How you speak and write can belie how brilliant your ideas are. As noted in our recent article, misusing a word or common phrase can quickly turn your professional presentation into a perceived display of ignorance. In addition to the commonly misused phrases covered in the last article, well-meaning writers run into a litany of common grammatical errors.
The bad news is: It can happen to any of us, at any time. A rush deadline. A flurry of ideas. A long work-session without enough coffee. Our fingers begin to wander across the keyboard, words begin to blur in our fury to get it all down and suddenly we’re typing “their” when we mean “there.” The good news is: A deep breath, this quick review of grammar rules, and a thorough read through with an editor’s eye can fix what you’ve missed.
Effect vs. Affect
Just remember this, “effect” is a noun (the change itself) and “affect” is a verb (the act of changing something). “That speaker truly affected me. I can’t wait to put into practice the tips she shared. I anticipate the effect of this speech to manifest itself in a real boost in productivity.”
Piece of [my] mind vs Peace of Mind
Whether “piece” or “peace” is the right word choice depends on whether you’re feeling angry or tranquil. You’re really frustrated with the vendor that shipped you the wrong order again. You’re going to call and let them have it (with a degree of professionalism of course). That’s giving them a “piece of your mind.” If you’re looking to sooth the nerves of your mentee and infuse them with a bit of confidence, you’re looking to give them “peace of mind.”
Its vs It’s
Just when you think you’ve got all the important grammar rules down, English throws you a curve ball. In grammar school, we learned that (in most cases) ‘s was added to a noun to indicate possession. “That is Sue’s laptop.” We are also taught, however, that an apostrophe can indicate a contraction. “Could not” becomes “couldn’t.” “They are” becomes “They’re.” It is understandable, then, that many of us find ourselves staring at the screen trying to decide whether to use “it’s” or “its.” Try this trick: if you can complete the sentence by saying “it is” then drop the second i for an apostrophe. “It’s not hard when you can draw out its components to help ascertain which spelling to use.” In the same vein: If you’d say “who is” than select “who’s.” If you’re indicating possession, use “whose.” Example: “Who’s going to find out whose phone this is?”
Me vs I
We know “I” is a subject and “me” is an object. Yet, somewhere along the way, we decided that saying “When you’re ready to discuss a partnership deal, set up a meeting with Paul and I,” sounds proper and formal, right? It’s not. Take Paul out of the equation here. Would you say “…set up a meeting with I”? Of course not. That sounds ridiculous, right? That’s because you know you’re the answer to “Set up the meeting with whom?” Before you make this foible, narrow down your sentence to one person (you) and see if “I” or “me” makes more sense, then add all the others back in. “I want to invite you to join Paul and me for lunch.”
To vs Too
This is another common grammar misstep that can be corrected by substituting another phrase to test proper usage. “To” is part of a prepositional phrase that describes a destination, recipient or action. “I am going to the conference next week.” On the other hand, “too” is simply a word that means “also” or “as well.” “I am going to the conference next week. I hope you are planning on coming, too.”
i.e. vs e.g.
You may think these abbreviations are interchangeable, but they are not. The notation “i.e.” means “that is” or “in other words.” You might say, as an example, “I hope this article helps tighten your writing, i.e. get a handle on grammar rules many miss.” On the other hand, “e.g.” means “example given.” If you’re planning on making a list to illustrate your point more fully, go with this one. “I find myself needing a quick review on some of the most common grammar missteps, e.g. its vs it’s, me vs I, and to vs too.”
Their vs There vs They’re
Even on the Internet’s best day, someone is going to flub this one and grammarians everywhere will groan. Don’t be that someone. “Their” is possessive. “There” indicates a place. “They’re” is a contraction for “they are.” Properly used in a sentence, all three would look like this: “They’re going to ride their bikes there. Once they get to school, they can lock them on the bike rack.” In the same vein: Your vs You’re. The former is possessive. The latter is a contraction.
I’m sure you already know many of these rules. You’ve read this, nodding along, thinking “Well, of course!” All it takes, however, are a few fast-moving fingers and an overzealous (or inattentive) auto-correct to throw things askew. Above all else, the most important rule in grammar is this: write it, check it, check it again. Bookmark this article so you can review the rules when you need a sanity check. For important documents, have someone else proof your writing before you complete it.
What grammar rules trip you up most often? We’ll gather some of the most common for a future article on grammar dos and don’ts.