9 Timeless Grammar Lessons From A Strait-laced Editor

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I suppose you could argue that these minor grammar transgressions are the sorts of things that ought to be identified and ironed out by us strait-laced editors. In some ways, yes—we all make mistakes and a second pair of eyes will pick up something the first pair of eyes will not.

But it’s when some of the minor transgressions listed below become repeated offenses that us editors really start to grind our teeth. Occasionally it’s ignorance—fair enough, you learn something new every day—but more often than not, it’s laziness. I know you can do better than that. Don’t just write, write well.

Now, as budding wordsmiths, you really should know which to use when, but, if you’re anything like me, you have “dumb days” when you can’t quite remember. So here is a list of the nine most common mistakes that crop up, as well as some tips and tricks for remembering what’s right on those dumb days.

1. Their, there and they’re

These three are particularly simple mistakes to overcome and it’s generally haste that causes us to misuse them.

  • their = possessive pronoun, e.g. “their tendency to overreact to the smallest of grammatical errors”;
  • there = an adverb, e.g. “there must be a way to politely tell my editor to drop dead”;
  • they’re = ‘they are’, subject and verb, contracted, the apostrophe there to mark the omission, e.g. “they’re epically annoying, those editors”.

You’re nodding your head and rolling your eyes, thinking “I know that, fool!” I’m sure you do, but if I had a cent for every …

There, there, we all get them wrong occasionally.

2. Apostrophes—possession and omission

“They’re” leads me to the next lesson—use of apostrophes. I know their use can cause confusion, so, in an effort to help, I will put aside my desire to never think of my hellish high school days again and present you with a useful little phrase—possession and omission.

One of my English teachers would skip (I kid you not) around the room, trilling “Possession and omission! Possession and omission!” whenever one of us got it wrong again. At the time I’m quite sure I found this both embarrassing and annoying, but that simple little phrase echoes around my head regularly even now.

Apostrophes are used to represent the possession of the noun that the apostrophe and the ‘s’ are attached to, e.g. “Frances’s annoying habit of jumping on her soap box”, or the omission of characters, such as the space and ‘a’ in “they are”.

Possession and omission! Possession and omission!

Hopefully this will get lodged annoyingly in your head for the rest of eternity and help you in moments of doubt.

Now, there are several common mistakes that relate to apostrophes, but their repeated misuses make them worthy of their own headings.

3. It’s versus its

You know how so often there are exceptions to a rule? Well, here’s an exception to the “Possession and omission” rule. “Its” is possessive. For example:

With all its contradictory examples of supposed rules, the English language is really rather peculiar.

At least—sigh of relief—the omission rule can still be applied to “it’s”, the contraction of “it is”.

It is such a simple mistake to make, but if you are having a dumb day and you’re wondering if there should be an apostrophe, replace “its” or “it’s” with “it is”, read the sentence out loud and if it makes sense, the apostrophe should be there. If it doesn’t, get rid of the apostrophe quick smart.

4. Who’s versus whose

A similar rule can be applied to this particular editor’s bugbear.

“Who’s” is simply the contraction of “who is” or “who has”—it is, annoyingly, not possessive. “Whose” is the possessive form of the noun:

Whose stupid idea was it to write such an article? Who’s responsible??

If you are struggling to know which one to use, simply expand “who’s” to “who is” or “who has” and if the sentence make sense, then, by George, you’ve got it.

5. Your versus you’re

Now I know you know the difference here, but this is one of the mistakes that would make me rich with all the dollars I would get each time I saw it.

I won’t sport with your intelligence by explaining the difference—please be aware of it when you’re writing.

6. Who versus whom

This one often causes a pause in the touch-typing speed and the “which one do I use” head scratch.

Technically speaking, “who” should be used as the subject of the verb, whilst “whom” should be used as the object, but if you’re scratching your head at that as well, that’s perfectly understandable.

A good way to determine which to use is to apply the “he/him” trick, where he = who and him = whom.

Take the sentence in question and turn it around, replacing the “who” or “whom” with “he” or “him”.

The sentence:

Who/whom do you consider the best basketball player?

Change it around:

Do you consider him to be the best basketball player?


Whom do you consider the best basketball player?


Who/whom sent you that email?

And answer the question:

He sent the email.


Who sent you that email?

7. Either & or and neither & nor

I’m afraid I’m a bit old school when it comes to these grammatical couples—I feel quite strongly that they should be used only when referring to two words, phrases or clauses and no more.

This is a rule that has become more relaxed of late. You might well be wondering what the fuss is all about. Lucky you—I’ll tell you! Because “either” is defined in the Oxford English Dictionary as “each of the two” and “neither” is the negative of “either”. Thus both should refer to only two groups.

For example, this, to me, is shoddy:

Neither the corps, the principals nor the choreographer had any idea what was going on.

Too many groups! It should be, and, in my experience, is more likely to be:

Neither the corps nor the principals had any idea what was going on.

Another example of shoddy writing:

Either Jane, Kristina or Susan can dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

Cue grinding of editorial teeth! Instead:

Either Jane or Kristina can dance the role of the Sugar Plum Fairy.

8. Here versus hear

Another one that’ll have you rolling your eyes and muttering “I know”, possibly accompanied by several expletives.

But please take this as another metaphorical slap on the wrist. It is a silly mistake—do try not to let it happen.

9. Lay versus lie

This is an interesting one, particularly in terms of British versus American styles. I have often read or heard phrases such as “lay next to me” or “he’s laying on my leg” and have winced at the use of “lay”, but I concede such usage can be classed as slang.

However—and please read the following with a very posh British accent—when writing correctly, one does not “lay” down, next to anyone or on anyone’s leg. One lies down. “Laying” is what hens do to eggs.

Silliness aside, rather confusingly, the words can mean pretty much the same thing, but “lay” requires a direct object, whilst “lie” does not. As examples:

  • “Lisa [the subject] lays the cutlery [the objects] on the table”;
  • “Lisa lies on the yoga mat”—that is, the subject, Lisa, is the one doing the lying.

So you lay things down, whilst people, horses, sleepy elephants lie down.

I do sympathize with those learning the English language when, even more confusingly, the past tense of “lie” is “lay”.

She lay on her yoga mat, thinking ‘Not bloody likely!’ as she stared at the instructor whose feet were behind her head.

Argh—English!  Who invented it?

Hopefully with the combination of your powers and those of your editor, errors in spelling and grammar will be picked up before publication, but that is no excuse for laziness. When you are reading through your work, try to be more aware of these quite basic, but often neglected areas of grammar.

And for those of you wanting to learn more, I highly recommend Lynne Truss’s (possession!) Eats, Shoots and Leaves for a very good, often funny guide to the trials and tribulations of some of the more confusing aspects of English language grammar.


1 thought on “9 Timeless Grammar Lessons From A Strait-laced Editor”

  1. Really?!

    I thought that everyone of these errors (but n°9) could occur only as “typos”… so no need for the explanation.

    As an italian, they’re super clear to me.
    An english man should not have these doubts, IMHO.

    If you were born in my country (under my language)… then you could have tasted the real meaning of “language pain”! 😉

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