Top 10 Taboos
from the Seraph of Style

ONE of my high-school English teachers once gave me a page of "taboos" -- grammatical errors that were so egregious yet so commonplace that she summarized them for distribution to her students. This was with the admonition that anyone committing one of these syntactic sins would be docked an entire letter grade on the offending assignment. Her list consisted of such grammatical effronteries as using it's for its and there for their -- basic fundamentals for any writer of English.

In the spirit of English teachers everywhere (Mom included), I've drawn up my own list. These are corrections that I make daily, on everything from college textbook manuscripts to Microsoft magazine ads. Less obvious than a lot versus alot, they are nevertheless grammatical necessities, the kind of details that make the difference between flawed and flawless text.

1. I versus me

You'd think that all the drilling from our mothers of "May Ellie and I go..." would have sunk in. Problem is, it did -- and it sunk in way too far. We grew up with the impression that me was a bad word. Seems like every time we used it, someone corrected us, saying that the correct word was I. The backlash of all this is that people use I for everything now -- even when the correct word choice is me. This is true of newscasters, actors, and [gasp!] even some writers and editors.

When the first person (I or me) is the subject of the sentence, as in:

May Ellie and I go with Clementine?

I is obviously correct. Kids speak in simple sentences like this, which is where all that continual drilling comes in.

The problem arises when the first person falls in the predicate of the sentence:

No, you and Ellie must stay with me.

That me is correct here seems obvious; you wouldn't say "...stay with I." Why, then, do we constantly hear otherwise educated people say:

She gave the project to Ellie and I because we did so well.


One wouldn't say "She gave it to I...," but throw in that Ellie and and we revert to being five years old, overriding common sense in favor of Mother's litany.

Rule of thumb: When in doubt, mentally delete that second person -- the Ellie and. For example:

She wanted to know if Ellie and I would be available tomorrow.

Take out the Ellie and so that it reads She wanted to know if I would be available..., and you know you're on the right track -- and can put that litany to rest.

2. which versus that

This is a matter of a nonrestrictive versus a restrictive clause. Which sets off a nonrestrictive clause that can be taken out of a sentence; it is preceded by a comma. That introduces a restrictive clause that is an integral part of the sentence and takes no punctuation.

The chair, which is broken, is in the attic.

The chair that is broken is in the attic.

In the first example, which is nonrestrictive, you are talking about only one chair, which happens to be broken. In the second, restrictive, example, you are talking about the chair that is broken, distinguishing it from other chairs that are not broken.

A nonrestrictive phrase or clause is one that could be omitted without changing the meaning of the sentence (The in the attic); it should be set off by commas, such as in the first example. A restrictive phrase or clause, on the other hand, so qualifies or limits the word it modifies that it could not be omitted without affecting the meaning of the sentence -- and it should not be set off. The most common mistake is to use which when the word you need is that.

Rule of thumb: If the clause can be surrounded by commas, and thus taken out and the sentence will still make sense, use which. Otherwise, use that.

3. lie versus lay

Does anyone get this right? I confess to having to look it up on more than one occasion, especially when it involves past tenses. Lie means to rest or to recline (not to mention to tell an untruth):

I usually lie on the rug in front of the fireplace.

Lay means to put, to set, or to place something:

Please lay the book on the rug.

Note, however, that the past tense of lie is spelled lay:

I lay on the rug until the fire died out.

A further fly in the ointment is that lay is also slang for to make love to (whether or not you're reclining). Can someone lie about laying you down to lay you while lying on a rug? Go figure.

4. while versus although

In general, while should be used only to express time, meaning simultaneously or during the time that:

While he played guitar, I read a book.

A common error is to use while in place of although:

While he plays guitar, I prefer to read.

The previous example implies that I like to read when he plays guitar. It's ambiguous at best. When I mean to say that his favorite pastime is playing guitar whereas mine is reading, although is the correct word choice:

Although he plays guitar, I prefer to read.

5. as long as versus so long as

As long as implies a physical comparison:

That snake was as long as my arm!

So long as implies a condition:

So long as you maintain your cool, we'll keep looking at the snakes.

A common mistake is to use as long as when the correct phrase is so long as.

6. farther versus further

Farther refers to physical distance:

I can't walk any farther.

Further refers to degree or quantity:

I refuse to discuss this any further.

A common mistake is to use further when the correct word choice is farther.

7. continual versus continuous

Continual refers to something that happens repeatedly, over and over again:

The continual interruptions had her in a real snit.

Continuous refers to something that happens unceasingly, in an unbroken continuum:

The continuous hum of the rain soothed her frazzled nerves.

The most common mistake with these two words is simply using them interchangeably.

8. affect versus effect

Affect is almost always used as a verb and means to influence:

How you eat affects how you feel.

(On the few occasions when affect is used as a noun, it refers to the conscious subjective aspect of an emotion considered apart from bodily changes. Unless you're writing a dissertation on psychology, you'll seldom need to use affect as a noun.)

Effect is usually used as a noun and means a result:

The effect of eating junk food is that you feel pretty junky.

On the few occasions when effect is used as a verb, it means to cause or produce a result:

To effect good health, you need to eat right.

Likewise affective versus effective:

Affective means relating to, arising from, or influencing emotion:

The melancholy poetry was so affective I had to close the book.

Effective means to produce a decided, decisive, or desired result:

Studying night and day was a very effective means of acing the exam.

9. compose versus comprise

Compose means to constitute, to make up the whole, or to be part of the composition of something. Comprise means to embrace, to contain, to gather together:

The many images compose the montage.

The montage comprises the many images.

A common mistake is to use the phrase comprised of, which is never correct.

Rule of thumb: Remember that the parts compose the whole, and the whole comprises the parts.

10. compare to versus compare with

Compare to means to liken something to another thing in a figurative way, as in a simile:

He compared her eyes to pools -- cesspools.

He compared her lips to petals -- bicycle pedals.

Compare with means to juxtapose something with another thing in a literal way, as in measuring their qualities or their similarities and differences:

She compared the first simile with the second and decided that they were equally bad -- and dumped him.

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The Chicago Manual of Style, fourteenth edition; Words into Type, third edition; and Webster's Collegiate Dictionary, tenth edition, were helpful in the preparation of this page.

This page last updated on 23 December 2004.

© Copyright 1999 Elizabeth von Radics. All rights reserved.