Along with good hygiene, manners, sportsmanship, morals, citizenship and work habits, you try to teach your kids good English. But grammar, unlike those other skills, is an area where parents themselves are most likely to be at a loss.
But take heart: Bridging the gap between good and bad English is nowhere near as daunting as your shadowy memories of English class make it seem. With just a few new English grammar rules under your belt, you can give your kids a language edge that will serve them for the rest of their lives.
1. ‘Can’ vs. ‘may’. Once upon a time, “may” was the only correct choice for requesting permission. But dictionaries have long since changed their definitions of “can” to allow this use in informal speech. Only in the most formal contexts is “may” the only correct choice.
2. ‘Billy and I’ vs. ‘Billy and me’. You’d never say, “Come to the movies with I.” So, “Come to the movies with Billy and I” is wrong, too. You would never say, “If you have a question, ask I.” That’s why it’s also wrong to say, “Ask your father or I.” “Between you and I” is always wrong, as well. It should be, “Between you and me.”
3. ‘To lay’ vs. ‘to lie’. You tell your dog, “Lay down!” But you should be saying, “Lie down.” “Lie” is something you do to yourself; “lay” is something you do to something or someone else. You lay a book down on a table – the book is the object of the action – but you lie down to sleep. And so does the dog.
4. Split infinitives. Yes, “to boldly go” is a split infinitive. That is, the infinitive “to go” has another word lodged in the middle. The clincher: Split infinitives are perfectly acceptable.
5. ‘Done’ vs. ‘finished’. Your child has eaten all the food on his plate and announces, “I’m done.” Instantly, you think: “Shouldn’t it be I’m finished?” Yes. The reason lies in a subtle difference between the two words’ dictionary definitions. “Done” means to be completed. When a child says she’s done, that means that someone just completing making her. “Finished” also means completed, but has another definition – to have completed a task. Like eating a meal.
6. ‘I wish I was’ vs. ‘I wish I were.’ The first is always wrong. It’s “I wish I were,” “he wishes he were,” “we wish we were” and “they wish they were.” Why? A rule called the subjunctive that’s so obscure, most grammar books fail to fully grasp it. But its most practical application is that these “wishes” in the past tense always take “were” instead of “was.”
7. ‘This is him’ vs. ‘This is he.’ When speaking on the phone, you say, “This is she.” Why? Yet another arcane grammar rule: the predicate nominative. This basically means whenever you have a noun or pronoun followed by any variation of “is” followed by any other pronoun, that last pronoun should be the subject, and not the object. (Whew!)
8. ‘Whom’ vs. ‘who’. Many folks think “whom” is mandatory. It’s not. “Whom” is now necessary only in formal speech and writing. When you do use “whom,” use it as you would “me,” “him,” “her,” “them” or “us” – that is, as an object.
9. ‘On accident’ versus ‘by accident.’ It’s understandable why kids tend to say they did something “on accident.” After all, “on purpose” is correct. Unfortunately, they don’t work the same. “By accident” is right.
10. Drank vs. drunk. The difference is the same as “went” vs. “gone.” That is, one is a past tense and the other is a past participle. Think of the latter as “the word that comes after ‘have'” in constructions like, “I have gone.” So, “Yesterday, you drank your milk” is the simple past tense. At times, “You have drunk your milk” is the past participle. Confused? Just look it up in the dictionary. Under “drink,” you’ll see “drank” is the past tense – and a little “pp” before “drunk” tells you it’s the past participle.
Did you know many of these grammar tips? Which did you find the most helpful?
This post was originally published in 2009 and has been updated for 2015.