Book Editor’s Grammar Guide
This guide highlights the areas of grammar that are generally
considered to be the most confusing and problematic.
It is not intended to be fully comprehensive, but is
designed to assist writers in navigating some of the trickier,
more questionable parts of English grammar.
Amount / Number
refers to things which cannot be counted, as in a
small amount of pollution.
Number is used when
referring to something that can be counted, as in
a large number of voters.
By the way, it is incorrect to write a small amount of
Similarly, you will want to use
and fewer, number and amount
They are not interchangeable.
Use less when referring to things which cannot be
counted, such as less food.
Use fewer when referring to things that can be
counted, such as fewer platters of food.
Also, it is always fewer people; it is never
Anytime / Any Time
These words are often used interchangeably, but their usage is
subtly different, as you will see from the following examples:
“You are welcome to visit
anytime.” But if
you are using this expression in a phrase with the word “at”
preceding it, you would write:
“You're welcome to visit at any time.”
Just FYI, anywhere,
sometime are always written as one word.
Awake / Awaken
These two are both verbs with the same meaning. They are used
awaken is considered to be the more formal form, just as
to wake up is
considered less formal. (Additionally,
awake can also be used
as an adjective, whereas
awaken can only be used as a verb.) Sometimes one form is
more awkward in a given sentence, so a writer will choose the
other; in fact, many writers vary their usage since both are
acceptable. For instance:
"I was awakened by the
crash of a thunderclap and awoke to the sight of a spectacular
Either / Or
Always a confusing one, this situation can be resolved by
remembering to match the verb to whichever part of the subject
is in closest proximity.
Here’s how this works:
“Usually, either Keith or the Smiths host the neighborhood
Fourth of July party.”
“Usually either the Smiths or Keith hosts the neighborhood
Fourth of July party.”
Its / It’s
This one’s pretty easy to remember, although it is often used
incorrectly by writers.
The difference between them is that
its is a possessive,
so it is used in this manner:
“The dog scratched
at its new collar.”
The word it’s
is a contraction, which means it joins two words,
it and is.
like other contractions such as
“It’s hot outside, so I
think I’ll stay inside in the air conditioning.”
Lie / Lay
The difference between the
verbs “lie” and “lay” is confusing for a couple of reasons, but
here’s a handy explanation of the differences between the two.
In the present tense, when
you are talking about doing something now, you
lie down on the sofa,
and you lay down a book.
The difference has to do with the object you are
referring to. In the
first instance, there is no other object (only yourself), and in
the second instance there is an object (a book).
This is how these two work in the past tense (and as a past
Understanding how they are conjugated will help avoid confusion.
is the past tense
Examples of past-tense
include the following:
1) The past tense of lie
is lay, so:
An hour ago, Steve
lay down on the bed.
2) The past tense of lay
is laid, so:
Mary laid her ring
on the table. (The ring is an object.)
3) The past participle of
lie is lain, so:
The cat has lain in
the sun for hours.
4) The past participle of
lay is laid, so:
I have laid the report on your desk. (The
report is the object.)
Some of the more vexing choices when it comes to matching nouns
with correct verb tenses are the types of nouns known as
Here are some examples of how to handle them correctly:
“The multiple code violations are the most pressing issue.”
“The most pressing issue is the multiple code violations.”
“The home’s best feature is the skylights.”
“The skylights are the home’s best feature.”
In addition, the oft-used phrase a number of is always
treated as plural. “A
number of stockbrokers were forced out of their jobs as a result
of the collapse on Wall Street.”
“Olde World” Usages
Among / Amongst:
People sometimes ask about the difference between
amongst. Both words mean the same thing, but
amongst is the older
form and is more commonly used in Britain than in the United
States. It is
considered archaic and overly formal in American English. The
only time it is appropriate for an American writer to use
amongst is when the
writing is set in a different era or fantasy world, as in this
"Is it truly safe to walk amongst the peasants, My Lord?”
Amid / Amidst:
This is another one of the many thousands of
differences between British and American English (while and whilst being
Amidst means exactly the same thing that
amid does, but it is a very old word that tends to be preserved in
only “olde world” contexts and therefore falls into the same
category as among and amongst when it comes to a writer’s decision about word choice.
Here are a few pointers about the use of pronouns.
People are referred to as who/whom, not that,
as in the following sentence:
“I know several people
who want to
eliminate daylight savings time.” Not“I know several people
that want to eliminate daylight savings time.”
In reference to
organizations or institutions, the singular pronoun it
(or its if it is possessive) should be used.
“Porsche is hoping to sell more of
its cars in
Pronouns that refer to a number larger than one are usually
treated as singular; for instance, you would write,
“Each and every student
was ready for lunchtime.”
Or “Neither of
the teachers intends to retire.”
Or “Everyone had a fabulous time.”
Just to keep us on our toes, the pronoun
none can be either
singular or plural, depending on whether it means “not one” or
“not any.” For
example, “The chairs all
feel the same; none is
more comfortable than the other.” (meaning “not any”) and
“None but the most
physically fit were able to finish the race.” (meaning “not
As far as pronouns go, what is the best way to handle gender
referring to a generic person, the old-fashioned way was to
always default to the pronoun
he. This, however,
routinely left out half the planet, so a better way to phrase
this is to write he or
she, him or her, his or hers.
Using the plural
they/their/theirs when referring to a single person or
entity is not correct.
In other words, you do not want to write,
“If a child does not
study, they will inevitably fail.”
On the other hand, you could avoid the awkwardness
altogether by re-phrasing it this way:
“If a child does
not study, failure will be the inevitable result.”
Although most plural subjects of sentences require plural verbs,
nouns that refer to measurements of quantity (such as time,
money, or distance) can frequently end in an
s, and therefore
confuse the issue of appropriate verb tense.
Quantities are treated as singular units, however, which
means they require singular verbs.
Here are some examples:
“Six hours is plenty of time to finish this manuscript.”
“Three dollars is hardly going to cover the cab fare from the
“Stuffed in the suitcase was two million dollars in negotiable
“Five yards of material seems to be enough to finish the dress.”
“Three-fourths of a cup of flour is called for in the recipe.”
Sit / Set
This one’s easy.
You sit in a chair. You set your
book on the table.
The cat sits in the window. The book sits on the table. (once
you have set it there!)
Whether / Or If
When a choice is being indicated,
whether should be used
instead of if.
For example, the correct usage is as follows:
“He did not know whether
his wife would approve of his choice.”
if is used to indicate “should a particular thing occur.”
“If it doesn’t rain tomorrow, I intend to go for a hike.”
Denver Book Editor | Boulder Book Editor