Learning proper grammar is one of the toughest parts when studying a language. Even if it’s your own language, casual conversation, slang, and other things can distort our understanding of what is correct and what is incorrect grammar.
Break your bad grammar habits by learning, once and for all, the right answers to your most common grammar questions!
If you’re still having trouble finding the information you’re looking for, you can study the most essential English grammar tips in this course, or take an introduction to English grammar class to learn the basics.
Grammar Question #1 – Alot or a lot?
One of the most commonly made errors in the English language is the use of alot instead of a lot. This phrase should be written as two words : a lot. It is the combination of “a” and “lot,” meant to denote a quantity. The word alot is not a real quantity.
Correct: She had a lot of books.
Incorrect: She had alot of books.
Grammar Question #2 – A or an?
A and an are both indefinite articles, used to denote general usage of a noun, rather than specific. For instance: a book, rather than the book. But when do you differentiate between “a” and “an”? The answer is very simple. “A” should be used if the following word starts with a consonant sound, and “an” should be used if the following word starts with a vowel sound.
Correct: He thought he saw an alien in the desert, but it was only a coyote.
Incorrect: He thought he saw a alien in the desert, but it was only an coyote.
We specify consonant and vowel sound because sometimes, a word can start with a vowel, but sound like a consonant. This is mostly the case for certain acronyms. For instance, it should be “a UFO” and not “an UFO,” because the acronym “UFO” is pronounced “yu-eff-oh.” The letter “y” is a considered a vowel, but if it’s at the beginning of a word it’s consider a consonant, since it makes a consonant sound.
If we were to say what UFO stands for instead of reading its acronym, we would say “an unidentified flying object,” because “unidentified” starts with a vowel sound.
Grammar Question #3 – Its or it’s?
This one can be tricky, but the solution is easy to memorize. While its is the possessive form of it, the word it’s is a contraction of it is or it has. They’re used for completely different things! If the sentence doesn’t make sense with the added is or has after it, then you should remove the apostrophe.
Correct: It’s hard to tell if it’s going to rain.
Incorrect: The duck lead it’s ducklings across the road.
Correct: I like my car, but its paint is starting to peel.
Incorrect: Its the first day of Spring break.
Grammar Question #4 – Who or whom?
Both who and whom are pronouns. The difference is that who refers to a clause’s subject, while whom refers to its object. The easiest way to remember this is by checking if the words “him” or “her” are compatible with your sentence.
For instance: “Who/Whom did you invite to the party?” The grammatically correct response to this question would be “I invited her/him,” not “I invited he/she.” This means you would use “whom” in your sentence.
Correct: To whom am I speaking? Who is your manager?
Incorrect: Who did you invite to the party? Whom is bringing the birthday cake?
Grammar Question #5 – Affect or effect?
The confusion between affect and effect i s an extremely common one. For more detail, consult this grammar guide that outlines the differences between affect and effect.
Simply put, the word affect means “to produce an effect,” and the word effect means “a change that occurs as a result of something.”
Correct: The rejection didn’t really affect her.
Incorrect: The new grading policy will have a negative affect on everyone.
Correct: What kind of effect will this bill have on the economy?
Incorrect: He didn’t think the rain would effect his mood so much.
Grammar Question #6 – Accept or except?
Just like the difference between affect and effect, the difference between accept and except can be a tricky one to understand. To accept is to agree, or consent, to a person, an idea, a situation, or a thing. The word except means “excluding,” or “other than.”
Correct: She surprised him by accepting his apology.
Incorrect: Everyone can come to the party, accept for him.
Correct: The dog tore up everything in the living room except for his toy!
Incorrect: He wondered if the university would except him.
Grammar Question #7 – Then or than?
The difference between then and than is simple. Just remember that then is an indication of time, while than is an indication of comparison.
Correct: He wasn’t sure what to say then, so he walked off the stage.
Incorrect: My slice of pizza is bigger then yours!
Correct: He took way longer during the test than anyone else.
Incorrect: First she finished her homework, than she played video games.
Grammar Question #8 – Lie or lay?
Lie and lay may sound similar, interchangeable even, but they are used to describe completely different actions. To lie means to position oneself in a reclining position. To lie also means to not tell the truth, but that isn’t the definition of the word we’re using here. When someone lies down, or when we say someone lied down, it means they are or were reclining.
On the other hand, to lay is the action of placing something down. When someone lays or laid something down, it means they took that object and set it down somewhere.
Correct: I just want to lie down after that long run.
Incorrect: Can you lie the book down on the table, please?
Correct: If you lay your homework on the kitchen counter, it’ll get wet
Incorrect: Go lay on the couch and watch TV.
Have more burning grammar questions that you need answered? There’s a whole section on grammar tips and good English language practices in this ESL troubleshooting course.
You can also check out this advanced English language grammar course to tackle the tougher concepts.