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  • Sarah Rose

14 Confusing Grammar Bits

[Listen to an audio version of this blog HERE.]

I write for work and fun, so sometimes language annoys me. I'll run into some funny grammar question like, "should I use over or more than?" Then I Google which is correct and down the rabbit hole I go. I put together this list of useful grammar rules partially for myself and partially for you, my sweet, dear, beloved readers. ❤️

1. Over vs. More Than

"More than" means "in excess of," while "over" means "more than in degree, quantity, or extent. Although it's no longer official, over is widely considered incorrect when used in front of a number; the correct term is more than. So one would write, "The school has more than 5,000 students enrolled for the fall semester."

Meanwhile, you should use over in relation to degree, quantity, or extent, as exemplified below:

-Over 5 degrees Fahrenheit

-Over a century ago

-Over a mile

If this seems vague, rest in peace. In 2014, the AP Stylebook changed its stance on using "over" to mean "more than," so they are technically interchangeable, although grammar sticklers might disagree.

2. Who vs. That

This is an extremely common writing mistake. Who should be used when referencing a person. That should be used when referencing a thing. That should also be used when referencing a class or type of person, like a sports team.

- "She is the person who cut me off in traffic."

- NOT: "She is the person that cut me off in traffic."

3. Between vs. Among

I hear this misstated verbally more than I see it written incorrectly, but it's worth addressing. "Between" is used to refer to two (or sometimes more) things that are clearly separated, and the word "among" is used to refer two things that aren't clearly separated because they're part of a group or mass of objects.

- "She struggled to choose between going to school or skipping class."

- "She struggled to choose among the many menu options."

4. Title Capitalization

Titles are tricky since different outlets and publications use different rules. But a resource called Titlecap breaks it down succinctly:

- Capitalize the first and the last word.

- Capitalize nouns, pronouns, adjectives, verbs, and adverbs.

- Use lowercase articles (a, an, the), coordinating conjunctions (and, but, or), and prepositions (a word governing, and usually preceding, a noun or pronoun and expressing a relation to another word or element in the clause, as in “the man on the platform.") If you're still unsure what a preposition is, watch this fun video mashup.

- Lowercase the 'to' in an infinitive ("Learn to play guitar").

Easy, right?

5. En Dash vs. Em Dash

Both "–" and "—" are versions of the dash: "–" is the en dash, and "—" or "--" are both versions of the em dash. Both can be used to signify a break in a sentence or set off parenthetical statements.

The en dash can also be used to represent time spans or differentiation, such as, "That will take 10–20 minutes."

The em dash can also be used to set off quotations, such as, "The greatest glory in living lies not in never falling, but in rising every time we fall." --Nelson Mandela"'

6. Farther vs. Further

People often use "farther" and "further" interchangeably to mean "at a greater distance."

However, there are subtle differences between the two. "Farther" is used to refer to physical distances, while "further" is used more to refer to figurative and nonphysical distances. So while Paris is "farther" away than Rome, a marketing team falls "further" away from its leads goal. To muddy the waters a bit, the word "further" is preferred for all uses in the U.K., Australia, Canada, and elsewhere in the Commonwealth of Nations.)

The word "further" can also be used as an adjective or as an adverb to mean "additionally." For example, "I have no further questions." Merriam Webster breaks down further/farther further, here.

7. Semicolons

While commas are commonly overused, semicolons are usually misused. Semicolons are meant to connect two independent clauses that could stand on their own and are closely related. For example, you could use a semicolon in the sentence: "Call me tomorrow; I'll have an answer for you by then."

Notice that each clause could be its own sentence, but it makes sense for them to be joined. You could also use a comma and a coordinating conjunction to link the two sentences, such as "and," "but," or "or."

Additionally, semicolons can be used to separate items in a list. This is probably my most common use of semicolons. For example: "You can order a sandwich with bacon, egg, and cheese; ham, egg, tomato, and cheese; or tomato, lettuce, and avocado."

8. Assure vs. Insure vs. Ensure

Each of these words have to do with "making an outcome sure," which is why they're so often mixed up. However, they are not interchangeable.

"To assure" means to promise or say with confidence. For example, "I assure you that he's good at his job."

"To ensure" means to make certain. For example, "Ensure you finish your homework this weekend."

Finally, "to insure" means protect against risk by paying an insurance company. Everyone knows what insurance is, or you should, since it's legally required. "I insure my car/house/motorcycle/boat because the law requires it."

9. “If I was” or “If I were”?

This one is something I notice people stumble over in everyday speech. The distinction seems confusion, but it's really not.

“If I were” is for situations when you are imagining situations, usually followed by a sentence on what you would do in that situation. For example "If I were an elephant, I'd have a better memory."

“If I was” is more commonly used for situations or statements that could have happened in the past or now. "If I was rude, I apologize." or "If he was playing that well, he could be a professional."

10. Effect vs. Affect

This one is fairly straightforward: effect is a noun (a class of people, places, or things), and affect is a verb (an action, state, or occurrence).

An easy way to remember the difference is that affect is related to actions (both start with A).

Effect usually pertains to "cause and effect." Cause ends with "e", and effect starts with "e," which is a cheesy, but effective.

11. Emigrate vs. Immigrate

The distinction between these two words is straightforward:

Emigrate means to move away from a city or country.

Immigrate means to move into a country from somewhere else.

So, while my father emigrated from El Salvador, he immigrated to the United States.

12. I.e. vs. E.g.

I.e. and e.g. are both abbreviations of Latin terms, although they are not interchangeable.

I.e. stands for "id est" and means “in other words.”

E.g. stands for "exempli gratia," or, "for example."

"She had a penchant for engaging in harmful habits, e.g., smoking, drinking, and gambling."

"He is a vegan, i.e., he doesn't eat any animal products."

14. Lie vs. Lay

Do you lay on the sofa or lie on the sofa? Do you lay a book on a table or lie a book on a table?

The past tense of the verb to lie is the same as the present tense of the verb to lay. So you lie on the sofa (currently), but last week you lay on the sofa. You lay a book on a table (present tense), or you have laid the book on the table. Just remember that the present tense (something you're doing now) is to lie, while the past tense is to lay.

P.S. Check out some of my favorite language-based podcasts: Grammar Girl, Lexicon Valley, and Code Switch.


Sarah Rose