Grammar Explanations

Amount v. Number. Similar to less v. few, amount v. number comes down to, in its simplest sense, singular v. plural. In a slightly more complicated sense, it comes down to countable vs. non-countable:

  • amount of gas v. number of gallons
  • amount of money v. number of dollars

Apostrophe. Oh, the apostrophe. So simple, and yet so not. The apostrophe denotes possession or a contraction. That’s it. It does not, despite the most common misuse of it, denote a plural in any way. It denotes possession or a contraction. There are three separate issues facing apostrophe use: singular vs. plural, extraneous usage, and mis-contractions. Let’s start with singular vs. plural.

The rule is simple (and yet so easy to get wrong). A singular noun requires ‘s, while a plural noun requires s’: The boy’s ball (the ball of (one) boy) vs. The boys’ ball (the ball of (many) boys). The easiest way to get it right is to check / rewrite the expression using of, as in the examples above. If you put the apostrophe before the s, when you rewrite it with of, it is singular; if you put the apostrophe after the s, when you rewrite it with of, it is plural. A good way to practice is to go in the reverse direction: write a number of ‘of’ expressions and convert them to the apostrophe equivalent.

  • The food of the restaurant = The restaurant’s food
  • The food of the diners = The diners’ food
  • The anger of the parent = The parent’s anger
  • The anger of the parents = The parents’ anger

Extraneous usage occurs when an apostrophe is used where it shouldn’t be used, most commonly for a plural (which does not / cannot use an apostrophe) or a mis-contraction (more on that below). It’s quite simple. Anything that is plural (rivers, books, rats, etc.) cannot have an apostrophe. Simple. If you’re talking about more than one thing that has an s on the end, no apostrophe.

Contractions are the combination of two words into a shorter single word: do not becomes don’t, will not becomes won’t. Most contractions are not mis-contracted, but of course there’s its / it’s. The difficulty here is that both are correct in very different situations. Its (no apostrophe) is the possessive adjective of it: its food, its song, etc. It’s (apostrophe) is the contraction of it is: It’s too hot today; It’s the end of the day.

Colon (v. Semicolon). Oh, the colon. Just understood enough to be dangerous. The semi-colon? Not understood much at all and so not dangerous. But the colon? Lists, right? Easy. Not so much. The colon is going the way of the comma in that it is adopting subjective, if incorrect, usages, as in the above example.

I get it. You have the list and you want the pause. Definitely not a comma, and so the colon. But the colon can’t (nor really can any punctuation mark) interrupt the flow of an otherwise discrete grammatical unit. Without the colon, the sentence would read quite naturally, “We want to be the hardest working,….” That is a perfectly correct grammatical sentence and to insert a punctuation mark is only to interrupt that.

More interesting about this example, perhaps, is that it is a transcribed quotation, meaning that the insertion of that colon was an editorial decision. Perhaps the speaker paused long enough that the writer / editor wanted to call attention to that pause, but an ellipsis would seem to do that more elegantly, while still maintaining correctness.

Comparatives & Superlatives. When using superlatives (best), a minimum of three is necessary; if the best friend is to win, there need to be at least three friends playing. If you have one sibling, you can never be the oldest or youngest; you are the older or younger. May, Zynga, the better friend win.

Less v. Fewer. A pretty simple explanation for this one: less is for things that can’t be counted; fewer is for things that can be counted. A perhaps simpler, though not entirely foolproof, approach is that less is for singular nouns and fewer is for plural nouns.

  • less money, fewer dollars
  • less gas, fewer gallons

Good v. Well. The confusion stems from the fact that ‘well’ can be used as both an adjective and an adverb. Further complicating the issue is the distinction between a linking verb and an action verb, the former of which will require an adjective, the latter of which will require an adverb.

Some preliminaries:

  • Good is an adjective.
  • Well is an adverb.
  • But well can also be an adjective, meaning not-sick (so all those people that like to answer the perfunctory ‘How you doing?’ with the more pretentious-sounding ‘I’m well. How are you?’ are really saying that they’re not sick as opposed to that they are good, which may be what they want to say…but may not be).
  • A linking verb is a verb that equates; the most common is the verb to be: I am a a teacher, you are tall, etc.
  • But sense verbs tend to be linking verbs as well, which means they will require an adjective: That tastes good; we would never say ‘That tastes well’ because ‘good’ is an adjective in this example.


  • I am good: correct, in the sense that you are not bad.
  • I am well: correct, in the sense that you are not-sick; incorrect if you are trying to say that you are not bad.
  • I feel good: correct, in the sense that you feel not bad.
  • I feel well: correct, in the sense that you feel not-sick; also correct in the sense that your ability to feel is functioning well (which you probably don’t mean).
  • I run good: incorrect; just incorrect.
  • I run well: correct.

Prepositions, Objects of. It sounds great to use those subjective pronouns (I, he, she, etc.); they’re (mis)used because people unfortunately think it makes them sound more intelligent. Of course, when used incorrectly, the opposite effect is achieved: sounding less intelligent than more intelligent (to those of us that care about such ephemera…).

From a rules standpoint, any object of a preposition (between, for instance, being a preposition, and perhaps the one most commonly used with the subjective pronoun) requires the objective form: between him and Russel Wilson, however high-fallutin’ it might sound to use the subjective (he) instead.

Relative Pronoun, Indefinite. A common mistake is to use the objective of the indefinite relative after a preposition (I will give the satellite to whomever wants it…). But the object of the preposition is not the indefinite relative itself but rather the entire clause that it introduces. The syntax of the indefinite relative is dictated by its clause rather than the preposition that precedes it (to whoever wants it…). Any whomever would be the object of its clause rather than the object of the preposition that precedes it (to whomever it sees).

Prepositions, with Relative Pronouns. One of those tried and true grammar rules is not to end a sentence (or clause) in a preposition. This, I suspect, has its origins in the Romance Languages which have a more complex system of compound verbs, whose prepositions are attached to the verbs and so can’t dangle like they can in English. In any case, this is a tricky rule as Winston Churchill humorously pointed out when he joked that a particular grammar mistake is something ‘up with which he would not put’; similar, a greeting card quips that you are someone ‘out with whom I like to hang’.

But to maintain correctness, especially where relative pronouns are concerned, requires the speaker / writer to anticipate the grammatical construction at its outset rather than, as usual, once it’s finished, something which the English brain is notoriously bad at (see; I just did it right there; it should be ‘at which the English brain is notoriously bad’). It is accepted, of course, especially in spoken language, to end such clauses with a preposition. What is a bit trickier, however, is the not uncommon impulse to attempt correctness by putting a preposition before the relative pronoun but then also to end the clause in a preposition, whether the same repeated or a different one: ‘After the game, an incident occurred in which I need to apologize for.’ (Vanderbilt Men’s Basketball Head Coach Kevin Stallings). The correct version of course is ‘for which I need to apologize’.

Verbs, Transitive v. Intransitive. Transitive verbs are verbs that can take a direct object; intransitive verbs are verbs that cannot take a direct object. There are plenty of common and of-confused pairs of such verbs: rise, raise (the sun rises but I raise my hands; I can’t rise my hands); and my personal favorite: itch, scratch (your arm can itch but you can’t itch your arm; rather, you can scratch your arm).

Lie v. lay, however, is a particularly confusing pair because their principal parts overlap: lie, lay, lain (and, yes, lain is a word, however infrequently used it might be) vs. lay, laid, laid; lay as past tense of lie but present tense of, well, lay is what gets everyone. The trick is the direct object. In the present, lie cannot have a direct object, lay must have a direct object. In the past, lay cannot have a direct object, laid must have a direct object. (Grammar Girl has some nice graphics that help with this distinction / explanation.) Some examples:

  • Today, I am lying on the couch (correct).
  • Today, I am laying on the couch (incorrect).
  • Today, I am laying the book down (correct).
  • Yesterday, I lay on the couch (correct).
  • Yesterday, I was laying on the couch (incorrect).
  • Yesteday, I was lying on the couch (correct).
  • Yesterday, I was laying the book down (correct).
  • Yesterday, I laid the book down (correct).

A fun footnote to all of this is the verb to suck. A few years back, Oxford reclassified suck, making it merely slang rather than its previous designation of vulgar. The reclassification hinged on the shift of the verb suck from a transitive verb to an intransitive verb. As a vulgar, transitive verb, when something sucked, it was sucking something. As a merely slang, intransitive verb, now something just sucks. (That is unfortunately one that I cannot use in class; or that I at least have to use judiciously….) (And I could have sworn William Safire wrote about this in the New York Times, but I can’t seem to find the article.)

Plurals, Latin and Greek. The Latin (and Greek) plurals will get you every time: bacteria, data, criteria, phenomena. All of them are plural and commonly used, but, if they are plural, it means that they have a singular, and it’s the singular that is commonly ignored. So, for instance, a single bacteria can’t exist; a single bacterium can (and does). Similarly, datum (though very uncommon; data has become a common enough word that it functions as both singular and plural), criterion, phenomenon. The latter two are the Greek singulars (-on), while the former two are Latin singulars (-um).

Who / Whom. Good ol’ who / whom. Here’s why whom is so difficult (and whom can be used as an interrogative / question word, as it is in this example, or as a relative pronoun, as in ‘The girl whom I saw laughed.’): the w-words (who, whom, whose, which; not so much what) are the only words in English that, no matter the grammatical function (subject, object, possessive), occur at the beginning of the clause, i.e. they are the only words in English that violate the most fundamental tenet of English grammar, that word order determines meaning or function. In the case of the w-words, word order does not determine meaning or function, but rather, like Latin, ancient Greek, and other inflected language, form / ending determines meaning / function.

When I introduce Paradise Lost and its language, I point the students to Book 1, line 238: him followed his next mate. And I ask a simple question: who followed whom? Most pause, as if to make certain that the answer is indeed as obvious as it seems, that he followed his next mate. But of course Milton, as not only one of English’s greatest poets but also merely an English speaker, would know one of the most basic rules of English, that he, rather than him, signifies the subject.

Rather, Milton, in a 400-ish year foreshadowing of Yoda, is going very Latin in his structure, letting the objective form him, rather than its placement in the sentence, determine meaning, i.e. it is not where him occurs that determines its function but rather that it is him (rather than he) that determines its function.

Whom functions the same way. Even as an objective form, it will occur as the first word of its clause, and that confuses us. Here’s a simple, albeit not entirely perfect, solution:

  • If the w-word is followed by a verb, it is a subject and should be who.
    • Who went home?
    • Who saw the movie?
    • The boy, who tripped, ran home.
    • The woman, who won the race, smiled.
  • If the w-word is followed by a noun / pronoun, it is an object (or at least a non-subject) and should be whom (or at least not who). You’ll note too that in the question-examples, the ‘whom’ is followed by a helping verb (did) but not the main verb (see and find).
    • Whom did you see?
    • Whom did the boy find?
    • The boy, whom the ball hit, ran home.
    • The woman, whom the runner beat, smiled.
  • ‘What’ and ‘which’ are both simpler and trickier. As the neuter forms (‘what’ of the interrogative, ‘which’ of the relative), ‘what’ and ‘which’ function as both the subject and the object, but the rule still works.
    • What happened? [subject, followed by verb]
    • What did you do? [object, followed by noun / pronoun]
    • The book, which was good, fell. [subject, followed by verb]
    • The book, which I read, fell. [object, followed by noun / pronoun]

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