Grammar is tough. Many rules aren’t consistent and we don’t all learn the same things. However, effective communication skills are crucial to success in most jobs, and some basic grammar knowledge can go a long way in getting your message across.
The impressions that spelling and grammar errors leave behind can be surprisingly sticky. They can affect how people judge your intelligence, creativity, organization, trustworthiness, and conscientiousness. The truth is, some companies won’t hire candidates who they feel haven’t mastered basic grammar.
So, for everyone who has struggled with the difference between effect and affect, or it’s and its, here are some easy guidelines to keep your correspondence clear.
It’s whose? You’re theirs? Apostrophes and when to use them!
We use apostrophes for two important but completely unrelated elements of grammar: contraction and possession.
Contraction is a shortened version of a word. We use the apostrophe to show that some letters have been removed. Contraction makes “have not” into “haven’t”, “it is” into “it’s”, and “you are” into “you’re.” This one is pretty consistent — apostrophes are always used in contractions.
Possessive is the form of a word that denotes ownership. When it’s a person’s name, use the apostrophe: Perlita’s, Ilhan’s, Joseph’s. If it’s a common noun (places or things: words like office, dog, state), you also use an apostrophe: the office’s door, the dog’s collar, the state’s anniversary.
Now here’s where it gets tricky: don’t use the apostrophe for possessive pronouns. Pronouns are words that we use to refer to people or things without using their name: like she, me, you, it, and they. Some of these words use an s to denote possession, but some don’t; regardless, don’t use the apostrophe.
• If the noun is plural, add the apostrophe after the s: The girls’ resumes
• When the noun is singular and ends in s, treat it just like any other noun: Ms. Williams’s manager
• The most common mistakes are its/it’s, whose/who’s, and your/you’re — remember: it, who, and you are pronouns, so don’t use the apostrophe for possession. It’s, who’s, and you’re are always contractions: it is, who is, and you are.
I object to the subject
Here’s another situation where pronouns can be tricky. In a sentence, the subject is who’s doing the thing, and the object is who a thing is being done to. In most cases, we use the same word for either. Alexandria pets her dog — “Alexandria” is the subject, and “dog” is the object. The dog loves Alexandria — “dog” is the subject, and “Alexandria” is the object.
When it comes to pronouns, we sometimes have different words for the subject and the object form. I ate dinner vs. They fed me. We use I when I’m doing the eating, but me when I’m being fed.
You know it sounds wrong to say, “Her went to the park,” but you’ve probably heard somebody say “Her and I went to the park” — when multiple pronouns share the subject like this, it’s easy to use the wrong term. If you’re not sure which to use, just remove the other person from the sentence:
• “Me and my friend just moved here.” —> “Me just moved here.” — nope!
• “They hired her and I.” —> “They hired I.” — nope!
• “Did she and you have a meeting?” —> “Did she have a meeting?” — all good!
Sometimes the “pronoun and pronoun” format can sound clunky or overly formal; in that case, try replacing them with we/us or they.
Who cares about whom?
Whom is the object form of who. But that distinction is fading in contemporary English, and we often use who when we should use whom — and that’s okay, language changes! If you’re not 100% sure which one to use, just go with who — an errant whom can really stand out.
We use the gender-neutral pronoun they when we aren’t sure of the subject’s gender or when the subject prefers to use gender-neutral pronouns. It’s conjugated just the same as plural they. Here are some examples:
• “Somebody from Boly:Welch came by yesterday; they were really nice!”
• “Jamie is looking for a new job — they have great experience.”
Homonyms and look-alikes
There are countless examples of easily-confused words, including those that sound exactly the same but have different meanings (homonyms) as well as words with similar spellings or meanings that nonetheless have different meanings. Here are some examples:
peak vs. pique vs. peek
• Peak: a sharp point — the peak of a mountain.
• Pique means to provoke or instigate — does that pique your interest?
• Peek: taking a quick look at something — take a peek at this job description.
they’re vs. their vs. there
• They’re: contraction of “they are” — they’re coming to our office.
• Their: possession — check out their benefits package.
• There: a place — we went there for a networking event.
you’re vs. your
• You’re: contraction of “you are” — you’re going to be late for the interview.
• Your: possession — are you enjoying your new job?
then vs. than
• Then: indicates order or time — I went to work then had lunch.
• Than: used for comparison — she has more experience than him.
Here’s a way to keep track of the two: both then and time have the letter “e” in them. Both than and compare have the letter “a” in them.
assure vs. insure vs. ensure
• Assure: indicates confidence in a concept — I assure you that they have great Excel skills.
• Insure: protected against loss (e.g., insurance) — can we insure this person?
• Ensure: make sure that something will happen — please ensure that they sign the contract.
effect vs. affect
• Effect: the result of a thing that happened (e.g., cause and effect) — the recession had a devastating effect on the local workforce.
• Affect: the act of doing something to something — updating your resume will affect your job search.
But affect can also be a noun referring to an emotional response — he had a flat affect (as a noun, we pronounce this with the emphasis on the second syllable)
loose vs. lose
• Loose: not tight, not fixed — we have a loose deadline on hiring.
• Lose: to misplace or to not win — did you lose the application?
A quick trick for remembering the difference: think of the term “loosey-goosey” — the rhyme will clue you into pronunciation and you’ll remember that both of those words use the letter O twice in a row.
The Oxford Comma
The Oxford comma is the last comma separating a list. Using it will often help reduce ambiguity so that your message gets across clearly. Having a hard time visualizing why it matters? This might help!
That’s not a word!
This is a double negative — regardless already conveys “without regard” so the prefix ir– is unnecessary. If you’re really feeling the urge to use ir-, go with irrespective — it means basically the same thing.
alot vs. a lot
Your spellchecker should catch this most of the time, but alot is not a word — there are a lot of great candidates.
apart vs. a part
Apart means separated from something; a part means part of something — they’re actually opposites, so make sure to use the right one!
It sounds like “should of,” but what we’re actually saying is “should’ve” — as in, the contraction of “should have”: We should have read the grammar blog before emailing our client.
Grammar is complicated: context matters, best practices change, and almost every rule has exceptions; don’t feel bad if you make mistakes! Learning these things is an iterative process — focus on a few rules at a time, internalize them, and put them into practice — eventually it’ll be second nature!