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9. How to Say It

Grammar, which knows how to control even kings.


Who knew when we were all falling asleep in 4th grade English that one day Ms. What's-her-name would prevail? Not knowing how to diagram a sentence bites every one of us in the butt equally when it comes to speaking out loud and communicating by e-mail!

My favorite financial advisor, before I teased him into changing his outgoing voice-mail message, used to say that he would get back to the caller at his "soonest convenience." Nothing really wrong with that, except no one else says it that way! "My earliest convenience" is the accepted phrase and doesn't distract listeners from their intent to leave a message.

Constant reinforcement of good grammar will help you, and so will writing it down, correctly, over and over. Gradually, you will teach your ear to hear and your mouth to speak, correctly.

Here is a brief overview of grammatical do's and dont's. Test yourself to see how much you already know!

Number and Quantity

So many people make this mistake that the distinction may soon be lost from the English language. Things that can be counted should be referred to as fewer (in number), such as birthday candles, cars, and spotted owls. Less refers only to quantity, such as orange juice, pollution, and shoe polish.


A commonly made mistake is using the past tense instead of the past participle with "have" and "had." This is understandable because often the past tense of a verb is the same one you use with the past participle. For example, I walk, I walked, I have walked. Far more often, there are three different words. I ride, I rode, I have ridden. And there are a few more irregulars such as I run, I ran, I have run.

Subjects and Objects

Another challenging grammatical error is subject and object. To say, "Susan and me went for Chinese" is incorrect because you and Susan are the subject of the action or verb. But, "The deliveryman brought Chinese to Susan and me" is correct when you are the object of the action or verb.


This one is simple: If your subject is plural, your verb should be also.

Making the subject "they" or the object "them" is increasingly done to avoid the dilemma of him/her, he/she. And the sensitivity to gender is a good thing, but not at the price of good grammar. The rest of the sentence should be made plural, too. For example, "They were having the time of their life" should be changed to, "They were having the time of their lives!"

Other ways to get around the gender challenge are to simply eliminate gender-specific pronouns. "An employee who makes (his/her) boss's job easier is the one who will be most valued." Or "An intern needs to have (his/her own) self-direction."

When addressing people of opposite sexes, you will be safe if you treat both equally in a phrase: "ladies and gentlemen," "men and women," "guys and gals," "boys and girls." In business, it's men and women, Mr., Ms., or Dr. It probably goes without writing, but in business, women should never be referred to as: "female," "babe," "sweetie," "honey," "my girl," or "the girls in the office."


If you are having trouble with grammar, you are not alone. It's hard to hear good grammar when advertising and TV make grammatical errors. Recently, a computer company had a very powerful billboard campaign featuring the famous faces of Albert Einstein, Mahatma Gandhi, Pablo Picasso, Martin Luther King, John Lennon, Ted Turner, Martha Graham, Jim Henson, Thomas Edison, Alfred Hitchcock, Richard Branson, Muhammad Ali, Maria Callas, Frank Lloyd Wright, and Amelia Earheart. The line was "Think Different." It begged the question, shouldn't it have been "Think Differently," to explain how they thought? Was different meant to be an adverb or an adjective? Did it tell how these people thought or was it a directive or description of "what kind of" thoughts had made them famous, as the advertising agency later contended.

In a sentence, adverbs are often words ending in "ly" and always describe verbs or the action. They answer the questions When? Where? and How? For example, "She played fairly" explains how she played. Not, "She played fair." It's proper to say, "It's good English," but one speaks English well.

In the phrase, "I have been well cared for," "well" describes the care and answers the question of how I've been treated. In the phrase, "He has taken good care of me," "good" describes what kind of care has been given.

Adjectives describe nouns or subjects by answering which, what kind of, and how many. For example, "It was fair play" (what kind of play).

Foreign Accents

If your native tongue is a European language, the biggest problem you'll have is where to put the accent or emphasis. When an actor wants to give herself a French accent, she stresses the syllable other than the first one because American English almost always accents the first syllable of any word. The romance languages stress a later syllable or the last. It's surprising how much the accent or emphasis on different syllables affects the sound of a word in making you understood. It seems a shame to know the correct word in English and then not be able to communicate using it.

Americans speak with wide-open mouths, like the country we live in. Asian languages seem to be sung at the back of the throat, so getting your mouth around American words is difficult, too. And yet, speaking English well requires articulation — for everybody.


If anyone has ever asked you to mumble that again, or is constantly asking you to repeat yourself, you may have a problem with articulation. For native-born Americans, this is usually simply lazy speech that sounds like there are a bunch of marbles in your mouth. Sometimes it begins as a teenager's shyness and a seeming preference to fall through the floor than to make direct eye contact and speak up, clearly and correctly. But whatever it's origins, there's a sure-fire, easy approach to fixing it!

Mak sur to slo dwn nd mfasize evre sil-able nd sownd, partic-u-lar-ly the ltrs at the ends ov the words. At first, this will probably sound very artificial and stilted to you, but persevere. To others, it will just make you understandable and great to listen to.

A guerilla way of approaching anything you want to change is first to try to do more of the thing you do wrong. Mumble more. Slur your words. Attempt to use poor grammar, on purpose. But not at the office. Notice what you, your mind, or your mouth has to do to get there.

This approach helps to make you more conscious of the bad habit and how you do it. Once you know how you do it, and perhaps why (attention, laziness, habit), you'll have a better idea of how to change it for the better.




Not only will you make thousands of dollars more if your grammar is up to snuff, but you may lose your job if you can't speak correctly. Recently, a brilliant turnaround president was hired, and then fired, by a high-profile company because he spoke in "dems" and "dose" instead of "them" and "those."

He was a street warrior and laced his talk with expletives, that were very inappropriate for the executive suite. Profanity is a fun way to shock your mother as a kid, but in the executive world, it is seen as uncouth and uneducated. So, delete those expletives.


And in every sentence, as in life, always put others first. "He and I received our awards." "They gave the awards to him and me." The proper name is correct as either the subject or object of the sentence. "Stacey and I received our awards." "They gave the awards to Stacey and me."

Grammar Practice

Correct the following sentences, even if you can't say what the problem is. The proper English follows.

  1. Him and me went over there.

  2. Drive safe.

  3. It don't make any difference.

  4. Yesterday, I done something else.

  5. Myself and my friend went.

  6. They have wrote about it.

  7. Here is the catalog copy which I wrote.

  8. They spoke to he and I.

  9. I did good.

  10. They have believed that all their life.

  11. Less people go to that event now that there is less music.

  12. I would of done it if they'd only given me a chance.

  13. My friend called me off the beach.

Here is the correct grammar to begin to train your ear.

  1. He and I went over there. (subject)

  2. Drive safely. (adverb)

  3. It doesn't make any difference. (agreement)

  4. Yesterday, I did something else. (tense)

  5. My friend and I went. (subject)

  6. They have written about it. (tense)

  7. Here is the catalog copy that I wrote. (comparison)

  8. They spoke to him and me. (objects of the action)

  9. I did well. (adverb describing the action verb)

  10. They have believed that all of their lives. (plural)

  11. Fewer people go to that event now that there is less music. (number)

  12. I would have done it if they'd only given me a chance. (verb)

  13. My friend called me from the beach. (preposition)

Some people figure that they will sound stilted or stiff in using proper English, but the truth is that good English is seldom noticed. Poor English always is.

A Los Angeles Times reporter stated that it actually made her cringe to quote a celebrity with bad grammar. And a Realtor who represents very expensive beach-front properties, told me a young, wealthy, dynamic entrepreneur gave himself away by using poor grammar. Yet he got angry when she corrected him later in private.

But as the famous line made popular in the older film Ghostbusters goes: "Who you gonna call?" If you have an issue with grammar, your friends and coworkers already know it. As you begin to train your ear to question yourself out loud if something doesn't sound right, it's not a sign of weakness, but of courage.

The problem is that everybody who prides themselves on grammar has one or more mistakes that irritate them. That's why, if you want to get ahead, you have to speak well all the time — know the right words and use them.

Perhaps the best way any one of us can develop an ear for good grammar is to read. Fortunately, every newspaper and novel in America speaks perfect English! So, read everything that interests you, online and in print: the morning newspapers, business and news magazines, the trades of your favorite sport or hobby. And listen as you read!

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