Updated: Jul 29, 2020
I am part of the ‘generation grammar forgotted’; one of thousands of Gen X’ers and Y’ers who were never taught English grammar. In the 70s through to the early noughties, English grammar was dropped from Australian school curricula as part of the whole language, ‘learn as you go’ approach.
As it turns out, it’s not easy to learn grammar by osmosis. Throughout my high school years I knew what a noun was, what a verb was—and that was it. My early writing was a haze of red underlines in Word. It wasn’t until I began to write seriously did I actively make an effort to wrap my head around the rules of the English language. Almost everything I know is self-taught.
In my journey of grammar discovery, I encountered a few hacks that have improved my understanding—and my writing. Here they are, for you:
1. Who and whom
Not sure whether to use who or whom? Who is used to refer to the subject of a sentence, whom refers to the object of the verb or preposition. If you insert the pronoun (he/she, him/her) in place of the who/whom you can figure out which one to use.
If the pronoun is he/she, use who.
If the pronoun is him/her, use whom.
Two ways to remember: 1) Him and whom both end in ‘m’. 2) He/she have fewer letters, so use who. Him/her has more letters, so use whom.
Whom/who did you mean?
I meant her – makes sense, therefore use whom.
I meant she – doesn’t make sense, therefore don’t use who.
Who/whom did that?
He/she did it – makes sense, therefore who
Him/her did it – doesn’t make sense, therefore don’t use whom.
The same applies when referring to groups of people.
If the pronoun is they, use who.
If the pronoun is them, use whom. Same ‘m’ rule applies.
Tell me about the people who/whom you met today.
Incorrect: I met they today.
Correct: I met them today – makes sense, therefore use whom.
If you're hunting for more tips on the craft of writing itself, you can find more here.
2. Possessive apostrophes
If you’re constantly getting ‘it’s’ and ‘its’’ confused, here’s a neat trick: think of the apostrophe (’) as a little ‘i’. ‘It’s’ becomes ‘it is’, if it makes sense in your sentence then you’ve got it right.
It’s/its’ freezing today
It is freezing today – makes sense, therefore correct.
Itsi freezing today – don’t make sense, therefore not correct.
3. Affect and effect
They may sound the same, but their meaning is subtly different. ‘Affect’ is used as a verb (most of the time); it means to change or influence something. It connects the subject and object of your sentences.
‘Effect’ is a noun and refers to a result or consequence. It is often followed by the word ‘of’ (i.e. the effect of, had an effect of).
Here’s a simple rule to remember it:
Affect is the Action.
Effect is the End result.
Drought is one of the effects of climate change in Australia.
Climate change is affecting Australia’s weather patterns.
I like the effect of drinking coffee.
Drinking coffee affects my concentration.
Tip: if you’re really stuck, try substituting the meanings of either affect or effect into the sentence.
I like the influence of drinking coffee – hmm, that’s not quite right.
I like the result of drinking coffee – yes, this works.
Drinking coffee results my brain – I don’t think so.
Drinking coffee influences my concentration – better.
4. That and which
‘That’ is a restrictive clause. Meaning that when you use it, the clause that follows it is integral to the sentence. Take it out and the sentence’s meaning changes.
Storms that thunder scare my cat.
In this instance, the clause that follows ‘that’ is integral to the sentence. If I remove the clause, I’m left with: storms scare my cat, which is not the same thing.
‘Which’ is a nonrestrictive clause, meaning that it should you take the words follow it out, the meaning of the sentence won’t change.
Rain is forecast for today, which is normal in August, and I forgot my umbrella.
Take out ‘which is normal in August’ and the meaning of the sentence hasn’t changed.
Tip: Treat ‘which’ like a interjection. If you could put the words in parentheses (aka brackets), then use ‘which’.
5. Passive voice
I’ve already touched on this in another blog, so I’ll give it a brief summary here. If you’re looking to identify passive voice in your writing, insert “by zombies” after the verb of the sentence. If the sentence works, it’s passive. If it doesn’t, you’ve got active voice.
Passive: The brains were eaten (by zombies). Makes sense, therefore passive voice.
Active: Zombies ate (by zombies) the brains. Is illogical, therefore active voice.
Cue the zombie hordes.