Grammar and Language

Examples included here represent some of the problems we see most frequently. Consult a grammar or writing guide for more detailed explanations of these rules and others.

Affect/Effect

Affect, as a verb, means to influence.

Example: The winter weather negatively affected traffic.

Affect, as a noun, is used in psychology to describe an emotion.

Example: The student’s affect remained stoic as he was expelled from the university.

NOTE: Affect is rarely used as a noun.

Effect, as a verb, means to cause.

Example: Hiring new faculty effects changes in the curriculum.

NOTE: Effect is rarely used as a verb.

Effect, as a noun, means result.

Example: The effect of the poor test scores was a higher grade curve.


Although vs. While

While should be reserved for meaning “at the same time.” Use although when you are saying “in spite of the fact that” or contrasting items.

Annual

An annual event is one that has been held at least two years in a row. Never use the phrase first annual.

Collective Nouns

Many words — including faculty, committee, staff, board, team, class, public, group, e-mail, and data — can be both singular and plural. The choice of a singular or plural verb depends on whether the writer intends to refer to the group as a whole or to the members of the group. For clarity, it helps to add “members of” to the sentence.

Computer stuff

It’s online (not on-line or Online or on line. Internet and Web are both capitalized. Web site, Web page. Also, the proper term is e-mail. Listserv is one word.

Due to

Use due to only when the phrase can be substituted with caused by.

Avoid using due to in place of because. If used in place of because, the phrase should follow a form of to be and must modify a noun.

Example: Instead of writing “He resigned due to personal problems,” write “His resignation was due to personal problems.”

Farther / Further

Farther refers to a physical distance.

Example: She walked farther into the city.

Further refers to an extension of time or degree.

Example: He will further explore his degree options.

Fewer, less

Use fewer for things that you can count. Example: I have fewer quarters than you do. (You can count, "One quarter, two quarters, three quarters.") Use less for things you cannot count. Example: I have less cash than you do. (You don't say, "One cash, two cash, three cash.")

i.e. / e.g.

i.e. is an abbreviation for “that is” and is always followed by a comma.

Example: Students who attend the evening lecture will receive extra credit, i.e., five points on the next exam.

e.g. is an abbreviation for “for example” and is always followed by a comma.

Example: There are many options for students interested in drawing (e.g., art, graphic design and architecture).

It's vs. It is

“It’s” stands for “It is.” “Its” is a possessive pronoun. Its open to the public (in reference to an event).

Lay, lie

Not as tricky as it might seem. The way I remember the difference is that "lay," in the present tense, requires an object; in other words (pardon me) you can only "lay" something. The word "lie" in the present tense means recline on a horizontal plane. Examples in the present tense: I lay the book on the table. Now it lies there. In the past tense, lay becomes laid, and lie becomes lay. Examples: I laid the book on the table yesterday. It lay there for several hours before my brother picked it up.

Listing an event

Just remember TIME, DATE, PLACE. The event is at 2 p.m. on Monday, May 23, in the Fine Arts Building.

Do not write the year if the event is happening within the current year. May 16, not May 16, 2009. The current year is implied if no other year is listed.

Offset the date in commas when used with the day: The event is on Monday, May 15, in the Hugh C. Bailey Science Center.

Money

It is $1, not $1.00.

More Than / Over

Use more than when referring to numerals or amounts.

Example: More than 60 students failed the exam.

Use over when referring to spatial relationships

Example: The car drove over the bridge.

Numbers

Generally spell out numbers one through nine (and the ordinals first through ninth); use figures for 10 (10th) and above. Spell out numbers at the beginning of a sentence (except for years).

Percent

Write out “3 percent” instead of “3%” (unless in a chart or diagram).

Possessives

Singular: Showing possession in English is a relatively easy matter (believe it or not). By adding an apostrophe and an s we can manage to transform most singular nouns into their possessive form:

the car's front seat

Charles's car

Bartkowski's book

a hard day's work

Plural: Most plural nouns already end in s. To create their possessive, simply add an apostrophe after the s:

The Pepins' house is the big blue one on the corner.

The lions' usual source of water has dried up.

The gases' odors mixed and became nauseating.

The witches' brooms were hidden in the corner.

The babies' beds were all in a row.

With nouns whose plurals are irregular, however, you will need to add an apostrophe followed by an s to create the possessive form.

She plans on opening a women's clothing boutique.

Children's programming is not a high priority.

The geese's food supply was endangered.

But with words that do not change their form when pluralized, you will have to add an -s or -es.

The seaweed was destroyed by the fishes' overfeeding.

Prepositions at the End of Sentences

If meaning, clarity, and emphasis are improved by ending a sentence with a preposition, do so. If a preposition at the end results in clumsy syntax or confused meaning, rewrite the sentence.

Split Infinitives

A famous split infinitive occurs in the opening sequence of the Star Trek television series: to boldly go where no man has gone before. Here, the adverb "boldly" splits the full infinitive "to go." The most fundamental reason for allowing them is clarity of meaning (as in the first example below). That said, a sentence is easier to understand if you don’t split the to and the verb with a lengthy phrase (as in the second example).

GOOD: Analysts expect enrollment in distance learning courses to more than double in the next five years.

POOR: If you expect to, within the last week of classes, introduce new theories, students won't understand and remember them.

Tense

Make sure the tense of your writing is consistent.

Present tenses: The sun always rises in the east. (Present Progressive: Kim is studying for her test right now). (Present perfect simple: Donald has worked at VSU for 20 years). (Present perfect progressive: Tim has been working on the same project for two weeks).

Past tenses: I visited my aunt last week. (Present perfect simple: I have already done my homework). (Past progressive: I was walking down the street). Past perfect simple: By the time she had saved enough money, the item had sold). (Past perfect progressive: We had been walking the streets of Valdosta).

Future tenses: We will eat, we are going to eat, we are eating out tonight. (Future progressive: I will be giving a lecture in 10 minutes). (Future perfect simple: Michael will have graduated from the university by June). (Future perfect progressive: By 2 p.m., the cake will have been baking for 20 minutes.

That/Which

That defines and restricts; which does not. The way to tell which one you need is that, if you are using which properly, you’ll usually need to precede it with a comma. (Note that the previous sentence provides an example of an exception to the rule.)

The story that was printed last night is inaccurate; this morning’s version is correct.

The story, which appeared on the front page, has been proven to be inaccurate.

“That which,” you may mutter in exasperation as your editor changes your use of which to that. Although the difference isn’t as important in speaking, careful writers still observe the distinction between these two words.

Their vs. His/Her

Please stay consistent. When you write, “a student,” you must use “his or her,” not “their.” If you use “students,” then you can use “their” on later references.

They’re vs. There OR Their

“They’re” is an abbreviation for “They are.” “There” is a place. “Their” is a possessive pronoun. Similarly, “You’re” is short for “You are,” so don’t confuse it with “your.”

Who / Whom

Use who as a pronoun referencing humans and animals with a name. It is never the object of a sentence, phrase or clause.

Example: Who is the guest of honor at the award ceremony?

Hint: Use who when you could replace it with he or she: Who is the guest of honor? He is the guest of honor.

Use whom when someone is the object of a verb or preposition.

Example: With whom will you be attending the dinner?

Hint: Use whom when you could replace it with his or her: With whom will you be attending the dinner? I’ll attend the dinner with her.