There are some grammar mistakes that I see at least daily these days, more often than you’d think possible. I thought I’d use a few for blog fodder, and maybe it can be a resource. Buckle up for hardcore grammar nerdery.
For instance, “The reason I won the blue ribbon is because my cabbage was the biggest.” This is always wrong. It’s hard to explain why if you don’t know how to diagram sentences; but basically, you need a noun clause to be the thing the reason is, and noun clauses don’t start with “because.” You end up with an adverbial clause trying to modify the noun subject, and then my teeth hurt.
You can usually fix it by using “that” instead of “because,” because “that” starts noun clauses: “The reason I won the blue ribbon is that my cabbage was the biggest.” That’s fine. Another option is to shorten the sentence, because “the reason is” tends to be fluff anyway: “I won the blue ribbon because my cabbage was the biggest.”
Why is “because” correct in that last sentence? Because now the main verb is “won” and the adverbial clause modifies that verb instead of trying to modify the subject.
If you look this up, you’ll find claims that “reason…is…because” is wrong because “because” means roughly “for the reason that,” so it contains the meaning of “reason,” making one of them redundant. That may be true, but that only makes it redundant, not incorrect. The reason above is the real reason.
Aaand, now I’ve typed “reason” far more times than is reasonable, so moving on.
I’m amazed how often I see and hear this one, several times a day. The rule is simple: if you would normally count something, you use “number.” If you would measure it, you use “amount.”
|measured things||counted things|
|amount of pudding||number of bowls|
|amount of friendship||number of friends|
|amount of meat||number of sandwiches|
|amount of text||number of words|
Get the idea? But for some reason, I hear “amount” used in place of “number” constantly, and never the other way around. It’s weird.
What about edge cases that can be counted or measured? That’s why I said “normally counted.” Take peas, for instance. You can count peas individually, but you normally don’t. You buy them by the pound and eat them by the spoonful, so you would say, “I ate a large amount of peas.” But if you were planting them, actually putting them down one by one, you could say, “I planted a large number of peas.”
As a bonus, this rule also applies to “less” and “fewer”: use “less” for measured things and “fewer” for counted things:
|measured things||counted things|
|less pudding||fewer bowls|
|less friendship||fewer friends|
|less meat||fewer sandwiches|
|less text||fewer words|
This is a tough one. My main advice is, if you don’t know when to use “whom,” like know it cold, just don’t use it. Use “who” everywhere. If you use “who” where it should be “whom,” it’s wrong, but it just sounds conversational, so it doesn’t set anyone’s teeth on edge. If you use “whom” where it should be “who,” it’s like waving a big flag that says, “I don’t know what I’m doing, but I tossed in ‘whom’ to sound smart.” That’s probably not fair, but fortunately only good grammar students will see it waving.
Having said that, how do you use them correctly? Well, “who” is nominative case and “whom” is objective. But the trick is to see whether the word is nominative or objective in its clause – not in the overall sentence. If you’ve learned an inflected language like Latin, or learned sentence diagramming very well, you had to get that, so who/whom shouldn’t be too hard. Otherwise, it can be pretty mysterious.
In simple questions, it’s not too hard:
- Who was at the party?
- Whom do you love?
In the first sentence, “Who” is the subject, so it’s nominative. In the second, “Whom” is the direct object of “do love,” so it’s objective. When “whom” is correct starting a question, you can usually turn the sentence around into a statement, replace “whom” with another pronoun, and see quickly which is correct:
- You do love whom?
- You do love him.
- You do love he.
The last one is obviously wrong. Since “him” is objective, “whom” is also objective, no matter how you rearrange the sentence.
It’s harder when who/whom starts a relative clause:
- I asked who was at the party.
This catches people because “who” follows “asked” so it feels like maybe it’s the direct object and should be objective case. But the entire clause beginning with “who” is the direct object. A relative pronoun gets its case from how it’s used in its clause, not from the main sentence. So “who” is still nominative here, because it’s still the subject of “was at the party.”
- I asked Jim whom he loves.
This is correct, because “whom” is the direct object of “loves” in its clause. It sounds awkward, though, because it’s so rarely used right. I’d only say it this way out loud if I wanted to sound snooty for fun; otherwise I’d say “who” and give myself a mental demerit.
The longer and more complicated a sentence gets, the more likely we are to be guessing and get it wrong. To always get it right, you have to be able to pull out the relative clause that who/whom introduces, and diagram it in your head to see whether the who/whom is the subject or an object. Otherwise, it’s safer to stick to “who.”
Those are the three that have been bugging me lately. If I think of more, I’ll have to do another post.