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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.

/ Number

Amount 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 people.

Similarly, you will want to use less and fewer, number and amount carefully.  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 less people.

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, somewhere, and sometime are always written as one word.


Awake / Awaken

These two are both verbs with the same meaning. They are used interchangeably, although 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 lightning storm.”


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.  It’s operates like other contractions such as don’t and can’t.  Correct usage: “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 participle).  Understanding how they are conjugated will help avoid confusion.

Present:    Past:     Past Participle:

   lie            lay             lain  (Note that lay is the past tense of lie.)

   lay           laid            laid


Examples of past-tense usage 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 “predicate nouns.”  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 among and 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 example:

"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 another).  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.  For example: “Porsche is hoping to sell more of its cars in America.”

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 one”).

As far as pronouns go, what is the best way to handle gender issues?  When 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 airport.”

“Stuffed in the suitcase was two million dollars in negotiable bonds.”

“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.”   The word if is used to indicate “should a particular thing occur.”  For example:  “If it doesn’t rain tomorrow, I intend to go for a hike.” 





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