The 13 Trickiest Grammar Hang-Ups

I trust that you all know the difference between who and whom, and I trust that typos are the only reason you use the wrong it’s. It happens to the best of us. For most writers, if you can just maintain your focus (perhaps with caffeine and frequent breaks), you’ll get the basics right. The following problems, however, may have you scrambling for a refresher.

1. Half can be both singular and plural.

Typically, subjects and verbs agree: If the subject is singular, the verb is singular. If the subject is plural, the verb is plural. Easy peasy. However, sentences that start with half don’t follow this rule.

Half alone is singular: My half of the pizza is pepperoni. Yet although half is the subject in a sentence such as Half of the pizzas are missing, we use a plural verb because of something called notional agreement. It simply means that although half is singular, half of the pizzas has a notion of being plural, so you use a plural verb. Follow this rule when half is the subject of a sentence: If half is followed by a singular noun, use a singular verb. If half is followed by a plural noun, use a plural verb. Half of the pepperoni is ruined, but half of the tomatoes are missing.

Compound words that start with half are quirky too. They can be open, closed or hyphenated (e.g., half note, halfhearted, half-baked). There’s no rule that applies across the board, so you’ll have to check a dictionary.

2. Companies are not exactly people.

Companies are entities, but they are run by men and women, so you could make an argument for referring to a company as who, particularly since U.S. courts have ruled that companies are people in most legal senses. Nevertheless, the standard style is to refer to a company as an entity and use the pronouns it and that: We want to buy stock in a company that makes hot air balloons.

If you want to highlight that people in the company are behind some action or decision, name them and use who: Floating Baskets was driven to bankruptcy by its senior directors, who took too many expensive Alaskan joyrides.

3. American is a flawed term.

American is the only single word we have to refer to citizens of the United States of America (U.S.-icans?), but technically, an American is anyone who lives in North America, Central America or South America.

In the U.S. we, the people, have been calling ourselves Americans since before our country was even founded (as have our detractors). Although all people of the American continents are actually Americans, most readers in the U.S. and Europe assume that an American is a U.S. citizen, since that is how the word is most commonly used.

Despite its failings, use American to refer to a citizen of the United States of America. No better term exists. Feel free to feel guilty.

4. The word dilemma can be, well, a dilemma.

The di- prefix in dilemma means “two” or “double,” which lends support to the idea that dilemma should be used only to describe a choice between two alternatives. The Associated Press Stylebook and Garner’s Modern American Usage not only support that limitation, but go further, saying that dilemma should be used only for a choice between two unpleasant options.

Nevertheless, Garner also notes that other uses are “ubiquitous.” Merriam-Webster’s Dictionary of English Usage and The Columbia Guide to Standard American English say it’s fine to use dilemma to describe any serious predicament, and The American Heritage Guide to Contemporary Usage and Style takes an intermediate position. What’s a writer to do? (Is it a dilemma?)

Unless you’re writing for a publication that requires you to follow a style guide that limits dilemma to a choice between two bad options, it’s not absolutely wrong to use dilemma to describe a difficult problem, even when alternatives aren’t involved, or to use dilemma to describe a difficult choice between pleasant options. Still, you’ll seem most clever when you use dilemma to describe a choice between two bad options. In other instances, before using dilemma, ask yourself if another word, such as problem, would work better.

Also, a cursory search of the Internet reveals that lots of people are confounded by the spelling of dilemma. Many were taught to spell it wrong. In fact, I was taught to spell it dilemna in school, and when I got older and checked a dictionary, I was shocked to find that the word is spelled dilemma. Further, the only correct spelling is dilemma. It’s not as if dilemna is a substandard variant or regional spelling. Dictionaries often note alternative spellings and sometimes even nonstandard spellings, but dilemna doesn’t even show up that way. As far as I can tell, nobody knows why so many teachers got it wrong. Perhaps a textbook typo is to blame.

5. Earth isn’t treated like the names of other planets.

In English, the general rule is that we capitalize the formal names of things and places (e.g., Golden Gate Bridge, San Francisco), so we capitalize the names of other planets: Jupiter, Mars and so on. For some unknown reason, however, we treat earth differently. Sometimes it’s capitalized and sometimes it’s lowercase, and there doesn’t seem to be a hard-and-fast rule.

Typically, when earth is preceded by the, it’s lowercase, and when earth is listed with the names of the other planets, it’s capitalized—but you can find exceptions to even these patterns. (Of course, when we’re just using earth as another word for dirt, it’s always lowercase.)

If you’re a writer, check your publication’s style guide to see what it recommends. If you’re writing for yourself, the most important thing is to be consistent—so just pick a capitalization style and stay with it.

6. Gone missing might be annoying, but it isn’t wrong.

Gone missing is a Briticism that has made its way to the U.S., where reporters use it mostly to describe missing persons. Although journalists and newscasters seem to love gone missing, it’s easy to find vocal readers and viewers who hate it.

Haters argue that a person must go to a location, and missing isn’t a place, and that an inanimate object can’t go missing because it can’t take action alone—but English has never been so literal. In a tight labor market, jobs can go begging (be unfilled), for example, even though begging is not a location and jobs can’t take action. Other peevers suggest that gone missing necessitates an action on the part of the person or item that has vanished. Again, we have parallels that undermine the argument: Milk goes bad, for example, without taking any action on its own.

Gone missing is not wrong. The Oxford English Dictionary places it in the same category as the phrase go native, as in, We had high hopes for our new senator, but after he was in Washington a few months, he went native (i.e., adopted the same habits and attitudes as people who’ve been there a long time).

Even if you hate gone missing, you can’t legitimately criticize it as grammatically incorrect. But on the flip side, if you’re a fan of the phrase, be aware that it annoys enough readers that you should think twice before using it in your writing.

7. Kinds is always plural.

You have one kind of peanut butter but three kinds of jelly. Use the singular (kind) when you have one of something, and the plural (kinds) when you have more. Since these and those indicate multiple things, you have to use a plural: kinds. These kinds of situations always perplex me. (These kind is wrong.)

Watch out for the problem. Even though it seems straightforward, good writers often get it wrong.

8. Until is ambiguous.

If you have until March 4 to submit an entry in the National Grammar Day video contest, does that mean you can still turn it in on March 4, or is March 3 the last acceptable day? Unfortunately, the word until doesn’t make the meaning clear. People can interpret it different ways.

One of the most stress-inducing deadlines is the annual tax filing cutoff for the Internal Revenue Service, which makes a point to specify that the April 15 filing deadline includes April 15. It also refers to April 15 as a due date, not a deadline.

If you’re following instructions, don’t assume until means through. Turn in your item a day early or get clarification. And if you’re writing instructions, make them clear by using a word such as through or stating a specific day and time. The IRS doesn’t rely on an ambiguous word such as until, and neither should you.

9. Next is also ambiguous.

Just like until, next is ambiguous: Some people think next Wednesday means the next Wednesday that will occur, and other people think next Wednesday means the Wednesday in the next week, regardless of what day it is now. The sitcom Seinfeld even did a scene in which Jerry and Sid argued about the meaning of next Wednesday versus this Wednesday.

There is no definitive meaning for next Wednesday, so you should avoid using next to modify a day of the week. Be more specific in your writing.

10. The plurals of abbreviations aren’t always logical.

Acronyms are abbreviations that are pronounced as words (NASA), and initialisms are abbreviations for which you say each letter (FBI).

Even though it doesn’t make perfect sense, you make initialisms and acronyms plural by adding an s to the end no matter what part would be plural if you wrote out the whole thing. Therefore, even though you would write runs batted in, the plural is RBIs.

In the past, some publications used apostrophes to make acronyms and initialisms plural, so until a few years ago, it was common to see something like RBI’s or CD’s in The New York Times. But these days, the major style guides recommend omitting the apostrophe.

11. They and their may soon be acceptable singular pronouns.

English has a big, gaping hole: There’s no pronoun to describe a person when we don’t know the sex. (I’ve tried it with babies, and it hasn’t gone over well!) In days gone by, he was acceptable as a generic pronoun, but today it’s not. All major style guides recommend against it.

To fill the gap, many people consciously or subconsciously use they, as in, Tell the next caller they win a car. Doing so is allowed by some current style guides and actually has a longer history than most people realize. Even Jane Austen did it. For example, here’s a quotation from Mansfield Park in which Austen pairs a plural pronoun (their) with a singular antecedent (each):

Everybody around her was gay and busy, prosperous and important; each had their object of interest, their part, their dress, their favourite scene, their friends and confederates: All were finding employment in consultations and comparisons, or diversion in the playful conceits they suggested.

Although many people consider using they as a singular pronoun wrong, I suspect many of those same people use it that way in casual conversation without even realizing it, and that the singular they will become fully acceptable within the next 50 years.

Today, using they as a singular pronoun borders on acceptable. You can choose to do it if you aren’t bound to follow a style guide that opposes it, but be prepared to defend yourself. The safer route (when you can’t           just rewrite the sentence to make the subject plural) is to use he or she, or to switch between he and she (which you may have noticed is the style followed by this very magazine).

When switching between he and she, however, make sure you separate the examples enough so that you don’t confuse your readers. (Weren’t we just talking about a woman?) Also, I’ve recently started getting complaints from men who’ve noticed that writers switching between he and she tend to use he for the bad guys and she for the heroes. If you’re going to switch back and forth, give us some vixen ax murderers and hunky human-rights activists every once in a while.

12. Possessives of possessives can get messy.

When you have to make a possessive name possessive, you’re technically supposed to add another possessive marker to the end:

Kohl’s’s earnings were up last quarter. (The Chicago Manual of Style possessive style)

Kohl’s’ earnings were up last quarter. (The Associated Press Stylebook possessive style)

Avoid these kinds of sentences, though. They may be technically correct, but they look horrible. You can usually rewrite the sentence to make it better:

Kohl’s reported higher earnings last quarter.

13. Apostrophes can occasionally signify plurals.

We all cringe when we see a greengrocer’s apostrophe (banana’s $0.99), but did you know that in a few uncommon instances, we do use apostrophes to make things plural? In most cases, the apostrophe helps avoid confusion; single letters are one example. The first apostrophe in Dot your i’s and cross your t’s helps readers distinguish between multiple copies of the letter i and the word is. A less logical example is the phrase do’s and don’ts. Different style guides recommend different spellings (dos and don’ts, do’s and don’ts, and do’s and don’t’s). When writers use an apostrophe to make do plural but not to make don’t plural, the only reason for the apostrophe is to provide visual balance. Yet, it’s allowed.

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15 thoughts on “The 13 Trickiest Grammar Hang-Ups

  1. davnick

    Thank you for not plowing the same old tired ground, like the difference between “its” and “it’s.”

    The list is a nice reminder of both the big and the little problems we sometimes stumble over — or get flat-out wrong.

    But readers should remember that any authority on grammar comes with baggage. If they didn’t, all of them would agree on everything. The title alone is evidence of that: “The 13 Trickiest Grammar Hang-ups.” Says who? There aren’t 14? Or 155?

    My own bone is with No. 11: he, she, they. While most major stylebooks question “he” as universal, not all do. Better than the listed recommendations is, first, to try to avoid the construction, then as a fallback, resort to “he.” “He” is correct in every way except politically, and that’s only true in some circles.

    The problem with “he or she” is that it’s awkward, draws attention to itself, and subverts whatever message you hoped to convey. The Writer’s Digest style of alternate “he” and “she” is even worse. Because “she” was never ever universal and is always gender specific, that misconstrues your message. That then destroys the universal application of “he” and makes it gender specific, too. So you’re writing sentences that only apply to women in some cases and only to men in others. That defeats the very purpose of why rules of grammar were created in the first place: to achieve absolute clarity.

  2. rampmg

    My dad was an English teacher, so I grew up being tormented into proper use. I was quickly corrected when I said that “I can’t wait for Christmas.” Opps, what I should have said was “I can hardly wait…” His personal pet peeve was the modifying of a number (firstly, secondly) and even voted for the other guy when a presidential candidate exhibited this faux pas. I have two that drive me crazy: Those ones (What the…???) and using whenever instead of when. They are like nails on a blackboard.

  3. esparhawk

    I love the affirmation that this article provided. I’m an English teacher, and I teach many of these concepts to my students.

    Regarding the use of “American” as a term to define citizens of the United States, the key to communication on the World Wide Web is to remember that your audience includes everyone on the planet.

    It’s an English teacher’s duty to prepare his/her students to communicate effectively, so I spend a lot of class time stressing the importance of considering one’s audience. If your blog’s readership is primarily made up of friends and family who live in the United States, you’re fine to refer to yourself as an American; however, if you’re designing a page for your business, which ships its product all over the world, then you need to specify that the company’s owners are from the United States.

    It’s all about audience.

    Thank you, Grammar Girl, for your affirmations.

  4. Naomi

    Great information, thank you!

    3. I think that U.S. citizens referring to themselves as “Americans” is vague, providing only a little more information in today’s world than saying “I’m an Earthling.” When I feel the need to refer to myself with a word that ends in “-an” I use my birth state’s name. Otherwise, when asked where I’m from, I say “the U.S.”

    5. This is news to me. I’ve always capitalized Earth when referring to the planet, and used all lowercase when referring to dirt. However, I have been guilty of vacillating between capitalization and lowercase when referring to the Earth’s moon. Since the body’s name is a generic term, I’m not consistent with capitalization (the moon, the Moon). Really, we should just give Earth’s moon a distinct name.

    6. I don’t hate the phrase, “gone missing,” however, I don’t use it either. It reminds me of phrases such as “killed dead” — it seems redundant.

    11. As long as, “they is …” remains colloquial, and never becomes standard usage.

    12. Been there; seen that. I always end up making a hissing sound. “Kohl’s’s” = “Kohl ssssssssss”

  5. JohnA

    A few observations, by number, if I may.

    2. When using the possessive pronoun to refer to an entity, rather than whose – which always strikes me as incorrect – I tend to use which.

    4. I view dilemma as the choice between two unpleasant options as its correct usage; the Oxford English Dictionary describes its alternative usage as informal. As opposed to problem, why not use quandary to describe a straightforward predicament?

    5. Similar to other nouns that appear both in common and proper forms, such as king and King, president and President, etcetera.

    6. Britcism? An interesting choice of noun. Gone missing is not a phrase I tend to use, and I am far from sure it was actually exported from Britain to the US. There are several US grammatical exports that I confess I find irritating, such as envision for envisage, and math, instead of maths, to describe a contraction of mathematics. As an aside, I believe the sentence, “We had high hopes for our new senator, but after he was in Washington a few months, he went native”, should read: “We had high hopes for our new senator, but after he had been in Washington a few months, he went native.”

    7. Personally, I would write such a sentence as: These kinds of situation always perplex me.

    10. RBI’s and CD’s expands to RBI its and CD its; hence, the past use of apostrophes was always incorrect.

    11. They, as a singular pronoun, has, for some years, been used to describe an individual where the gender is unknown, or uncertain.

    12. This threw me, somewhat. The apostrophe should only follow the ‘s’ of a plural possessive, something that innumerable writers seem not to understand. For instance, a pen owned by Dickens is, more often than not, referred to as Dickens’ pen when, in fact, Dickens being a singular noun, it should read as Dickens’s pen. Since Kohl is a singular possessive, both of the sentences should read: Kohl’s earnings … Were the alternative to be used, it should read: Kohl reported …

    13. Banana’s reads much the same as RBI’s and CD’s, at 10.

  6. Ev

    Thanks for a great article! My husband and I are always disagreeing about #9. The same confusion can work in the reverse also. If I’m talking about spring of 2012, I’ll say ‘this spring.’ ‘Last spring’ would mean spring of 2011 for me.

    And #11 is SO frustrating! Can’t somebody please get all the official usage publications to agree on some personal gender-neutral singular pronouns and have them declare that those are the official pronouns? Yes, it’ll take years for them to become part of the spoken language, but if enough authors use them in their writing, at least they’ll become familiar and we’ll have them when we need them. I was pondering on possibilities just the other day. How about: ze to go with he, she, and we; zem to go with him, her, and them; and zir to go with his, her, and their? We especially need these in religious settings for gender inclusive talk about God. I get so tired of stilted-sounding sentences with multiple uses of ‘God’ in places where we’d normally use pronouns.

  7. jqtrotter

    This isn’t politics, this is a grammar article. When referring to citizens of the United States you either have to actually say ‘citizens of the United States of America’ or ‘American’s. Yes, it might be political arrogant but what other option do we have? When I studied abroad in Europe (France, to be more precise) I never had a problem when I called myself ‘American’ or in French’ Américaine’. Whereas when I lived in Australia for a year I had to be more specific because there was a significant amount of South American immigrants. It depends on the situation, obviously.

    Calling USA citizens American is s an acceptable practice, politics aside. Writer’s Digest is located in the USA and I’m sure a majority of the time it is catering to its American subscribers. Within the USA, it’s almost always acceptable to refer to oneself as American. Outside, it’s a different story. So just remember when you are writing a story which you are catering to.

    (And theconq, I hope you are kidding. The only people eager to rename the USA ‘Texas’ are those from Texas or those who have lived in Texas. It’s not just Californians, New Yorkers, New Englanders and Minnesotans that don’t want it. As a Midwestern, one who has moved around all of the Midwest, I can assure you very few of us are for that. Neither would any of the east coast or west coast states. So… yeah, it actually is an unpopular as most would think. Trust me. I’ve talked to plenty of Minnestoans to know that wonderful paradise they are talking about ((and most of the country, at that)) is Florida.)

  8. lgc835

    Yes madcapmaggie, I studied abroad in South American and was promptly upbraided for calling myself American to mean from the United States at the exclusion of the other Americans in the room. The Ecuadorians use a term the translation of which is united stateser. It was also pointed out that other countries have states and are called the United States such as with Mexico whose name in Spanish translates to United Mexican States. So, they reasoned, we actually are the United States of nothing, since we cannot claim a monopoly on the word American and don’t have a country name. Note also that Canadians don’t call themselves Americans

    But that is politics and this article is about grammar.

    I wanted to point out that although this predicament about what to use for a singular pronoun is indeed driven by the ‘gaping hole’ in our grammar, I think the use of ‘they’ is very common for those of us who grew up without knowledge of the passive voice. Although grammatically correct, it is fairly uncommon to hear the passive voice spoken correctly. At least where I grew up. Instead of “I was told.”, we used “they told me” or “One should know” we heard “You should know” or “they should know”.

    I know in German this construction of using the word ‘one’ is used quite frequently as the generic pronoun. Someday maybe ‘they’ will be used the same way and we can stop bouncing back between ‘he’ and ‘she’.

    Personally I find that just as distracting as hearing actresses call themselves actors.

  9. theconq

    While it may be common for non-US residents/citizens to refer to themselves as “Americans,” it makes little sense. The United States of America is the only nation in the Western Hemisphere with the word “america” in its title. It’d be like me claiming to be Spanish because the Spanish settled in North America first. If I seem nit-picky, just try calling a Mexican a Puerto Rican, and see what happens.

    (On a side note, we could just switch our country’s name to “Texas.” Not as unpopular a decision as you’d think, unless you’re Californian, a New Yorker, a New Englander, or — oddly enough — a Minnesotan. Strange but true. Talk to a Minnesotan, and they’ll tell you all about a paradise where the people are smarter, the air is cleaner, and no one knows what a bad hair day is.)

    1. marquesa

      This argument doesn’t make any sense. You’re mixing very different things here. Calling a Mexican a Puerto Rican has nothing to do with the fact that people from the Americas (continents) are Americans, the same way people from France and Germany etc. are Europeans. I don’t understand why this is so hard for you to understand. People from Europe don’t need to add Europe to the name of their country to call themselves Europeans. Why should other Americans?

  10. seingraham

    While I found this to be a generally well-constructed and informative set of guidelines for some common grammar bugaboos – number four contains a personal pet peeve – when did grammarians give up the use of comparative and superlative forms? e.g. “more clever”? What happened to cleverer and cleverest? I’ve noticed this shift away from proper usage in case after case? Has there been some edict handed down of which the average writer has not been apprised?

    As for the business about the American answer, while geographically an accurate answer perhaps, I am from Canada and will continue to say I’m a Canadian, thanks anyhow.

  11. madcapmaggie

    I beg to differ with number 3. Many years ago I spent a summer working in the Netherlands and signed up for a ballet class. The conversation went like this:

    Fellow Student:”Where are you from?”
    Me: I’m an American.
    FS: So am I.
    Me: Whereabouts?
    FS: Mexico City.

    Moral: when asked “Where are you from?” I now answer: “I’m from the United States.” (or the US)

    America is a big place. If you want to look like a hick, and an arrogant one at that, continue to answer, “I’m an American.”

  12. OriginalGreg

    “English has a big, gaping hole…”

    Road apples. What English has, in this instance, is a bad case of surrender to gender politics.

  13. elainecougler

    I very much enjoyed this article about some of the more complex grammar and usage singularities in the English language. In a world where errors abound and few care, I am delighted to see a reasoned discussion of 13 tricky points. Thank you!

  14. Pippa

    Thanks for the help! One grammar (or word usage) issue I struggle with is whether “off of” is correct. My inner editor screams No! every time I read it but my background isn’t American. Is it okay to use?


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