One of the hardest things about learning English grammar is that many of the “rules” are either riddled with exceptions or don’t seem to be very widely known and used. Incorrect usage proliferates the Internet and our conversations so that our ears become accustomed and “trained” to hearing the incorrect form. Even the most well-intending English student can get confused by the hodgepodge of right and wrong. With practice, however, you can familiarize yourself with the correct forms and even develop an ear for them.
This is Part 2 post of a previous post on “The Most Frequently Confused Academic Vocabulary Words.” If you missed Part 1, you can find the link here.
WHO VS. WHICH VS. THAT
The hard and fast rule is that “who” should always be used when talking about people, while “which” and “that” are used when talking about non-human objects.
There was an old lady who lived in a shoe.
The rock concert was the greatest thing that ever happened.
He ate a burger, which later gave him a stomachache.
ITS VS. IT’S
The confusion between these two words probably comes from the fact that an apostrophe usually indicates the possessive form (ie: her mother’s cat, the teacher’s pencil, etc). Not so with the word it’s: in this case, the apostrophic form is actually a contraction for “it is.” Its is the form you would use when using the possessive.
The car was bought used at a great price; little did the couple know that its previous owner had had multiple engine problems with it.
It’s too bad you can’t join us for dinner tonight.
LIE VS. LAY
The difference between lie and lay is that lay always takes a direct object whereas lie does not.
Jeffrey is a bum. All he does is lie on the couch all day (No direct object).
Please lay the test on the teacher’s desk when you are finished (“the test” is the direct object).
The past tense forms of these words are when it starts to get tricky because “lay” is actually the past tense form of lie (confusing, much?). Here is a great chart from Grammar Girl to help you remember the differences, including past, present, and participle forms.
- Fogarty, Mignon. “Lay Versus Lie.” Grammar Girl :: Quick and Dirty Tips ™. Macmillan Holdings, LLC., 17 Dec. 2007. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. <http://grammar.quickanddirtytips.com/lay-versus-lie.aspx>.
- Lynch, Jack. “Lynch, Guide to Grammar and Style — W.” Guide to Grammar and Style. Rutgers-Newark: The State University of New Jersey. Web. 24 Oct. 2011. <http://andromeda.rutgers.edu/~jlynch/Writing/w.html>.