocrite?" would be a perfectly grammatically correct question to ask.

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We don't have a gender-neutral singular possessive word in English, so many of us use "they" or "their" when technically "him or her" or "his or her" is correct. Instead of pointing this out when other people do it, however, congratulate them for trying to solve one of the biggest linguistic challenges in the English language.
"That" refers to things; "who" is used for people. This one is a personal pet peeve of mine, but that's no reason to make a federal case out of it. So be the kind of personwho keeps it to yourself.
This one drives me a little crazy as well--but it's also not worth arguing about. Technically, you use "fewer" when you're talking about things that can be quantified or counted easily ("This checkout line is for people with nine items or fewer."), and "less" when you refer things that can't be counted easily ("We need less hatred in the world.")
You might remember the Apple marketing campaign, "Think different." Grammatically, it's flat-out wrong to skip the -ly in an adverb--but the truth is, nobody cares. 
The issue here is the use of that or which at the start of a clause in the middle of a sentence. The easy way to remember the rule is that if cutting the clause would change the meaning of the sentence, use "that;" if it's not necessary, use "which." If that confuses you--well, it confuses just about everyone. Don't bother correcting it.
Technically not a word--except that it's used so much that it's become one, colloquially anyway. One day soon we'll see it adopted officially. Until then, as someone put it on Urban Dictionary, "Everyone knows what you mean to say and only a pompous, rude asshole will correct you."

The rule, according to Quick & Dirty Tips: "[U]se '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."

Just don't correct other people who use them incorrectly.

Most of us get this right when we're using the singular pronouns alone. For example, "I went to the store," or "I hope she'll go out with me." When we combine a reference to ourselves with other pronouns however, intuition fails us.

Shortcut: Remove the other person from the sentence and see whether "I" or "me" still makes sense. Still, correct people for using the wrong word too often, and you'll probably wind up all by your lonesome.

Using two spaces makes you look old. This is because the only reason you were taught to do that was because old-fashioned typewriters required two spaces in order to compensate for monospaced type. However, if you want to talk about battles that aren't worth fighting, don't bother with this one.
As far as I'm concerned, there's no such thing as em dash overuse. I understand that other punctuation might often be more technically correct, but I think of it as all-purpose punctuation that fits the way people read today.

There are two kinds of people out there: Those who include a final comma when they're listing three items in a sentence, and those who don't. It's the difference between "sit, stand, and lie down" and "sit, stand and lie down."

Believe it or not, there are people who get really worked up about this rule. Don't be one of them.

If you want to know how to use these correctly, "i.e." means basically "in other words," while "e.g." means "for example." There, you're among the approximately 0.1 percent of people who know the difference. Enjoy your knowledge without criticizing others.
You were probably taught to always avoid split infinitives. If you see what I did there, congratulations. But keep it to yourself when you're critiquing others' work. I guarantee you have more important battles to fight.
Sure, it can be annoying, but so many people do this that maybe it can't really be considered wrong anymore: They begin a comparison but don't finish it. For example, they say something like, "Our company's products are better, cheaper, and more efficient." More efficient than what? Most of us understand that they simply mean they're efficient--maybe in comparison to their previous performance, or to other options. 
These are two distinct words and phrases, but they're used almost interchangeably, even though technically they shouldn't be. "Into" is a transitive word--Turning lemons into lemonade, or putting money into your pocket. "In" and "to" are simply an adverb followed by a preposition--usually short for "in order to," as in "I just came in to get my computer before the meeting."
"Nobody knows nothing about anything," so the saying goes. The trick here is that most of us understand that we're not supposed to use double negatives, which means that most often they're being used intentionally incorrectly. Correct the speaker, and you'll come off like the only person who doesn't get the joke.

This is the coup de grace, because even those of us who write for a living, and who think we know all the rules, most often don't. For example, perhaps your grammar teacher in high school told you never to start a sentence with a conjunction. But he or she was wrong.

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5. Confusing 'him' and 'he'

Harper said he often hears people say something like, "Him and me went somewhere." That's incorrect. Instead you should say, "He and I went somewhere."

Things get slightly more confusing from here. It's incorrect to say, "He gave it to she and I." Instead you should say, "He gave it to her and me."

If you're having trouble with this rule, Harper suggested taking away the "and." For example, you can probably tell that the sentence "He gave it to I" sounds weird, so you can figure out that "He gave it to she and I" is also incorrect.

6. Confusing 'me,' 'myself,' and 'I'

Deciding when to use me, myself, or I also falls under the subject/object discussion.

If someone else does something for you, use "me." As in: "He showed me the products."

If you're the one who's doing something, use "I." As in: "John and I reviewed the products."

And you only use "myself" when you've referred to yourself earlier in the sentence. It's called a reflexive pronoun — it corresponds to a pronoun previously in the sentence. For example, "I made myself breakfast" works; "My friend and myself made lunch" doesn't.

7. Confusing 'lie' and 'lay'

It's incorrect to say, "I'm going to lay down." The word "lay" must have an object. So you can say, "I lay this blanket on the bed."

However — and this is tricky — "lay" is also the past-tense version of "lie." So you can say, "I lay down on the bed yesterday."

Take a look at this handy chart:

PresentPast
LieLieLay
LayLayLaid

8. Confusing 'nor' and 'or'

Use "nor" before the second or farther of two alternatives when "neither" introduces the first. Think of it as "or" for negative sentences.

For example, you would say, "Neither my boss nor I understand the new program."

On the other hand, when you use the word "not," you can also the use the word "or." So you'd say, "He is not skilled at math or science."

9. Confusing 'then' and 'than'

Harper said this particular mistake is often a typo. But there's a simple distinction between these two words.

Use "then" when discussing time. As in, "We had a meeting, and then we went to lunch."

Include "than" in comparisons: "This meeting was more productive than the last one."

10. Confusing 'further' and 'farther'

Here's another mistake that trips up many of Harper's students. "Farther" refers to physical distance, while "further" refers to intangible distance.

For example, you'd say, "He lives farther down the road" and "He took the argument further than I would have wanted."

11. Confusing 'whether' and 'if'

Harper explained that "whether" means "this one or the other." "If" refers to one thing that might or might not happen.

It would be incorrect to say, "Whether I have a beer, I'm going to go waterskiing anyway." Instead you'd say, "If I have a beer, I'm going to go waterskiing anyway."

On the other hand, you'd say, "I enjoy hanging out with my friends whether we're drinking water or beer."

12. Confusing 'continual' and 'continuous'

This one is especially tricky, Harper said. "Continual" means something happens repeatedly but not necessarily all the time. "Continuous" means something never stops.

So you'd say, "He let loose a continual stream of obscenities," implying that he stopped to take a breath at some point.

And you'd say, "The water gushed from the pipe continuously."

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13. Confusing 'i.e.' and 'e.g.'

Harper admitted he sometimes has to double-check this one.

But the rule is simple: "i.e." means "in other words" and "e.g." means "for example."

So you'd say: "He is the smartest person in the country (i.e. he is a genius). And you'd also say: "I love Dickens' novels, e.g. 'A Christmas Carol' and 'A Tale of Two Cities.'"

14. Using 'they' as a singular pronoun

Harper said this mistake is gradually being more common — and more accepted.

But he emphasizes that "they" is strictly a plural pronoun. So it's incorrect to say, "Everybody raise their hand." Instead you could say, "Everybody raise his or her hand" or, better yet, "All the people raise their hands."

Likewise, you wouldn't want to say, "The team arrived really late at their hotel." Instead you could say, "The team arrived really late at its hotel" or "The players arrived late at their hotel."

15. Using dangling modifiers

These are ambiguous, adjectival clauses at the beginning or end of sentences that often don't modify the right word or phrase.

For example, if you say, "Rotting in the refrigerator, our office manager threw the fruit in the garbage." The structure of that sentence implies your office manager is a zombie trapped in a chilly kitchen appliance.

Make sure to place the modifying clause right next to the word or phrase it intends to describe. The correct version reads, "Our office manager threw the fruit, rotting in the refrigerator, in the garbage."

16. Misusing irregular verbs

The English language has quite a few surprises. We can't list all the irregular verbs, but be aware they do exist. For example, no past tense exists for the word "broadcast." "Broadcasted" isn't a word. You'd say, "Yesterday, CNN broadcast a show."

"Sneak" and "hang" also fall into the category of irregular verbs. Because the list of irregular verbs (and how to conjugate them) is so extensive, you'll have to look into them individually. Here's a partial list.

17. Mixing up subject (and possessive pronoun) and verb agreement

This rule seems a bit counterintuitive, but most plural subjects take verbs without an "s." For example, "she types," but "they type."

The pronoun agreement comes into play when you add a possessive element to these sentences. "She types on her computer," and "they type on their computers."

As a caveat, the pronoun "someone" requires "her or his" as the possessive.

18. Ending sentences with prepositions

Prepositions are any words that a squirrel can "run" with a tree (i.e. The squirrel ran around, by, through, up, down, around, etc. the tree).

For example, "My boss explained company policy, which we had to abide by" sounds awful.

In most cases, you can just transpose the preposition to the beginning of the clause. "My boss explained company policy, by which we had to abide," or better yet, rephrase the sentence to avoid this problem: "My boss explained the mandatory company policy."

19. Misplacing adjectives and modifiers

Harper said he's often correcting sentences such as, "It was a red boy's bicycle." The sentence is incorrect because it implies that the bicycle belonged to a red boy.

So think about how you're assembling strings of words and check to see if the arrangement makes sense. In this case, you would say, "It was a boy's red bicycle."

20. Using 'since' or 'as' to mean 'because'

People sometimes think these three words have the same meaning, Harper said. But "since" and "as" refer to time, while "because" describes the reason for something.

It's incorrect to say, "He went home since the play was over." Instead you would say, "He went home because the play was over."

But if you're talking about timing, you'd say, "Since the play ended, he's gone home."

And if you say, "He went to the store as his brother dug the ditch," it sounds like you're saying: While his brother was busy digging the ditch, he was shopping.

However, if you want to explain that the reason he went to the store was because his brother was digging the ditch and couldn't go, then you would simply say, "He went to the store because his brother dug the ditch."

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Showing up late to work

"Punctuality is critical," says Rosalinda Oropeza Randall, an etiquette and civility expert and author of "Don't Burp in the Boardroom."

"The professional thing to do is to arrive on time, ready to do what is expected. It's not like they just sprung this job on you," she says.

(petek arici via Getty Images)

Rolling in 10 minutes late to every meeting

Similarly, showing up late to meetings shows that you neither respect your coworkers — who showed up on time, by the way — nor the meeting organizer, Vicky Oliver, author of "301 Smart Answers to Tough Interview Questions," tells Business Insider.

"Keeping people waiting can be construed as inconsiderate, rude, or arrogant," Randall says. 

Calling in sick when you aren't

"Remember the adage that half of life is showing up," Oliver says.

You won't prove you deserve the promotion if you call in sick every few weeks.

(PeopleImages via Getty Images)

Being negative all the time

Repeatedly responding to suggestions with a pessimistic or contrary attitude can be construed as being uncooperative, Randall says. Phrases like "That won't work," "That sounds too hard," or, "I wouldn't know how to start," should be avoided.

Similarly, complaining too much puts you in a bad light.

"While there may be times when everyone feels the desire to complain about the boss, a coworker, or a task, voicing it will only make you look unprofessional," Randall says. "It's even worse if you complain every day, all day, from the moment you walk into work. Before long, people will go out of their way to avoid you."

"There's nothing as energy-draining as having to deal with a pessimistic coworker," Rosemary Haefner, chief human-resources officer for CareerBuilder, tells Business Insider. "Things do go wrong, but even when they do, focus your energy towards what you've learned from a bad situation."

She points to a recent CareerBuilder survey, which shows that a majority of employers — 62% — say they are less likely to promote employees who have a negative or pessimistic attitude.

Playing '20 Questions' on every new assignment

There may be no stupid questions, Oliver says, but there are certainly annoying questions. These are the kinds of questions that prove you really don't want to do the assignment or illustrate you only want to hear yourself talk.

"When you receive a new assignment, gather your questions, and pose them in an organized way," Oliver suggests. "Never just spout out question after question off the cuff."

(Milton Brown via Getty Images)
 

Being a slob

"Whether you're at your desk or in the break room, being known as the office slob is never a compliment," says Randall.

When you clog the office kitchen sink and leave your garbage around, who exactly are you expecting to clean up after you?

"Leaving your mess behind shows lack of responsibility or consideration, arrogance, and immaturity," Randall says.

Similarly, your workspace can be a reflection of you, she says.

"If you're like me, who works well in a semi-messy environment, it can be inhibiting to be clutter-free. But with open cubicles or workspaces, the professional thing to do is to make some compromises," Randall says. "It would be disrespectful and inconsiderate to expect your coworkers to deal with your mess."

According to Haefner, employees who don't clean up after themselves can hurt their chances for a promotion in the eyes of 36% of employers.

(AG-ChapelHill via Getty Images)

Being distracted during meetings

"There is a reason why texting is illegal while driving: It's impossible to concentrate fully on two things simultaneously," Oliver says.

Texting, surfing the web on your laptop, instant messaging, emailing — doing any of these things during a meeting shows everyone else in the meeting, especially your boss, that you're not paying attention.

"They know that while your butt may be planted in the chair, your mind is roaming," Oliver says.

(Antonio_Diaz via Getty Images)

Interrupting

"It's rude to interrupt. When you do, it shows others that you don't have any respect, judgment, or patience," Randall says.

While participation can earn you some brownie points, bad timing can wipe those points away.

Knowing it all

"Interrupting or piggybacking with a comment either to outdo, correct, or worse, rephrase the comment and claim it as your original thought, is a sure way to make your coworkers' eyes roll," Randall says.

 

Bragging

"When we're proud of an accomplishment or about something good that happens to us, it's natural to want to share the news with others," Randall says.

But sharing can easily become bragging, and she says there are a few key indicators that this is happening:

• If you go on and on, telling everyone and anyone who walks by.

• If you speak of it in a loud tone so that even the window washer can hear it through the thick glass.

• If you use a tone of superiority.

• If you feel the need to put down others and point out their failures.

• If you fail to say "thank you" when you are congratulated.

• If you start embellishing the story.

"When in doubt, try a little humility" Randall suggests.

Doing your makeup at your desk

In most fields, casual grooming in public is frowned on, Oliver says. If you need a touch up, she suggests heading to the bathroom.

(freemixer via Getty Images)

Practicing poor hygiene and grooming

At the same time, you want to look like you take your job seriously when you walk into work, and your hygiene and appearance play a role in that.

"Poor hygiene and sloppy clothes scream, 'I don't care!' and are a surefire way to put off those around you," Randall says.

Your boss may wonder whether your attitude about how you present yourself extends to your work, she explains, and you may be passed over for a promotion, overlooked when it's time to meet with a client or represent the company at a conference, and not invited to social gatherings.

"Burping, passing gas, picking your teeth, adjusting your body parts, and rarely showering are not just unprofessional behaviors for the workplace, but they're pretty darn gross as well," Randall says.

(vasakna via Getty Images)

Discussing your divorce (or other personal problems)

Oliver says there are two problems that come from openly discussing your divorce at work: "First, you just don't look like you are actively employed when you spend hours a day dishing about your ex. Second, you're discussing a personal problem at the office when you're supposed to be a maestro at solving problems."

"The place for disclosing confidences is outside the office," Oliver says.

Nosiness

"There is a line between curiosity and nosiness, which you don't want to cross," Oliver says. Curiosity, she explains, is when you ask who the new hire is. Nosiness, on the other hand, is when you rifle through your boss's files to see how much the woman three cubicles down earns.

Unseemly bathroom chatter

There are two conversations in particular that you should never initiate in a work restroom, Randall says:

The first is a conversation with someone who is using the bathroom. "Cornering someone in the restroom to hold a conversation, especially when they are in their private stall, is awkward and intrusive," Randall says. "They have the right not to respond while conducting their business." If you must converse, at least wait until you're washing your hands.

And the second is a conversation with someone on the phone. "You might not care if the person on the other end hears your business, but don't assume that others don't," Randall says. "Besides, I can't think of anyone who finds the sounds of toilets flushing pleasant. It's just plain rude."

Selling stuff

It seems like almost every office has one or two people who sell cookies for their kids. But Randall says that some companies prohibit soliciting at work because it takes up work time and places people in an awkward position. Breaking the rules could be grounds for firing.

(Hero Images via Getty Images)

Soliciting signatures, volunteers, or donations

"Before you go cubicle to cubicle enlightening your coworkers about your cause, read the company policies and procedures manual. Most companies discourage or forbid promoting personal causes, especially on company time because it's deemed disruptive," Randall says.

Getting drunk on the job

Some employers stock beer in the fridge and host weekly happy hours. Others do not. But regardless of whether if social drinking is part of your company's work culture or not, it's still not a good idea to drink at work so frequently and heavily that you become labeled the office drunk. This rule of thumb also extends outside the office at company gatherings and happy hours.

Commenting on someone's appearance

Even if you see it as a complement, your coworker may view your comments about their appearance as harassing or discriminatory. It's best to stick to valid compliments pertaining to work rather than how you think someone looks.

(mediaphotos via Getty Images)

Being too noisy

Whether you play music loudly while others are trying to work or have conversations the entire office can hear, then your coworkers likely consider you one of the most annoying distractions on earth.

Being noisy, especially in an open office, has a significant effect on your coworkers' focus and productivity, and the noise could hurt business if it carries into an important phone call.

"Try to show your coworkers that you respect them by keeping the music down, and hopefully they will return the favor," Oliver says.

(Georgijevic via Getty Images)

Making personal calls all day long

Talking or texting with friends or family on company time is unprofessional and could be against company policy, Randall says. What's more, doing it during a break is fine, but these correspondences should be kept out of the workplace, even the lunch room.

"You never know when your boss may walk by for an impromptu chat," she says. "What will they see or hear?"

"If the topic of conversation is of a delicate nature, be sure to keep it private. One overheard juicy tidbit can spread like wildfire," Randall says.

Being overtly cliquey

"Maybe the new guy who smells like French Onion Soup is not your favorite person on staff," Oliver says. "That's no reason to flee him every time he asks you for help on an assignment." Nor should you be spreading gossip about him, Haefner says.

It's best to act friendly toward everyone, Oliver explains: "You will come across as more of a team player and show you have management aptitude."

And according to Haefner, nearly half of the employers CareerBuilder surveyed say they would think twice before moving an employee who participates in office gossip up the ranks.

"Take care that any criticism you make about someone's performance is deemed to be constructive, measured, and deserved," Oliver suggests. Not keeping the discourse civil could cost you your job.

Spreading out

Don't be the one who edges into other people's personal space, Randall warns.

"You know the ones — they place their coffee mug just so, a comfortable reaching distance, making room for their notebook, elbows, and of course their cell phone and protein bar," she says. "As the person seated next to them, you're left with only enough room for a water bottle."

(lovro77 via Getty Images)

Swearing

"Using foul words or questionable language is not only a bad habit, but in most places of business, it's still considered unprofessional and can even land you in Human Resources for a little chat," Randall says.

Swearing demonstrates to others that you aren't able to calmly and thoughtfully deal with a situation, and it could make you the last resort in an even more difficult or extreme dilemma, she says.

Haefner says that more than half of employers CareerBuilder surveyed consider vulgar language an indication that an employee is not ready for promotion. 

"Consider learning some new adjectives," Randall suggests.

Displaying nervous habits

Jingling your keys, shaking your leg, constantly checking your phone, chewing gum, biting your fingernails, scratching your head — the list of nervous habits goes on, and you probably don't even realize you're doing it, but your office mates probably do, Randall says.

Not only can these habits be distracting to others, but they could also be perceived as boredom.

"Perception is a person's reality," Randall says.

Avoiding work social events

Whether you're shy or you feel like you have better things to do, never attending company-hosted events, declining coworker lunches, and calling in sick on team building days gives the impression that you are antisocial, arrogant, and not a part of the team, Randall says.

"So, next time when you need a favor from your coworkers, don't be surprised if they go MIA," she warns.

(pixdeluxe via Getty Images)

Obnoxious email habits

From not including subject lines to sending 'urgent' emails that aren't urgent, poor email form can really rub your coworkers the wrong way.

While mastering the art of good email etiquette doesn't mean sending out beautifully crafted prose each time — that would take forever — if you can avoid these bad habits, you'll be off to a great start.

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21. Misusing 'from X to Y'

A lot of people use this phrase in both speech and writing.

But Harper said it's incorrect to say, "That store has everything from cookies to corsets" if those are the only two products the store sells. In other words, there has to be something in between X and Y.

On the other hand, it's correct to say, "That store has everything from A to Z" because there's obviously something (the rest of the letters in the alphabet) in between.

This is an update of an article originally posted by Christina Sterbenz.

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