How to Speak and Write Correctly
By Joseph Devlin

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Chapter VIII


Common Stumbling Blocks–Peculiar Constructions–Misused Forms.


Very often the verb is separated from its real nominative or subject by several intervening words and in such cases one is liable to make the verb agree with the subject nearest to it. Here are a few examples showing that the leading writers now and then take a tumble into this pitfall:

(1) “The partition which the two ministers made of the powers of government were singularly happy."–Macaulay.

(Should be was to agree with its subject, partition.)

(2) “One at least of the qualities which fit it for training ordinary men unfit it for training an extraordinary man."–Bagehot.

(Should be unfits to agree with subject one.)

(3) “The Tibetans have engaged to exclude from their country those dangerous influences whose appearance were the chief cause of our action."–The Times.

(Should be was to agree with appearance.)

(4) “An immense amount of confusion and indifference prevail in these days."–Telegraph.

(Should be prevails to agree with amount.)


Errors in ellipsis occur chiefly with prepositions.

His objection and condoning of the boy’s course, seemed to say the least, paradoxical.

(The preposition to should come after objection.)

Many men of brilliant parts are crushed by force of circumstances and their genius forever lost to the world.

(Some maintain that the missing verb after genius is are, but such is ungrammatical. In such cases the right verb should be always expressed: as–their genius is forever lost to the world.)

The Split Infinitive

Even the best speakers and writers are in the habit of placing a modifying word or words between the to and the remaining part of the infinitive. It is possible that such will come to be looked upon in time as the proper form but at present the splitting of the infinitive is decidedly wrong. “He was scarcely able to even talk” “She commenced to rapidly walk around the room.” ’To have really loved is better than not to have at all loved.” In these constructions it is much better not to split the infinitive. In every-day speech the best speakers sin against this observance.

In New York City there is a certain magistrate, a member of “the 400," who prides himself on his diction in language. He tells this story: A prisoner, a faded, battered specimen of mankind, on whose haggard face, deeply lined with the marks of dissipation, there still lingered faint reminders of better days long past, stood dejected before the judge. “Where are you from?” asked the magistrate. “From Boston,” answered the accused. “Indeed,” said the judge, “indeed, yours is a sad case, and yet you don’t seem to thoroughly realise how low you have sunk.” The man stared as if struck. “Your honor does me an injustice,” he said bitterly. “The disgrace of arrest for drunkenness, the mortification of being thrust into a noisome dungeon, the publicity and humiliation of trial in a crowded and dingy courtroom I can bear, but to be sentenced by a Police Magistrate who splits his infinitives–that is indeed the last blow.”


The indefinite adjective pronoun one when put in place of a personal substantive is liable to raise confusion. When a sentence or expression is begun with the impersonal one the word must be used throughout in all references to the subject. Thus, “One must mind one’s own business if one wishes to succeed” may seem prolix and awkward, nevertheless it is the proper form. You must not say–"One must mind his business if he wishes to succeed,” for the subject is impersonal and therefore cannot exclusively take the masculine pronoun. With any one it is different. You may say–"If any one sins he should acknowledge it; let him not try to hide it by another sin.”


This is a word that is a pitfall to the most of us whether learned or unlearned. Probably it is the most indiscriminately used word in the language. From the different positions it is made to occupy in a sentence it can relatively change the meaning. For instance in the sentence–"I only struck him that time,” the meaning to be inferred is, that the only thing I did to him was to strike him, not kick or otherwise abuse him. But if the only is shifted, so as to make the sentence read-"I struck him only that time” the meaning conveyed is, that only on that occasion and at no other time did I strike him. If another shift is made to-"I struck only him that time,” the meaning is again altered so that it signifies he was the only person I struck.

In speaking we can by emphasis impress our meaning on our hearers, but in writing we have nothing to depend upon but the position of the word in the sentence. The best rule in regard to only is to place it immediately before the word or phrase it modifies or limits.


is another word which creates ambiguity and alters meaning. If we substitute it for only in the preceding example the meaning of the sentence will depend upon the arrangement. Thus “I alone struck him at that time” signifies that I and no other struck him. When the sentence reads “I struck him alone at that time” it must be interpreted that he was the only person that received a blow. Again if it is made to read “I struck him at that time alone” the sense conveyed is that that was the only occasion on which I struck him. The rule which governs the correct use of only is also applicable to alone.

Other and Another

These are words which often give to expressions a meaning far from that intended. Thus, “I have nothing to do with that other rascal across the street,” certainly means that I am a rascal myself. “I sent the despatch to my friend, but another villain intercepted it,” clearly signifies that my friend is a villain.

A good plan is to omit these words when they can be readily done without, as in the above examples, but when it is necessary to use them make your meaning clear. You can do this by making each sentence or phrase in which they occur independent of contextual aid.

And With the Relative

Never use and with the relative in this manner: “That is the dog I meant and which I know is of pure breed.” This is an error quite common. The use of and is permissible when there is a parallel relative in the preceding sentence or clause. Thus: “There is the dog which I meant and which I know is of pure breed” is quite correct.

Loose Participles

A participle or participial phrase is naturally referred to the nearest nominative. If only one nominative is expressed it claims all the participles that are not by the construction of the sentence otherwise fixed. “John, working in the field all day and getting thirsty, drank from the running stream.” Here the participles working and gettingclearly refer to John. But in the sentence,–"Swept along by the mob I could not save him,” the participle as it were is lying around loose and may be taken to refer to either the person speaking or to the person spoken about. It may mean that I was swept along by the mob or the individual whom I tried to save was swept along.

“Going into the store the roof fell” can be taken that it was the roof which was going into the store when it fell. Of course the meaning intended is that some person or persons were going into the store just as the roof fell.

In all sentence construction with participles there should be such clearness as to preclude all possibility of ambiguity. The participle should be so placed that there can be no doubt as to the noun to which it refers. Often it is advisable to supply such words as will make the meaning obvious.

Broken Construction

Sometimes the beginning of a sentence presents quite a different grammatical construction from its end. This arises from the fact probably, that the beginning is lost sight of before the end is reached. This occurs frequently in long sentences. Thus: “Honesty, integrity and square-dealing will bring anybody much better through life than the absence of either.” Here the construction is broken at than. The use of either, only used in referring to one of two, shows that the fact is forgotten that three qualities and not two are under consideration. Any one of the three meanings might be intended in the sentence, viz., absence of any one quality, absence of any two of the qualities or absence of the whole three qualities. Either denotes one or the other of two and should never be applied to any one of more than two. When we fall into the error of constructing such sentences as above, we should take them apart and reconstruct them in a different grammatical form. Thus,–"Honesty, integrity and square-dealing will bring a man much better through life than a lack of these qualities which are almost essential to success.”

Double Negative

It must be remembered that two negatives in the English language destroy each other and are equivalent to an affirmative. Thus “I don’t know nothing about it” is intended to convey, that I am ignorant of the matter under consideration, but it defeats its own purpose, inasmuch as the use of nothing implies that I know something about it. The sentence should read–"I don’t know anything about it.”

Often we hear such expressions as “He was not asked to give noopinion,” expressing the very opposite of what is intended. This sentence implies that he was asked to give his opinion. The double negative, therefore, should be carefully avoided, for it is insidious and is liable to slip in and the writer remain unconscious of its presence until the eye of the critic detects it.

First Personal Pronoun

The use of the first personal pronoun should be avoided as much as possible in composition. Don’t introduce it by way of apology and never use such expressions as “In my opinion,” “As far as I can see,” “It appears to me,” “I believe,” etc. In what you write, the whole composition is expressive of your views, since you are the author, therefore, there is no necessity for you to accentuate or emphasize yourself at certain portions of it.

Moreover, the big I’s savor of egotism! Steer clear of them as far as you can. The only place where the first person is permissible is in passages where you are stating a view that is not generally held and which is likely to meet with opposition.

Sequence of Tenses

When two verbs depend on each other their tenses must have a definite relation to each other. “I shall have much pleasure in accepting your kind invitation” is wrong, unless you really mean that just now you decline though by-and-by you intend to accept; or unless you mean that you do accept now, though you have no pleasure in doing so, but look forward to be more pleased by-and-by. In fact the sequence of the compound tenses puzzle experienced writers. The best plan is to go back in thought to the time in question and use the tense you would thennaturally use. Now in the sentence “I should have liked to have gone to see the circus” the way to find out the proper sequence is to ask yourself the question–what is it I “should have liked” to do? and the plain answer is “to go to see the circus.” I cannot answer–"To have gone to see the circus” for that would imply that at a certain moment I would have liked to be in the position of having gone to the circus. But I do not mean this; I mean that at the moment at which I am speaking I wish I had gone to see the circus. The verbal phrase I should have likedcarries me back to the time when there was a chance of seeing the circus and once back at the time, the going to the circus is a thing of the present. This whole explanation resolves itself into the simple question,–what should I have liked at that time, and the answer is “to go to see the circus,” therefore this is the proper sequence, and the expression should be “I should have liked to go to see the circus.”

If we wish to speak of something relating to a time prior to that indicated in the past tense we must use the perfect tense of the infinitive; as, “He appeared to have seen better days.” We should say “I expected to meet him,” not “I expected to have met him.” “We intended to visit you,” not ’to have visited you.” “I hoped they wouldarrive,” not “I hoped they would have arrived.” “I thought I should catch the bird,” not “I thought I should have caught the bird.” “I had intended to go to the meeting,” not “I had intended to have goneto the meeting.”


These prepositions are often carelessly interchanged. Between has reference to two objects only, among to more than two. “The money was equally divided between them” is right when there are only two, but if there are more than two it should be “the money was equally divided among them.”


Less refers is quantity, fewer to number. “No man has less virtues" should be “No man has fewer virtues.” “The farmer had some oats and a fewer quantity of wheat” should be “the farmer had some oats and a less quantity of wheat.”


Further is commonly used to denote quantity, farther to denote distance. “I have walked farther than you,” “I need no furthersupply” are correct.

Each Other–One Another

Each other refers to two, one another to more than two. “Jones and Smith quarreled; they struck each other” is correct. “Jones, Smith and Brown quarreled; they struck one another” is also correct. Don’t say, “The two boys teach one another” nor “The three girls love each other.”

Each, Every, Either, Neither

These words are continually misapplied. Each can be applied to two or any higher number of objects to signify every one of the number independently. Every requires more than two to be spoken of and denotes all the persons or things taken separately. Eitherdenotes one or the other of two, and should not be used to include both. Neither is the negative of either, denoting not the other, and not the one, and relating to two persons or things considered separately.

The following examples illustrate the correct usage of these words:

Each man of the crew received a reward.

Every man in the regiment displayed bravery.

We can walk on either side of the street.

Neither of the two is to blame.


When two singular subjects are connected by neither, nor use a singular verb; as, ’Neither John nor James was there,” not werethere.


Custom Has sanctioned the use of this word both with a singular and plural; as–"None is so blind as he who will not see” and “None areso blind as they who will not see.” However, as it is a contraction of no one it is better to use the singular verb.


These verbs are very often confounded. Rise is to move or pass upward in any manner; as to “rise from bed;” to increase in value, to improve in position or rank, as “stocks rise;” “politicians rise;” “they have risen to honor.”

Raise is to lift up, to exalt, to enhance, as “I raise the table;" “He raised his servant;” “The baker raised the price of bread.”


The transitive verb lay, and lay, the past tense of the neuter verb lie, are often confounded, though quite different in meaning. The neuter verb to lie, meaning to lie down or rest, cannot take the objective after it except with a preposition. We can say “He lies on the ground,” but we cannot say “He lies the ground,” since the verb is neuter and intransitive and, as such, cannot have a direct object. With lay it is different. Lay is a transitive verb, therefore it takes a direct object after it; as “I lay a wager,” “I laid the carpet,” etc.

Of a carpet or any inanimate subject we should say, “It lies on the floor,” “A knife lies on the table,” not lays. But of a person we say–"He lays the knife on the table,” not “He lies––.” Lay being the past tense of the neuter to lie (down) we should say, “He lay on the bed,” and lain being its past participle we must also say “He has lain on the bed.”

We can say “I lay myself down.” “He laid himself down” and such expressions.

It is imperative to remember in using these verbs that to lay means to do something, and to lie means to be in a state of rest.

Says I–I Said

“Says I” is a vulgarism; don’t use it. “I said” is correct form.


Be careful to distinguish the meaning of these two little prepositions and don’t interchange them. Don’t say “He went in the room” nor “My brother is into the navy.” In denotes the place where a person or thing, whether at rest or in motion, is present; and into denotes entrance. “He went into the room;” “My brother is in the navy” are correct.


Don’t confound the two. Eat is present, ate is past. “I eat the bread” means that I am continuing the eating; “I ate the bread” means that the act of eating is past. Eaten is the perfect participle, but often eat is used instead, and as it has the same pronunciation (et) of ate, care should be taken to distinguish the past tense, I ate from the perfect I have eaten (eat).

Sequence of Person

Remember that the first person takes precedence of the second and the second takes precedence of the third. When Cardinal Wolsey said Ego et Rex (I and the King), he showed he was a good grammarian, but a bad courtier.

Am Come–Have Come

I am come” points to my being here, while “I have come” intimates that I have just arrived. When the subject is not a person, the verb to beshould be used in preference to the verb to have; as, “The box is come" instead of “The box has come.”

Past Tense–Past Participle

The interchange of these two parts of the irregular or so-called strongverbs is, perhaps, the breach oftenest committed by careless speakers and writers. To avoid mistakes it is requisite to know the principal parts of these verbs, and this knowledge is very easy of acquirement, as there are not more than a couple of hundred of such verbs, and of this number but a small part is in daily use. Here are some of the most common blunders: “I seen” for “I saw;” “I done it” for “I did it;” “I drunk” for “I drank;" “I begun” for “I began;” “I rung” for “I rang;” “I run” for “I ran;” “I sung” for “I sang;” “I have chose” for “I have chosen;” “I have drove" for “I have driven;” “I have wore” for “I have worn;” “I have trod” for “I have trodden;” “I have shook” for “I have shaken;” “I have fell” for “I have fallen;” “I have drank” for “I have drunk;” “I have began” for “I have begun;” “I have rang” for “I have rung;” “I have rose” for “I have risen;” “I have spoke” for “I have spoken;” “I have broke” for “I have broken.” “It has froze” for “It has frozen.” “It has blowed” for “It has blown.” “It has flowed” (of a bird) for “It has flown.”

N. B.–The past tense and past participle of To Hang is hanged or hung. When you are talking about a man meeting death on the gallows, say “He was hanged"; when you are talking about the carcass of an animal say, “It was hung,” as “The beef was hung dry.” Also say your coat ’washung on a hook.”

Prepositions and the Objective Case

Don’t forget that prepositions always take the objective case. Don’t say “Between you and I“; say “Between you and me

Two prepositions should not govern one objective unless there is an immediate connection between them. “He was refused admission to and forcibly ejected from the school” should be “He was refused admission to the school and forcibly ejected from it.”


Don’t say “I shall summons him,” but “I shall summon him.” Summon is a verb, summons, a noun.

It is correct to say “I shall get a summons for him,” not a summon.


“My brother has an undeniable character” is wrong if I wish to convey the idea that he has a good character. The expression should be in that case “My brother has an unexceptionable character.” An undeniable character is a character that cannot be denied, whether bad or good. An unexceptionable character is one to which no one can take exception.

The Pronouns

Very many mistakes occur in the use of the pronouns. “Let you and I go" should be “Let you and me go.” “Let them and we go” should be “Let them and us go.” The verb let is transitive and therefore takes the objective case.

“Give me them flowers” should be “Give me those flowers"; “I mean them three” should be “I mean those three.” Them is the objective case of the personal pronoun and cannot be used adjectively like the demonstrative adjective pronoun. “I am as strong as him” should be “I am as strong as he“; “I am younger than her” should be “I am younger than she;” “He can write better than me” should be “He can write better than I,” for in these examples the objective cases him, herand me are used wrongfully for the nominatives. After each of the misapplied pronouns a verb is understood of which each pronoun is the subject. Thus, “I am as strong as he (is).” “I am younger than she (is)." “He can write better than I (can).”

Don’t say ’It is me;” say ’It is I” The verb To Be of which is is a part takes the same case after it that it has before it. This holds good in all situations as well as with pronouns.

The verb To Be also requires the pronouns joined to it to be in the same case as a pronoun asking a question; The nominative I requires the nominative who and the objectives me, him, her, its, you, them, require the objective whom.

Whom do you think I am?” should be ’Who do you think I am?” and “Who do they suppose me to be?” should be ’Whom do they suppose me to be?” The objective form of the Relative should be always used, in connection with a preposition. “Who do you take me for?” should be “Whom do, etc.” “Who did you give the apple to?” should be “Whom did you give the apple to,” but as pointed out elsewhere the preposition should never end a sentence, therefore, it is better to say, “To whom did you give the apple?”

After transitive verbs always use the objective cases of the pronouns. For ’He and they we have seen,” say ’Him and them we have seen.”

That For So

“The hurt it was that painful it made him cry,” say “so painful.”


“Don’t say, These kind; those sort. Kind and sort are each singular and require the singular pronouns this and that. In connection with these demonstrative adjective pronouns remember that this and theserefer to what is near at hand, that and those to what is more distant; as, this book (near me), that book (over there), theseboys (near), those boys (at a distance).

This Much–Thus Much

This much is certain” should be ’Thus much or so much is certain.”


These are two separate verbs and must not be interchanged. The principal parts of flee are flee, fled, fled; those of fly are fly, flew, flown. To flee is generally used in the meaning of getting out of danger. To fly means to soar as a bird. To say of a man “He has flown from the place” is wrong; it should be “He has fled from the place.” We can say with propriety that “A bird has flown from the place.”


Don’t say “He is well known through the land,” but “He is well known throughout the land.”

Vocation and Avocation

Don’t mistake these two words so nearly alike. Vocation is the employment, business or profession one follows for a living; avocation is some pursuit or occupation which diverts the person from such employment, business or profession. Thus

“His vocation was the law, his avocation, farming.”


In the subjunctive mood the plural form were should be used with a singular subject; as, “If I were,” not was. Remember the plural form of the personal pronoun you always takes were, though it may denote but one. Thus, ’You were,” never ’you was.” ’If I was him” is a very common expression. Note the two mistakes in it,–that of the verb implying a condition, and that of the objective case of the pronoun. It should read If I were he. This is another illustration of the rule regarding the verb To Be, taking the same case after it as before it; were is part of the verb To Be, therefore as the nominative (I) goes before it, the nominative (he) should come after it.

A or An

A becomes an before a vowel or before h mute for the sake of euphony or agreeable sound to the ear. An apple, an orange, an heir, an honor, etc.


Chapter I  •  Chapter II  •  Chapter III  •  Chapter IV  •  Chapter V  •  Chapter VI  •  Chapter VII  •  Chapter VIII  •  Chapter IX  •  Chapter X  •  Chapter XI  •  Chapter XII  •  Chapter XIII  •  Chapter XIV  •  Chapter XI

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