By Megan Driscoll
Which Word is Which?
Earlier this week we talked about homophones, which are words that sound the same and are therefore commonly misused. But homophones aren't the only word pairs that tend to trap writers. Here are a few other common grammatical misunderstandings:
Fewer vs. Less
The difference here is pretty simple, but misuse of 'less' and 'fewer' is incredibly common: Every grammarian has cringed while waiting in the grocery aisle labeled '15 items or less.'
Here's the rule: You use 'fewer' with count nouns and 'less' with mass nouns. Wait, wait - what's a count noun and a mass noun? That's surprisingly easy, too. A count noun refers to a specific, countable object, such as groceries. A mass noun refers to a thing that you can't count individually, such as food. So when you buy fewer groceries you'll probably find yourself with less food.
It is true that some mass nouns can be turned into count nouns. For example, rather than say 'there are many different types of food in India,' a chef might refer to 'the many foods of India.' But our less vs. fewer rule still holds because you've converted it to a count noun: There are fewer foods in Norway than in India, even though there's still less food in my refrigerator than in the grocery store.
Lay vs. Lie
We all know that when you tell your mom you never go to any of those crazy college parties, you're telling a lie. But when you toss your textbooks on the desk before you head out, are you lying them down or laying them down? In the present tense, the difference between this meaning of 'lay' vs. 'lie' is pretty straightforward:
Lay takes a direct object and lie does not. So you lay your books down on the desk, but if you decide to take a pre-party nap, then you lie down on your bed.
It gets a lot trickier in the past tense. The past tense of 'to lay' is 'laid,' which is pretty simple: Now I lay my books on the desk, but last night I laid my books down on the bed. But the past tense of 'to lie' is 'lay' (don't ask us who decides these things). So right now you probably want to lie your head down on your desk, but this afternoon you lay on your sofa taking a nap.
Who vs. Whom
Whom sounds so formal that it is rarely used in spoken language, even when it's called for. As a result, people often just fall back on only using 'who' in writing as well.
Who and whom are both pronouns, but they're used in different situations. 'Who' is correct when you're referring to the subject of a clause: 'Who is talking to Frank?' 'Whom' is correct when you're referring to the object of a clause: 'To whom is Frank talking?'
As you may have noticed, the difference between a subject and an object is who (or what) is performing the action. In the first sentence above, the unknown person is doing the talking, so the pronoun 'who' is the subject and Frank is the object. In the second sentence above, Frank is talking to the unknown person, so Frank is the subject and the unknown person is the object.
Don't miss part I in our grammar tips series, commonly misused homophones, and stay tuned for part III: phrase endings.