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4 Grammar Mistakes You Should Stop Making

"Let's eat grandpa. Let's eat, grandpa" text

Law students pride themselves on having an above-average grasp of grammar rules. We’re confident in our knowledge of the difference between there, they’re and their; we smugly correct Facebook statuses that misuse ‘your’. As law students we spend most of our time occupied with reading and writing and our future careers will be solely concerned with deriving meaning from single semicolons, so this grammar affinity makes sense.

But beyond the obvious, how well do you know your grammar rules? Would you be able to help out a friend, proofread a client letter or spot these mistakes in your own work?

Here are four grammar mistakes you should stop making…

1. Everybody take their seats

The subject in a sentence must agree with the verb. If the subject is a single thing, the verb must also be singular. This is easy with sentences like, “I am going to eat my hair if I have to read about Constitutional guarantees.” It doesn’t make sense to say, “I are going to eat my hair.”

This gets confusing when you come across subjects that are singular, but seem like they should be plural because they refer to more than one person, like ‘everyone’. The sentence should read, “everyone is sad because the assignment is difficult.” It doesn’t make sense to say, “everyone are sad.”

Similarly, the sentence, “everybody take their seats,” should read, “everybody take his or her seat.”

Because the subject is singular, the verb must also be singular.

2. Its just so easy

Apostrophes are used for two reasons. They show possession (“Kirby’s decision was in the minority”) and show that letters have been deleted from contractions (“I wouldn’t understand Constitutional Law if I hadn’t seen The Castle”).

Apostrophes should not be used to denote plurals. The sentence, “textbook’s make excellent doorstops,” is incorrect. This is relatively straightforward, but can get confusing when you bring ‘it’ into the mix.

‘It’s’ should only be used to contract ‘it is’ or ‘it has’, not to show possession. The possessive form of ‘it’ is ‘its.’ No need for an apostrophe here. For example the sentence, “the textbook eluded its owner,” correctly shows possession of the textbook by the owner.

3. Try it, it's fun

While the primary use of a semicolon is to turn a harmless smiley face into something more flirtatious, semicolons are also used to join together two clauses that can stand by themselves as complete sentences. Usually, the second clause explains the first. For example, “I know she’s not doing the assignment; she’s been on Facebook all day correcting people’s statuses.”

If the two clauses are unable to stand alone, you need to rephrase. The “fragment: consider revising” instruction on Microsoft Word tells you when a clause doesn’t make sense on its own and relies on the previous clause for meaning. Word’s helpful example of this is, “meteors the entire night.” Each clause must make sense on its own.

A comma splice is what happens when this rule isn’t followed. When a comma is used between the two clauses instead of a semicolon, the sentence ceases to make sense. For example, “I understand Constitutional guarantees, I don’t need to eat my hair.” If you’re unsure, just scatter semicolons through your work with wild abandon. Try it; it’s fun.

4. Literally blew up in my face

While the word ‘literally’ may not come up as much in academic writing as it does conversation, its misuse is so prevalent and ingrained I have to include it in this list. YOU SHOULD NEVER NEED TO USE THE WORD ‘LITERALLY’. Here’s why.

‘Literally’ means actually; to describe something as ‘literal’ is to say it is actually happening. In cases where you’re telling the truth, like saying, “I am literally sitting at my computer right now, writing an article for Survive Law,” the word literal is unnecessary. It is actually happening. There is no need to reinforce what you’ve just said.

In cases where you’re not telling the absolute truth, like saying, “I literally laughed my head off,” you’re implying that you laughed so hard your head is now on the ground somewhere. Chances are you’re exaggerating; you just found something particularly funny. It didn’t actually happen; don’t say it did!

It may seem pedantic, but knowing the quirks of English grammar will help you with your essays and will serve you well when you eventually practice.

Rant over.

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