Part of the fluidity of a narrative comes from the accuracy with which it is written. While elements of content like character development, thematic depth and a measured pace are undoubtedly paramount, the quality of a reading material is also dictated by the care put into the language itself. Grammar will usually not make or break a story, but mistakes in that department can certainly distract the reader from the big picture and detract from personal style. Not to mention, editors and publishers will frequently regard the work as unprofessional if it is littered with usage problems and unsightly punctuation misuses.
That being said, even the greatest of writers break rules of grammar and do so more frequently that one would think. But they also have the right to do as much; as Mark Twain quipped, “Get your facts first, and then you can distort them as much as you please.” It is therefore important to learn the rules and to make sure that grammatical errors become necessary exceptions as opposed to nipping pests. This guide, the first in a series, may consequently serve as a grammatical pesticide to help you do away with these errors.
First, some terminology:
Noun: A person, a place, a thing or an idea.
Pronouns: Words that replace nouns for the sake of making sentences clearer and less repetitive.
Action: What happens in a sentence; represented by a verb.
Subject: The noun that commits the action (a sentence cannot survive without it).
Object: The noun that receives the action.
Prepositions: Words (usually short) that give the relationship between two nouns, generally in space or time, e.g. to, of, for, in, out, above, over, through and until.
In the sentence
“The irreverent student interrupted the wordy linguist with a comment of her own.”
the student is the subject; the linguist is the object; with is a preposition; her is a pronoun (it replaces “the student’s”); to interrupt is the action.
Pest One. Who vs. Whom
In modern English, especially the conversational language, whom has become rarely employed. This is a fairly significant omission; avoiding the word whom is like removing him, her, us and them from one’s vocabulary. After all, like those words, whom is an objective pronoun, whereas who is a subjective pronoun. This means that who should be doing the action in a sentence while whom should be receiving it. Consider the following examples:
1) Who stands at the door?
The action in this sentence is the verb to stand. Who is standing (the subject - doing the action) while the door is being stood at (the object - receiving the action).
2) To whom do I owe my thanks?
The action in this sentence is to owe. I is owing thanks (the subject) while whom is being owed (the object).
- Who often stands right in front of the main verb of a sentence.
- Whom often follows a preposition: to whom, for whom, with whom, etc.
The He/They and Him/Them Test:
If in doubt when trying to choose between who or whom, insert he/they or him/them in the contested place. If he or they makes sense, use the pronoun who; if him or them makes more sense, use whom. Some rearranging may have to be done. For instance:
1) There are those (who/whom) say that laughter is the best medicine.
They say that laughter is the best medicine. Sounds good – use who.
Them say that laughter is the best medicine. Sounds awkward – don’t use whom.
2) The man (who/whom) Kate admires is a total hack.
Kate admires he. No go – don’t use who.
Kate admires him. Perfect – use whom.
Pest Two. Ending Sentences with Prepositions
For a long time (and this is still prevalent in some circles), using a prepositional phrase at the end of a sentence was taboo. While this is true for Latin grammar, it should not be the case for English. Certainly, it may be unadvisable in some instances to end sentences with prepositions, but the rule is by no means absolute. In fact, sometimes the clarity of meaning is greatly improved by leaving the preposition where it is. The writer should ultimately rely on what reads and sounds better; consider the following two examples:
A case where change would be beneficial -
Before: The fountain pen lying on the floor is the one that he wrote with.
After: The fountain pen lying on the floor is the one with which he wrote.
A case where change would be detrimental -
Before: What is the state of our language coming to?
After: To what is the state of our language coming?
While perceptions may vary from reader to reader, it’s fairly obvious that the change only made matters worse in the second example.
Pest Three. Indefinite Pronoun “You” vs. “One”
In some cases, the words you and one may act as indefinite pronouns: pronouns that refer to no one in particular. For instance:
You should always wear a seatbelt, even on short trips.
Marty was a proud man who would never do one’s dirty work.
These may be freely reversed:
One should always wear a seatbelt, even on short trips.
Marty was a proud man who would never do your dirty work.
Both sentences sound decent enough, which makes one (or you) wonder which word is more acceptable. The truth is that both pronouns may be used and, like Pest Two, this is at the writer’s discretion. The writer should know the following first, however:
- You is the more casual and informal of the two; it is also a trademark of Canadian and American English and does not see the same usage in other parts of the world.
- One is more formal, in many senses posh, and may give an impression of hauteur if overused. In some cases it may make the sentence sound clumsy, especially if one is used more than once. For instance:
Once one relies on one’s honesty, one will have nothing left to say to anyone.
Definitely clumsy. Or perhaps it has a ring to it? Let yourself be the jury; let the reaction of your readers be the judge.