Grammar rules, annoying as they can be, are man-made. But, grammatical issues distract readers from what you want to convey. Instead of resonating with your words, they have to re-read the sentences until they understand.
Without the distraction of grammatical errors, readers can focus on — and better understand — your message.
This cheat sheet is a work in progress and hopefully, can be a good reference for anyone looking to tighten up their grammar skills.
I hope these guidelines will help you as much as they have helped me.
1. A While vs. awhile
A while is a noun phrase and means “a period of time.”
Awhile is an adverb, and it means “for a time.”
Example: It’s been a while since Squiggly tried marmite.
Go play awhile.
2. Affect vs. effect
Affect is a verb meaning to change or have an impact on.
Effect is a noun meaning the result of an action.
Example: The effects of construction in Toronto greatly affect how rage-inducing my commute is.
A cup of coffee at night can affect sleep, since caffeine has a stimulating effect.
3. Anyway vs. anyways
Use anyway, and not anyways.
4. Based in vs. based out of
Based out of often suggests that the subject maintains a headquarters or home office in the given location, but spends a majority or significant amount of time working in other locations.
Based in suggests that the subject works in the given location most of the time.
5. Cannot vs. can not
Cannot is usually the word you want. It means “unable to” or “unwilling to” do something.
Can not is occasionally used as an alternative to the one word “cannot,” but it shows up most often when the word “not” is just part of something that comes right after “can.”
Example: I cannot come to rehearsal tonight.
You can notonly be in the play, but also choose your understudy.
6. Because, due to, since, as
Use because. “Since” and “As,” need to be used carefully, because you could confuse your readers.
Example: Since I love you, let’s get married” means the same thing as “Because I love you, let’s get married.”
Avoid Due to, but it can be used for phrases like “payable to” or “supposed to.”
Example: “The plane is due to arrive at noon,” meaning the plane should arrive at 12.
7. Between vs. among
Between is for two, distinct things.
Among should be used for things or people that aren’t distinctly separated, or that are seen as one collective object.
Example: Among the employees, there was a need to choose between Apple and Android for their new company devices.
8. Compared to vs. compared With
Compare to refers to similarities.
Compare with indicates considering both similarities and differences
9. Compliment vs. complement
Compliment can be either a verb or a noun related to praising someone.
Complement can be either a verb or a noun related to something that goes well with another thing.
Example: Emily has been getting a lot of compliments on her sweater today. People say the color complements the green in her eyes.
10. Every day vs. everyday
Every day is an adjective plus a noun, which means “each day.”
Everyday is an adjective used in front of a noun to describe something that’s normal or common.
Example: Every day, I make my cup of coffee, eat breakfast, and take a shower before work — but going to the gym is not an everyday activity for me.
11. Further, farther, furthermore
Farther relates to physical distance and further relates to figurative distance.
It is important to remember that farther has a tie to physical distance and can’t be used to mean “moreover” or “in addition.”
If you can’t decide which one to use, you’re safer using further because farther has some restrictions, and if you tend to get confused, try using furthermore instead of further.
Example: How much farther?
If you complain further, I’m going to shoot you out of the airlock.
Furthermore, I hope you locked the door when we left.
12. Important or importantly
You can start a sentence with either more important or more importantly. Both are fine, but when you want to get rid of the word “more” (or the word “most”), you have to use “importantly.”
Example: (Wrong) “Important, the neighbors didn’t call the police”
(Correct) “Importantly, the neighbors didn’t call the police.”
13. Into vs. in to
Into indicates movement.
“In” and “to” are often just unrelated, neighboring words in a sentence, usually meaning “in order to.” When movement is taking place, use “into” as one word.
Example: The crowd erupted into applause when she walked into the room.
The consultant came in to train us last week.
14. Loose vs. lose
Loose refers to the tightness of something.
Lose is used when something is lost.
Example: If your doorknob comes loose and falls off, you lose the ability to leave your apartment.
15. Less vs. fewer
Less indicates one item (or a collective group of items). It is used before uncountable nouns.
Fewer indicates more than two items. It is used before plural (countable) nouns.
Example: I’m eating less meat these days and drinking fewer cups of coffee.
16. Lay vs. lie
Lay requires a direct object.
Lie doesn’t require an object.
The past tense of lay is laid, while the past tense of lie is lay.
Example: I lay my head down on the pillow/I laid my head down on the pillow. The rocks lie near the stream/The rocks lay near the stream.
17. If vs. whether
Use If when you have a conditional sentence
Use Whether when showing that two alternatives are possible.
Example: Squiggly didn’t know whether Aardvark would arrive on Friday or Saturday.
Squiggly didn’t know if Aardvark would arrive on Friday or Saturday.
18. That vs. which
That is used to introduce a restrictive clause which, if removed, will make the sentence nonsensical. Which is used with a nonrestrictive clause. Think of it as adding more information.
Example: My dog that is small has a total Napoleon complex.
My car, which I’ve had for 10 years, still runs as well as the day I stole it.
If the sentence doesn’t need the clause that the word in question is connecting, use which. If it does, use that.
19. Until, till, and ‘til
Until and till are usually interchangeable. If you want to be super safe, stick with until and definitely avoid ‘til.
20. “I.e.” vs. “e.g.”
e.g. means “for example,” and i.e. means roughly “in other words.” You use “e.g.” to provide a list of incomplete examples, and you use “i.e.” to provide a complete clarifying list or statement.
Don’t italicize i.e. and e.g.
21. How to use commas
In a list
The American flag is red, white, and blue.
Between coordinate adjectives
Coordinate adjectives are two or more adjectives that describe the samenoun.
Aardvark is a small, blue mammal.
Between two main clauses joined by a coordinating conjunction
Squiggly ran to the forest, and Aardvark chased the squirrels.
In sentences that start with subordinating conjunctions
Subordinate conjunction is a conjunction that introduces a subordinate clause, e.g., although, because.
Although he was scared, squiggly ran to the forest.
With conditional sentences starting with “if clauses”
If you have any questions, let me know.
Oh, he is coming along too?
Squiggly met Aardvark, July 19, 2008, at a rock concert.
22. Avoid comma splices
A comma splice is when two independent clauses are incorrectly joined by a comma to make one sentence.
Comma splices most often occur when a comma is used without a conjunction (like and, but, or as) or in place of a period or semicolon that divides or joins two thoughts that could be complete sentences on their own.
Example (wrong): Stacey was the nicest girl in class, she always shared the rainbow frosting from her Dunkaroos.
Example (right): Stacey was the nicest girl in class, because she always shared the rainbow frosting from her Dunkaroos.
Example 2 (right): Stacey was the nicest girl in class. She always shared the rainbow frosting from her Dunkaroos.
23. When to hyphenate ages
When the age is acting as a noun and when the age is an adjective that comes before the noun and modifies the noun.
Example: My 8-year-old neighbor wrote a poem about commas for National Grammar Day.
When the age is part of an adjective phrase after the noun, you don’t hyphenate it.
Example: John’s twin sons are nearly 2 years old.
A simple preposition is a word that appears immediately before— an object (a noun, noun phrase, or pronoun). In other words, prepositions are “reliable signals that a noun is coming.” (1) A preposition connects its object (such as a noun) to some other element in the sentence.
- to refer a surface of something – I kept the dishes on the dining table.
- to specify days and dates – I will come on Monday. Radha was born on 15th August.
- to refer TV or other devices – She is on the phone. My favorite movie will be on TV now.
- to refer parts of the body – I keep wearing my wedding ring on my finger.
- to refer a state – The products available in the store are on sale.
- to indicate a place – There are a good number of people at the park.
- to refer an email address – Please mail in detail @ (at) email@example.com
- to refer a time – Meet me at 5 p.m. tomorrow.
- to indicate one’s activity – John laughed at my acting in the play.
- to indicate a location – I am in my friend’s place now.
- used while doing something – The tagline should be catchy in marketing a product.
- to indicate opinion, belief, feeling, etc. I believe in hardworking.
- to specify day, month, season, year – I prefer to do Maths in the morning.
The new academic session will commence in March.
- to indicate color, shape, and size – This dress comes in four sizes.
- to indicate the direction, place – The friends went to the restaurant.
I am heading to my college.
- to indicate relationship – Do not respond to the annoying persons.
Your answer is important to me.
- to indicate a limit – The old newspapers were piled up to the roof.
- to refer a period – I am here from 10 to 5.
- to indicate relating to, belonging to – I always dreamed of being famous.
- to indicate reference – This is a picture of my last birthday.
- to specify the number or an amount – A good number of people understand Hindi.
- to indicate the reason or because of – I am really happy for you.
- to indicate the duration or time – I attended the session for one year only.
- to specify the use of something – She is preparing for her final exam.
25. Turn prepositional phrases into adjectives
When a prepositional phrase (they often start with “in” or “of”) describes the noun before it, try turning it into a one-word adjective instead.
No: CEOs in the tech sector
Yes: Tech CEOs
26. Replace adverbs with strong verbs
Adverbs, which add detail to verbs, can often be replaced with a single, stronger verb. Since verbs are the “engine” of your writing, choose powerful and accurate ones instead of tacking “-ly” words on to dull verbs.
No: The child cried loudly.
Yes: The child screamed.
27. Delete “that” when you can
Unnecessary “thats” are like fat in a sentence. They just clutter your writing, and nine times out of ten, you can cut them. A useful resource is here if you want to learn more.
No: I hope that my colleagues enjoy my presentation.
Yes: I hope my colleagues enjoy my presentation.
28. Think twice about intensifiers
Using an intensifier like “very,” “really,” “truly,” or “extremely” is often a sign you just need to choose a better adjective.
No: It’s extremely cold outside.
Yes: It’s freezing outside.
29. Eliminate conjunctions
If you’re using two adjectives to describe a noun, you can often cut out conjunctions and use a comma instead.
No: The long and crowded flight exhausted the flight attendants.
Yes: The long, crowded flight exhausted the flight attendants.
30. Avoid adjective strings
If you have to use more than two adjectives to describe something, you should probably choose one stronger adjective instead. Not only will the description be more concise; it will probably be more accurate.
No: The customers are happy and excited about today’s product launch.
Yes: The customers are thrilled about today’s product launch.
31. Use positive description, not negative
Instead of wasting words describing what something isn’t, describe what it is instead. Your writing will seem both more confident and concise.
No: The living room lacks sunlight.
Yes: The living room is dark.
32. Skip relative pronouns:
Relative pronouns like “who,” “whom,” “whose,” “which,” “that,” modify nouns, which means you can typically swap them out for adjectives.
No: The family searched for houses that had four bedrooms.
Yes: The family searched for four-bedroom houses.
33. Semicolon usage
Semicolons separate things. Most commonly, they separate two main clauses that are closely related to each other.
- To separate clauses
- To create a variety
- To emphasize relatedness
- To separate items in a complex list
Example: I have a big test tomorrow; I can’t go out tonight.
The two clauses could be sentences on their own using period.
I have a big test tomorrow. I can’t go out tonight.
34. Pronoun order
Always put the pronouns “me,” “my,” and “I” last in a list.
For other pronouns, you can put them where they sound right to you, but if you’re mixing nouns and pronouns, it sounds better to put the pronoun first.
Example: She and I can’t make it on Monday.
I was really hoping he and Maria could be there.
35. Avoid weak be-verbs
Dump these words unless you need them.
- weak be-verbs (is, was, were, will be, have been, am, are)
- –ly words (& other vapid adverbs)
- very, such, so (& other empty intensifiers)
- not, no (& other negative words)
- the fact that
- begin to, try to, tend to, in order to
- period of time
- in light of, in spite of, in terms of (& of in general)
- different (as in many different, 36 different)
Write Tighter. Get to the point.
If I’m missing something you think should be added, let me know!