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Common Grammar Mistakes: The Cheat Sheet

Proper grammar, spelling and punctuation may be the best brand ambassador you have. That’s a pretty bold statement, but I’m one of those nerdy writer/editor types who actually enjoys lengthy conversations about compound modifiers and the like. But Megan, you may argue, not everyone is such a grammar geek. They know what I meant.

Besides making me want to gouge out my own eye with a shrimp fork, this line of reasoning can do two things: It can harm your credibility, and it can make you look careless. Neither is good for your bottom line.

Two to too errorGood grammar and word choice sends the reader a message about the authority of the writer. You might be the best health insurance company this side of Obamacare, but if you don’t know the difference between there and their, I probably won’t trust you. You may make the best widgets in the world, but if you can’t figure out whether it’s then or than, I think you’re careless. And if I think you’re careless, I won’t trust you with my hard-earned money.

Communication is the point of creating great content. Your audience may or may not know the difference between “less” and “fewer,” but the fact remains that anything that’s great is error-free, whether it’s baseball or baking or content marketing.

But take heart, gentle reader, for help is on the way.

Let’s Start With the Difference Between “Farther” and “Further”

  • “Farther” is used in cases of physical distance. The easy way to remember this: “Farther” has the word “far” in it, which of course, relates to distance. Real-life example: “If my kid asks ‘How much farther?’ one more time during this car trip, I’m whipping out the cough syrup.”
  • “Further” is used in cases of metaphorical or figurative distance. Real-life example: “If you complain any further, I’m going to make you listen to Nickelback for the rest of the trip.”

If you can’t decide which one to use, Grammar Girl’s Mignon Fogarty recommends you go with “further,” because “farther” has more restrictions.

The Who/That/Which Conundrum: A Cheat Sheet

Who is for people. That and which are for things.

Wrong: “I love people that sing the blues.”
Right: “I love people who sing the blues.”

Wrong: “Michael is the one that voted this morning.”
Right: “Michael is the one who voted this morning.”

Word on keyboardThat’s pretty cut and dry. “That” and “which,” however, are a little tougher.

That should be used to introduce a restrictive clause.

Which should be used to introduce a nonrestrictive clause.

A restrictive clause is one which is essential to the meaning of a sentence – if it’s removed, the meaning of the sentence will change. For example:

“Cookies that have chocolate chips are my favorite.”

If we took out “that have chocolate chips,” the sentence would read, “Cookies are my favorite.” That’s not what we meant. “[T]hat have chocolate chips” is essential to the meaning of this sentence, hence it’s a restrictive clause, introduced by “that.”

Let’s look at another one, this time from

“Chairs that don’t have cushions are uncomfortable to sit on.”

Take out the “that don’t have cushions” and the sentence reads, “Chairs are uncomfortable to sit on.” Again, that’s not what we meant. The phrase is necessary to the sentence’s meaning, which means it’s restrictive, and gets a “that.”

Word on yellow wallA nonrestrictive clause can be left out without changing the meaning of a sentence. They do provide additional information, but the sentence can stand alone and retain its original meaning.

Nonrestrictive clauses are either surrounded by commas or, if it comes at the end of a sentence, preceded by one.

“Chocolate chip cookies, which are my favorite, are delicious.”

When you take out “which are my favorite,” the sentence reads, “Chocolate chip cookies are delicious.” That’s true, they are, and that’s what we intended to say. The “which are my favorite” is just a little added piece of information. The phrase is nonrestrictive, gets introduced by a “which” and is surrounded by commas.

Here’s another example from in which the nonrestrictive clause comes at the end of the sentence:

“I sat on an uncomfortable chair, which was in my office.”

“Which was in my office” is that little extra bit of information. Without it, the sentence retains its original meaning, making this phrase nonrestrictive. It is preceded by a comma and gets a “which.”

Shall I pass you a shrimp fork? What mistakes are your pet peeves?

Megan Krause

About Megan

Megan Krause is a mom, writer, editor and all-around swell gal with 15 years' experience in communication and marketing. She served as ClearVoice's managing editor for four of those years, helping brands create great content and managing the company blog. She's passionate about words, language, grammar, style and ice cream. Follow her on Twitter.

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