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Grammar’s Hall of Shame: Common Errors

Adam and Eve expelled

The Shame of Bad Grammar

The following expressions pop up often, but that doesn’t change the fact that they’re wrong, wrong, wrong! Learn their corrections and you’ll be able to float above the ignorant masses on a cloud of grammatical unimpeachableness.

Now I Lay Me Down to Sleep

Many people don’t realize that lie and lay are two different verbs. Lying is something you do; laying is something you do to something (or someone). You can lie in bed all day, lie on the beach, or lie low; or you can lay a book on the desk, lay carpet, or lay an egg.

So why all the confusion? Because of the sheer ass-backwards nature of the English language, the past tense of lie is lay. Now you lie in the arms of your beloved; yesterday you lay in his arms. The past tense of the verb lay, on the other hand, is laid: now you lay down your burdens, but yesterday you laid them down. The past participle (that’s when the verb follows have, had, or will have) of lie is lain: I had just lain down for a nap when I noticed the smell. The past participle of lay is laid: I discovered my cat had laid a dead mouse on the pillow.

Got it? If not, you’re not alone. But these examples should help:

Lie (Something You Do)

  • Now: This is where we lie in wait for the politician, ready to discharge our cans of spray cheese when he comes around the corner.
  • Then: This was where we lay in wait for the politician, ready to discharge our cans of spray cheese when he came around the corner.
  • With have: We have lain in wait for him many times, but so far he has evaded our righteous rain of cheese.

Lay (Something You Do to Something or Someone)

  • Now: The vampire lays his unconscious victim on the divan and arranges her hair so it spills fetchingly across the cushions.
  • Then: The vampire laid his unconscious victim on the divan and arranged her hair so it spilled fetchingly across the cushions.
  • With have: This vampire has laid many a local lass on his divan. (I mean he put them down—get your minds out of the gutter!)

And please don’t say you’re going to lay low—you can lie low, but lay low is something you did in the past:

  • I’m going to lie low until the Apocalypse is over.
  • Last year I lay low until everyone had forgotten my embarrassing faux pas.

You may come across a reference to someone being laid low. In this case, the person has been laid low by something (an illness, say). Since the illness is doing the action to someone, the correct verb is lay:

  • She was laid low by a combination of alcohol and roller derby. (Alcohol and roller derby laid her low.)

Just Between You and I

People often use this construction when they want to sound posh, but the correct phrase is “just between you and me.” The test is to remove the other person and try the sentence with just I or me:

  • Jules and I are far too busy to attend your orgy. (I am far too busy.)
  • The instructions for infiltrating the cell were sent to Dmitri and me. (They were sent to me.)

This kind of mistake is called a hypercorrection. It’s what happens when you’re so anxious not to slip up, you overshoot the mark and end up mangling your grammar in an effort to sound clever.

Whom May I Say Is Calling?

The classic example of a hypercorrection is the well-known scene in which a butler picks up the phone and snootily asks, “Whom may I say is calling?” As any butler worth his bow tie knows, the correct question is “Who may I say is calling?” How can you tell? The simplest method is to rearrange the sentence, starting with the word after who/whom, then substitute he or him for the tricky whom. If he works better, the word you want is who; if him sounds right, you want whom. (If you want to get technical, he and who are subjects, while him and whom are objects—they receive the action of the verb.)

(Who/Whom) may I say is calling?

  1. Rearrange: May I say (who/whom) is calling?
  2. Swap: May I say (he/him) is calling?
  3. You would never ask, “May I say him is calling?” so who is the correct choice.

From among the many yodelling candidates, I chose the one (who/whom) I thought was most limber.

  1. Rearrange: I thought (who/whom) was most limber.
  2. Swap: I thought (he/him) was most limber. (He works best.)
  3. Answer: From among the many yodelling candidates, I chose the one who I thought was most limber.

(Who/Whom) did you choose to take to the herpetologists’ convention?

  1. Did you choose (who/whom) to take to the herpetologists’ convention?
  2. Did you choose (he/him) to take to the herpetologists’ convention?
  3. Answer: Whom did you choose to take to the herpetologists’ convention?

If you still feel uncomfortable with whom, don’t worry: it’s perfectly acceptable to jettison it altogether in favour of a universal who. These days the only people who persist in using whom are grammarians, anal-retentives, and butlers.

Would of, Could of, Should of

It may sound like “I should of known,” but this expression actually contains a contraction of should have—should’ve. Just as in can’t (cannot) and don’t (do not), the apostrophe is a reminder of absent letters that have moved on to better things:

Would’ve = would have

Could’ve = could have

Should’ve = should have

  • Wrong: I would of tackled the Daleks single-handedly, but my sonic screwdriver was running low on batteries.
  • Right: I would’ve tackled the Daleks single-handedly, but my sonic screwdriver was running low on batteries.

The same principle applies to the word y’all. You may for some mysterious reason feel the urge to write ya’ll, but remember that the word is a contraction of you all, so the apostrophe falls into the place of the missing letters:

  • Wrong: Do ya’ll serve grits here?
  • Right: Do y’all serve grits here?

You can find more about apostrophes and contractions in Apostrophes and How to Use ’Em.


Apostrophes and How to Use ’Em



The Divine Apostrophe

Few punctuation marks are as abused as the blameless apostrophe. The better you understand its job, the less likely you are to do the little critter harm.

Possession: The Apostrophe’s Favourite Pastime

Apostrophes often show possession or ownership:

  • The science project’s effects were unforeseen and world-altering. (The effects belong to the science project.)
  • Satan’s cheerleaders have set fire to the auditorium. (The cheerleaders belong to Satan.)

When the owner is plural, the apostrophe dangles after the s like the severed ear in Blue Velvet:

  • The hippies’ bus is parked on our lawn.
  • The aliens’ spaceships are a fetching shade of pink.

But don’t make the mistake of giving the David Lynch treatment to plural owners that don’t end in s. They can be treated the same as singular owners:

  • The children’s pyromaniacal tendencies…
  • The men’s feather boas…
  • The sheep’s plans for world domination…

And what about singular owners that end in s? Opinion is divided. Americans like the simpler, apostrophe-only method:

  • the cactus’ spines
  • David Sedaris’ stories

The Brits, on the other hand, prefer the full Monty:

  • Tom Jones’s knickers
  • Prince Charles’s ears

If you decide to go the British route, you should know that because of tradition or weird pronunciation certain names take only an apostrophe:

  • Jesus’ sandals
  • Moses’ beard
  • Achilles’ heel

If you’re not sure, say the word out loud—if you don’t pronounce the extra s, you don’t need to write it (as in the expression for goodness’ sake).

Finally, be warned that the possessive forms of pronouns (those promiscuous little words than can be used for any person or thing) do not take apostrophes:

  • his
  • hers
  • its
  • ours
  • theirs
  • whose

You wouldn’t stick an apostrophe in these any more than you would in my or mine.

Contractions: C’mon and Squeeze Me, Baby

The ’em in this post’s title is a shorter version of them (like ’cause and because); its beginning was amputated like a gangrenous limb and an apostrophe was put in its place to show something had been removed. Similarly, contractions are words in which some of the letters have been squeezed out and replaced with apostrophes:

  • what’s = what is
  • wouldn’t = would not
  • can’t = cannot
  • let’s = let us

Some contractions are the source of considerable confusion and hair-pulling, namely

  • it’s = it is (or it has)
  • who’s = who is (or who has)
  • you’re = you are
  • they’re = they are

Their doppelgangers – its, whose, your, and their – are all possessive pronouns, like my and mine, and don’t take apostrophes.

It’s vs. Its: The Cheat Sheet

If you’re not sure which word to use, try plugging in it is (for it’s) or his (for its) and see which works best.

Example: It’s an ill wind that blows its nose in your direction.

  • It is an ill wind that blows his nose in your direction. (Makes reasonable sense)
  • His an ill wind that blows it is nose in your direction. (Total gibberish)

The example sentence is correct.

Example: Who’s the idiot whose car is at the bottom of my swimming pool?

  • Who is the idiot his car is at the bottom of my swimming pool? (Kind of makes sense)
  • His the idiot who is car is at the bottom of my swimming pool? (Not so much)

Example: You’re not giving them your best sharkskin suit!

  • You are not giving them his best sharkskin suit! (Reasonable)
  • His not giving them you are best sharkskin suit! (Horsepuckies)

Here are a few more examples:

  • What a long, strange trip it’s been. (it has been)
  • Whose brownies did you eat? (his brownies)
  • She’s a girl who’s got her heart in the right place. (who has got)
  • Unfortunately, she’s also a girl whose heart likes to step out once in a while. (her heart likes)
  • I’ll tell them you’re swimming with the dolphins. (you are swimming)
  • The slimy alien wants its teddy bear. (his teddy bear)
  • They’re spending this weekend preparing for the zombie apocalypse. (they are spending)

Advanced Confusions

Grammarians used to urge us to put apostrophes in plurals that contained numbers or capital letters, but that usage has since fallen out of fashion and you can now go with the cleaner-looking 1920s and DVDs. But there are a few situations where you might want to stick in an apostrophe to keep your reader from getting confused:

  • cross your i’s and dot your t’s
  • a report card of A’s and B’s

The point of all this punctuation is, after all, to make your reader’s work as easy as possible. The clearer your meaning, the more convincing your argument.

(A version of this article was originally published at