Top 40 Grammar Pet Peeves
Grammar is an essential tool for success in school, work, and life. We are judged, sometimes quite severely, by the words we use and the way we use them in our speaking and writing. Our spoken and written words can betray us. They reflect our background, education, and ability to communicate. For example, many years ago, the principal walked into my room while my student teacher was delivering a lesson. After a few minutes, the principal signaled me to step outside.
“I will never hire that young man,” he said.
Shocked, I asked him why.
“On the board, he has a dangling modifier and he ended a sentence with a preposition.”
Sounds quite harsh, doesn’t it? Not every educated adult attaches the same level of importance regarding the proper use of grammar as does that principal. However, many do. Following are the Top 40 Grammar Pet Peeves that irritate most Americans with tips to help you avoid these common grammatical errors. Also, make sure to check out the Top 40 Pronunciation Pet Peeves and the Top 40 Vocabulary Pet Peeves. Find out everything you mispronounce and the words you misuse before “You-Know-Who” points them out to you.
1. Dangling Modifiers
Incorrect-Tossed high into the sky, the dog caught the Frisbee.
Correct-The dog caught the Frisbee, which had been tossed high into the sky.
Tip: Keep modifiers close to the words that they describe to avoid dangling modifiers.
Incorrect-I should of known that they could of gone yesterday.
Correct-I should have known that they could have gone yesterday.
Tip: The modals would, could, should, must, might, may are never combined with of.
Incorrect-That student is not feeling good.
Correct-That student is not feeling well.
Tip: Don’t use adjectives, e.g., good, in place of adverbs, e.g., well. Usually follow “_ing” with well, not good.
4. Comparative Modifiers (one or two syllables)
Incorrect-I picked the smallest piece of the two to be graciouser and because it was more easy to reach.
Correct- I picked the smaller piece of the two to be more gracious and because it was easier to reach.
Tip: Use “_er” for one or two syllable modifiers or more for two syllable modifiers, if more sounds better.
5. Comparative Modifiers (three or more syllables)
Incorrect-Each new song was wonderfuller than the old ones.
Correct-Each new song was more wonderful than the old ones.
Tip: Use more (less) for a three-syllable or longer modifier to compare two things.
6. Superlative Modifiers
Incorrect-Oswald is the more hyperactive of the three boys, but runs least quicker.
Correct-Oswald is the most hyperactive of the three boys, but runs least quickly.
Tip: Use most (least) for a three-syllable or longer modifier to compare three or more things. Always use most or least for adverbs ending in “_ly.”
7. Subjunctive cases (moods)
Incorrect-If I was a rich man, I could buy what I need.
Correct-If I were a rich man, I could buy what I need.
Tip: Use the subjunctive to communicate a doubt, a wish, or a guess.
Incorrect-Also, never, never repeat words or phrases, and avoid using very interesting, super nice words that contribute little to a sentence.
Correct-Never repeat words or phrases, and avoid using words that contribute little to a sentence.
Tip: Focus on brevity in writing. When in doubt, leave it out.
9. Preposition Placement
Incorrect-Prepositions are not good to end sentences with.
Correct-Do not end sentences with prepositions.
Tip: A preposition is a word that shows some relationship or position between a common noun, a proper noun, or a pronoun and its object. The preposition is always part of a phrase and comes before its object. The preposition asks “What?” and the object provides the answer. Ending sentences with prepositions eliminates their objects, so avoid these constructions whenever possible.
10. Parallel Structure
Incorrect-Swimming, to play tennis, and basketball are popular sports at the high school.
Correct-Swimming, tennis, and basketball are popular sports at the high school.
Tip: The term parallelism refers to a repeated grammatical construction of a word, a phrase, or a clause. Especially keep verb forms parallel within the same sentence.
11. Split Infinitives
Incorrect-It is a mistake to ever split an infinitive.
Correct-It is always a mistake to split an infinitive.
Tip: An infinitive has a to + the base form of a verb. Placing a word between the to and the base form of the verb can create confusion. If tempted to split the infinitive, brainstorm for better verbs.
12. Double Negatives
Incorrect-Never use no double negatives.
Correct-Don’t use double negatives.
Tip: A double negative can cancel each other out and create an unintended positive. For example, “I don’t really not like you” may prolong, rather than end, a relationship.
13. Noun-Verb Agreements (numbers)
Incorrect-The calculations indicates that there will be an economic downturn soon.
Correct-The calculations indicate that there will be an economic downturn soon.
Tip: If the noun is plural (ends in an s, the verb that acts upon that noun usually does not end in an s.
14. Verbing Nouns
Incorrect-Grammar is negatively impacting my ability to write.
Correct-Grammar has a negative impact on my ability to write.
Tip: Don’t make nouns into verbs. Also, avoid stringing nouns together, such as in “Top Grammar Pet Peeves.” However, no one would search for “Top Grammatical Pet Peeves.”
15. Subject Case Pronouns (used as appositives)
Incorrect-Everyone came earlier than her.
Correct-Everyone came earlier than she.
Tip: Use the subject case pronoun if the pronoun is part of an appositive, such as after than or as. An appositive is a noun or pronoun placed next to another noun or pronoun to identify or explain it. Re-order the sentence to check if the pronoun sounds right, e.g., “She came earlier than everyone.”
16. Subject Case Pronouns (compound subjects)
Incorrect-Her and Muffy play video games.
Correct-She and Muffy play video games.
Tip: Drop other nouns or pronouns when there is a compound subject (two or more subjects), and check if the remaining pronoun sounds right, e.g., “Her plays video games” sounds bad while “She plays video games” sounds good.
17. Subject Case Pronouns (pronoun order)
Incorrect-I and Zelda enjoy the beach.
Correct-Zelda and I enjoy the beach.
Tip: Remember that English is a polite language; the first person pronouns (I, me, ours, mine) are always placed last when combined with other nouns or pronouns.
18. Subject Case Pronouns (serving as predicate nominatives)
Incorrect-The students who got into trouble are them.
Correct- The students who got into trouble are they.
Tip: A predicate nominative follows a “to be” verb (is, am, are, was, were, be, being, been) and identifies or refers to the subject. Re-order the sentence to check if the pronoun sounds right, e.g., “They are the students who got into trouble.”
19. Object Case Pronouns (serving as objects of prepositions)
Incorrect-The fly buzzed between you and I.
Correct- The fly buzzed between you and me.
Tip: Use the object case pronoun if the pronoun is an object of a preposition. A preposition shows some relationship or position between the preposition and its object (a proper noun, a common noun, or a pronoun). The preposition asks “What?” and the object provides the answer.
20. Object Case Pronouns (serving as direct objects)
Incorrect- The challenge excited we.
Correct-The challenge excited us.
Tip: Use the object case pronoun if the pronoun is the direct object. The direct object receives the action of the verb and answers “What?” or “Who?”
21. Object Case Pronouns (serving as indirect objects)
Incorrect- Robert gave they a king-size candy bar.
Correct- Robert gave them a king-size candy bar.
Tip: Use the object case pronoun if the pronoun is an indirect object of a verb. The indirect object is placed between a verb and its direct object. It answers “To What?” “To Whom,” ” For What?” or “For Whom?”
22. Object Case Pronouns (serving as appositives)
Incorrect-The teacher yelled at two students, Zippy and I.
Correct-The teacher yelled at two students, Zippy and me.
Tip: Use the object case pronoun if the direct object is described by an appositive phrase (a phrase that identifies or explains another noun or pronoun placed next to it).
23. Object Case Pronouns (connected to infinitives)
Incorrect-I want we to give the speech.
Correct-I want us to give the speech.
Tip: Use the object case pronoun if the pronoun is connected to an infinitive. An infinitive has a to + the base form of a verb.
24. Gender Pronouns
Incorrect-Everyone has their own problems or Everyone has his/her own problems.
Correct-Everyone has his own problems (Yes, English is a masculine-based language) or better… All people have their own problems.
Tip: To be inclusive (and politically correct), make pronoun references plural. Avoid the wordy and confusing “his or hers for him and her.”
25. Reflexive Pronouns
Incorrect-The party was for Bob and myself, and I allowed me the privilege of attending the celebration.
Correct-The party was for Bob and me, and I allowed myself the privilege of attending the celebration.
Tip: Don’t use reflexive pronouns (myself, yourself(ves), himself, herself, itself, ourselves, themselves) in place of object case pronouns. Reflexives refer to the subject. An intensive pronoun intensifies an action, e.g., “I want to do it myself.”
26. Pronoun Antecedents (referring to ambiguous references)
Incorrect-When Bobby asked for help, they asked why.
Problem—Who are the they?
Correct-When Bobby asked for help, his friends asked why.
Tip: An antecedent is the word, phrase, or clause to which a pronoun refers. Make sure antecedents are specific. Otherwise, the pronoun reference may be confusing.
27. Pronoun Antecedents (referring to the objects of prepositions)
Incorrect-In Twain’s The Celebrated Frog of Calaveras County, he uses political humor.
Problem—Who, or what, is he?
Correct-In Twain’s The Celebrated Frog of Calaveras County, the author uses political humor.
Tip: Don’t have a pronoun refer to the object of a prepositional phrase, e.g., “of Calaveras County.”
28. Pronoun Antecedents (referring to this, that, these, those, it, its)
Incorrect-He made an egg, put the dog food in its bowl, and put this on his toast to eat.
Problem—What is this? Whose is his?
Correct-He made an egg and put it on his toast. Then, he put the dog food in its bowl.
Tip: Make sure that the singular pronouns this and that and the plural pronouns these and those specifically refer to what is intended. Keep these pronouns close to their references.
29. Pronoun Antecedents (referring to possessives)
Incorrect-In San Diego’s famous zoo, they treat their zoo-keepers well.
Problem—Who are the they and their?
Correct- In San Diego’s famous zoo, the animals treat their zoo-keepers well.
Tip: Don’t have a pronoun refer to a possessive antecedent. A possessive is a common noun, proper noun, or pronoun that shows ownership.
30. The This, That, These, Those Pronouns (serving as demonstrative adjectives)
Incorrect-I like these over there.
Correct-I like those over there.
Tip: Use this and these for objects within reach; use that and those for objects not within reach.
31. The Who Pronoun
Incorrect-Whom did it, and why?
Correct-Who did it, and why?
Tip: The pronoun who is in the subject (nominative) case. The who takes the role of the subject. Try substituting he for who and rephrase, if necessary. If it sounds right, use the who, e.g. “Him did it” sounds bad while “He did it” sounds good.
32. The Whom Pronoun
Incorrect-I like who you gave the award, but to who does this letter concern?
Correct-I like whom you gave the award, but to whom does this letter concern?
Tip: The pronoun whom is in the objective case. In other words, it is takes the place of the direct object, the indirect object of the verb, or the object of the preposition. Try substituting him for whom and rephrase, if necessary. If it sounds right, use whom. “I like he” and “to he does this letter concern” sound bad while “I like him” and “to him does this letter concern” sound good.
33. The Who Pronoun (serving at the start of relative clauses)
Incorrect-The man which showed me the car was friendly.
Correct-The man who showed me the car was friendly.
Tip: When beginning a relative clause, use who to refer to specific people.
34. The That Pronoun (serving at the start of relative clauses)
Incorrect-The movie which we watched was entertaining.
Correct-The movie that we watched was entertaining.
Tip: The pronoun that can refer to unspecific, or general, people or things. Use the pronoun that when the clause is needed to understand or restrict the meaning of the rest of the sentence.
35. The Which Pronoun (serving at the start of relative clauses)
Incorrect-A dog, which is compliant, is easy to train.
Correct-A Golden Retriever, which is compliant, is easy to train.
Tip: The pronoun which can only refer to specific things. Use the pronoun which in clauses that provide additional, but not necessary information to the rest of the sentence.
36. Indefinite Pronouns (general singular)
Incorrect-Everyone are ready for lunch.
Correct-Everyone is ready for lunch.
Tip: An indefinite singular pronoun does not refer to a definite noun. The following indefinite pronouns are singular: anybody, anyone, anything, each, either, everybody, everyone, everything, neither, nobody, nothing, no one, one, somebody, someone, and something. Look at the second part of the compound word, e.g. something, to determine singular or plural for many of these indefinite pronouns.
37. Indefinite Pronouns (general plural)
Incorrect-Several gives him advice.
Correct-Several give him advice.
Tip: An indefinite plural pronoun does not refer to definite nouns. The following indefinite pronouns are plural: both, few, many, and several. Indefinite plural pronouns are usually not compound words.
38. Indefinite Pronouns (singular determining quantity or measurement)
Incorrect-More of the food were given to the homeless.
The word clue is food.
Correct-More of the food was given to the homeless.
Tip: Indefinite pronouns that express quantity or measurement may be singular or plural depending upon the surrounding word clues. Pay special attention to the object of a preposition word clue connecting to these pronouns. Singular Indefinite Pronouns: all the food, any of this, half of it, more of that, most of it, none of that, other one, some child
39. Indefinite Pronouns (plural determining quantity or measurement)
Incorrect-More boys seems to be playing sports these days.
The word clue is boys.
Correct-More boys seem to be playing sports these days.
Tip: Indefinite pronouns that express quantity or measurement may be singular or plural depending upon the surrounding word clues. Pay special attention to the object of a preposition word clue connecting to these pronouns. Plural Indefinite Pronouns: all girls, any of these, half of those, more boys, most friends, none of those, other friends, some of them
40. Possessive Pronouns
Incorrect-Bilbo’s faking won’t help his success as much as him planning.
Correct-Bilbo’s faking won’t help his success as much as his planning.
Tip: A possessive pronoun (my, your, his, her, its, their, our), not a subject or object case pronoun, must be connected to a gerund. A gerund is the “_ing” form of a noun.
Resource: Teaching Grammar and Mechanics ©2003 Pennington Publishing.
The author of this article, Mark Pennington, has written the assessment-based Teaching the Language Strand Grades 4-8 programs to teach the Common Core Language Standards. Each full-year program provides 56 interactive grammar, usage, and mechanics lessons. (Check out a seventh grade teacher teaching the direct instruction and practice components of these lessons on YouTube.) The complete lessons also include sentence diagrams, error analysis, mentor texts, writing applications, and sentence dictation formative assessments with accompanying worksheets (L.1, 2). Plus, each grade-level program has weekly spelling pattern tests and accompanying spelling sort worksheets (L.2), 56 language application opener worksheets (L.3), and 56 vocabulary worksheets with multiple-meaning words, Greek and Latin word parts, figures of speech, word relationships with context clue practice, connotations, and four square academic language practice (L.4, 5, and 6). Comprehensive biweekly unit tests measure recognition, understanding, and application of all language components.
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The author also provides these curricular “slices” of the Teaching the Language Strand “pie”: the five Common Core Vocabulary Toolkits Grades 4−8; the five Differentiated Spelling Instruction Grades 4−8 programs (digital formats only); and the non-grade-leveled Teaching Grammar and Mechanics with engaging grammar cartoons (available in print and digital formats).