Category Archives: Grammar Notes

“Moot Point” vs. “Mute Point”

Often in print (or on Facebook) you will see people refer to a mute point, when they really mean a moot point. This common grammar mistake is referred to as a malapropism (the use of the wrong word in a common idiom), and is also an eggcorn (similar to free reign vs.free rein).

The word moot has caused lots of confusion over the years. Originally, a moot argument described any argument that was debatable — for which there was no clear answer — and students of debates would discuss such arguments in a moot. Over the years, since such discussions were generally about unsolvable problems and not actually deciding anything, the word moot slowly evolved to its modern usage to describe a discussion that is irrelevant.

So, the word moot now means the opposite of what it originally meant, and it’s too late to fix it. If you try to use the word moot in its original sense, you’ll simply confuse people. As a result, it’s probably just best to avoid using the word altogether.

However, you can’t avoid running across the common usage today: moot point refers to a point of discussion that has been made irrelevant (the time for decision is already past, or any decision on the point would be overridden by some other factor).

A “mute point” is just an understandable mistake — since moot and mute are homophones, or at least almost homophones, one who doesn’t know the word moot may replace it with mute. This mistake is understandable, since if the point were mute, then it would be silent, or of low volume (like a muted trumpet), and so it makes at least a little bit of sense.

A mistake like this is called an eggcornOther examples of eggcorns: “free reign” for “free rein”, “shoe-in” for “shoo-in”, “peak my interest” for “pique my interest”, and so on. Just watch your Facebook wall and you’ll see them flow past every day. These are good examples of errors that, once seen, cannot be “unseen” for the rest of your life.

Knowing proper grammatical style can help you in daily life, in your professional life, and on the SAT, ACT, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, and GRE. If you are planning to take any of these tests, contact Bobby Hood Test Prep for more information!

 

“That” vs. “Which”

The difference between “that” and “which”, and how to choose between them, has been the subject of much debate. It took me a long time to finally understand the distinction, but once you do understand the difference, the clarity of your writing will improve significantly.

You can use this very simple rule of thumb: in most cases, the correct word you want to use to introduce a clause is that (not which), and whenever you use which, it must be preceded by a comma. The choice is between that or “[comma], which” — and if you’re not sure, use that.

So, why is that appropriate in most cases instead of which?  That is used to introduce restrictive clauses: clauses required for the sentence to be grammatically and logically sensible. Which, on the other hand, is used to introduce non-restrictive clauses: clauses that give additional information that is not necessary to the meaning of the sentence.

Consider the following sentence:

  • “My car that is parked out front is the Batmobile.”

In this sentence, the clause “that is parked out front” is restrictive — it helps define “My car” by identifying that although I have more than one car, the one parked out front happens to be the Batmobile.

Compare to this sentence:

  • “My car, which is parked out front, is the Batmobile.”

Notice the difference in meaning? In this sentence, which introduces a non-restrictive clause. This sentence tells you that I own only one car, and it’s the Batmobile. And, incidentally, it’s parked out front, but you didn’t need to know that for the meaning of “My car” to be clear.

There are several ways to make sure you get this right:

  • First, always use a comma before which and never use a comma before that. This will ensure that your reader knows that you intend which to be non-restrictive and that to be restrictive, as they should be.
  • Second, if you’re unsure, use that and not which.
  • Third, try removing the clause from the sentence. If it can be removed from the sentence without changing the logical meaning (if it’s extraneous, additional information), then use which; otherwise, use that.

Knowing proper grammatical style can help you in daily life, in your professional life, and on the SAT, ACT, GMAT, and GRE. If you are planning to do test prep for any of these tests, contact Bobby Hood Test Prep for more information!

 

Zeugma

Although it’s not tested on standardized tests, and so isn’t directly helpful for test prep, zeugma is a fun grammatical trick to have in your repertoire and a laugh at.

Zeugma (pronounced “zoog-ma”) occurs when one word in a sentence governs the meaning of two or more other words in the sentence and as a result is used in two different senses at once, creating a dissonance that could be considered a form of irony.

Another word often used for this concept is syllepsis, but the distinctions between the two are a subject of much disagreement, so it’s easiest and safest to use zeugma in all cases.

The simplest way to describe zeugma is to show it in action.  The first sentence of this post, for example, uses zeugma: “have in your repertoire” and “have a laugh at” are two different idioms that are not often combined.

Here are some examples from music, literature, and popular culture:

  • “He’s got one hand on the steering wheel, the other on my heart.” (Taylor Swift, “Our Song”)
  • “…both how I’m living and my nose is large” (Digital Underground, “The Humpty Dance”)
  • “There’s people on the street using guns and knives, taking drugs and each others’ lives.” (Flight of the Conchords, “Think About It”)
  • “My teeth and ambitions are bared; be prepared!” (Scar, The Lion King)
  • “She blew my nose and then she blew my mind.” (The Rolling Stones, “Honky Tonk Women”)
  • “You held your breath and the door for me.” (Alanis Morissette, “Head Over Feet”)
  • “You are free to execute your laws, and your citizens, as you see fit.” (Star Trek: The Next Generation, “Angel One”)
  • “You can put me out on the street / put me out with no shoes on my feet / But put me out, put me out, put me out of misery.” (The Rolling Stones, “Beast of Burden”)

Knowing proper grammatical style can help you in daily life, in your professional life, and on the SAT, ACT, GMAT, and GRE. If you are planning to take any of these tests, contact Bobby Hood Test Prep for more information!

“My friend and I” vs. “Me and my friend”

One mistake many people (not just high school students) commonly make is saying my friend and I when they should say me and my friend, or vice versa.

This becomes such a source of confusion because, as you grow up, parents and teachers constantly correct you when you say “Me and my friend are going to go hang out.”

Well-meaning adults correct you and say, “You mean my friend and I are going to go hang out.” And, as a result, you learn that my friend and I is the correct phrasing in this instance, but you don’t learn in which situations you are supposed to use it.

So, as a result, for fear of correction, you say my friend and I in EVERY situation, rather than just when it is correct. This over-reaction is called “hypercorrection” — correcting an error even when the error isn’t occurring.

My friend and I is the correct phrase when it’s used as the subject of the sentence, but not when it’s the object.  Consider:

  • John and I are going to go hang out.
  • A new friend is coming over to hang out with John and me.

In the second example, since the phrase is the object of a preposition, the correct use is me instead of I.

How can you make sure you don’t repeat this error? Just eliminate the “friend” from the sentence and see how it sounds:  “… hang out with I” or “hang out with me“? Now it’s clear that the latter is correct.

The proper use of I and me is tested on the SAT, ACT, GMAT, and GRE. Knowing proper grammatical style can help you in daily life, in your professional life, and on standardized tests. If you are planning to take any of these tests, contact Bobby Hood Test Prep for more information!

“Like” vs. “As”

The words like and as are used for comparisons, but people often use the word like for all comparisons, instead of using the appropriate word for each circumstance.

Like is a preposition that should be used to compare two nouns or noun phrases, and is used like an adjective (to modify one noun and show its comparability to another noun.

As, on the other hand, is a conjunction that is used to connect and compare verbs or verb clauses, and is used like an adverb (to describe or compare the manner of an action being taken).

Consider:

  • “To John, his cell phone is like a piece of sports equipment — one day and the screen’s already cracked.”
  • “John treats his cell phone as he treats his baseball glove — toss it on the floor when he’s done. No surprise it’s so scratched up.”

Just remember, whenever you’re comparing actions, use as instead of like:

  • Although many adults think modern pop music is like the product of a marketing committee pandering to poor taste, modern pop music isn’t any worse than it was 30 years ago: young people simply have different tastes from adults, as they always have.

The difference between like and as is tested on the SAT, ACT, GMAT, and GRE. Knowing proper grammatical style can help you in daily life, in your professional life, and on standardized tests. If you are planning to take any of these tests, contact Bobby Hood Test Prep for more information!

“Who” vs. “Whom”

It’s easy to get who and whom confused, but there is a very easy trick to remember the difference.

Whenever you are about to use who or whom in a sentence, try replacing it with he or him (or they or them), and then use the one that sounds right. 

Who is a nominative pronoun, and acts as the subject in a sentence or clause, while whom is an objective pronoun, and acts as the object in a sentence or clause. But for some reason it’s easier to remember that the same is true of he versus him or they versus them, and naturally choose the right one.

Just remember that the ones with the “m” on the end (whomhimthem) all are used the same way.

Consider:

“Violet Crawley, Dowager Countess of Grantham, is the character who always steals every scene.”

Note that he (or she, in this case) would sound right replacing the who, while him (or her, in this case) would sound wrong.

“Thomas Barrow, on the other hand, is the valet whom I love to hate.”

Note that here, “him I love to hate” works, while “he I love to hate” makes no sense.

It sounds very weird when you replace the word, but it works very well.

There’s an even more important strategy for who and whom on the SAT, ACT, and GMAT, and it’s very simple.

When these tests ask you to choose between who and whom, what answer do you think they expect a low-scoring student to choose? Not what you would think. They will expect that a low-scoring student will choose whom because they don’t know the rules for who and whom and so will choose whom because it sounds more “intellectual.”

Therefore, when in doubt on the SAT, ACT, or GMAT, choose who and you’ll likely get the answer correct.

Knowing proper grammatical style can help you in daily life, in your professional life, and on the SAT, ACT, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, and GRE. If you are planning to take any of these tests, contact Bobby Hood Test Prep for more information!

 

“Free Rein” vs. “A Monarch’s Reign”

The words rein and reign are homophones (they sound the same but are spelled differently and have different meanings). They are misused often in popular media (and in Facebook posts).

Reign refers to the rule of a monarch over a kingdom. It is usually used as a noun (“Queen Elizabeth II’s reign has lasted just over 61 years, as of last week”) or as a verb (“Queen Elizabeth II began her reign on February 6, 1952″).

Rein refers to the straps you hold when riding a horse to control speed and direction. It also functions as a noun (“Keep aholt of them reins, Hoss!”) or as a verb (” You better rein in those kids of yours before they get out of control.”)

The confusion often occurs because most people are unfamiliar with the word rein, and substitute reign into phrases that properly use the word rein instead, particularly into the phrase free rein.

Free rein is a phrase indicating that you have loosened your grip on the reins of a horse to allow free movement. Thus, employees (or kids) might think they have been given free rein while the boss (or parents) are away.

Often the phrase free rein is incorrectly phrased as free reign, which is a “non-standard” use and should be avoided. Free reign is an easy mistake to make, since rein and reign are homophones and, worse, because the phrase free reign seems to make sense at first glance. However, reign refers to the period of time when a monarch is in power, and generally a monarch has very strong control over the kingdom, and so the idea of giving free reign to a monarch doesn’t actually make sense.

A fun word to describe the mistake of using free reign rather than free rein is “eggcorn”. An eggcorn is a type of malapropism in which a non-standard phrase that results when a similar-sounding word is substituted for the correct word, resulting in a phrase that has a different meaning, but is still somewhat plausible.

Other examples of eggcorns: “mute point” for “moot point”, “shoe-in” for “shoo-in”, “peak my interest” for “pique my interest”, and so on. Just watch your Facebook wall and you’ll see them flow past every day. These are good examples of errors that, once seen, cannot be “unseen” for the rest of your life.

Knowing proper grammatical style can help you in daily life, in your professional life, and on the SAT, ACT, GMAT, LSAT, MCAT, and GRE. If you are planning to take any of these tests, contact Bobby Hood Test Prep for more information!

Myth: Never End a Sentence with a Preposition

There are many so-called grammatical “rules” that are simply myths. The rule that well-written English sentences should never end with a preposition is one that many self-appointed Grammar Guards insist on.

However, the rule against ending sentences with prepositions is a remnant of Latin grammar, and it robs the English language of the flexibility that makes it so effective to use in writing.

Of course, it’s always best to write simple, declarative sentences that end on a strong note, so this isn’t a tactic you should often avail yourself of. But it’s perfectly acceptable to do so, and not something to shy away from.

Otherwise, you might end up writing awkward sentences:

“Breaking Bad is a show I’m very fond of.”

versus

“Breaking Bad is a show of which I am very fond.”

If you’re writing a cover letter or a resume, you should probably avoiding ending sentences with prepositions, since the reader might not be aware that this supposed rule is simply a myth. But otherwise, feel free to let words flow as they may, and prepositions stay wherever they end up.

Knowing proper grammatical style can help you in daily life, in your professional life, and on the SAT, ACT, GMAT, and GRE. If you are planning to take any of these tests, contact Bobby Hood Test Prep for more information!

“Lie” vs. “Lay”

The difference between the verbs lie and lay can be very confusing, so it’s worth taking a look at the difference periodically to make sure you are using them correctly.

Of course, both words have multiple meanings, but the meaning that creates confusion is the “reclining / positioned flat” meaning.

The technical difference between the two is that the infinitive to lay is transitive, and so requires an object, while the infinitive to lie is intransitive, and does not take an object.

In PRESENT TENSE, you lay something down, while you or an object simply lie down.

Consider:

“Hang on a sec while I lay my iPad here on the table, then I can come lie down on the couch and watch Walking Dead with you.”

Now the iPad and the other technical gadgets lie lonesome on the table while you lie on the couch, and lay your hand on the remote control in case the show gets too scary and you need to pause it.

PAST TENSE makes it more complicated. In past tense, lay becomes laid, while lie becomes lay (!!!)

So, in past tense, the choice is between laid (past tense of to lay) and lay (past tense of to lie).

Consider:

“When she was about to turn on Walking Dead, I laid my iPad on the table and lay down on the couch to watch the show.”

Then the iPad and the other gadgets lay on the table while I laid my hand on the remote…

PERFECT TENSE sounds awkward with these verbs, regardless: “The iPad and the other gadgets have laid on the table for hours while I have lain on the couch watching Walking Dead.”

You can see confusion come up with these verbs all the time in literature and popular media:

The popular childhood prayer “Now I lay me down to sleep…” is technically correct (while you can lay yourself down, you can’t lay down in present tense).

Pop songs almost always get it wrong: “Lay Down Sally” (Eric Clapton) should be “Lie Down Sally” (unless he’s carrying her to  bed); “It’s Ecstasy when You Lay Down Next to Me” (Barry White) should be “It’s Ecstasy When You Lie Down Next to Me”, and so on. But Information Society (NERDS!) got it right with “Lay All Your Love on Me”.

The best way to remember it is to think for a second about all the ways lay is used in regular speech — “lay a bet”, “lay it on me”, “lay down the law”, “lay it on thick” — there’s always an object for the verb.

The phrases to try to eliminate from your speech and writing: “I’m gonna go lay down for a while” or “I’m gonna go lay out in the sun” (use “lie” instead, plus some sunscreen in the latter case).

The difference between lay and lie is tested on the SAT, ACT, GMAT, and GRE. Knowing proper grammatical style can help you in daily life, in your professional life, and on the SAT, ACT, GMAT, and GRE. If you are planning to take any of these tests, contact Bobby Hood Test Prep for more information!

Subjunctive Mood

The subjunctive mood can be confusing to understand, but it’s actually very fun if used correctly.

The subjunctive mood is used to express things that aren’t (yet) true: desires, needs, purposes, suggestions, commands, or “counter-factual conditions” (lies).

In the subjunctive mood, you change the form of the verbs to indicate that the thing being discussed has not yet happened, or is a wish, desire, hypothetical, or command:

“After reading his Facebook updates, I suggested that he see a counselor to resolve some personal issues.”

  • Note that the verb form changes from sees to see — the simplest form of the verb.

“If I were Batman, I would use my powers for evil.”

  • Note that the verb form changes from was to were (and will to would) to indicate that this is only a hypothetical situation. Sadly.

“I demand that you be more respectful of my authori-tay.” (Loosely paraphrased from Eric Cartman.)

  • Note that the verb form changes from are to be (again, to express a desire). 

Knowing proper grammatical style can help you in daily life, in your professional life, and on the SAT, ACT, GMAT, and GRE. If you are planning to take any of these tests, contact Bobby Hood Test Prep for more information!

“If” vs. “Whether”

The distinction between if and whether is interesting and important, but not many people know or observe the distinction. However, using if and whether correctly is essential for clarity in writing and speaking.

The word if should be used only to introduce a conditional statement.

The word whether should be used when you are discussing a choice to be made.

Consider the difference between the following two sentences:

“I know that if I eat this large pizza with peppers and anchovies right before bed, I’ll probably have some strange dreams and feel bad tomorrow.”

“I can’t decide whether to eat this large pizza with peppers and anchovies, or just go straight to bed.”

In contrast, the incorrect usage would be to say “I can’t decide if I’m going to eat this large pizza…”

If you have trouble telling the difference, look to see if there’s a then to go with the if — is there a result that will happen if the if is fulfilled? If so, use if, and if you’re discussing a choice to be made, use whether.

Knowing the proper grammatical use of words can help you in daily life, in your professional life, and on the SAT, ACT, GMAT, and GRE. If you are planning to take any of these tests, contact Bobby Hood Test Prep for more information!

“Affect” vs. “Effect”

In almost all cases, “affect” should be used as a verb, and “effect” should be used as a noun:

“A high SAT score can *affect* your chances of getting into the college you want, because it has the *effect* of making colleges rank your application highly.”

Part of the confusion with these two words comes from the fact that “effect” can be used as a verb in special cases, generally as part of the phrase “effect a change”:

“The student’s SAT tutoring is likely to *effect* a change in her chances of receiving a scholarship.”

And conversely, the word “affect” can be used as a noun in special cases to mean “the display of an emotional response”:

“One of the symptoms of severe depression is a flat *affect* — the failure to display emotion on one’s face in response to negative or positive events.”

Knowing the proper grammatical use of words can help you in daily life, in your professional life, and on the SAT, ACT, GMAT, and GRE. If you are planning to take any of these tests, contact me for more information!