Grammar and Usage Guide: Answers to Frequently Asked Questions

Should I Use Amid, Among, Between, Amidst, or Amongst?

Use amid with nonquantifiable items (amid the forest), use among for three or more items (among his colleagues), and between when there are two people or items (between John and Jane).

You can also use between with more than two things provided that they represent distinct individual items:

He had to choose between rice, baked potatoes, and pasta.

However, if the choices are not distinct, use among:

He had to choose among the side dishes.

Among is also used to indicate membership in a group (or exclusion from it):

Zelda was among the top finishers in the lawnmower race.

Whittacker was not among those arrested during the pudding riot.

Janey was the strongest among the six candidates competing for the ice cream taster job.

Willy was among the first to finish the exam because he drew a brontosaurus in a ball gown on his answer sheet rather than attempting to answer the questions.

When referring to location, use between when someone or something is directly between two things and among when they are just somewhere in the area with multiple things:

Vlad stood between the two werewolves. (The werewolves stood on either side of him, and he was in the middle).

Vlad stood among the werewolves. (He stood with a group of werewolves his physical position within the group is not specified).

If the person is in motion, between and among can indicate his or her path:

Eleanor walked between the rows of parked cars looking for her lost chicken. (There were at least two rows of cars, and she walked in the space between them.)

Eleanor walked among the parked cars looking for her lost chicken. (Eleanor might have been weaving in and out through the parked cars rather than moving forward; no indication of her direction is given and the cars are not necessarily in neat rows.)

Amid means surrounded by, in the middle of, or during:

Courtenay sat amid the trees writing poetry about badgers.

Butch walked amid the crowd singing show tunes and tossing glitter.

Walter became disoriented amid the shouting and chaos of the Porcupine Festival.

Amongst and amidst mean the same as among and amid. However, although these forms are still used in the UK, they are considered archaic and excessively formal (or even pretentious) in North America.

Should I Use Hang, Hung, or Hanged?

Hang means to suspend something from something else (or that something is attached to something else and dangling from the attachment point). The past tense of hang is hung.

She hangs the picture on the wall. They hang the picture on the wall. (present)

She hung the picture on the wall yesterday. They hung the picture on the wall. (past)

She will hang the picture on the wall tomorrow. They will hang the picture on the wall. The picture will be hung on the wall. (future)

Hang can also refer to something that fills the air above. For example:

The thick smoke hung in the air above them for hours before dispersing.

A sense of dread hung over the city as its citizens awaited the coming storm.

Hang can also mean to kill someone by putting a rope around his or her neck and suspending the person from something until dead. When used in this sense, the past tense of hang is hanged:

She was hanged for murder.

He hanged himself when he discovered that they had cancelled his favourite television show.

Hung over is used as a slang term to refer to the feelings of illness that occur after excessive consumption of alcoholic beverages the night before, a malady that is referred to as a hangover.

Hang is also used in a number of common idiomatic expressions:

    • Get the hang of: learn how to do something (It took me ages to get the hang of tap dancing.)
    • Hang fire: delay taking an action (He asked his sales team to hang fire on the new marketing campaign until more research could be conducted.)
    • Hang in the air: remain unresolved (Their conversation was cut short, leaving a lot of important issues hanging in the air.)
    • Hang someone out to dry: leave that person in a difficult situation or vulnerable to something (Someone had to be blamed for the disaster, so although they had all contributed to the problem, John was hung out to dry by his coworkers.)
    • Hang tough: remain strong, resolved, or inflexible (Although they threatened the reporter with jail if she did not reveal her source, she hung tough and refused to give in to pressure.)
    • Hang around: wait or loiter (They hung around in front of the store, hoping something interesting would happen.)
    • Hang around with someone: spend time with that person, usually on a regular basis (He hangs around with much older kids.)
    • Hang out with someone: spend time with one or more people  doing something leisurely and enjoyable (They hung out listening to music and doing artwork.)
    • Hang together: make sense or to stay together and support one another: (The novel doesn’t hang together well; the plot is a mess. We have to hang together if we want to win this court case.)
    • Hang in there: stay determined and persistent in a difficult situation (Hang in there; this ordeal will be over soon.)
    • Hang on to: retain, not let go of (It’s a bad idea to hang on to an abusive relationship.)
    • Hang up: end a telephone connection, often abruptly and unexpectedly (She tried to explain why she had ignored him at the party, but he hung up on her before she could finish talking.)
    • Hang by a thread: be extremely vulnerable, at risk, and likely to fail or fall (After sending a series of insulting emails to his boss, his job was hanging by a thread.)

Should I Use He and She or They? Subject-Verb Agreement

A lot of people are confused about whether they should use singular pronouns such as him/her/he/she/his/hers or plural pronouns such as they/their in various types of sentences.

Pronouns such as each, someone, somebody, everyone, everybody, anyone, anybody, no one, nobody, each, every, either, and neither* should be paired with singular pronouns: her, his, she, he, herself, himself, its, itself – not they or their. Someone left their troll doll on the table is technically wrong, though people are increasingly using this sort of construction to avoid the sexist and outdated practice of using he, him, and his to refer to both genders. However, although using they has become common, grammar purists object to it.

A popular strategy for avoiding sexist language while maintaining grammatically correct sentences is to use both gender pronouns:

Someone left his or her troll doll on the table.

This can become awkward, especially if you have to keep saying him or her, his or hers, or he or she.

Common solutions to this problem include alternating between using the male and female pronouns or just using female pronouns in an attempt to make up for centuries of using male pronouns to represent all people, but the latter solution is equally sexist. An easy way to solve the problem is to avoid the use of pronouns altogether:

Someone left a troll doll on the table.

In many cases, when referring to people, you can simply make the subject plural:

Each student received his or her textbooks on the first day of school becomes All students received their textbooks on the first day of school.

If a participant asks for more information, give him or her the link to this website becomes If participants ask for more information, give them the link to this website.

If any person objects, let him or her speak now becomes If any people object, let them speak now.

What about collective nouns such as team, staff, family, jury, herd, flock, dozen, number, or band? These may take a singular or plural verb depending on the situation:

The jury took their seats but The jury delivered its verdict. (It depends on whether the jury is acting individually, each taking a seat, or collectively providing a verdict.)

The number of people who watch movies in DVD format has decreased in recent years but A large number of people have switched to other formats. (In the first sentence, the verb is actually linked to the singular word number because that’s what has increased; in the second, it’s linked to the plural word people because it’s the people who are switching formats.)

*There is an exception to the either/neither rule; sometimes either or neither, when accompanied by or or nor, may be plural. For example: Neither dogs nor campfires were permitted at the park. However, in most cases, either and neither will take singular pronouns:

Either Jenna or Trina left her sketches of dancing unicorns all over the table.

Neither of the boys admitted to leaving his underwear in the refrigerator.

Should I Use Lie, Lay, Lain, Lied, Lying, or Laying?

Many people are confused about the correct use of lie, lay, lain, lied, lying, and laying. Usage depends on the intended meaning of lie or lay and whether the action is done regularly, is being done now, was completed in the past, or has been done on a continual basis in the past. The following are examples of correct use.

To lie as in to recline:

    • He lies on the sofa all the time.
    • He is lying on the sofa now.
    • He lay on the sofa last night.
    • He has lain on the sofa for hours.

To lie as in to tell an untruth, to deceive:

    • She lied about where she went earlier today.
    • she is lying about where she went earlier.
    • She lies about where she goes all the time.
    • She has lied about her travels on a regular basis.

To lay as in to place something somewhere:

    • He lays his hat on the table.
    • He is now laying his hat on the table.
    • Yesterday, he laid his hat on the table.
    • He has regularly laid his hat on the table despite being asked to put it on the hat stand.

Should I Use Rise, Risen, Rose, Rising, Raise, Raised, Raising, Arise, Arising, or Arose?

Rise, Risen, Rose, Rising

Rise means to get up or move upward; it is an action done by a person, animal, or object. The past tense of rise is rose, the present continuous tense is rising, and the present perfect tense is has risen (or have risen if the subject is plural).

Singular subject:

    • The sun rises in the east and sets in the west. (present)
    • The sun rose in the east and set in the west. (past)
    • The sun is rising in the east. (present continuous)
    • The sun has always risen in the east and set in the west. (present perfect)
    • The sun will rise in the east and set in the west. (future)

Plural subject:

    • We rise early in the morning and go for a run. (present)
    • We rose early in the morning and went for a run. (past)
    • We are rising early in the morning these days and going for morning runs. (present continuous)
    • We will rise early in the morning and go for a run. (future).

Raise, Raised, Raising

Raise means to bring something up, so it requires an object (raise is something that a person, animal, or thing does to something else). In the following sentences, the objects are paw, flag, and educational standards.

    • The dog raises a paw to greet its owner. They raise the flag. The school’s administrators try to raise educational standards. (present)
    • They raised the flag yesterday. The dog raised its paw. The school’s administrators tried to raise educational standards.  (past)
    • They are raising the flag.  The dog is raising its paw. The school’s administrators are trying to raise educational standards.   (present continuous)
    • They have raised the flag each morning for three months. The dog has always raised its paw when its owner gives the command. The school’s administrators have been trying to raise educational standards.   (present perfect)
    • They had raised the flag each morning for three months. The dog had always raised its paw when its owner gave the command. The school’s administrators had been trying to raise educational standards.  (past perfect)
    • They will raise the flag tomorrow morning. The dog will raise its paw when its owner gives the command. The school’s administrators will try to raise educational standards.   (future)

There are a number of idiomatic expressions that also use raise:

    • She raised the alarm. (She warned others of danger.)
    • He didn’t raise a finger. (He did nothing to help; lift a finger is also used in this type of expression.)
    • Her joke raised a smile from the depressed patient. (Her joke caused the unhappy patient to smile.)
    • They raised the roof during his wedding celebration. (They made the building reverberate with their loud, enthusiastic shouting, singing, clapping, and other celebratory actions.)
    • He raised the roof when he saw the damage caused by the party. (He complained loudly and noisily about the damage.)

Arise, Arisen, Arising, Arose

Arise is typically used in a more abstract way to indicate that something has come into being and been noticed. For example:

    • An opportunity will often arise during a crisis.
    • A number of problems arose during the final phase of the project.
    • Many issues have arisen that need to be addressed.
    • New  possibilities are arising every day.

However, arise can also be used as a formal, old-fashioned version of rise:

    • Arise and  face a new day!
    • She arose at dawn to start her quest.

Should I Use Sit or Set?

There is a lot of confusion regarding sit and set, but there is an easy way to determine which one is correct: sitting is something that people and animals do with their bodies (e.g., sitting down on the ground, sitting on a chair); setting is something people do with objects (e.g., setting something down on a table).

Sit means to be seated:

    • He sits there now. They sit there now. (present)
    • He sat there yesterday.  They sat there yesterday. (past)
    • He has sat there many times in the past. They have sat there many times in the past. (present perfect)

Set means to place something, which means that it requires an object. In the following sentences, the object is purse.

    • She comes in and sets her purse on the coffee table. (present)
    • She set her purse on the coffee table yesterday and it is still there. (past)
    • She will set her purse on the coffee table later. (future)
    • She has set her purse on the coffee table every day this week. (present perfect)

Set is the same when the object is plural:

    • He comes in and sets his shopping bags on the table. They set their purchases on the table. (present)
    • He set his shopping bags on the table yesterday. They set their purchases on the table. (past)
    • He will set his shopping bags on the table later. They will set their purchases on the table later. (future)
    • He has set his shopping bags on the table each day this week. They have set their purchases on the table each day this week.  (present perfect)

Set is also used in a number of common expressions:

    • They set a date. (They made a plan to do something on a certain day.)
    • The sun sets in the west. (The sun goes down in the west.)
    • He set the table earlier. (He put dishes, cutlery, and napkins on the table at each place setting to prepare for a meal.)
    • Her inspirational speech set events in motion. (She caused something to start, made something happen.)
    • The novel was set in Russia in the 1940s. (The action in the book took place in Russia during the 1940s; this expression is used for plays, books, movies, and television shows.)

Set can also indicate:

    • The programming of electronics: He set his watch for 8:00 a.m. She set her camera to video mode.
    • The hardening or solidifying of substances such as glue and concrete: The glue set quickly.
    • Certain facial expressions: She set her jaw and assumed a look of grim determination.
    • The writing of music to accompany words: His poem was set to music.

It is also possible to set (establish, create) limits, standards, precedents, records, and examples:

    • He decided to set limits on the children’s TV watching and computer time.
    • The school’s administrators wanted to set high standards for achievement.
    • By purchasing a toy for the children after their visit to the doctor, she set a precedent; her children now expect to receive a toy each time they visit the doctor.
    • He set a record for the most hot dogs eaten at one sitting.
    • Julie always ate lots of vegetables to set a good example for her children.
    • Ralph set a bad example for the children by starting a food fight at the restaurant.

Should I Use Wake, Woke, Awake, or Awakened?

Wake, which means to stop sleeping or stop someone else from sleeping, is more commonly used than awake:

    • She wakes early each day.
    • He woke up early yesterday.
    • She will wake up early tomorrow.
    • Wake up! You’re going to be late.
    • He woke her up to see the sunrise.
    • The cat woke its owners when the fire started.

Although wake is often used on its own or with up, it can also be used with to, from, and by:

    • He woke to a nasty surprise.
    • She woke from a light sleep.
    • He was woken by her loud snoring.

Wake can also indicate that past feelings, impulses, or memories that lay dormant have been evoked:

    • Visiting the art gallery woke his creative urges.

In addition, wake is used as a phrasal verb meaning to increase liveliness and interest or to become aware of something:

    • The promise of bonuses woke the sales team from their torpor and got them moving again.
    • She had not yet woken to the reality that nobody liked her tofu sculptures.

Awake, which means the same thing as wake when taking the verb form, is typically used in the past tense and more often in literature than other written materials:

    • She awoke to the sound of thunder has the same meaning as she woke to the sound of thunder.
    • In fairy tales, the princess is often awakened with a kiss.

Awakened is considered more formal, which is why it is often used in stories but rarely in speech or non-fiction writing.

Awake can also be used as an adjective to indicate that a person or animal is not asleep:

    • She was awake when the two bagpipers began fighting on her front lawn.
    • He was awake when she stumbled in drunk at three in the morning with a raccoon on her head.

Should I Use Which or That?

If it’s a clause that goes inside commas, use which; otherwise, use that:

    • The cat, which is named Sockington, has 1,382,913 followers on Twitter.
    • The cat that has 1,382,913 followers on Twitter is named Sockington.

In the first sentence, you could get rid of the clause (which is named Sockington) and you would still have a full sentence: The cat has 1,382,913 followers on Twitter.

In the second sentence, if you eliminate the portion containing that (The cat that has 1,382,913 followers on Twitter), you would be left with an incomplete sentence (Is named Sockington).

That indicates a particular one among many: The cat that has 1,382,913 followers on Twitter as opposed to all the other cats on Twitter that don’t have such impressive followings.

Which introduces information that can be considered extra; that precedes information that is essential to the meaning of the sentence. Therefore, if you have an important clause that needs to be set apart with commas (and the rest of the sentence makes sense on its own), use which. Otherwise, use that.

A which clause can also come at the end of a sentence:

She threw away the chicken carcass, which the dog retrieved from the garbage a few minutes later.

In this sentence, She threw away the chicken carcass stands on its own; the dog’s actions are separate. Using that changes the meaning of the sentence:

She threw away the chicken carcass that the dog had retrieved from the garbage.

In this case, she gets rid of the chicken carcass that the dog has been eating. The dog’s actions are essential to the meaning of the sentence because it doesn’t refer to any old chicken carcass; the carcass she threw away is the one that the dog had extracted from the garbage can and enjoyed until he was caught in the act and had his treasure taken from him.

For those who want to know the technical terms, which indicates a nonrestrictive clause because it supplies non-essential information (information not critical to the meaning of the sentence), whereas that introduces essential information and is therefore associated with restrictive clauses.

Should I Use Who or That?

There are a couple of simple rules to remember when making a choice between who and that:

    • Always use who for people: People who go around whacking others with rubber chickens tend to be friendless.
    • Always use that for objects: Plates that are thrown against walls tend to break.

For things that are related to people (such as organizations or teams) use that:

    • Businesses that contribute to their communities tend to be more successful.
    • It was Naomi’s team that won the unicycle polo championships.

For animals, it depends on whether or not the animal has a name. Use who for animals with names and that for unnamed animals:

    • Curious George, who was the protagonist in a series of beloved children’s books, was a monkey.
    • The monkey that stole the child’s candy bar was a new arrival at the zoo.

Should I Use Who or Whom?

Who is the one who does something:

Who drank all the beer?

Whom is the one who has something done to him.

It was his roommate whom he accused of drinking all the beer.

Whom also typically comes after a preposition, as in to whom, from whom, with whom, etc. However, whom is considered formal, and many people don’t bother with it these days, using who in place of whom:

It was his roommate who he accused of drinking all the beer.

Most avoid the problem altogether by modifying their sentences:

He accused his roommate of drinking all the beer.

Should I Use Will or Would?

Will is used to:

    • Refer to the future:  She will be home soon.
    • Make a promise or an offer: I will come and pick you up after the game.
    • Refer to what someone would be willing to do: He will eat fish but not red meat.

Would is used:

    • As a past tense of will

He knew that she would be home soon.

When they were children, they would get up before sunrise on Christmas morning every year.

    • To talk about imagined possibilities:

She thought she would be fired, but instead, she received a raise.

That jewelry looks like it would be difficult to make.

    • In conditional statements:

I would invite him to the party if he could refrain from wearing that ugly hat.

I would have more money if I didn’t buy so many beanie babies.

I wonder what would happen if I pressed the red button?

    • In polite requests:

Would you mind not throwing cupcakes at the wall?

Would you be willing to carry my piano up ten flights of stairs?

I would appreciate it if you would stop feeding your hamburgers to my potbellied pig.

    • To express preferences:

I would rather go to work wearing a Spongebob Squarepants costume than visit the Department of Motor Vehicles. 

More Resources for Writers

References:

    • BBC World Service. (n.d.). “Rise, Arose and Raise.” BBC.co.uk.
    • Capital Community College Foundation. (n.d.). “Plural Noun Forms.”
    • Collins. (2013). American English Dictionary. CollinsDictionary.com.
    • Fogarty, M. (2010). QuickandDirtyTips.com.
    • Merriam-Webster Dictionary. (2013). Merriam-Webster, Incorporated. Merrriam-Webster.com.
    • O’Conner, P. T. (1996). Woe Is I, the Grammarphobe’s Guide to Better English in Plain English. New York, G. P. Putnam’s Sons.
    • Oxford Dictionaries. (2013). “‘He or She’ versus ‘They’.” OxfordDictionaries.com.
    • Oxford Advanced Learner’s Dictionary. (2013). Oxford University Press. OALD8.OxfordLearnersDictionaries.com.
    • OWL at Purdue. (2013). “Using Pronouns Clearly.” The Writing Lab & the OWL at Purdue and Purdue University.
    • Soanes, C. (2013). “Abolishing Angst Regarding Among Versus Amongst.” Oxford Dictionaries (Blog). Blog.OxfordDictionaries.com.
    • Strauss, J. (2013). “Who vs. That vs. Which.” GrammarBook.com.
    • University of Houston-Victoria. (2008). “Using Sit or Set.” UHV.edu.

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