Grammar Police: 3 Common Grammar Mistakes

on April 8, 2011 in Grammar & ESL

Today many people learn grammar by ear and application rather than through rules and an understanding of proper sentence structure. But there are a few quick rules you can learn that will help you avoid the grammar police. Here are a few of my favorites:

Which is proper English?

Most people know that there's a difference between American English and British English, but they aren't sure which words (and rules) belong on which side of the ocean. A common grammar mistake, and one of my personal pet peeves, has to do with toward vs. towards.

Here in the U.S. we drop the "S" on toward, forward, backward, onward, upward, etc. But on the other side of the bathtub they used towards, forwards, backwards, onwards and upwards.

"Dear Punctuation, I want you inside of me."

-- Sincerely, Quotation Marks.

Another rule that differs between here and there is the proper usage of punctuation when it comes to quotation marks. The Brits are conditional about their approach. If the punctuation appears within the information being quoted, it goes within the quotation marks. Otherwise, they leave it outside.

In almost all cases in American English, however, punctuation belongs within the quotation marks. So:
British >  "Carefree”, in general, means “free from care or anxiety”.
American > “Carefree,” in general, means “free from care or anxiety.”
*Examples from Wikipedia.

Which Or That?

While this one has nothing to do with our friends on the other side of the sea, it's another commonly misunderstood rule of grammar: the difference between which and that. Consider the following–both are acceptable but they mean quite different things (example from here):

  1. The books, which have red covers, are new.
  2. The books that have red covers are new.

The first sentence implies that ALL of the books are new; the second implies only the red ones are new.  The rule of thumb revolves around the commas. When you have an independent clause (the fancy bit between the two commas) you can remove it and the sentence is still true–in this case, the books are new and they just happen to have red covers–you use "which." When there are no commas or you can't remove the clause–in the second sentence the books with red covers are the ones being talked about–use "that."

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