I’ve learned that people judge others on the smallest things. I do. Typos mean you’re careless, and bad grammar means you might as well be wearing a tall pointy hat while you rake those dukes across some scandalized keyboard. At least, that’s what people are thinking. I think.
Anyway, good grammar helps. I put together a few words that I often find troublesome. Or, as you might say, obstreperous (found that little beaut at the bottom of my new thesaurus).
Here they are in no particular order:
Who & Whom.
Is whom even a word? Just kidding. The British believe it is. As stout Americans we don’t need it so much, but that doesn’t mean we’re not afraid to toss it around when it feels right.
Use whom as the object of the preposition (“To whom it may concern”) and as the object of the verb (“The woman whom we saw at the game”). It’s also the subject of a complimentary infinitive…so I’m told.
For everything else, use who.
(One more note, some suggest substituting he or him. If he then use who, and if him then use whom. But there are some exceptions to this, so it doesn’t always work.)
Whose & Who’s.
Who’s is the contraction for who is, while whose is the possessive of who. “Who’s going to the game tonight, and by the way, whose car are we taking?”
When in doubt, write it out. “Who is going to the game tonight” works. But “who is car are we taking” doesn’t.
Who’s is also a contraction for who is or who has. As an example, see how I used it in my references below.
Its & It’s
Similar to the above. It’s is the contraction for it is. And its is the possessive of it.
Affect & Effect.
Mostly effect is a noun, as in “personal effects.” And affect is a verb, as in “crashing cars will affect your health.”
Hanged & Hung.
“People are hanged; pictures and the like are hung” (Bill Bryson).
e.g. & i.e.
e.g. is for example, while i.e. is a restatement.
etc. & et al.
etc. is typically a list of like things, while et al. is a list of like people.
A lot & alot.
One is two words; the other is none.
Bill Bryson’s (short) Dictionary of Troublesome Words. Might just be the best nonfiction writer who’s ever lived—that is, in my humble but accurate opinion.
Strunk & White’s Elements of Style. Classic and short(er). Everyone references this. And it’s only seven dollars.
Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style. Good and fresh, but dense. This is a sit-down and read-through book. Not for the faint of heart.