12 common grammar mistakes you’re probably making right now (and how to avoid them)


Christina Sterbenz, Grammar, Teacher


Robert Libetti/ Business Insider


  • A 2012 study from the Society for Human Resources and Management showed that 45% of employers planned to increase training for grammar and other language skills.
  • We’ve compiled a list of the top mistakes people make when writing, whether drafting an office memo or just chatting with coworkers around the water cooler.
  • Common grammar mistakes stem from confusion over usage: fewer vs. less, it’s vs. its, and then vs. than. 
  • Visit Business Insider’s homepage for more stories.

You might consider grammar an annoying technicality, a minuscule detail of speech and writing not worth much effort.

But a 2012 study from the Society for Human Resources and Management showed that 45% of employers planned to increase training for grammar and other language skills (meaning they were unhappy with the levels.)

In other words: What you say matters as much as how you say it, especially in a professional environment.

Read more: 14 rules for using commas without looking like a fool

We’ve compiled a list of 12 common grammatical mistakes people make, whether drafting an office memo or just chatting with coworkers around the water cooler.

1. “Fewer” vs. “Less”

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Use “fewer” when discussing countable objects. For example, “He ate five fewer chocolates than the other guy,” or “fewer than 20 employees attended the meeting.”

Use “less” for intangible concepts, like time. For example, “I spent less than one hour finishing this report.”

2. “It’s” vs. “Its”

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Normally, an apostrophe symbolizes possession. As in, “I took the dog’s bone.” But because apostrophes also usually replace omitted letters — like “don’t” — the “it’s” vs. “its” decision gets complicated. 

Use “its” as the possessive pronoun: “I took its bone.” For the shortened version of “it is” use the version with the apostrophe. As in, “it’s raining.”

3. Dangling Modifiers

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These are ambiguous, adjectival clauses at the beginning or end of sentences that often don’t modify the right word or phrase.

For example: “Rotting in the refrigerator, our office manager threw the fruit in the garbage.” The structure of that sentence implies your office manager is a zombie trapped in a chilly kitchen appliance.

Make sure to place the modifying clause right next to the word or phrase it intends to describe. The correct version reads, “Our office manager threw the fruit, rotting in the refrigerator, in the garbage.”

4. “Who” vs. “Whom”

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“The New Republic” published a review of Mark Leibovich’s “This Town.” Regardless of his opinions, the author deserves praise. The title reads, “Careful Whom You Call A Hypocrite, Washington.” Yes, Alec MacGillis. Just yes.

When considering whether to use “who” or “whom,” you have to rearrange the sentence in your own head. In the aforementioned case, “whom you call a hypocrite” changes to “you call whom a hypocrite.” “Whom” suits the sentence instead of “who” because the word functions as the object of the sentence, not the subject.

It’s not always easy to tell subjects from objects but to use an over-simplified yet good, general rule: subjects start sentences (or clauses), and objects end them.

For reference, “who is a hypocrite?” would be a perfectly grammatically correct question to ask.

Read more: 12 everyday phrases that you’re probably saying incorrectly

5. Me, Myself, and I

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Deciding when to use me, myself, or I also falls under the subject/object discussion. “Me” always functions as the object (except in that case); “I” is always the subject. And you only use “myself” when you’ve referred to yourself earlier in the sentence. It’s called a reflexive pronoun — it corresponds to a pronoun previously in the sentence. For example, “I made myself breakfast” not “my friend and myself made lunch.”

To decide usage in “someone else and me/I” situations, take the other person out of the sentence. “My coworker and I went to lunch.” Is “I went to lunch” correct? You’re good, then.

6. “Lie” vs. “Lay”

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Dear everyone, stop saying: “I’m going to go lay down.”

The word “lay” must have an object. Someone lays something somewhere. You lie. Unless you lay, which means lie but in the past tense. Just look at the chart:

  Present Past
Lie Lie Lay
Lay Lay Laid

And use it like this: 

  • I’m going to lie down –> I lay down
  • I need to lay down the law –> I laid down the law

7. Irregular Verbs

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The English language has quite a few surprises.We can’t list all the irregular verbs, but be aware that they do exist. For example, no past tense exists for the word “broadcast.” “Broadcasted” isn’t a word. You’d say, “Yesterday, CNN broadcast a show.”

“Sneak” and “hang” also fall into the category of irregular verbs. Because the list of irregular verbs (and how to conjugate them) is so extensive, you’ll have to look into them individually.

8. “Nor” vs. “Or”

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Use “nor” before the second or farther of two alternatives when “neither” introduces the first. Think of it as “or” for negative sentences, and it’s not optional. For example, “Neither my boss nor I understand the new program.”

You can also use nor with a negative first clause or sentence including “not.” For example, “My boss didn’t understand the program, nor did I.”

Read more: 11 reasons the English language is impossible to learn

9. “Then” vs. “Than”

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There’s a simple distinction between these two words. Use “then” when discussing time. As in, “We had a meeting, and then we went to lunch.” Include “than” in comparisons. “This meeting was more productive than the last one.”

10. Ending Sentences With Prepositions

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First of all, don’t do it — usually. Second, for those who don’t know, prepositions are any words that a squirrel can “run” with a tree (i.e. The squirrel ran around, by, through, up, down, around, etc. the tree).

“My boss explained company policy, which we had to abide by” sounds awful. In most cases, you can just transpose the preposition to the beginning of the clause. “My boss explained company policy, by which we had to abide,” or better yet, rephrase the sentence to avoid this problem: “My boss explained the mandatory company policy.”

11. Subject (And Possessive Pronoun) And Verb Agreement

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This rule seems a bit counterintuitive, but most plural subjects take verbs without an “s.” For example, “she types,” but “they type.” The pronoun agreement comes into play when you add a possessive element to these sentences. “She types on her computer,” and “they type on their computers.”

12. You CAN use “they” as a singular pronoun, like “he” and “she.”

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Merriam-Webster announced in September that its definition of “they” would include its usage as a singular pronoun for gender-nonbinary people.

—Merriam-Webster (@MerriamWebster) September 17, 2019

“They” should be used when an individual identifies “they/them/their” as their pronouns. 

Read more: Merriam-Webster adds gender-neutral ‘they’ to dictionary

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