|Choosing the correct word to use in the correct context is an important part of knowing how to use the language. The Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation and Diction Exam has a number of questions that will ask you to make these choices. In this section, we will explain some of the types of choices that you may have to make.
Subjects amd verbs should agree in number. Pronouns and their antecedents should also agree in number. (See above for more explanation of agreement.)
These are two pronouns that are often used incorrectly, particularly in spoken English. Who is the subjective case and should be used as the subject of a sentence or clause as in the following example. (For more on the case of pronouns, see below.)
Who is free to run an errand?
I don’t know who can do that.
She is the one who will surely pass the text.
Whom is objective and should be used as the object of a sentence, phrase or clause.
Whom do you trust?
The coach was disappointed in Smith, of whom he expected much.
I doubt that we will find the people whom we are seeking.
In the first sentence, “you” is the subject of the sentence while “whom” is the object. In the second “whom” is the object of the preposition “of.” In the third sentence, “whom” is the objective of the clause “we are seeking.”
Like, as, as if
These words are often use interchangeably and consequently incorrectly. Like is a preposition and should have an object. As and as if are conjunctions and should be used to join clauses. The problem most often arises when like is used as a conjunction.
Wrong: I pretended like I knew what I was talking about.
Right: I pretended as if I knew what I was talking about.
Comparatives and superlatives
Adjectives can show degrees of quantity and quality with their comparative and superlative forms. A comparative form of an adjective is usually made either by adding er to the end of the word or by putting more in front of it. The superlative form is made by adding est to the end of the word or by putting most in front of the word.
One of the rules for using comparatives and superlatives is that a comparative form should refer to only two objects. A superlative form should refer to three or more objects. Look at the following examples.
Wrong: He looked at the map for Midville and Danville and found that Midville is the closest city to us.
In this sentence there are only two cities involved: Midville and Danville. The sentence erronously uses the superlative form: closest. The sentence should read as follows:
Right: He looked at the map for Midville and Danville and found that Midville is the closer city to us.
Here is another example:
Wrong: Sue was the oldest of the twin sisters.
Right: Sue was the older of the twin sisters.
Using adverbs to modify verbs
One of the common mistakes made in spoken English is to use an adjective rather than an adverb to modify a verb, as in the following sentence: He drives careless. The sentence should read: He drives carelessly. Make sure that the words modifying verbs are adverbs rather than adjectives.
Sometimes a phrase will use a verb or a form of a verb but will actually act as a noun in a sentence. Verbs that end in ing and function as nouns are called gerunds. Gerunds and gerund phrases can act as nouns in a sentence, as in the following:
Writing is a difficult task for many people.
The word “writing” is a gerund because it is a form of the verb “write.” It does not act as a verb in the sentence, however. Rather, it is the subject of the sentence. The following is an example of a gerund phrase in a sentence:
Writing a good advertisement takes some creativity.
The phrase, “Writing a good advertisement,” is a gerund phrase because it contains a gerund and is the subject of the sentence. If gerunds can act like nouns, can they then have modifiers? The answer is yes, and that sometimes presents a problem, as in the following sentence:
Wrong: She disapproved of me going to that movie.
The reason this sentence is wrong is that “me” modifies the gerund phrase, “going to that movie.” “Me” is the objective case of the pronoun, and for the sentence to be correct, it needs the possessive case of the pronoun.
Right: She disapproved of my going to the movie.
Use of pronouns after like or as
When pronouns occur after the conjunctions than or as, they should be subjective pronouns if they are the subject of an understood verb.
I had a better understanding of the subject than he (did).
Mary cannot recite the Gettysburg Address as fast as I (can).
Proper use of words
Part of the Grammar, Spelling, Punctuation and Diction Exam involves selecting the correct word or words in the context of a sentence. The following items include some of the words that you might find on the GSPD.
Less, fewer. Use fewer with countable items; use less with amounts or things not countable.
Affect, effect. Effect is a verb meaning to produce change, or it is a noun meaning result. Affect is almost always a verb that means to pose or to influence, but it can also be a noun referring to an emotional state. These are two of the most confusing words in English, but careful writers will learn to sort them out.
Like, as. As is used to introduce clauses; like is a preposition and requires an object.
Principal, principle. Principal means someone or something first in rank, authority, or importance. ‘Principle’ means a fundmental truth, law or doctrine.
Over, more than. Over and under are best used for spatial relationships. When using figures, more than and less than are better choices.
Whose, who’s. Who’s is the contraction of who is. Whose is the possessive form of who.
Its, it’s. It’s is the contraction of it is. Its is the possessive form of the word it.
Lay, lie. Lie is a state of being, while lay is the action word. Lay needs an object to be used correctly.
Your, you’re. Your is a pronoun which means belonging to you; you’re (a pronoun plus a verb) is a contraction of you are.
There, they’re, their. Their is a possessive pronoun; there is an adverb indicating direction; they’re is a contraction of the words they and are.
Medium, media. Medium is the singular form of this word and requires a singular verb; media is the plural form and requires a plural verb.
Accept, except. Except means exclude; accept means to receive.