How well does your company present itself? The appearance of your building, the way your employees interact with your customers, and even the look of your website and social media accounts are factors in determining this. Admittedly, these are all important because they are typically the first things your customers notice, and we all know how significant first impressions are. But there are other, more subtle points that speak about your organization after a first impression is made: points that can make or break the way your customers view your company in the long run.
Although the list of finer observations people have about companies is long and subjective, one that many notice is grammar. Improper grammar in email, sales material, website content, newsletters, etc. can leave a measure of doubt about your professionalism that no organization can afford. Poor grammar is a common pet peeve, and more people notice grammatical errors than you might think. This month I’ll highlight some of the grammatical errors that I see most often.
Pronoun usage as subjects and objects of sentences can be tricky. When to use I instead of me is sometimes confusing. The examples below illustrate this point:
Mary and I enjoyed seeing our friends.
Mary and me enjoyed seeing our friends.
Our friends enjoyed seeing Mary and me.
Our friends enjoyed seeing Mary and I.
Most people know that the first sentence is correct and that the second sentence is not. However, not as many will recognize that the third sentence is correct and that fourth sentence is incorrect. The pronoun I should always be used as a sentence subject (the noun or pronoun completing the action in the sentence), and the pronoun me should always be used as a sentence object (the thing that is acted upon by the subject). They are not interchangeable.
The same rules apply for she and her, he and him:
Mary and he/she enjoyed seeing their friends.
Their friends enjoyed seeing Mary and him/her.
He and she should be used as subjects, while him and her should be used as objects.
A quick way to check if you are using these pronouns correctly is to allow them to stand alone in the sentence:
I enjoyed seeing our friends.
Our friends enjoyed seeing me.
He/She enjoyed seeing their friends.
Their friends enjoyed seeing him/her.
If the pronoun works on its own, it will work with other nouns and pronouns too.
The other very tricky pronouns that confound even some of the most grammar conscious are who, whom, whoever, and whomever. Who and whoever are always used as subjects; whom and whomever are always used as objects:
Who will pass the test?
I don’t know with whom I’ll study.
Whoever studies will pass.
I will study with whomever can help me.
Fortunately, there is an easy way to check if you are using these pronouns correctly. In the first and third sentences, it is correct to use he, she, or they in place of who or whoever studies.
Will he/she/they pass the test?
He/She/They will pass the test.
Since these pronouns are always used as subjects, we know that using the words who and whoever is correct.
If we were to rewrite the second and fourth sentences, we would use him, her, or them as replacements for with whom I’ll study and whomever can help me:
I don’t know if I’ll study with him/her/them.
I will study with him/her/them.
Since we know that him, her, and them are always used as objects, we can conclude that using whom and whomever in these sentences is correct.
Matching Subjects and Verbs
A well-constructed sentence matches subjects and verbs. A singular subject must always have a singular verb and a plural subject must always have a plural verb. In a simple sentence this is pretty much automatic. However, once a dependent phrase or clause is thrown into the mix, things can get confusing:
The girl, leading her dogs, walks to school.
The girl, leading her dogs, walk to school.
The first example is correct because girl, which is singular, is the subject of the sentence. A singular subject requires a singular verb, which in this case is walks. The confusion sets in because dogs is a plural noun and it is closer to the verb than girl. However, dogs is part of a dependent phrase, so it has no power over the verb being singular or plural.
Again, an easy way to check if you should use the singular or plural form of the verb is to read the sentence without the dependent phrase.
The girl walks to school.
If the sentence works without the dependent phrase, it will work when you add it back.
The apostrophe is a confusing and often misused punctuation mark. It has more than one use, and it can be used with all nouns, singular and plural, which means it has to adapt to the many irregularities inherent to the English language. To keep things simple initially, we’ll start with its easiest function: contractions.
Almost everyone has contractions down pat. We simply add an apostrophe and take away a couple of letters and combine two words into one:
I would becomes I’d
You are becomes you’re
I am becomes I’m
She is becomes she’s
Cannot becomes can’t
… and the list goes on.
However, its and it’s sometimes cause confusion. Remember that it is becomes it’s, just like all the other contractions, and its (no apostrophe) is used to show possession.
And this brings us to the next great use of the apostrophe, which causes even more confusion, showing possession:
If the dog belongs to the girl, it’s the girl’s dog.
If the dog belongs to the girls, it’s the girls’ dog.
If the dog belongs to the child, it’s the child’s dog.
If a noun is singular, we simply add an apostrophe and an s to show possession. If a noun is plural, ending in s, we just add an apostrophe. These situations are considered to be regular, and most people handle them quite well. However, in grammar, not every situation is regular, and this is where the problems arise. For example:
If the dog belongs to the children, it’s the children’s dog.
This gets confusing because the word children is plural, and some people think that this requires the apostrophe to be placed after the s. But, because there is no s already at the end of the word, the apostrophe is placed before the s, as it would be in a singular noun not ending in an s. In other words, because it isn’t the s that makes the word plural, but the form of the word that does, the apostrophe should be placed before the s.
The same is true for the words men and mice:
Men’s clothing is on the second floor.
The dog ate the mice’s cheese.
Nouns made plural in an irregular way can also cause confusion. Please see the examples below:
If one church makes a donation to a charity, it’s the church’s contribution.
If two churches pool funds to make a donation, it’s the churches’ contribution.
If one ferry has a captain, he’s the ferry’s captain.
If two ferries share a captain, she’s the ferries’ captain.
Spelling rules always apply first, and then the rules governing the apostrophe follow.
Sometimes a singular noun ends in s. It can be made to show possession in two ways, but whichever way you choose, keep it consistent:
The ball that belongs to Kris is either Kris’ ball or Kris’s ball.
Lastly, there are a few words in the English language that have singular and plural forms that are spelled the same way. We’ll use the word glasses (meaning spectacles) as an example:
Her glasses’ frame is metal.
Their glasses’ frames are metal.
The word glasses is irregular, but the rules for showing possession hold fast. In the first sentence, glasses is singular ending in s, so the apostrophe goes after the s. In the second sentence, glasses is plural, so the apostrophe also goes after the s. Oddly enough, the same explanation applies to the word spectacles.
I hope this clears up some common misconceptions that might be causing you and your organization to not look your best in front of your customers and potential customers. If it’s time for your organization to outsource your writing or marketing tasks, or if you just need help with a project, give McIntire Writing Service a call at (603) 770-9288. Let us take care of the writing so you can take care of your business.