Originally published March 9, 2015

My professional interests are defined by the acronym LIKES, which stands for Leadership, Innovation, Knowledge Management, English Usage, Social Media. I have posted about all of these topics here previously with the exception of English. This week’s post will rectify that.

As a practicing member of the grammar police — our mission is to serve and correct — I try to help people use English correctly. This is an increasingly difficult challenge, but I am not ready to give up yet.

There are three schools of thought about obsessing over the correct use of grammar, punctuation, and spelling.

  1. Language is living and constantly evolving. Embrace the inevitable changes to English usage.
  2. Who cares? Chill out and stop stressing about incorrect usage.
  3. Pay attention to what you say and write. Try to do so as correctly and precisely as possible.

There are valid arguments to be made for each of these positions. Here are three arguments for the third one: Using English correctly has valuable benefits.

  1. Using language correctly suggests that you also do other things well. The flip side: If you don’t take care in your use of language, what else might you neglect?
  2. Proper usage conveys intelligence, attention to detail, and consideration for your listeners’ ears and readers’ eyes.
  3. Failure to take advantage of differences in word definitions, even if subtle, can result in loss of precision, limited richness of expression, and confusion. Such sloppiness can lead to bad outcomes.

Three maxims

  1. Bad usage drives out good usage. Once improper usage crops up, it tends to spread and replace more precise usage.
  2. When deciding where to place an apostrophe, people tend to get it wrong. It’s like they are playing Pin the Tail on the Donkey, with the apostrophe as the tail, the word as the donkey, and the writer acting blindly.
  3. It is pleasing to hear English spoken properly and to read prose that is well-written. Taking care to do so increases the levels of beauty, harmony, and eloquence in the world.

Here are some of the most frequent usage mistakes, along with suggestions for the right way to write.

1. Apostrophes are often misused. As a rule, an apostrophe should be used to form a possessive, but not a plural. One exception involves the words “its” and “it’s” — these are often confused. “Its” is the possessive form of “it,” and “it’s” is the contraction of “it is.”

From The Elements of Style by Strunk and White:

Form the possessive singular of nouns with ’s. Follow this rule whatever the final consonant. Thus write,

  • Charles’s friend
  • Burns’s poems
  • the witch’s malice

The pronominal possessives hers, its, theirs, yours, and oneself have no apostrophe.

2. Use the first, not the second

  • couldn’t care less (not could care less)
  • criterion is singular, criteria is plural (not criterions, criterias, a criteria, one criteria, another criteria, this criteria, that criteria)
  • verbiage (three syllables — not verbage)

3. abbreviation/acronym/initialism

  • abbreviation — a shortened form of a word or phrase: “App” is an abbreviation of “Application.”
  • acronym — a word (that can be pronounced) formed from the initial parts of a series of words: “SCUBA” is an acronym for “Self Contained Underwater Breathing Apparatus.”
  • initialism — a group of initial letters used as an abbreviation for a name or expression, each letter being pronounced separately: “USMC” is an initialism of “United States Marine Corps.”

4. fewer/less

  • fewer — a smaller number of persons or things (that can be counted)
  • less — a smaller portion or quantity (that cannot be counted)
  • If you drink less beer, you will consume fewer calories.

5. I/me

  • Always use “me” as the object of a preposition.
  • When there are multiple objects, it is tempting to use “I” because we were drilled as children not to use “me” as the subject of a sentence. This led to overcompensation.
  • Also, when there are multiple objects, “me” should come last.
  • Correct: She will be presenting to Sally and me. Sally and I are here.
  • Incorrect: She will be presenting to Sally and I. Sally and me are here.

6. imply/infer

  • imply — to state indirectly, hint, or intimate
  • infer — to draw a conclusion or make a deduction based on indications
  • When I say that you look like you have been eating well, you infer that I think you are fat, but I mean to imply that you look healthy.

7. lead/led

  • “Lead” is the current tense; “led” is the past tense.
  • I want Sue to lead the effort to get the team led by Sam to disband.

8. lets/let’s

  • “Lets” is the third-person present of “let,” which means allows; “let’s” is the contraction of “let us”
  • Let’s hope that she lets us go the movies.

9. verse/versus

  • verse (one syllable) — writing arranged with a metrical rhythm
  • versus (two syllables; abbreviated v or vs.) — against
  • The poetry competition featured the verse of Wordsworth versus that of Yeats.

10. Also see



Stan Garfield

Knowledge Management Author and Speaker, Founder of SIKM Leaders Community, Community Evangelist, Knowledge Manager https://sites.google.com/site/stangarfield/