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No one likes a militant grammarian — the kind of person who will swoop in on a conversation and correct your use of the word “who” with a “whom” or “whose.” The English language is alive and vibrant and should be used as such, without the constant worry of less-than-precise syntax or diction serving to censor our every sentiment. That said there are certain mistakes you can make that will send up the red flag to employers, potential mates, and sarcastic baristas alike. (Note that we’re focusing mostly on language as used in speech, not on issues of punctuation – we only have five bullet points!)
5 Him/he, her/she … this is tricky territory indeed.
The simplest way to clear up this mess is to just remember the rules and not look for tricks. Things go to him/her. “Give this sandwich to him.” “Give that sandpaper to her.” Things are done by he/she. “She said something.” “He slapped me.” Rinse and repeat.
4 Nothing has ever belonged to I; it is always mine.
Take this sentence as our control: “This is my pencil.” Sounds great, right? Now let’s look at this sentence: “This is I’s pencil.” Sounds like an uneducated pirate, no? So why, pray tell, do so many people, perhaps you yourself, adopt the persona of that uneducated pirate when a third party is added to the mix? All too often people forget the word “mine” when referring to something owned or possessed by themselves and another, saying things like “This is Jim and I’s pencil.” It almost sounds correct when Jim is added, we know! But now you know: it’s not.
3 Lie, Lay, Lied and Laid
In your life, you may have told countless lies, but you have never, ever, lied down. You lie down at night. You lay down last night. You have lain down every night of your life. You might lay a nice quilt over the top of yourself as you lie down, and maybe last night you laid your quilt over yourself as you lay down. Perhaps you have laid that quilt over you every time you have lain down for many years. But you never lied down. And “layed?” That’s actually nothing more than a misspelling.
2 Who, might I ask, should I call whom?
Well, here’s a hint: That sentence was all wrong. The first trick to solving the “who v. whom” debate is not to worry too much about it; if you’re not sure, go with who and you’re probably correct, or at least likely in the bounds of acceptable use. The more accurate answer is that the word “whom” usually replaces the words “him” or “her” (or “their,” but that’s a whole different issue). Thus if someone states, “You should not have given Jim that stick!” you could rejoin with the question, “Well, to whom should I have given it?”
1 Where should you put that preposition at?
Not at the end of your sentence, that’s for sure. A sentence should never end with prepositions such as “at,” “through,” “on,” “to,” etc. These parts of speech may seem functional when placed as such, but they actually serve to muddy your meaning, and convey a lack of refinement in speech and writing. Rather than asking, “Who should I send this ferret to?” ask, “To whom should I send this ferret?”