Posted in Grammar, Writing

How to Tell the Difference Between Aggravate and Irritate

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In their highly acclaimed craft book The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White say,

Many of the words and expressions listed here are not as much bad English as bad style, the commonplaces of careless writing. The proper correction is likely to be not the replacement of one word or set of words by another but the replacement of vague generality by definite statement.


There are many instances of the English language of two words that mean close to the same thing.

I’ve been teaching English as the college level for six years now, and I still get confused about the meaning of words here and there. So, of course, do my students.

Not a semester goes by before I need to perform a quick lesson for the students about some of those words in the English language that can be confusing at times. The ones I go over the most are EFFECT and AFFECT. I swear, every few months I get asked by a student how to tell the difference between those!

I also get asked about IRREGARDLESS and how to use LIE/LAY/LAID/LAIN and when to use THAT and when to use WHICH.

No matter how old you are and no matter how learned you may be, it’s still worth brushing up on some of the often confusing aspects of grammar and usage as you go along in your writing life. And Chapter IV from The Elements of Style — Words and Expressions Commonly Misused — is a great place to start!

Our first lesson today: the difference between AGGRAVATE and IRRITATE.

Honestly, I’m afraid to look up these words in the last twenty novels I’ve written. I bet I’ve used both of these words at least at some points to mean the exact same thing. When talking to a friend, you might use the words interchangeably. Because they mean pretty close to the same thing.

The bully aggravated the geek at recess.

The bully irritated the geek at recess.

Both sentences sort of conjure up the same image, don’t they? And you might be able to use either one of these words in a sentence like that.

But let’s look a little closer at the definitions of the words.

Aggravate: MAIN DEFINITION: make worse or more serious; INFORMAL DEFINITION: annoy or exacerbate (someone) persistently

MAIN: Burning the manuscript would only aggravate the writer’s depression.

INFORMAL: The professor aggravated his students with the promise of a pop quiz.

Does the example about the bully work? Only with the informal definition: the bully annoyed persistently the geek at recess. It might be able to fit.

Irritate: make (someone) annoyed, impatient, or angry; cause inflammation or other discomfort (in a part of the body)

The writer’s anger about having to complete another revision irritated her literary agent.

All of that scratching irritated the skin above his belly button.

Does the example about the bully work? Yes, it does! The bully annoyed and angered the geek at recess.

The words, as you can see, are very similar.


But in the case of the bully example, the better word to use would be IRRITATED.

Why? Because, according to The Elements of Style, AGGRAVATE means to ADD TO an already troublesome matter, while IRRITATE means, more simply, to annoy.

There are already problems before the use of AGGRAVATE should come into play, while there aren’t problems necessarily happening yet before the use of IRRITATE is presented. Make sense?

Think about the term AGGRAVATED ASSAULT. That’s worse-than-normal assault. You wouldn’t say IRRITATED ASSAULT, that makes no sense.

So, again, when talking to a friend or writing something informal, the two words can often be interchangeable, but whenever possible use the words in their stricter meanings.

AGGRAVATE: to make something worse

IRRITATE: to annoy

He aggravated the major plot hole in his novel by cutting chapters four and five.

She irritated her brother every time she typed on her keyboard too loudly.

Don’t worry, you’ve got this! You won’t be committing grammar sin by interchanging these two words occasionally in your writing.

But at the end of the day, the more you use AGGRAVATE and IRRITATE in the proper way, the better off you’ll be!

Posted in Grammar, Writing

How to Form the Possessive Singular of Nouns

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In their highly acclaimed craft book The Elements of Style, William Strunk Jr. and E.B. White say,

Form the possessive singular of nouns by adding ‘s.

Adding ‘s to a noun is often really easy and clear.

We do it in our writing every day without ever thinking about it.

I refer to examples like the following…

Sharon couldn’t stand Ben’s poems.

She really admired the film’s soundtrack.

The novel’s chapter lengths were highly intimidating.

You add ‘s to a noun to form a possessive singular, and boom, you’re done.

But what about nouns that end in the letter s?

This matter has given me confusion basically my entire life. One, because I’ve had teachers teach it both ways. And two, because the wrong way I always feel actually looks better in the sentence than the right way.

To this day, I might write a sentence like this:

He refused to get inside Thomas’ car.

Although the right way to write the sentence is like this:

He refused to get inside Thomas’s car.

Yes, even if the noun ends with the letter s, you should still add ‘s after.

I have a crush on Charles’s friend.

Beatrice stepped quietly inside Mr. Ness’s garage.

I think the ‘s looks especially awkward when a noun ends with two letters of s, like in that last example. But alas, that’s the right way, and so we need to stick to it!

What are some exceptions?

Like with most grammar rules, there are exceptions.

You don’t need ‘s for the possessives of ancient proper names ending in ‘es and ‘is and such forms as for conscience’ sake and for righteousness’ sake.

Keep in mind that pronominal possessives such as hers, its, theirs, yours, and ours don’t have an apostrophe.

And remember that it’s doesn’t means its! The first is a contraction meaning it is, while the second is a possessive.

Lastly, if the noun is plural, remember to add an apostrophe only, not an ‘s.

She really admired the three films’ soundtracks.

Barry couldn’t stand the dogs’ barking at the park.

The books’ odors made Mary surprisingly nostalgic.

Just keep in mind in almost every case to add ‘s for the possessive singular of nouns and to add only an apostrophe for the possessive plural of nouns.

Yes, even if it might look a little odd on the page!

Posted in Grammar, Writing

Why You Need to be Careful about Their/There and Its/It’s

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I’ve been grading student papers for six years now, and I’ve seen just about everything.

Misspellings galore. Grammatically incorrect phrases. Sentences that don’t make a lick of sense.

But there are two errors in particular I see time and time again. Where it gets to the point I can’t point them out anymore, I’ve given up, I’m telling you! I give up!!!

But no, no, I don’t give up. If I can help just one student of mine learn the difference between their/there and its/it’s, I feel just a little bit better.

And it’s not only in student papers I see these errors. I saw it in the fiction of my friends all the time, especially when I was reading and responding to their stories for our creative writing workshops.

The truth is it doesn’t hurt anyone to get a brush up on these commonly misused words and understand their differences!


Their/There/They’re

One of the quotes from the TV series Friends that forever sticks in my mind is Ross yelling at Rachel about the long letter she wrote to him, and as she storms out of the room he screams at her, “Oh, and by the way, Y-O-U-’R-E means you are, Y-O-U-R means your!”

The thing about this tricky word is that there aren’t just two words to accidentally flip around if you’re not paying attention; there’s a third one you can possibly confuse the other ones with. These are three homophones — words that sound exactly like another common word — and we use them so often in speech and in writing that it’s easy to make a mistake.

Let’s start with THEIR. I probably use this one the most in my writing. This word always indicates possession, as in the following two examples…

Their hands were hurting from typing all day.

The men were yelling bloody murder because the advances on their novels were so low.

Notice the possession? The hands of two or more people. The novels of two or more men. If you’re not sure which use of the words to use, think to yourself, is there possession here? Whose hands? Whose novels?

Now let’s look at THERE. This version of the word often indicates a place, telling us where something is in terms of location.

Where is the book? It’s over there.

Another way to use the word is as an expletive, in which you introduce information that’s provided someplace later in the sentence.

There are three authors who want to read from their new books tonight.

If you’re not sure what to use, ask yourself whether the word indicates the existence of something or a location. If it does, go with THERE.

Lastly, we have THEY’RE. This one to ME is the most obvious — you’d think the apostrophe makes it so — but you have no idea how often I see this word used the wrong way in writing.

Imagine the voice of Ross Gellar: “T-H-E-Y-’R-E means they are!” The apostrophe is your clue that you have two words essentially formed into one.

I can’t believe they’re going to read that silly picture book.

When you see the apostrophe, break it up, or don’t.

Lastly, let’s put all three of these words in the same sentence and see how I do!

They’re writing their books over there.

I probably would never write a sentence like that in my fiction writing, but you get the idea.


Its/It’s

Now I’m thinking about Bill Hader’s brilliant idea to call the sequel to the 2017 horror movie It, ITS. I assume without the apostrophe.

Here’s the deal — I see this error all the time, a person meaning to write ITS and he/she writes IT’S instead. I’m talking, all the time. In my student papers. In fiction I’ve read for creative writing workshops.

Here’s the easy way to remember which one to use in a sentence. Its is the possessive form of it, and it’s is a contraction of it is, like they’re is a contraction of they are, and you’re is a contraction of you are.

When my Kindle fell to the floor, its screen broke, but luckily it’s still working.

Its = possessive. It’s = it is.

The world will be a better place as soon as everybody learns these rules!

Posted in Grammar, Writing

Why You Need to be Careful about Shifts in Tense

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Staying in the same tense throughout a piece is a skill that improves with practice.

I’m currently writing my twentieth novel. Some of my novels have been written in present tense. Most of them have been written in past tense.

Whichever tense you choose to do in your writing, it’s super important to stay consistent. I can’t tell you how many stories I’ve read in creative writing workshops that were 90% past tense and 10% present tense, or vice versa. Where suddenly a whole paragraph is the wrong tense, and you’re completely thrown out of the story.

When it comes to fiction writing, for the most part you’re going to stay in one tense or another. Except for dialogue, of course. Dialogue is its own separate beast. And yes, you might have a flashback here and there that takes you away from present tense and pushes you into past tense.

No matter what kind of writing you do, there’s always a possibility of shifts in tense, sometimes even in the same sentence! How do you handle those shifts and make your sentences sound normal and not totally awkward?


When you’re talking to a friend, you probably never notice your shifts in tense.

You might go from present tense to past tense and back to present tense in the course of five seconds when chatting with a friend, and typically we never think twice about it.

Take a sentence like this one, for example:

Derek is super pissed because it turns out Sarah lost most of his money gambling.

The sentence kind of makes sense, I guess. If you were told this in person, you’d get the general vibe of what the speaker is going for.

But let’s look at the sentence closer. ‘Derek is super pissed’ is present tense, and ‘it turns out’ is present tense, and ‘Sarah lost most of his money gambling’ is past tense.

Now, Derek can be mad in the present about something that happened in the past. It’s a sentence you might be able to get away with.

But wouldn’t the sentence make way more sense like this?

Derek was super pissed because Sarah lost all his money gambling.

There. So much better, right?


There are some sentences where the tense isn’t what you might assume it to be.

And you should understand those areas in your writing to make sure you don’t make a mistake.

One place you need to look out for? When you’re discussing the work of another author. Let’s say you’re writing a research paper, and you just put in a quote from an article you discovered online. Now you want to write a sentence responding to that quote.

You might want to write,

Smith argued here that the characters in Shakespeare’s play were all morally corrupt.

I’ve seen sentences like these in my student’s papers all the time.

Actually, even though Smith did argue this point in the past, and even though Shakespeare’s play was written in the past, MLA format states you write a sentence like this in present tense, not past.

Smith argues here that the characters in Shakespeare’s play are all morally corrupt.

In fact, most academic and research papers written in MLA format use the present tense, rarely the past tense. Something to keep in mind.


But what about shifts in tense in the very same sentence?

This happens sometimes, too. It’s not common, but you should be aware when it’s needed and how it works.

In fiction, just because you’re writing your latest story or novel in present tense doesn’t mean everything is going to be present tense.

You might have a sentence like this one…

I hold no more animosity toward him, but I once wanted to kill him.

And in academic writing, there might be the occasional instance where the first part needs to be past tense, while the second part needs to be present tense.

Let’s take that example above Smith arguing about Shakespeare’s play, but we add a date that Smith actually argued the point.

Smith argued at the 2009 playwriting conference that the characters in Shakespeare’s play are all morally corrupt.

Because we have a specific date when Smith argued his point, we can’t use present at the beginning. Instead, we use past tense because a specific date is designated, while we keep the second part of the sentence in present tense because story elements from a work of literature is being discussed.


Whatever you do, make sure you pay attention to your tense.

At the very least, keep your tense consistent. Don’t write something in mostly present tense and then suddenly shift to past tense for a paragraph, unless you have a very good reason.

Your tense is often not something at the forefront of your mind as a writer, but I guarantee you it will be at the forefront of your reader’s mind if you make even one mistake in this arena. You have to stay consistent. And your sentences need to make sense.

Practice will help. So will not only revising your work but also editing it closely.

Your choice of tense plays a major role in your writing. Make sure you get it right every time!

Posted in Grammar, Writing

Why You Need to be Careful about Subject-Verb Agreement

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What is Subject-Verb Agreement?

Asking this question is a good place to start. Here’s the deal — you need your verb to always agree with its subject in person and number.

Let’s look at a correct example of subject-verb agreement.

First the boss speaks, then her assistant speaks, and then the rest of the people speak.

Kind of a clunky sentence, but you get the idea. Notice that the verbs always agree with their subjects. ‘Boss’ and ‘the assistant’ are singular, so the correct verb is ‘speaks.’ On the other hand, ‘the rest of the people’ is plural, not singular, so in that case you would go with the verb ‘speak’ and not ‘speaks.’


Seems simple, right? Unfortunately, indefinite pronouns make this trickier.

What’s an indefinite pronoun? It’s a word that requires a singular or plural verb depending on its meaning and use in the sentence.

Let’s look at another example of subject-verb agreement, this time with an indefinite pronoun.

First the boss speaks, then her assistant speaks, and then each of the other employers speak.

Perfectly correct, right?

Wrong. Even though it looks right, and even though it sounds right.

‘Employers’ at the end of the sentence is plural, so naturally the correct verb should be ‘speak,’ right?

Actually, in the case of the above example, the subject at the end of the sentence isn’t ‘employers’ but ‘each,’ which is an indefinite pronoun.

First the boss speaks, then her assistant speaks, and then each of the other employers speaks.

This is the correct subject-verb agreement because, again, ‘each’ is the subject, and ‘of the other employees’ is merely additional information.

Now what if you changed the sentence to this…

First the boss speaks, then her assistant speaks, and then all of the other employers speak.

The indefinite pronoun has been changed from ‘each’ to ‘all,’ and therefore, because ‘all’ is plural, not singular, you would change that final word to ‘speak.’

If you read your sentence out loud, and you’re still not sure, try removing the additional information and shorten the sentence to see how it sounds.

Each person speaks.

All people speak.

You wouldn’t say ‘each people’ or ‘all person,’ right? Sometimes all you need to do is take a minute to shorten the phrase to double-check.


There’s one more confusing item to look out for in your subject-verb agreements: noncount nouns.

Keep in mind that sometimes even a subject like ‘all’ doesn’t necessarily mean a plural verb.

Look at these two examples…

All of the speeches were efficient.

All of the working was efficient.

That second example offers what is known as a noncount noun, in that the word ‘working’ doesn’t necessarily translate to two or more things, yet you still would use ‘all’ as its subject and not ‘each.’

You wouldn’t say ‘Each of the working was efficient,’ and you wouldn’t say ‘all of the working were efficient.’

Noncount nouns offer strange cases where your subject is plural and your verb is effectively singular. Example of these nouns include sand, sugar, coffee, water, furniture, cash, learning, speaking, intelligence, and beauty, just to name a few.

Remember to read the sentence aloud if you’re not quite sure, and sometimes, you just have to go with your gut when need be.

You’ll get better at subject-verb agreements as long as you practice, practice, practice!

Keep writing often, and you’ll be able to master them each and every time.

Posted in Grammar, Writing

Why You Need to be Careful about Pronoun Cases

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First, let’s make sure we remember what pronouns are.

Even if you’ve been writing your heart out for years, you might not remember exactly what pronouns are.

Pronouns are some of the smallest words in the English language. Words such as I, me, he, she, herself, you, it, that, they, each, few, many, and who. A pronoun is the word that takes the place of a noun. Pronouns are necessary in pretty much anything you write.

Imagine if you’re writing a novel in third person and every single sentence you referred to the name of your protagonist. Sarah did this, Sarah did that, Sarah said, Sarah asked, Sarah thought, Sarah knew. Oh my God, after two pages of this, your reader’s head would explode.

So you substitute a pronoun for Sarah, typically using ‘she’ or ‘her.’ It’s good to mix things up every other sentence or so. You don’t want to use any one word over and over.


So what are pronoun cases?

A pronoun case refers to the unique forms a pronoun takes in order to make clear how it functions in a sentence.

Here’s a typical example of a grammatically incorrect use of a pronoun case…

Me and Laura loved the movie.

This is the kind of sentence we say in life all the time. I’m kind of a grammar nerd so I always catch myself before doing it, but I notice friends and family saying it without even the slightest flinch. It’s OK to say it. And it’s even OK for a character in your fiction to say it in a line of dialogue, especially if it’s a younger character.

But still — it should be fixed whenever possible. That sentence sounds a little off, doesn’t it? It sounds weird. So how do you change it?

When it comes to examples like these, cover up everything in the phrase but the pronoun and read it out loud.

Me loved the movie.

I sincerely hope you wouldn’t say something like that in real life.

Since the correct way to say the sentence is “I loved the movie,” then the original sentence should read like this…

I and Laura loved the movie.

Although that sounds super awkward too, right? Which is exactly why many people might say “Me and Laura loved the movie.” The best option?

Laura and I loved the movie.

Phew! So much better, right?


What are other examples of pronoun cases?

Let’s look at two more to be sure we’re always on the lookout for misuses of pronoun cases in our fiction writing…

Us and the teacher are hoping to survive until summer.

Again, it seems like this example could work. And in real life, you would probably say a sentence like this without thinking twice about it.

But identify the pronoun in the sentence. Us is the pronoun, and it’s the subject, too. It doesn’t make sense and it needs to change. What if you take out “and the teacher?”

We are hoping to survive until summer.

There! Correct! So you would change it to…

We and the teacher are hoping to survive until summer.

Easy peasy! But there is another example of pronoun case that’s a touch more tricky…

Karen dated Philip longer than me.

Seems totally fine, right? But look carefully. There’s only one verb, dated, and its subject is Karen.

What’s the pronoun? Me.

So according to the example, Karen dated Philip and me. But what if you were trying to say that Karen dated Philip and you dated Philip also? This isn’t clear in the previous example.

If you’re trying to say that Karen dated Philip longer than Karen dated you, the example should read like this…

Karen dated Philip longer than she dated me.

If you’re trying to say that Karen dated Philip longer than you dated Philip, the sentence needs to change to this…

Karen dated Philip longer than I.

Again, kind of awkward, but grammatically correct. This is the way the sentence should look on the page, although to make it less awkward, you could write,

Karen dated Philip longer than I did.

There! Feel better?


You have a lot to think about when it comes to grammar in your writing.

There are comma splices to look for, and fused sentences, and mixed constructions, and pronoun references, just to start.

Keep an eye out for wrong pronoun cases, too.

Remember that you can get away with incorrect pronoun cases in real life. And sometimes it’s actually the wrong pronoun case you should go with in your dialogue rather than the correct pronoun case. If your protagonist is a twelve-year-old, he or she probably will use the wrong pronoun case more often in dialogue than the correct one.

But be sure to use the correct pronoun cases in your writing as much as possible.

At the very least, be aware of pronoun cases with each new project you take on. You’ll be better off, I guarantee it!

Posted in Grammar, Writing

Why You Need to be Careful about Pronoun References

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First, let’s define pronouns.

Even if you’ve been writing your heart out for years, you might not remember all the way back to middle school and high school exactly what pronouns are.

Pronouns are some of the smallest words in the English language. Words such as I, me, he, she, herself, you, it, that, they, each, few, many, and who. A pronoun is the word that takes the place of a noun. Pronouns are necessary in pretty much anything you write.

Imagine if you’re writing a novel in third person and every single sentence you referred to the name of your protagonist. Henry did this, Henry did that, Henry said, Henry asked, Henry thought, Henry knew. Oh my God, after two pages of this, your reader’s head would explode.

So you substitute a pronoun for Henry, typically using ‘he’ or ‘him.’ It’s good to mix things up every other sentence, or every three sentences. You don’t want to use any one word over and over.


So what is pronoun reference?

If ‘Henry’ is your noun, and ‘he’ is your pronoun, it’s important at all times to make sure the ‘he’ connects back to ‘Henry’ in your sentences in a way that makes sense to the reader.

In this case, ‘he’ is the pronoun, and ‘Henry’ is the antecedent to the pronoun. An antecedent is typically something or someone that has already been mentioned, and the pronoun helps guide the reader forward, at the same time signalling to readers what that antecedent is so they don’t get confused.

Here’s an example of pronoun reference that makes zero sense…

The writing group meets tomorrow night at 8, and she will announce at 8:15 the lucky person whose latest story is being workshopped.

Okay, so maybe it doesn’t make zero sense. You read a sentence like that, and you kind of understand what’s happening.

But the sentence is an example of poor pronoun reference because ‘she’ has no clear antecedent. There’s nothing ‘she’ calls back to in this sentence.

Now if the previous sentence made reference to a woman’s name, then sure, this sentence might make more sense. But if there’s no female name mentioned, then this sentence needs to be re-done.


Pronoun reference gets confusing when there are many possibilities in the same sentence for what the pronoun refers to.

It’s one thing if the reader has to look back a sentence or two for the antecedent. It’s another when the pronoun can refer to more than one possible antecedent in the same sentence.

The meanings of the words provide clues about what the pronoun refers to sometimes, but the bottom line is that your reader should never have to go hunting for these clues. The writing should be clear to the reader at all times.

Here’s an example of a sentence where the pronoun could have more than one antecedent…

My boyfriend took my dad out to a late lunch because he hadn’t eaten anything all day.

It’s easy to find the pronoun in this example, right? It’s ‘he.’ But who does ‘he’ refer to — the boyfriend or the dad? There might be clues in the previous sentences, but there also might not be.

I come across this confusion all the time when I’m writing fiction in third person. When I’m writing a long scene that features two people of the same gender, sentences like these can happen without even realizing it.


So how do you fix a sentence like this?

There are a few ways. If you want to keep the sentence mostly the same, you can write it like this…

My boyfriend took my dad out to a late lunch because my dad hadn’t eaten anything all day.

Kind of clunky. In a way it sounds worse than the previous example, but in the end it’s better because it makes the sentence totally clear for the reader.

If the narrator of the story ever refers to the dad’s name, you could also write it like this…

My boyfriend took my dad out to a late lunch because Earl hadn’t eaten anything all day.

Still kind of clunky, but at least you don’t say “my dad” twice in the same sentence.

If it were me, I would change the structure of the sentence a bit and do this…

My dad hadn’t eaten anything all day, so my boyfriend took him out to a late lunch.

So much better, am I right? In this case, the pronoun ‘he’ has been replaced with ‘him,’ but otherwise the sentence stays mostly the same, except now it makes perfect sense for the reader.


Keep an eye out for confusing pronoun references always.

They aren’t as easy to spot as, say, a misspelling, or a comma splice. You might read your work extremely closely, and your eyes will still pass over ten different sentences that have confusing examples of pronoun references.

This isn’t something you should be thinking about when you’re writing your first draft. It’s also not something you should pay much attention to in your second draft either.

But once your latest manuscript is reaching the end of the editing process, I would take a little extra time to look for any pronoun references that could be strengthened or made clearer for the reader.

Doing so will only help make your writing shine all the more!