Steve Buttry offers some tricks to help with some of the most common grammar challenges. Buttry, Writing Coach at the Omaha World-Herald, compiled this handout for a workshop for the Virginia Press Association, April 16, 2004.
Questions? Contact Steve at, 402-444-1345,

Click here to see the PowerPoint presentation used in this workshop.

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Grammar Matters

Even professional writers have difficulty with some grammar points. Here are some tricks to help with some of the most common grammar challenges:

Who and whom

A general rule is to use who as the subject of a verb. Otherwise, use whom. (Same with whoever and whomever).

Two ways to help you determine which to use:

1. Find the verb or verbs. If the pronoun does the action of a verb, it's who or whoever.

2. Rewrite the sentence, using he or him in place of who or whom, and rephrasing the sentence appropriately. For instance, "Who do you trust?" may not sound wrong to you. But "Do you trust he?" certainly does. You can see that it would be "Do you trust him?" so you know it should be "Whom do you trust?"

Two cases that might confuse you:

1. When a pronoun is the object of a preposition, the pronoun takes the objective case, such as whom. But if a dependent clause is the object of the preposition, who might follow a preposition. For instance: "Tony wanted to whack whomever was talking to the feds" might seem correct. But remember our basic rule: Is the pronoun the subject of a verb? The pronoun is the subject of the verb finishes. So the correct choice is: "Tony wanted to whack whoever was talking to the feds."

2. Attribution sometimes separates the subject from the verb. Ignore it as you seek to decide whether your pronoun is the subject of the verb: "They will arrest whoever Sipowicz says murdered the DOA." On a quick read, it might appear that the pronoun is the object of select or said, and thus the pronoun should be whomever. But look closer: the pronoun is the subject of murdered, separated from its verb by the phrase "Sipowicz says." Just remove the attribution from the sentence and it becomes clear: "They will arrest whoever murdered the DOA."

3. Make sure the pronoun is actually the subject of the verb: "A local woman, who Marge describes as blue-haired like herself, plans to visit next week." In this sentence, who clearly is not the subject of describes. However, the same person represented by who does plan, so you might think who is correct. But woman is the subject of plan. Who does not do the action of any verb, so use whom.

One important thing to consider: In these confusing cases, the correct usage might "sound" wrong. So consider rewriting the sentence to avoid the confusion: "They will arrest the suspect Sipowicz identifies as the murderer."

Possessive pronouns

The rule here is simple: Possessive pronouns don't use apostrophes. His, hers, whose, yours, theirs, ours, its. If it's a possessive, it's spelled without an apostrophe.

The confusion here results because some contractions, which do use apostrophes, are spelled the same as some possessives, except for the apostrophe. Whose and theirs sometimes end up with incorrect apostrophes, but the worst offender is its. Take the last sentence in the paragraph above. Spelled out, it would be: If it is a possessive, it is spelled without an apostrophe. In both instances, it's is a contraction, so both need apostrophes. To decide whether you should use the apostrophe, ask whether you can substitute it is or it has. For instance, "It's really important to write clearly" is the same as "It is really important to write clearly." But "I have trouble matching a pronoun with it's antecedent" looks really silly when you substitute it is or it has. So it should be "I have trouble matching a pronoun with its antecedent."

Singular-plural agreement

Speaking of pronouns and antecedents, they should agree. A plural antecedent (that's the word the pronoun is replacing) requires a plural pronoun. A singular antecedent requires a singular pronoun. A singular subject requires a singular verb. A plural subject requires a plural verb. Confusion results when singular and plural nouns are used interchangeably: "Springfield is having a good baseball season." But "The Isotopes are having a good baseball season."

Two cases that can be confusing:

1. Collective nouns such as team or committee can take either singular or plural verbs and pronouns. Generally, these should be treated as singular, requiring singular pronouns and verbs. The exception should be if the members of the collective unit aren't acting as a unit: "The couple were fighting regularly before their separation." This is again a time when you should consider rewriting because it doesn't sound right: "Tony and Carmella were fighting regularly before their separation."

2. Some compound subjects might appear plural but actually be singular because the two elements become a single unit: "Peanut butter and jelly is Bart's favorite sandwich."

Use active voice

Just as most of us find active people more stimulating than passive people, active verbs produce livelier writing. Examine your verbs and ask whether the subject is giving or receiving. Is the subject acting, or being acted upon? See if you can rewrite to make the subject the giver. Compound verbs using forms of the verb "to be" frequently are passive verbs that can be stronger. Active verbs also frequently demand more specificity in the subject and objects, making the whole sentence stronger.

For instance: "Tony was given a wonderful Valentine's gift this year" is not as strong or as specific as, "Adriana gave Tony a wonderful Valentine's gift this year." Either way, the verb is a form of "to give." But the active voice is stronger and requires a specific subject that the first sentence lacks.

Resources to help with grammar and word usage

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