The Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English


Patricia T. O’Conner

Riverhead Books, 2003, 239 pp.   ISBN 1-57322-252-6


Many useful grammar tips without a lot a lot of excess verbiage.  Witty.


Which and That (3,4)

·        If you can drop the clause and not lose the point of the sentence, use which.  If you can’t use that.

·        A which clause goes inside commas.  A that clause doesn’t.

Buster’s bulldog, which had one white ear, won best in show.

The dog that won best in show was Buster’s bulldog. 

Commas, which cut out the fat,

Go with which, never with that.


Pronouns (12)

       Trixie loves spaghetti more than I means more than I do.

       Trixie loves spaghetti more than me means more than she loves me.”


Plurals  (22)

       If a compound word is solid and has no hyphen (-), put the normal plural ending at the end of the world: Churchmen love soapboxes.

       If the word is split into parts, with or without hyphens, put the plural ending on the root or most important part: Mothers-in-law like to attend courts-martial.


·        If all means “all of it” or “everything” or “the only thing,” it’s singular: “All I eat is lettuce.”

·        If all indicates “all of them” it’s plural.  All the men I date are confused.” (27)


Possession (38)

·        If the word is singular, always add ‘s, regardless of its ending.

·        If the word is plural and doesn’t already end in s, add ‘s.

·        If the word is plural and ends in s, add just the apostrophe.



Subject and verb must agree.  If the subject is singular, so is the verb.  If the subject is plural, so is the verb. (50)


When the subject is twofold, if the subject nearer the verb is singular, the verb is singular.  (52)


Words that stand for a group of things—couple, total, majority, and number—sometimes mean the groups as a whole (singular), and sometimes mean the individual members of the group (plural).  (53)


I wish. (56)

When we’re in a wishful mood (subjunctive mood), was becomes were:

       I wish I were in Paris. (I’m not in Paris.)

       If I were king, no one would pay retail. (I’m not king.)


In cases where the statement may actually be true, was remains was.

       If I was rude, I apologize. (I may have been rude.) (57)


may (59)

If we say something may happen, we mean it’s possible or even probable.  Might is a slightly weaker form of may.  Something that might happen is a longer shot than something that may happen.


lie (to recline): She lies quietly.

lay (to place): She lays it there.

sit (to be seated): I sit.  I sat last week.

set (to place): He sets it there.

rise (to go up or get up): You rise.

raise (to bring something up): I raise it. (64-65)


Will or Shall

Americans have since left shall behind and now use will almost exclusively. (71)


Meanings of Words often Abused

ain’t.  It’s not OK and it never will be OK.  Get used to it. (74)

eclectic: drawn from many sources (83)

effete: barren, used up, or worn out.  Does not mean weak or effeminate. (83)

enervating: drains you of energy.  (83)

fortuitous:  accidental (84)

hero:  There’s no other word quite like hero, so let’s not bestow it too freely (84)

irony: a sly form of expression in which you say one thing and mean another.  A situation is ironic when the result is the opposite—or pretty much so—of what was intended.  (85)

nonplussed: baffled or confused (87)

via.  “by way of,” not “by means of” (88)

aggravate/irritate.  Use irritate to mean inflame, aggravate to mean to worsen. (89)

among/between.  When only two are involved, the answer is easy: between.  With three or more, you have a choice.  Use between if you’re thinking of the individuals and their relations with one another.  Use among if you’re thinking of the group. (90)

anxious/eager.  Use eager unless there is actually an element of anxiety involved. (91)

assume/presume.  Assume is closer to suppose, or “take for granted”; the much stronger presume is closer to believe, dare, or “take too much for granted.”

bad/badly.  When it’s an activity being described, use badly. (92)

beside/besides.  Beside means “by the side of.”  Besides means “in addition” or “moreover.” (93)

continually/continuously.  Continually means repeatedly, with breaks in between.  Continuously means without interruption, in an unbroken stream. (96)

disinterested/uninterested.  Disinterested means impartial or neutral; uninterested means bored or lacking interest. (98)

e.g. means “for example.”  i.e. means “that is.”  Both e.g. and i.e. must have commas before and after. (99)

eminent/imminent/immanent.  If you mean famous or superior, the word is eminent.  If you mean impending or about to happen, the word is imminent.  If you mean inherent, present, or dwelling within, the word is the rarely heard immanent. (99)

if/whether.  When you’re talking about a choice between alternatives, use whether. (101)

imply/infer.  To imply is to suggest, or to throw out a suggestion; to infer is to conclude, or to take in a suggestion. (102)

ingenious/ingenuous.  Something that’s ingenious is clever or brilliant (from genius).  Ingenuous mans frank, candid, or innocently open; it’s related to ingénue, a word for an inexperienced girl.  (103)

oral/verbal.  They’re not the same, though the meanings do overlap.  Oral means by mouth or by spoken word.  Verbal means by written or spoken word. (105)

tortuous/torturous.  The first means winding, crooked, full of turns.  The second, from torture, means painful. (109)

impact.  The kind of person who uses language as a sledgehammer is likely to use impact as a verb meaning affect.  Use impact only as a noun.  (127)

paradigm.  It masquerades as a two-dollar word, but it’s really worth only about twenty cents.  A paradigm is simply a pattern or example. (127)

dove (for dived).  Dived is still the preferred past tense.  (129)

irregardless.  This isn’t a word—it’s a crime in progress.  (130)


Semicolon (139)

·        Use a semicolon to separate clauses when there’s no and in between.

·        Use semicolons to separate items in a series when there’s already a comma in one or more of the items.

Colon (140)

Use it to present something: a statement, a series, a quotation, or instructions.


Parentheses ( ) (143)

Once in a while you may need an aside, a gentle interruption to tuck information into a sentence or between sentences. 


The Dash ( )

We could do with fewer dashes.  The dash is like a detour; it interrupts the sentence and inserts another thought.  It can be used in place of a colon to emphatically present some piece of information. 


Titles (155)

Put the names of larger works, like books, movies, and plays (and magazines and newspapers), in italics.  Put the names of smaller works, like poems, stories, and paintings, in ordinary type with quotation marks.


Outdated or mistaken prohibitions

There’s no law against occasionally using and or but to begin a sentence. (185)


None is more likely to be plural than singular.  (185)


My advice on double negatives: Never say never.  (188)


How to Write What You Mean (195 ff.)

“A good writer is one you can read without breaking a sweat.”  “And if something you write doesn’t get your point across, it’s probably not the reader’s fault.”  “A good writer can express an extremely complicated idea clearly and make the job look effortless.  But such simplicity is a difficult thing to achieve....” 


Here are some general principles for graceful writing:

1.     Say what you have to say. (Get rid of excess verbiage.)

2.     Stop when you’ve said it. (See 1.)

3.     Don’t belabor the obvious.

4.     Don’t tie yourself in knots to avoid repeating a word.

5.     Be direct. (Don’t back into what you intend to say.)

6.     Don’t make yourself the center of the universe.

7.     Put descriptions close to what they describe.

8.     Put the doer closer to what’s being done.

9.     Watch out for pronounitis.

10.  Make sure there’s a time and place for everything.

11.  Imagine what you’re writing.

12.  Put your ideas in order.

13.  Get the big picture.


E-mail  (205 ff.)

“E-mail is no excuse for lousy English.”  “The whole point of an e-mail is often lost in transmission.”  “In fact, misunderstandings are more likely in an e-mail than in a letter or a phone call or a face-to-face conversation.” 


“People you’ve never met will judge you solely by what they see on their computer screens.  To them, you are what you write.”


“The point is, the audience should be your guide.” 


“The subject line can make or break an e-mail.”


“Wired readers have short attention spans.  If you have something important to tell them, say it somewhere in the first screenful.” 


“Why not warm things up with a greeting and a closing?” 


When you reply, be clear about what you are replying to.


Dust off a few Old World expressions like “please,” “thank you,” and “I’m sorry.”  There’s no law against being nice online.”  “Don’t click Send when your blood is boiling.”  “Don’t let e-mail bring out the beast in you.”



Further Reading:

Eats, Shoots, and Leaves by Lynne Truss