Shall or will?
The traditional rule is that shall is used with first person pronouns (i.e., I and we) to form the future tense, while will is used with second and third person forms (i.e., you, he, she, it, they). For example:
I shall be late
They will not have enough food.
However, when it comes to expressing a strong determination to do something, the roles are reversed: will is used with the first person, and shall with the second and third. For example:
I will not tolerate such behavior.
You shall go to the ball!
In practice, though, these distinctions have faded, and the word shall is now seldom used in any normal context in American English.
Onto or on to?
The preposition onto meaning ‘to a position on the surface of’ has been widely written as one word (instead of on to) since the early 18th century, as in the following sentences:
He threw his plate onto the floor.
The band climbed onto the stage.
In US English, onto is the regular form, although it isn’t yet fully accepted in British English. Nevertheless, it’s important to keep a distinction between the preposition onto and the use of the adverb on followed by the preposition to (meaning ‘onward and toward’). For example:
√ Let’s move on to the next point.
X Let’s move onto the next point.
√ Those who qualify can go on to college.
X Those who qualify can go onto college.
All right or alright?
Is it acceptable to write alright as one word, rather than two separate ones? For example:
She calls them whenever she is traveling to assure them she is alright.
Similar ‘merged’ words such as altogether and already have been accepted in standard English for a very long time, so there is no logical reason to object to the one-word form alright. Nevertheless, many people regard it as nonstandard, so it is best to avoid using alright in formal writing. Write it as two words instead:
She calls them whenever she is traveling to assure them she is all right.
Many people object to the use of like as a conjunction, as in the following sentence:
He’s behaving like he owns the place.
Like has been used in this way since the 15th century, and by many respected writers, but it’s still considered unacceptable in formal English. You should use as if or as though instead. For example:
He’s behaving as if he owns the place.
Can or may?
People are often uncertain about whether there is any difference between can and may when these verbs are used to ask for or grant permission. For example, is one of these two sentences ‘more correct’ than the other?
Can I ask you a few questions?
May I ask you a few questions?
There is a widespread view that using can to ask for permission is wrong and that it should only be used in expressions to do with ability or capability. For example:
Can she swim?
Can you speak Italian?
But the ‘permission’ use of can is not in fact incorrect in standard English. The only difference between the two verbs is that one is more polite than the other. In informal contexts it’s perfectly acceptable to use can; in formal situations it would be better to use may.
May or might?
May and might are both ways of expressing that the truth of something is unknown at the time of writing or speaking. Is there a difference between the way in which they should be used?
Some people insist that you should distinguish between may (present tense) and might (past tense), when you want to express this sense of possibility. For example:
I may go home early if I’m tired. (present tense)
He might have visited Italy before settling in Nuremberg. (past tense)
In practice, this distinction is rarely made today and the two words are generally interchangeable:
I might go home early if I’m tired.
He may have visited Italy before settling in Nuremberg.
There are two ways of using the adverb hopefully. Traditionally it means ‘in a hopeful way’:
She smiled at him hopefully.
This sense has been used since the 17th century, so it’s very well established. In the second half of the 20thcentury, a new use developed, with the meaning ‘it is to be hoped that’:
Hopefully we’ll see you tomorrow.
When it’s used in the second way, hopefully is acting as a sentence adverb, a type of adverb that comments on the whole of a sentence rather than just a part of it.
Many people object to the use of hopefully as a sentence adverb. They compare it with other sentence adverbs such as ‘unfortunately’ or ‘clearly,’ which can be paraphrased as ‘it is unfortunate that …’ or ‘it is clear that …’:
Unfortunately, he missed the train. [i.e., it is unfortunate that he missed the train.]
Clearly, they have made mistakes. [i.e., it is clear that they have made mistakes.]
It’s certainly true that you can’t paraphrase hopefully as ‘it is hopeful that.’ But this is no reason to ban its use as a sentence adverb: there are no grammatical rules that say the meaning of a word mustn’t be allowed to develop in this sort of way.
The second meaning of hopefully is now much more common than the traditional one and there’s no need to avoid it in most everyday contexts. Nevertheless, if you are making a formal speech or writing formally (e.g., preparing a report or drafting a job application), you should be aware that there are people who intensely dislike this usage. For some, it has become almost a test case of ‘correctness’ in the use of English, even if the arguments on which their view is based are not very strong. Consequently, in this type of formal situation, it would be better to choose a different adverb or reword your sentence altogether.
Between you and me
A common mistake in spoken English is to say ‘between you and I,’ as in this sentence:
X Just between you and I, I don’t think it’s going to happen.
In standard English, it’s grammatically correct to say ‘between you and me’ and incorrect to say ‘between you and I.’ The reason for this is that a preposition such as between should be followed by an objective pronoun (such asme, him, her, and us) rather than a subjective pronoun (such as I, he, she, and we). Saying ‘between you and I’ is grammatically equivalent to saying ‘between him and she,’ or ‘between we,’ which are both clearly wrong.
People make this mistake because they know it’s not correct to say, for example, ‘John and me went to the store.’ They know that the correct sentence would be ‘John and I went to the store.’ But they then mistakenly assume that the words ‘and me’ should be replaced by ‘and I’ in all cases.
Remember: the correct expression is ‘between you and me’:
√ Just between you and me, I don’t think it’s going to happen.
A relative clause is one that’s connected to the main clause of the sentence by a word such as who, whom, which,that, or whose. For example:
It reminded him of the house that he used to live in.
The items, which are believed to be family heirlooms, included a grandfather clock worth around $3,000.
- A restrictive relative clause provides essential information about the noun to which it refers. It cannot be left out of the sentence without affecting the meaning. The highlighted section of the first sentence above is a restrictive relative clause. If it were left out, the sentence would not make sense:
It reminded him of the house. [which house?]
- A nonrestrictive relative clause provides information that can be left out without affecting the meaning or structure of the sentence. The highlighted section of the second sentence above is a nonrestrictive relative clause: if it were left out, the sentence would still make perfect sense:
The items included a grandfather clock worth around $3,000.
You should not put a comma before restrictive relative clauses. On the other hand, nonrestrictive relative clauses should be separated from the rest of the sentence by a comma or commas. For example:
A list of contents would have made it easier to steer through the book, which also lacks a map.
Bill, who had fallen asleep on the couch, suddenly roused himself.
Restrictive relative clauses can be introduced by that or which when they are referring to things rather than people, but in American English the predominant choice is to use that:
The coat that Dan had on yesterday was new.
In this sentence, the writer is identifying the coat by saying it’s the one Dan was wearing yesterday, as opposed to any other coats he might own.
Nonrestrictive relative clauses must always be introduced by which and never by that:
The coat, which Dan had on yesterday, was made of pure alpaca and cost a fortune.
In this sentence, there’s no need to identify the coat—it’s already been mentioned. But the writer is providing a bit of background context by telling us that Dan was wearing it yesterday.
Read more about clauses.
Who or whom?
There’s a continuing debate in English usage about when you should use who and when to use whom. According to the rules of formal grammar, who should be used in the subject position in a sentence, while whom should be used in the object position, and also after a preposition. For example:
Who made this decision? [who is the subject of the sentence]
Whom do you think we should support? [whom is the object of support]
To whom do you wish to speak? [whom is following the preposition to]
Some people do still follow these rules but there are many more who never use whom at all. The normal practice in current English is to use who in all contexts. For example:
Who do you think we should support?
Who do you wish to speak to?
Different from, than, or to?
Is there any difference between the expressions different from, different than, and different to? Is one of the three ‘more correct’ than the others?
In practice, different from is by far the most common of the three, in both American and British English:
This part is totally different from anything else that he’s done. (American English)
We want to demonstrate that this government is different from previous governments. (British English)
Different than is predominantly used in American English:
Teenagers certainly want to look different than their parents.
Because it can be followed by a clause, different than can be more concise than different from. For example:
Traffic patterns today are totally different than they used to be two decades ago.
Traffic patterns today are totally different from the way they used to be two decades ago.
Different to, although common in British English, is disliked by traditionalists and sounds strange to American ears:
In this respect the Royal Academy is no different to any other major museum.
Bored by, of, or with?
Which of these expressions should you use: is one of them less acceptable than the others?
Do you ever get bored with eating out all the time?
Delegates were bored by the lectures.
He grew bored of his day job.
The first two constructions, bored with and bored by, are the standard ones. The third, bored of, is more recent than the other two and it’s become extremely common. In fact, the Oxford English Corpus contains almost twice as many instances of bored of than bored by. It represents a perfectly logical development of the language, and was probably formed on the pattern of expressions such as tired of or weary of. Nevertheless, some people dislike it and it’s not fully accepted in standard English. It’s best to avoid using it in formal writing.
‘He or she’ versus ‘they’
It’s often important to use language that implicitly or explicitly includes both men and women, making no distinction between the genders. This can be tricky when it comes to pronouns. In English, a person’s gender is explicit in the third person singular pronouns (i.e., he, she, his, hers, etc.). There are no personal pronouns that can refer to someone (as opposed to something) without identifying whether that person is male or female. So, what should you do in sentences such as these?
If your child is thinking about choosing a college, ? can get good advice from this website.
A researcher has to be completely objective in ? findings.
In the past, people unquestioningly used the pronouns he, his, him, and himself in situations like this:
If your child is thinking about choosing a college, he can get good advice from this website.
A researcher has to be completely objective in his findings.
Today, this approach is seen as outdated and sexist. There are other options that allow you to arrive at a ‘gender-neutral’ solution, as follows:
- You can use the wording ‘he or she,’ ‘his or her,’ etc.:
If your child is thinking about choosing a college, he or she can get good advice from this website.
A researcher has to be completely objective in his or her findings.
This can work well, as long as you don’t have to keep repeating ‘he or she,’ ‘his or her,’ etc., throughout a piece of writing.
- You can make the relevant noun plural, rewording the sentence as necessary:
If your children are thinking about choosing a college, they can get good advice from this website.
Researchers have to be completely objective in their findings.
This approach can be a good solution, but it won’t always be possible.
- You can use the plural pronouns ‘they,’ ‘them,’ ‘their,’ etc., despite the fact that, technically, they are referring back to a singular noun:
If your child is thinking about choosing a college, they can get good advice from this website.
A researcher has to be completely objective in their findings.
Some people object to the use of plural pronouns in this type of situation on the grounds that it’s ungrammatical. In fact, the use of plural pronouns to refer back to a singular subject isn’t new: it represents a revival of a practice dating from the 16th century. It’s increasingly common in current English and is now gaining wider acceptance in both writing and speech.
Themselves or themself?
The standard reflexive pronoun form that corresponds to the plural forms they and them is themselves:
I just showed the boys the refrigerator and told them to help themselves.
In current English, they and them are sometimes used in singular contexts, to refer to a person whose gender is unspecified (see also ‘He or she’ versus ‘they’). For example:
If your child is thinking about choosing a college, they can get good advice from this website.
In recent years, people have started to use themself to correspond to this singular use of they and them: it’s seen as the logical singular form of themselves. For example:
This is the first step in helping someone to help themself.
This form is not yet widely accepted, however, so you should avoid using it in formal written contexts. If you were writing the sentence above, you should say:
This is the first step in helping someone to help themselves.