Grammar Traps by leo27635

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									A vs. An                                 Into vs. In To
Active vs. Passive Voice                 Its vs. It's
Adapt vs. Adopt
Advice vs. Advise                        Joint vs. Individual Possession
Affect vs. Effect
A Lot vs. Alot                           Lay vs. Lie
All Together vs. Altogether              Less vs. Fewer
Amount of vs. Number of
Apprise vs. Appraise                     May vs. Might
As vs. Since vs. Because
Anyone vs. Any One                       Me vs. Myself
                                         Misplaced vs. Well-Placed Modifiers
Between vs. Among                        Muster vs. Mustard
Born vs. Borne                           Mute vs. Moot (Point)

Capital vs. Capitol                      Or vs. Nor
Can vs. May
Can vs. May                              Percent vs. Percentage
Capital vs. Lower Case in Titles         Perspective vs. Prospective
Childish vs. Childlike                   Prefixes vs. Suffixes
Complementary vs. Complimentary          Prevent vs.Avoid
Continually vs. Continuously             Primer vs. Primer
Currently vs. Presently                  Principal vs. Principle
                                         Purposely vs. Purposefully
Datum vs. Data
Diffuse vs. Defuse                       Regardless vs. Irregardless
Discrete vs. Discreet                    Reticent vs. Hesitant

Each Other vs. One Another               Shall vs.Will
Economical vs. Economic                  Sight vs. Site vs. Cite
                                         Simple vs. Simplistic
Farther vs. Further                      South vs. south
(Feel) Badly vs. (Feel) Bad              Stationery vs. Stationary

Honing vs. Homing (in on)                Tact vs. Tack
                                         That vs. Who
I vs. Me
I vs. Me, Two                            Underway vs. Under Way
Imply vs. Infer                          Uninterested vs. Disinterested
Importantly vs. Important (at the        Use vs. Utilize
         Beginning of a Sentence)
i.e. vs. e.g.                            Who vs. Whom
Incredulous vs. Incredible               Weather vs. Whether
Inside vs. Outside Quotation Marks       Whether vs.If
Insure vs. Ensure vs. Assure

                                Grammer Traps
                                  Purdue University

Grammar Trap: A vs. An

There are two indefinite articles, "a" and "an." The question? When do you use

You use "a" when the next word (or abbreviation or acronym) starts with a
consonant sound. You use "an" when the next word starts with a vowel sound.

It's the sound that counts, NOT whether the first letter of the word following the
indefinite article is actually a consonant or vowel.

       Examples: This is an F & N Extension publication. ("F" is a consonant, but
the sound is "eff.") This is a Foods and Nutrition program. (The sound is "fff.")

Grammar Trap: Active vs. Passive Voice

You've heard it a million times. "Avoid passive voice." Remember what that

Voice is a verb form (like tense, number, and person). There are two verb voices:
active and passive.

Your verb is ACTIVE if the subject of your sentence performs the action described
by the verb.

       Examples: You should avoid passive voice. The car ran over the child.

Your verb is PASSIVE if the subject doesn't perform the verb's action.

       Examples: Passive voice should be avoided. The child was run over.

Can you see why you should avoid passive voice and why active voice is usually a
better choice?

Passive voice is--well--passive and weak. It's less direct, informative, and effective
than active voice. Who should avoid passive voice? What ran over that poor
kid? Who knows?

Exception: If you want to emphasize that the child is a passive victim to whom
something happened rather than talk about what the car did, choose passive voice.

Helpful Hint: Think at least twice before you use passive voice. Make sure it serves
your purpose.

Grammar Trap: Adapt vs. Adopt

There's more to the difference between "adapt" and "adopt," two words that are
sometimes confused, than the second vowel.

"Adapt" means to take something and make it fit, to modify or adjust it.

       Examples: It's a good idea to adapt yourself to your situation. Two articles in
this month's issue were adapted from other sources.

"Adopt" means to accept and approve something formally, to take something as
one's own.

     Example: Her parents adopted her when she was a baby. The constitutional
amendment was adopted.

Grammar Trap:Advice vs. Advise

"Advice" is a noun, and its last consonant sound is "sss." "Advise" is a verb, and its
last consonant sound is "zzz."

The noun means a recommendation about behavior of some kind. The verb means
the act of giving such a recommendation.

      Examples: The advice I gave him was to stop chewing his food with his
mouth open. I advise you to stop chewing your food with your mouth open.

Seems simple, right? But the problem is that some people forget which word is
which when they are writing.

There's no tip to help you distinguish between "advice" and "advise" more easily
when you write. It's one of those things you've just got to remember.

(Excerpted from the June, 1995 issue of "Communique" by popular request.)

"Affect" is a VERB. Most commonly, it means to influence or have an impact on
something or someone.

       Example: How will this article affect your writing?

"Effect" is a NOUN. Most commonly, it means a result or something brought about
by a cause.

       Example: I wonder if this article will have an effect on your writing.

In the field of psychology, "affect" can serve as a noun. And "effect" can be a verb,
but it's an obscure usage. Thus, 99.9% of the time you'll be safe if you
remember: "A" is the verb. "E" is the noun.

Grammar Trap: A Lot vs. Alot

Someone recently did a Web search of "On Target", looking for "alot."
The sad thing is that the person didn't find anything. The good thing is that it gave
me a topic for this issue's "Grammar Trap."

"A lot" is a two-word phrase that means many or much.

       Examples: She has a lot of friends. I have a lot of work to do. We had a lot of

When do you use "alot" to mean many or much? Never. It's a common mistake.
Don't make it.

Grammar Trap: All Together vs. Altogether

Language changes. Even hidebound editors like me concede that. The two words
that are this month's topic are an example. "All together" now means in or as a

       Example: The plan won't work unless we are all together in it.

"Altogether" is a newer arrival on the scene. It means entirely.

       Example: We are altogether satisfied with the plan.

At one time, "all together" was all there was. But, over time and through repeated
popular usage, "altogether" came to be acceptable. I hope I'm not around long
enough to see the same thing happen to "alot"!

Grammar Trap: Amount of vs. Number of

The distinction between singular and plural is the deciding factor here.

Use "amount of" when the noun that follows is singular.

      Example: The amount of time it now takes me to write "Grammar Trap" is
much less than it was in 1997.

Use "number of" when the noun that follows is plural.

       Example: The number of words in this "Grammar Trap" is 111.

Grammar Trap: Apprise vs. Appraise

These two verbs sound similar, so similar that people confuse them. In fact, some
people aren't even aware the first verb exists.

"Apprise" means to inform or tell about something.

       Example: Dave King wrote "Give Your Proposal an Edge" to apprise you of
the Purdue Proposal Enhancement Tools.

"Appraise" means to set a value on something or evaluate its worth.

       Example: I have to have someone appraise my jewelry before I can insure it.

Grammar Trap: As vs. Since vs. Because

"As," "since," and "because" are used as conjunctions to denote the cause and
effect relationship. "Because" is the best choice. Why?

"As" and "since" can be misunderstood. "Because" can't. It precisely and clearly
spells out the cause and effect relationship, which is so important in instructional

"As" can indicate cause, but it can also mean "while."

         Example: As I think good writing is important, I write "Grammar Trap."

Maybe I mean that I write it for the reason that good writing's important, but
maybe I mean I will write it only while I think so.

"Since" is perfectly acceptable in casual speech and informal writing. But it, too,
can be ambiguous. It can also mean "from the time that."

         Example: Since I think good writing is important, I write "Grammar Trap."

A quick reading may make it seem that my writing of the column dates from the
time I started believing in good writing's importance.

When clarity counts, as it does in instructional writing, use "because."

         Example: Because I think good writing is important, I write "Grammar

What could be clearer?

Helpful Hint: Remember the "cause" in "because."

Grammar Trap: Anyone vs. Any One

How do you decide when to use which word? It's not that tricky.

Use "anyone" when you're making an indefinite reference and mean "any person at

         Example: It's so simple that anyone can figure it out.

Use "any one" when you are referring to a specific person or element in a group.

         Example: It's so simple that any one of you can do it.

Tip: The same "one word if it's indefinite and two if it's specific" rule also works for
"someone" vs. "some one," "everyone" vs. "every one," "sometime" vs. "some
time," etc.

Grammar Trap: Between vs. Among

"Between" and "among" are words showing relationship. They're used in similar

When do you use one word, and when do you use the other?

In most cases, the answer's easy.

Use "between" when you want to relate TWO persons or things (or when you have
three or more items you want to relate one pair at a time).

      Examples: The Wabash River runs between Lafayette and West Lafayette.
Sometimes you have to read between the lines.

Helpful Hint: "Two" and "between" contain "tw."

Use "among" when you want to relate MORE THAN TWO persons or things at the
same time.

       Examples: The three friends started arguing among themselves. The estate
was divided among the many heirs.

Grammar Trap: Born vs. Borne

These words sound the same, and they're spelled the same until you get to the last
letter. No wonder people sometimes confuse the two.

"Born" means to be brought forth by birth.

       Example: We don't know when he was born, so we don't know how old he is.

"Borne" is a form of the verb "bear," and it means to be carried by something or to
endure something.

      Examples: Many people are concerned about food-borne diseases. Her
burdens are too heavy to be borne alone.

Grammar Trap: Capital vs. Capitol

This one always gives me fits, and I live in fear that I'll miss it in manuscripts I'm
editing. (Maybe writing about it will help me.)

The noun "capital" has several meanings. For example, it can mean an upper case
letter, the top part of a column, money, or the city where a seat of government is
located. It's the last meaning that's the real "trap" and that causes the most

       Example: Washington D.C. is our nation's capital. (Notice that "capital" is
not capitalized.)

Then there's "capitol," a building in which legislative bodies meet or where
functions of government are carried out.

       Example: The U.S. Congress meets in the Capitol, which is in Washington
D.C., our nation's capital. (Notice that "Capitol" is capitalized.)

Got it? In this context, the noun "capital" means the city. "Capitol" means the

Grammar Trap: Can vs. May

If you're speaking or writing informally, don't worry about it. These days, nobody
else does. But in formal English, the distinction between "can" and "may" still

"Can" refers to ability, to being physically or mentally able to do something.

Examples: I can dance well. I can speak French. "May" refers to permission, to
being permitted to do something. Example: I may work at home occasionally as
long as I have no meetings scheduled and clear it with my boss.

Grammar Trap: Can vs. May

These days, the distinction between "can" and "may" is something most people
don't worry about.

But then there are wonderful, picky people like Byron Fagg, Washington County,
who took Steve Cain to task over the title of his story in last month's On Target,
"Can I Take Your Picture?"

"Can" has to do with ability.

       Example: Can I take your picture? If I have a camera and film, I certainly

have the ability to do so.

"May" has to do with permission.

       Example: May I take your picture? I'm asking your permission to do so.

And why did I let Steve get away with his title?

This is what I told Byron: "You are technically correct in your preference for 'may'
over 'can.' But this distinction is important in only the most formal of contexts.
Whatever else On Target is, it isn't formal. And whatever else Steve is, you KNOW
he isn't formal!"

Grammar Trap: Capital vs. Lower Case in Titles

This is a tricky "Trap" to write because it's a somewhat complicated convention,
not rule.

There are several conventions governing how to capitalize titles. I’m writing about
the convention On Target follows for its stories, the one that's still most common
and that many of us were taught in school.

Under that convention, you capitalize the first letters of the first and last words in
titles--AND every other word except articles (a an the); short conjunctions (e.g.,
and, but, or); and short prepositions (e.g., to, in, of).

What's "short"? Don't capitalize conjunctions and prepositions of four letters or
fewer. Do cap conjunctions of five letters or more (e.g., until, about).


       What Is in a Name?
       Extension and How It Grew
       Don't Run Until You Can Walk
       All About Eve and Her Daughters.

Notice that I capitalized some pretty short words in the examples? That's the whole
point of this Grammar Trap. Articles are short words, and most conjuctions
and prepositions are short, too. So many people think that length alone determines
what gets capped. That's why you see "is"--a verb and thus a very important
word--short changed in titles.

Tips: Think "down four, five up" when deciding whether to cap a conjunction or
preposition. And remember: "Is" is a big word.

Grammar Trap: Childish vs. Childlike

If you're a grownup, you wouldn't want to be thought of as "childish," but you
might not mind being regarded as "childlike."

Why? Basically, it's kind of bad to be childish, but it's kind of good to be childlike.

Applied to an adult, "childish" means inappropriately acting like or being like a

Examples: His behavior was so childish it was embarrassing. The two adults had a
childish disagreement.

On the other hand, "childlike" means to retain some of the positive attributes of
childhood into adulthood.

Examples: He had a refreshing, childlike innocence. We should all try to keep a
childlike sense of wonder.

Complementary vs. Complimentary

Say there's a new store opening in town, and the first 10 customers are going to
receive free tickets to a basketball game. Are they "complementary" tickets or
"complimentary" ones? (I used to get this one wrong until someone set me straight
just a few years ago.)

"Complementary" means to fill out, complete, or make perfect. Jack Sprat and his
wife were complementary because, together, "they licked the platter clean."

       Example:       His taste and hers were complementary.

"Complimentary" means to express praise--and it also means to give away as a

        Example:      The store's first 10 customers will receive complimentary

Grammar Trap: Continually vs. Continuously

There I was, talking at a recent meeting about my responsibilities as editor of the
Journal of Extension (JOE) Intending to talk about having to answer
the many, many e-mail questions I get, I fell into the "continually vs. continuously"
trap. I knew what the difference was, but I could not, for the life of me, remember
which word was which.

It was a "Grammar Trap" moment. The difference between "continually" and
"continuously" has to do with whether or not there's a discernible interval.

"Continually" means happening frequently, over and over again, but with intervals
between the occurrences.

      Example:      I continually answer questions from readers who want more
information about topics discussed in JOE articles.

"Continuously" means happening always, uninterruptedly, with no intervals at all.

      Example: The rain fell continuously for three solid days. Needless to say, the
same difference holds true for "continual" and "continuous."

Grammar Trap: Currently vs. Presently

Believe it or not, "currently" and "presently" don't really mean the same thing.

The cause of the common confusion? Because of their root words, "current" and
"present," we tend to assume that the two adverbs can be used interchangeably.
But it isn't so.

"Currently" means "right now" or "at present" (what we assume both words

       Examples: Our waiter is currently adding up the bill for our meal.

"Presently," all appearances to the contrary, really means "in a little while" or

       Examples: Presently, our waiter will give us the bill for our meal.

Go figure!

Grammar Trap: Datum vs. Data

Strictly speaking, "datum" is a singular noun meaning a piece of factual
information. "Data" is the the plural form. Both words are of Latin origin.

If you're writing for an academic audience, particularly in the sciences, "data"
takes a plural verb.

       Example: The data are persuasive.

But all the rest of the time and for all the rest of your audiences, my advice is to go
with the flow and treat "data" as a singular noun.

       Example: The data is persuasive.

Go with the flow? "Agenda" was once a plural noun, and so was "opera." But no
one writes an "agendum" for a meeting anymore or goes to an "operum." Language
changes over time (despite all that "grammar trappers" like me do to stem the tide),
and, where "datum" is concerned, the change is occurring.

Remember what Jane Wolf Brown talks about this month in "Super Newsletters:
Writing to Communicate"? Flexibility is the key to communication, and it's time to
flex on "datum."

Grammar Trap: Diffuse vs. Defuse

Several months ago, Karl Brandt, Academic Programs, suggested I tackle these two
words. I thanked him (politely) but told him the topic was too obscure to
make a good "Grammar Trap." Well, since then, I've seen the words misused
around here twice. Brandt was right. I wasn't. Here goes.

"Diffuse" is most commonly an adjective. It means widely spread, scattered, or


          The issues are too diffuse to be addressed easily.
          The diffuse manuscript was almost impossible to edit.

"Defuse" is a verb, and it means to lessen tension or make something less
dangerous. Think defusing a bomb, and you'll get it.


          The mediator attempted to defuse the situation.
          Heated issues must be defused before they can be resolved.

Grammar Trap: Discrete vs. Discreet

Two adjectives pronounced the same and, save for the transposition of two measly
letters, spelled the same, too. This increases the risk that you’ll use one when you
mean the other.

"Discrete" means separate, distinct, or individual.

       Example: They worked as discrete individuals with their own agendas rather
than as a team.

"Discreet," on the other hand, means to be prudent or show good judgment, to
have, well, discretion.

Example: I’m too discreet to mention which of my colleagues got these two words
mixed up.

Grammar Trap: Each Other vs. One Another

The difference here is really a simple one.

Use "each other" if only two individuals are involved.

       Example: John and his sister often tease each other.

Use "one another" if more than two individuals are involved.

       Example: The group decided to use two-way videoconferencing so that the
participants could see as well as hear one another.

Grammar Trap: Economical vs. Economic

"Economical" and "economic" have similar meanings--similar but NOT identical.
The problem is that the difference is subtle. Maybe that's why a brochure I saw
recently (not, I'm happy to say, published at Purdue) used "economical" when
"economic" would've been more appropriate.

"Economical" usually means thrifty or operating with little waste.

        Example: For my purposes, bus tokens are more economical than a monthly

"Economic," on the other hand, refers to the field of economics.

        Example: We are concerned about the economic implications of the gypsy

Grammar Trap: Farther vs. Further

These two words are commonly used interchangeably, but there is a difference
between them.

"Farther" refers to physical or geographic distance.

Example: The apartment I want is farther from my office.

"Further" is more abstract. It refers to time or degree or quantity. It's another way
of saying "additional."


          I have to look further into the question of moving farther from my office.
          There was no further discussion.

Grammar Trap: (Feel) Badly vs. (Feel) Bad

"Badly" is an adverb; it modifies a verb. "Bad" is an adjective; it modifies a noun.
Both words can correctly complete a sentence that starts "I feel"--depending on
what you mean.

        Example: I feel badly.

This sentence addresses your ability to feel. Maybe your ability to feel is limited
because your hands are physically numb. Maybe you're just a cold fish and thus
emotionally numb. The verb is "feel." The adverb is "badly."

The odds of needing to say this are slim to nil.

Example: I feel bad.

This sentence addresses your health or mood. It's a short way of saying that you're
"in bad health" or "in a bad mood." The understood nouns are "health" and
"mood." The adjective is "bad."

Probably because sentences like "I write bad" and "I sing bad" are incorrect, some
people shy away from saying they "feel bad." But they shouldn't.

Grammar Trap: Hone vs. Home (in on)

Ears can deceive, and they have deceived some folks when it comes to the phrase
"hone/home in on." It's "home in on," folks.

"Hone" is a verb meaning to sharpen, smooth, or make more effective.

Examples: She wants to hone the knife to a razor's edge. He honed his words until
they said just enough and no more.

"Home" is a verb meaning to go home or to proceed directly towards an objective.
Think "homing pigeon."

       Example: We should all try to home in on what our audience wants or needs
when we plan educational programs. He homed in on the doughnuts as if he hadn't
eaten in a week.

There's no tip to help you decide which word to use. It's something you've just gotta


Do you sometimes have trouble choosing between the pronouns "I" and "me" in
compound constructions? Join the club. Part of the problem is that there's no single,
correct answer. It all depends on function.

Let's say you want to talk or write about you and your friend, Mary.

When you and Mary are the SUBJECT, you should use "I."

Example: Mary and I attended the meeting.

When you two are the OBJECT, you should use "me."

      Examples: The committee chair asked Mary and me to lead the discussion.
The chair gave the assignment to Mary and me.

Helpful Hint: When in doubt, take out. In other words, if you remove Mary from
the sentence, your "ear" will usually let you know which pronoun to use. You
wouldn't say "me went to the meeting" or "the chairperson asked I," would you?

Grammar Trap: I vs. Me, Two

September's "Grammar Trap" discussed using "I" and "me" in compound
constructions. Choosing between the two pronouns can also be tricky in shortened
sentences, where part of the sentence is implied instead of stated.

Take the sentence "Sam likes Mary better than I." Is that correct, or should it be
"Sam likes Mary better than me"? Well, it depends on what you mean.

      Example: If you mean "Sam likes Mary better than I like Mary," the correct
answer is "Sam likes Mary better than I."

       Example: If you mean "Sam likes Mary better than he likes me," it's "Sam
likes Mary better than me."

Helpful Hint: When in doubt, fill it out. That is, in a shortened sentence, fill out or
complete the thought. Then you'll know which pronoun to choose.

Grammar Trap: Imply vs. Infer

Distinguishing between "imply" and "infer" isn't, strictly speaking, a "grammar
trap," but some people are unsure about when to use which word. And usage
problems are fair game in this column, too.

"Imply" is a verb meaning to suggest or hint at something without actually saying it
in so many words. Speakers and writers can imply things through the words
they choose.

       Example: By talking so much about the tight budget, my department head
implied that I won't be getting a new computer with a large screen.

"Infer" is a verb meaning to draw a conclusion from words or other evidence.
Listeners and readers can infer things from the words they hear or see.

       Example: My department head talked so much about the tight budget that I
inferred I won't be getting a new computer with a large screen.

Helpful Hint: You imply things through your own words. You infer things from
someone else's words.

Grammar Trap: Importantly vs. Important (at the Beginning of a Sentence)

Sticklers don't use "more importantly" or "most importantly" at the beginning of a
sentence. They (we) use "more important" or "most important."

Why? "Importantly" is an adverb and thus modifies a verb. "Important" is an
adjective and thus modifies a noun.

       Example: Most importantly, I want a job that gives me fulfillment.

Does the sentence mean that the writer wants to be given fulfillment in an important
as opposed to an unimportant way? Not really. The sentence means that the whole
idea, "I want a job that gives me fulfillment," is the most important thing that the
writer has mentioned.

The preferred version follows.

       Example: Most important, I want a job that gives me fulfillment.

Tip: The same applies to "first," "second," and so on.

       Exception: "Finally" is okay to use, but I'll be dipped if I know why.

Grammar Trap: i.e. vs. e.g.

Having a hard time knowing when to use "i.e." and "e.g."? These two abbreviations
can be confusing.

The abbreviation "i.e." means "that is." You use it when you want to restate
something in other words.

      Example: Save these abbreviations for parenthetical expressions (i.e.,
phrases in parentheses).

The abbreviation "e.g." means "for example." Obviously, you use it when you want
to give examples.

       Example: Some terms of the contract (e.g., wages and duration) have not
been settled yet.

Helpful Hints: 1) As the example for "i.e." suggests, avoid using these abbreviations
except in parentheses. And don't use them at all with audiences who might find
them confusing. 2) Both "i.e." and "e.g." should be followed by a comma.

Grammar Trap: Incredulous vs. Incredible

Maybe it's because these words have similar roots that people sometimes confuse
them (and so use them incorrectly).

"Incredulous" means to be unwilling or unable to believe something, to be skeptical.
Only people can be incredulous.

       Example: She was incredulous about the claim he made.

"Incredible" means unbelievable. People can be incredible, and so can things.

       Examples: He is an incredible liar. She was incredulous about the incredible
claim he made.

Grammar Trap: Inside vs. Outside Quotation Marks

What punctuation do you put inside quotation marks, and what do you put outside?
Here are the most common conventions.

With commas, periods, colons, and semicolons, it's simple. Put commas and periods
inside the end quotation mark. Put colons and semicolons outside.

      Examples: "Paul," she said, "it's over." She told him "It's over"; then she
threw him out.

It gets trickier with exclamation marks and question marks. If the exclamation or
question mark applies only to the quoted matter, put it inside the end quotation
mark. If it applies to the whole sentence, put it outside.

      Examples: When Paul asked her to take him back, she yelled "No way!"
What did Paul do when she told him "It's over"? He stared at her sadly and asked
"But why?"

These conventions apply to titles in quotation marks as well as to quoted speech.

Grammar Trap: Insure vs. Ensure vs. Assure

Hmmm. A tricky one. Tricky enough that only the pickiest among us still worry
about the distinctions, especially between the first two words.

Strictly speaking--very strictly speaking--"insure" should be reserved for financial
matters, when you're talking about insurance, about payment in the event of loss
or harm.

       Example: I have to find a company that will insure my house.

"Ensure," then, is what you use when you're talking about how to make something
sure or certain.

      Example: It's the editor's job to ensure that every Web citation in "On
Target" is verified right before publication.

And "assure"? That's what you use when you're trying to give people confidence,
when you're trying to reassure them.

       Example: I assure you that it's safe.

Grammar Trap: Into vs. In To

"Into" and "in to" can be confusing. After all, they look the same, except that
"into" is one word. But they have different meanings.

"Into" has to do with motion from outside to inside. Direction is implied.

       Example: She went into the store.

The two-word phrase "in to" combines two meanings. It has to do with direction
AND purpose, with going "in" somewhere "to" do something.

       Example: She went in to buy milk.

Grammar Trap: Its vs. It's

Oh, boy, an exception that proves a rule.

"Its" is the possessive form of the pronoun "it"--despite the fact that there is no

       Example: I hope this short article achieves its goal.

"It's" is a contraction, the shortened version of "it is" or "it has."

       Example: It's not always easy to avoid grammar traps.

Grammar Trap: Joint vs. Individual Possession

This month's "Trap" is about a problem with possessives, about how you punctuate
when "ownership" of an object is joint and when ownership is individual.

I'll use Chris and Jane and their department affiliation(s) to get the point across.

If Chris and Jane are members of the same department, for instance, use the
possessive form after the last word only.

       Example: Chris and Jane's department publishes a good newsletter.

If Chris and Jane are members of different departments, use the possessive after
both words.

       Example: Chris's and Jane's departments publish good newsletters.


"Lay" and "lie" are often confused--and always confusing.


   "Lay" is a verb meaning to put or place something somewhere. It takes a direct
object. Its principal parts are "lay," "laid," "laid," and "laying."

       Examples: Every day I lay the book on the table. Yesterday I laid the book
on the table. I have laid the book on the table many times. I am laying the book on
the table right now.

In all these examples, the verb is a form of the word "lay," and the direct object is


"Lie" is, in this context, a verb meaning to recline. It does not take an object. Its
principal parts are "lie," "lay," "lain," and "lying."

      Examples: Every night I lie down. I lay down last night. I have lain down
many times. I am lying down right now.


   If you're in doubt about whether to use "lay" or "lie," try substituting a form of
the verb "place." If it makes sense, use a form of "lay."

Grammar Trap: Less vs. Fewer

"Fifty words or less." "Ten items or less." You see them all the time, but, in formal
terms, both phrases are incorrect. Why? You can count words and items.

"Less" has to do with what you can't really count--with quantity, amount, or extent.

Examples: There is less water in a cup than in a pint. The "On Target" survey
respondents indicated less interest in desktop publishing than in risk

You can't count water and interest.

"Fewer" has to do with what you can count--with number.

       Examples: There are fewer ounces of water in a cup than in a pint. Fewer
respondents to the "On Target" survey identified themselves as research or
teaching staff.

You can count ounces and respondents.

Here's an example that uses both words correctly: It takes less time to go through a
grocery check-out line that has fewer people.

Tip: "Less" has to do with how much. "Fewer" has to do with how many.

Grammar Trap: May vs. Might

This one is for the truly persnickety among us (even more persnickety than I).

Strictly--very strictly--speaking, "may" means to have permission to do something.

      Example: The boss says I may occasionally leave early if I have no meetings
and my work is completed.

"Might," in this context, means maybe one will do something.

       Example: I might leave early if my cold gets any worse.

In common usage, though, it's perfectly acceptable to use "may" to mean "maybe."


For some reason, "me" has gotten a bad rap lately. People seem to avoid it in
certain situations. They tend to substitute "myself," instead. They shouldn”t.

Examples: When you have completed the survey, return it to myself. The teacher
gave the assignment to Ruth and myself.

"Myself" is not an objective pronoun, so it isn’t an acceptable substitute for "me."

"Myself" is a reflexive pronoun (like "itself," "herself," "yourselves," etc.). That
means the action of the verb is turned back on the subject.

       Example: I made a fool of myself.

It can also be an intensive pronoun, a "-self" pronoun used to emphasize another
word in the sentence.

       Example: I myself saw the alien.

Helpful Hint: "Myself" is correct when "I" is also in the sentence.

Grammar Trap: Misplaced vs. Well-Placed Modifiers

This month's "Grammar Trap" veers from the standard. I'm using a problem I
encountered in my own writing to illustrate the importance of where you place
modifying words and phrases. (It also illustrates how even the most important rules
should have some flex in them.)

I had to describe my role as editor of "On Target" in a profile to appear on the
Web. And, in writing for the Web, shorter is always sweeter, right?

       Example: What I came up with first to describe my role was that I was
"editor of an electronic communications newsletter."

Problem: "On Target" is "electronic," all right, and it deals with communications,"
too. But it's not exclusively about "electronic communications," which is what my
first example claimed.

      Example: I ended up describing myself as editor of an "electronic newsletter
on communications."

"Spending" another word ("on") and, more important, moving things around
allowed me to be more accurate.

Grammar Trap: Muster vs. Mustard

Lest you think I've totally lost it, put "pass" in front of both words, and you might
see where I'm going. This is yet another case where our ears deceive us.

"Muster" means to assemble for inspection, so to "pass muster" means to pass

       Example: The recruit hoped his bunk would pass muster.

"Mustard," on the other hand, is a condiment, a paste made from mustard seed. It's
what people put on their hotdogs.

       Example: Please pass the mustard and ketchup (or catsup).

"Mustard" is a common word, and "muster" isn't. I guess that's why some people
mistakenly use the phrase "pass mustard" when they mean pass inspection. That's
what they hear.

Grammar Trap: Mute vs. Moot (Point)

Here's yet another "trap" where our ears can deceive us and we find ourselves
going for the more familiar word when two words sound similar.

We all kind of know what "mute" means: to be struck dumb, incapable of speech,
or at least absolutely silent.

       Example: She was mute at the meeting because she was so surprised by the
praise that was heaped upon her.

"Moot," on the other hand, is not as common a word. As an adjective it means
something that is questionable or open to debate.

      Example: Whether or not she deserved that praise is a moot point. (Hey,
maybe that's what made her mute!)

Grammar Trap: Or vs. Nor

"Or" and "nor" are both conjunctions. Both indicate that two alternatives are
being discussed. What's the difference?

You use "or" when you're discussing two alternatives still under consideration.

      Example: I was considering either begging or threatening to get the results I

You use "nor" when the alternatives you're discussing have been negated, when
they are not still "in the running."

       Example: Neither begging nor threatening got me the results I wanted.

But don't get carried away by "negated." A common mistake is to use "nor" instead
of "or" after any negative expression.

Wrong: I cannot sing nor dance.

Right: I cannot sing or dance. I can neither sing nor dance.

Tip: When in doubt, use "nor" only when you use "neither."

Grammar Trap: Percent vs. Percentage

Recently, I got a call from someone wanting to make sure when to use "percent"
and when "percentage." Yikes. I wasn't absolutely sure, myself.

After thumbing through the pile of grammar and usage handbooks I consult when
writing "Grammar Trap," I finally found what I was looking for in the
"Publication Manual of the American Psychological Association" (AKA "APA style
guide"). Here goes.

You use "percent," whether the word or the sign, only when a numeral is in front of

      Example: The survey revealed that their readership had increased by 12

You use "percentage" when no number is given.

        Example: They were pleased that their readership had increased by such a
significant percentage.

Exception: The APA style guide says it's okay to use "%" or "percent" in table
headings and figure captions when space is a real concern.

Grammar Trap: Perspective vs. Prospective

A surprising number of people confuse these two words despite the fact that they
have entirely different meanings. I guess it's the similarity in sound.

"Perspective" most commonly means how something looks from a particular point
of view.

       Example: I'd like to get your perspective on the candidates for the new

"Prospective" means something that will or might come about in the future.

       Example: The candidate has all of the qualifications, but what do you think
of her as a prospective colleague?

Grammar Trap: Prefixes vs. Suffixes

Last month's "Grammar Trap," on "regardless" and "irregardless," mentioned
prefixes and suffixes. Those two terms deserve a "Grammar Trap" of their own
because they're important grammatical elements and because they can trap the

A prefix is a syllable added to the beginning of a root word that changes the
meaning of the word or creates a new word.

      Example: The opposite of regular is irregular. (The root word is "regular."
The prefix is "ir.")

A suffix is a syllable added to the end of a root word that changes the meaning of the
word or creates a new word.

       Example: The opposite of careful is careless. (In both cases, the root word is
"care." The suffixes are "ful" and "less.")

How can prefixes and suffixes be traps? Just look at "irregardless." (Look at it, but
don't use it.)

Grammar Trap: Prevent vs. Avoid

I didn't find gobs of support for this in my reference books. In fact, I had to go to
the dictionary to find any support at all. But I'm writing about it anyway, just
because it bugs me when I see one word used for the other in the things I edit.

There's a subtle but definite difference in meaning between "prevent" and "avoid."

"Prevent" means to keep something from happening or existing at all, to make it

       Example: She couldn't prevent him from attending.

"Avoid" means to keep away from something or steer clear of it.

       Example: But she resolved to avoid him at all costs.

Grammar Trap: Primer vs. Primer

No, I haven't suddenly lost it. We're talking two different nouns here with identical
spellings but different meanings and different pronunciations.

There's "primer" with a long "i" sound ("eye"). This primer is the stuff you apply
before you paint. It can also mean a device used to set off an explosive.

      Examples: I went to the hardware store to buy primer. The bomb didn't
explode because there was something wrong with the primer.

Then there's "primer" with a short "i" sound, like the "i" sound in "prim and
proper." This primer is an introductory or elementary document containing or
explaining the basics of something.

Grammar Trap: Principal vs. Principle

Two different words with two different meanings, but they look similar and sound
virtually indistinguishable. How do you tell them apart?

"Principal" means first in rank, importance, or consequence. It can be a noun or an

       Examples: He is the principal of the high school. She was the principal
investigator on the research project.

"Principle," on the other hand, is a noun meaning a fundamental truth, motivating
force, or rule of conduct.

      Example: The most basic principle involved in non-sexist writing is equal

Tip #1: The principal of the school is the students' pal. (Okay, okay. It's sappy, but
it's a handy mnemonic device, anyway.)

Tip # 2: Principle and rule both end in "le."

Grammar Trap: Purposely vs. Purposefully

Recently, the author of a manuscript I was editing used the word "purposefully." I
suspected that wasn't what he wanted, but I looked up both words to be sure. I
found that the difference between these two adverbs is subtle, but it's there.

"Purposely" means to do something deliberately, to do it on purpose.

      Example: I purposely didn't let my department head know what I was

"Purposefully" means something similar, only more so. It means to be full of
determination or purpose in what you do.

Example: I purposefully fought my way to the front of the line.

Tip: When you're trying to choose between "purposely" and "purposefully,"
remember "full."

Grammar Trap: Regardless vs. Irregardless

Deciding when to use "regardless" and when to use "irregardless" is simple. Use the
former. Don't use the latter.


"Regardless" is standard usage for despite or in spite of something.

       Examples: We decided to go ahead with our plans regardless of the risks
involved. The project was a success regardless of the mistake I made.

"Irregardless," on the other hand, is nonstandard usage for "regardless." It's a
"word" that educated people should avoid in their writing and speaking.

Explanation: People mistakenly stick the negating prefix "ir" on "regardless"
because it's there in words like "irregular," "irresponsible," and "irrespective."
But, unlike those words, "regardless" doesn't need "ir" because it already has the
negating suffix "less."

Grammar Trap: Reticent vs. Hesitant

For some reason people are starting to use "reticent" when they mean "hesitant."
They're both perfectly good words, and it'd be nice to keep and use them both.
"Reticent" means to be inclined to be silent, uncommunicative, or reserved.

It's a word having to do with speaking--or not speaking. I guess that might be how
the confusion's crept in. "Reticent" applies to folks who hesitate to speak.

       Example: Because I know he feels strongly about the issue, I was surprised
that Dave was so reticent at the meeting.

"Hesitant" means to hold back, to delay momentarily, or to pause.

       Example: Dave was hesitant about agreeing to attend the meeting.

Grammar Trap: Shall vs. Will

This is kind of complicated. One of the words expresses simple futurity, while the
other expresses determination. But which word expresses which meaning depends
on whether you're using first person (I, we), on the one hand, or second (you) or

third person (it, they), on the other. In the first person, "shall" expresses futurity,
and "will" expresses determination.

       Examples: I shall do it tomorrow. I will succeed, even if it's the last thing I

In the second and third persons, it's the opposite. "Shall" expresses determination,
and "will" expresses futurity.

      Examples: You shall succeed, even if it's the last thing you do. They will do it

Luckily, this is an anachronistic distinction, one you don't have to worry about
unless you really want to.

Grammar Trap: Sight vs. Site vs. Cite

Three words (two nouns and a verb). Three quite different meanings. Identical
pronunciations--there's the rub.

"Sight," to make a long story short and simple, means something that's seen or the
faculty of seeing

         It was a beautiful sight.
         Sight is a precious gift.

"Site," on the other hand, means the position or location of something.

         The building site attracted crowds of curious onlookers.
         Visit "On Target's" Web site.

Get the picture? Because "sight" and "site" sound the same and because people use
their eyes to see the latter, some assume the term is "Web sight."

"Cite," on the third hand, is a verb meaning to quote, to mention in support, or to
summon officially to appear in court.

         She cited a lot of sources in her bibliography.
         He cited numerous examples to make his case.
         After the accident the police cited me for speeding.

Grammar Trap: Simple vs. Simplistic

When the host of one of my favorite shows on HGTV described a lamp she liked as a
"simplistic," I knew I'd found my "Trap" for this month.

"Simple" and "simplistic" are NOT synonyms. They don't mean the same thing.

"Simple" has many meanings. In this context, it means basic, uncomplicated, free
from ostentation or elaboration.

       Example: Her explanation was simple and easy to understand.

"Simplistic" means TOO simple. It describes something that lacks necessary
distinctions or complications.

       Example: Her explanation was simplistic and left out the most important
point. "Simple" is good. "Simplistic" is bad. It's that simple.

Grammar Trap: South vs. south

The answer to the "to cap or not to cap" question for "south" or "west" or
"northeast" or whatever is pretty simple.

If you're talking about a location or place, capitalize. If you're talking about a
direction, don't.

Example: Birds fly south for the winter because it's warmer in the South.

Tip: "The" is a pretty good clue. If it's there or you want to put it there, odds are
you should capitalize

Grammar Trap: Stationery vs. Stationary

Two words that are too darned similar.

There's "stationery," which means special paper for letters.

        Example: While the simple and clean look of Purdue's stationery is great for
a letter, it's not so great for a newsletter.

Then there's "stationary," which means immobile or unmoving.

          Example: He was so stationary that I thought he was a statue.

Is there any way to remember which is which? I didn't think so until I talked to a

Helpful Tips: Remember that the first vowel in "letter" is "e." Remember that the
first vowel in "statue" is "a."

Grammar Trap: Tact vs. Tack

"Tact" or "tack"? Which word goes at the end of the phrase that begins "take a
different"? The similar sounds of the two words lead some folks astray.

The noun "tact" means skill and sensitivity when dealing with others.

          Example: As an editor, I try to use tact when I work with writers.

The relevant meaning of the noun form of "tack" is originally nautical. Essentially,
it means the course or direction a ship takes, but it has come to mean any course or

       Example: If one approach doesn't get through to a writer I'm editing, I'll
take a different tack.

Get it?

Grammar Trap: That vs. Who

You've torn between the pronouns "that" and "who." How do you decide which
pronoun to use? Start by looking at your noun.

If your noun means something that is inanimate, use "that."

          Example: The building that burned down was insured.

But if your noun is animate, a person or persons, use "who."

          Example: The farmers who attended the meeting learned a lot.

A building is an inanimate, impersonal object. Farmers are people. These examples
are "no brainers."

But sometimes you have to look more closely at your noun and think a little. Take
animals. The decision here depends on whether the animal has a name.

       Examples: The owner of the dog that bit the child was fined. My friend has a
cat named Penelope who makes me laugh.

Tip: When the decision is even fuzzier, consult how you feel about the noun or how
you want your readers to feel--cool and removed (that) or warm and close

Grammar Trap: Underway vs. Under Way

Remember last month's "Grammar Trap," in which I referred to the "one word if
it's indefinite and two if it's specific rule" to explain the difference between
"anyone" and "any one"? Well, that rule won't help you choose between
"underway" and "under way."

What will help is to know that there is one case--and only one--in which you use
"underway." That's when you're using the word as an adjective before a noun in a
nautical context.

       Example: The underway convoy was attacked.

In all other cases, even nautical ones, you use two words.

Examples: Plans for his surprise party are under way. The convoy is under way.

Grammar Trap: Uninterested vs. Disinterested

Hmm. These two words look like they might mean the same thing. But they don't.

"Uninterested" means to be indifferent to or have little or no interest in a particular
subject or issue. (Think "bored.")

     Example: I found that many of my composition students were uninterested in

"Disinterested" means to be impartial about a particular subject or issue, to have no
personal stake in it.

       Example: We need someone who is disinterested to help us settle our

Grammar Trap: Use vs. Utilize

One difference between these two verbs is a relatively subtle, semantic one. Another
has to do with style.

"Use" means to employ something for its intended or appropriate purpose.

      Example: I often use suggestions from readers to determine "Grammar
Trap" topics.

"Utilize" means to employ something for a new or unintended purpose, or to make
do with an item meant for something else.

      Examples: I often utilize the manuscripts I edit as sources of "Grammar
Trap" topics. I didn't have a screw driver handy, so I utilized a knife.

So much for the semantic difference between the two words.

The style difference?

Many people seem to have gotten the idea that "utilize" is a classier, more formal
version of "use." It isn't. It's just longer. And, because it's longer, it's to be avoided.

This is especially true when you're trying to reach a lay audience with material
that's unfamiliar and perhaps already difficult for them to understand. Why make
them work any harder than they have to? Why make your material seem more
difficult than it is?

Tip: Don't write "utilize" when "use" will do. And it almost always will.

Grammar Trap: Who vs. Whom

"Who" and "whom" are pronouns that give a lot of folks trouble. So much trouble,
in fact, that in informal speech and writing it's becoming permissible to use "who"
in all cases.

But in formal situations, it's best to maintain the distinction between the two words.

What is it, you ask?

Use "who" when someone is the SUBJECT of a sentence, clause, or phrase.

       Examples: Who called the meeting? The person who called the meeting was
not very organized.

Use "whom" when someone is the OBJECT of a verb or preposition.

          Examples: Whom did you invite to the meeting? For whom was the meeting

Grammar Trap: Weather vs. Whether

"Weather" and "whether" are homonyms (for you sticklers, homophones). These
words sound the same, but they have different spellings and different meanings.
Homonyms and homophones give some people pause and some people (many for
whom English is a second language) fits.

"Weather" is a noun meaning the state of the atmosphere in terms of temperature,
wind, humidity, etc.

       Examples: I missed the weather report this morning. The winter weather has
returned for the first day of spring.

"Whether" is a conjunction that links alternatives.

      Examples: I can't decide whether or not to go to work today. He doesn't
know whether he's coming or going.

 Tip: "Whether" involves alternatives. Which one to choose? Remember that
"whether" and "which" both start with "wh."

Grammar Trap: Whether vs. If

There are times when it doesn't matter whether you use "whether" or "if."

        Examples: I don't know whether you've read last month's "Grammar Trap."
I don't know if you've read last month's "Grammar Trap."

But there are other times when it could.

Use "whether" when you want to list alternatives.

       Examples: There are times when it doesn't matter whether you use
"whether" or "if." I don't know whether I'll continue writing "Grammar Traps"
myself, ask for guest writers, or just cancel the series.

Use "if" when you're talking about a future possibility.

     Example: I don't know if I'll be able to keep coming up with topics for
"Grammar Traps." I don't know if I will attend the meeting.


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