Don’t fall into these four common grammar traps!

The extra comma

Ah, the debate about the use of the extra comma. One only has to look at the well-known question, ‘What is this thing called love?’ to realise the extraordinary power of a little black squiggle to change that sentence’s meaning entirely when inserted after ‘called’. Try it, and you’ll see what we mean.

Commas, of course, are used to separate items in a list. For example: ‘I bought wine, gin, tequila, and more wine.’ Note that extra comma after ‘tequila’ – it’s what Americans call a Harvard comma and just about everyone else calls an Oxford comma.

But whatever your moniker of choice, it’s sometimes a useful insertion to make in the name of clarity. US teenager, Kelsie Setterfield, recently tried to make comma sense of it all by uploading an explanation on Tik Tok. Her sentence, ‘I thanked my parents, Batman, and Superman’ made it perfectly clear that her mom and dad were no super-heroes. Had Kelsie left out that comma after ‘Batman’, then she’d be able to claim she had easily the coolest folks on the planet.


Split infinitives

An infinitive is a verb on its own, with no subject to support it. For example: to sew, to drive, to run, to twerk. That kind of thing.

However, many of us have been taught that the splitting of an infinitive is akin to going straight to Hell in a handcart. Just look at the all the hoo-ha that still rages around the immortal Star Trek line, ‘To boldly go where no man has gone before.’ Never mind that they were busy saving Earth by conquering space, the final frontier – they were splitting an infinitive, for heaven’s sake!

But is splitting an infinitive still considered a crime in today’s modern world? Nope, not in this day and age. As long as the meaning of your sentence is clear, then carry on. ‘It is unlikely to increase significantly the price of eggs’ is certainly grammatically correct, but ‘It is unlikely to significantly increase the price of eggs’ does seem to flow better, to be honest.


Me, myself and I

This one really gets everyone tied up in grammatical knots. A lot of us use either ‘I’ or ‘myself’ incorrectly. Take these two examples, both of which neither sound nor look right:


‘Would you please call Zebedee or I before you fly to Cuba?’

‘Would you please call Zebedee or myself before you fly to Cuba?’


But what if Zebedee wasn’t in the equation at all? You’d never say, ‘call I before you go’ and ‘call myself before you go’ sounds downright awkward. So, the trick is to compose your sentence as if you were the only subject. In other words, if Zebedee can be taken out of the equation and it still make sense, then you’ve cracked it. Look at these two examples:


‘Would you please call (Zebedee or) me before you go to Cuba?’

‘(Zebedee and) I have decided to go to Cuba.’


Both versions work when you include Zebedee and both work when you don’t.

And as for using ‘myself’, it’s best to use it only when you want to emphasise that you, and no one else, can do something. As in, ‘I myself will be responsible for checking the parachutes.’


Only the lonely

 Roy Orbison sure knew what he meant when he crooned that only the lonely knew the way he felt. But the meaning of ‘only’ isn’t always so clear, particularly if we place it in the wrong position in the sentence. Check out the following:

  • Only my daughter eats broccoli for dinner (no one else would touch it with a 10-foot barge pole)
  • My daughter only eats broccoli for dinner (she’s beginning to turn green)
  • My daughter eats broccoli only for dinner (it’s considered totally uncool to eat it at any other time, apparently)

You can see that the positioning of ‘only’ has a big impact on understanding my daughter’s relationship with a vegetable often accused of moonlighting as a small tree. To help you get your positioning of ‘only’ right, make a point of keeping it close to the word it belongs to and you should be just fine.

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